Few Moments with Salil Chowdhury
Kalpana Biswas

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K.B: Was there ever a personal attack on you?

S.C: I was fortunate that I was never arrested during that particular period of time. I was saved by the skin of my teeth three or four times. I remember one incident that occurred at the Mohammed Ali Park. We were singing at a students gathering. Suddenly the police arrived on the scene, cordoned us, and started to beat up people. The park was at an elevation from the street level at the time, you know. So, startled by the police people started to jump onto the street from the park. The police forcibly took away our harmonium. Many who jumped injured their ankles. And police arrested all those who were limping due to injured ankles. I jumped as well, and went straight to a student's hostel near the Medical College, through an alley. As soon as the students saw me, they took me inside the hostel, saying “Salil-da, hurry, come inside!” So I escaped very narrowly that day. The next day, all who were still limping due to fractured ankles were arrested.

K.B: Were they arrested after all?

S.C: Oh, yes. They were horribly beaten up after being arrested. The police took the arrested people to the Lalbazar Police Station, laid them on slabs of ice and severely beat them up. David Cohen, a fellow comrade, and I used to share a place near the Circular Road. It was an area where mostly Anglo-Indian prostitutes lived and worked. Somehow David managed a small room there in the prostitutes' quarters, thinking nobody would suspect that couple of communists could be hiding in such a place.

Once I went to Sonarpur, I was to participate in a program in the evening organized by the IPTA. We sang songs almost all night long there. In the morning I was returning back to my hiding place in Calcutta, when singer Krishna Bandopadhyay, who had a lot of affection for me, stopped me. She knew I was coming back and was waiting for me by the tram tracks. She asked me to get off the tram right away. She said, "There was a raid at your place last night, please don't go home now." Just the day before I had given shelter to a couple of comrades at my place who had escaped from a jail in Jalpaiguri. David Cohen was there too. There were also representatives from a newspaper waiting for me, whom I promised to give my writing. Police arrested them all, about eleven or twelve people from my place, and were waiting for my return. So I was lucky when someone warned me ahead of time about police waiting for me. I had had similar narrow escapes many times.

K.B: Do you remember the names of some of the plays that were banned or censored during those days?

S.C: There was no way to ban those plays because we did not publish them in printed format. Those plays remained as manuscripts. We changed the titles of the plays continuously to avoid them being banned by the police. For example, we had to change the title of a play from "Ei Maati-te"[On This Soil] to "Maatir Manush" [Man of the Soil]. After we had changed the title, we could then stage the play again. We had to do this on a regular basis, as all our plays were under scrutiny by the police.

K.B: What about the writers of those plays, do you remember some of their names?

S.C: All of us used to write plays those days. I wrote some of the plays, then Anil Ghosh wrote few. Bijon-da was a class by himself. He wrote a musical play based on the lives of snake charmers, titled "Jiyan-Konya". There were many others who also wrote. But as I was more involved with the musical group than the drama group, I do not know all the details of the latter. I only remember those I wrote. For example, I wrote a play called "Sanket"[Signal]. Karuna-di [actress Karuna Banerjee, who played the role of Apu's mother in the "Apu Trilogy" by Satyajit Ray] acted in it. Utpal Dutt [famous playwright and actor of stage and screen in Bengal] and Kali Banerjee [Bengali stage and screen actor] acted in the play as well. I lost the manuscript of that play.

K.B: Did they ban the play?

S.C: No, it was not banned, because it was based on middle class life. The story was about a young boy. So it was not political, at least not overtly.

K.B: Were your other plays censored too?

S.C: No, as I said before, we kept changing the titles of the plays. Take "Ei Maati-te", for example.

K.B: Did you write that play?

S.C: Yes, I wrote it. As usual the police told us that we could not stage the play. So I had to change the title to "Maatir Manush". Other than myself, Utpal [Dutt] was writing a lot of "Poster" plays those days. Ritwik [Ritwik Ghatak – well renowned Bengali filmmaker] also wrote and directed a lot of plays during those days. Digin-da [Banerjee] wrote a lot of plays along with the other writers at that time.

K.B: You and other people of your group had to travel a lot in the remote villages of Bengal. Tell me about the agonies and ecstasies, so to speak, of those days.

S.C: There was a lot of physical discomfort that we had to tolerate. We had to survive on little food; we had hardly any money in our pockets. But the experience that I had those days, that pretty much took care of all other discomforts. Artists from all over India joined conferences of IPTA. It was like a university for us. We got accustomed to various languages, cultures, music, songs, and plays from different parts of India. We got to know each other, exchanged our thoughts and ideas. Later, that knowledge had helped me tremendously in my compositions and in my writings. Besides, my intimate knowledge of peasant life helped me write "Do Bigha Zamin" [Two Acres of Land] based on their lives. Also, whatever claim I can make on folk music, most of it I owe to my intimate understanding of the peasant life and from my involvement in the IPTA movement.

Niranjan Sen has written a history of the IPTA. It's being serialized in "Epic Theatre", a journal edited by Utpal Dutt. Shobha-di [Shobha Sen – famous stage actor and Utpal Dutt's wife] had asked me many times to write about those days. But my memories have faded to such an extent that I can't take up the project. Those who always remained in the city, they could keep track of all the events. But I spent at least four years in the underground; I had no contacts with anyone during that period. And we have become so isolated from each other. I would compose songs while in underground; teach the boys how to sing them, they would then go out to different parts of Bengal. I would stay back and do my own things, maybe perform for a different group. So I was not in a position to keep track of everything. I do not know much about whatever happened during those years.

K.B: Till which year were you in the underground?

S.C: Up to 1950. From 1946 to 1950, for those four years I was in the underground.

K.B: The IPTA brought about a change, a novelty in form and content in its songs of protest. Could you compare the differences between these songs and to those written in the earlier period? Didn't we already have a tradition of "Protest Songs" written in an earlier period than the IPTA's?

S.C: Of course we did. But the songs you are referring to were mostly nationalistic in nature. For example, think of those songs written during the Swadeshi period. Later, Nazrul [Kazi Nazrul Islam – Bengali dissident poet, lyricist and composer (1899– 1976)] brought about a strong tone of protest in his songs. "Kaara-r oi lauho kawpat..bhenge kar tukro dupaat" ("Tear down those iron gates of prison…" ) -- this was Nazrul's composition. Tagore [Rabindranath Tagore (1861 – 1941), Nobel laureate Bengali poet and lyricist] himself composed a great many protest songs, although he did not make such an open call for revolution in his songs. There were other composers such as Atulprasad Sen and Dwijendralal Ray [Bengali poets, composers and lyricists, contemporaries to Tagore] who wrote quite a few songs imbued with nationalistic sentiments.

K.B: So, what kind of newness did IPTA songs introduce? S.C: We tried to go a step further than the nationalistic sentiments, and approach what can be called a socialist revolution. Our goal was to build a society based on the participation and unity of all classes -- the farmers, the laborers, and the bourgeois middle-class intellectuals. We wanted to fight against all forms of exploitations. Those themes appeared in the songs written during post-1944 period. They had Marxist sensibilities in them. So, those songs were different from their predecessors. You will certainly find those sentiments in my own songs. What the critics call a new approach in my own compositions was an attempt to reach more people through my songs. Consider the form of my song "G(n)aayer Bodhu" [ A Village Woman], it had a narrative form, a form of storytelling. There were not many examples of such songs written in a narrative form. Or consider the rhythm of the song "Dheu Uthchhe, Kaara Tutchhe" ["Waves Crashing, Barriers Crumbling"], where one would not find the traditional movements of "Asthayee", "Antara" and "Sanchari" [traditional three movements in a song], that form was completely altered in that song. Or think of the composition of "Runner". It was a long poem by poet Sukanta Bhattacharya. There was neither a "Mukhra", nor "Antara" in the poem. As the song unfolded, it seemed as if one scene after another just glided by, like in a movie. The content of the poem called for such a drastic change in its compositional form, and it also called for new notes in its tune.

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