Few Moments with Salil Chowdhury
Kalpana Biswas

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K.B: What about using folk music?

S.C: I did not compose too many songs using folk tunes, except a few like, "Hei Shamalo Dhaan Ho" ["Oh Brother, protect your paddy…"], or "O Moder Deshobashi Re" ["Oh my countrymen…"]. There's a hint of folk tunes in these songs, but I was attracted to, and I worked with mostly modern music. Those who worked with folk tunes, like Hemanga-da [Hemanga Biswas, singer, composer in the IPTA], it was their own primary sphere of work. So, compositions that came out of either of those streams ran in parallel.

It was not that the form changed only as a result of change in the content. I have tried to apply the technique of Harmony, a typical western musical technique, in my modern compositions, as it was never used before in Bengali compositions. Those were songs based on harmony. Now, people who do not understand harmony think of it just singing two or three separate tunes together. But that is not true. You can think of harmony as a garb of music. It says in Oxford Music Dictionary that harmony is the garment of melody. When you are playing a guitar or a piano or a harmonium by using chord, and you are also singing in tune along those chords, it creates harmony. Since its basis is harmony, you can achieve harmony even when just one person is singing the song. It was I who first started composing songs on harmonic basis. For example, songs like "O Alor Pathajatri" ["O, the Journeymen of Light…"], or "Dheu Uthchhe, Kaara Tutchhe"[ "Waves Crashing, Barriers Crumbling…"] have a harmonic basis. Songs that I composed on the harmonic basis are product of that period, which I have developed further in my modern compositions.

K.B: But, is it due to IPTA that there's a tradition of using folk culture these days?

S.C: No, certainly not. However, folk artists brought various traditional folk forms with them during those folk cultural gatherings organized by the IPTA. During that period we became aware of many folk forms we had in Bengali folk music. For example, that was when I first listened to the "Gambhira" form of Maldah district. Then we formed a group of Gambhira, and similarly later we also formed groups to perform "Bhaoaia", "Bhatiali", and "Beehu" of Assam; and then what Dashrath did, he came from Bihar, he formed a group to perform "Birha" of Bihar. We employed all these forms in our own musical performances. All those forms were already there in our country, but they were never used before to the extent IPTA made use of them.

K.B: That means you put revolutionary content in them…

S.C: Yes, that's how we utilized those forms. Hemangada composed his new song, "O Mountbatten Saheb, who got the custody of your baton?" using one of those folk forms. Such songs merged old folk forms with new contents.

K.B: Were you involved with the Central Troupe?

S.C: No, I was in Bengal when Central Troupe was formed in Bombay.

K.B: Can you tell me more about it? Was it a totally different organization from IPTA?

S.C: Yes, we started IPTA as a local organization, but in Bombay they created a central squad, where they brought talents from all over India. Those artists got to stay in camps organized by the squad, and there was a kitchen for them to cook for themselves. The squad was created with the idea of “Spirit of India” behind it. It was functioning as a central troupe, pulling resources from all over India. They all got together there. Binoyda was there, so was Priti (Bandopadhyay, from Bengal), Ravi Shankar was also involved with the organization. Shanti Bardhan took charge of the dance group. They all took part to make the organization work.

K.B: Do you keep in touch with the activities of IPTA these days?

S.C: No, I don't.

K.B: Then you can't tell me what is going on these days?

S.C: No, I can't tell you. They may be doing something sporadically here and there. But I don't think that they are doing anything effective, but there's some effort to start this movement anew, all over again.

K.B: Do you see major difference in the pre and post-Independence productions of IPTA? Or do you think that it was producing same kind of songs and plays during the period it was fully active?

S.C: It's difficult to answer this question in one sentence. I think their production varied in different parts of the country. And I'm not aware of anything beyond that, as I left Bengal after 1953. So, it's very difficult to comment on their activities after '53 as by then I isolated myself totally.

What I have attempted here in Bombay, is, in 1957 I started a choral movement. We are the first to start a group called, "Bombay Youth Choir" in India, where we tried to perform songs from different languages of India, and presented them boldly using western choral technique. It was a very successful attempt. As a result there are nearly 500 such choir groups in India today. I tried to experiment with mass singing technique, and I had singers like Ruma (Guha-Thakurta, famous Bengali singer and actress) in my group who later formed the Youth Choir of Calcutta. So we were able to lead a very successful cultural upsurge. However, it would be wrong to say that there was much political awareness or revolutionary thought in the songs of the choir. Our aim was to present our folk songs in a new form, a more powerful form, using western choral style, where the singers will be standing together on the stage and singing under the baton of a conductor – a strict disciplined form and technique was called for. That was our main goal. I saw in Russia, that when someone started singing, gradually twenty more singers joined him singing. We don't have such things here. So, the idea was that if more singers could join in singing "Ganasangeet", that would perhaps create a better appreciation of the form. For example, some of my compositions, such as, "Dhitang Dhitang Boley" could be used in a chorus very successfully. I tried to compose such songs; I tried to start a movement of choir singing. Unfortunately, the Bombay Youth Choir did not last long. Because I formed the choir with all the professional singers, they were background singers in Hindi movies. So whenever there was a conflict between recording engagements and choir singing, they had to choose recording. And so it was too much for me to keep it going all by myself. So the choir had to be dissolved eventually. But I don't regret it, because of my efforts there are now about 500 to 600 choir groups working in all over India. Even All India Radio is inviting the choir groups these days. So, the movement has been successful from that angle.

K.B: IPTA put emphasis on expressing dissent through songs. Do you think songs are a much more powerful medium than plays to this end?

S.C: It is much easier to do these things through songs. Because you can't usually stage a play with just one person, you need the involvement of at least 10-30 people to stage it. You also need to let them rehearse the play. After a lengthy preparation you can then present it. On the other hand, a good song has the ability to spontaneously involve the listener to sing along with the singer. Songs are thus a great vehicle for propaganda and mass communication.

K.B: Can songs be more effective in propaganda than plays?

S.C: Naturally, there's enough evidence for that. Our musical groups in IPTA had a longer lifespan than the theater groups. True, there are many more theater groups these days in Bengal. It's a matter of great hope, certainly. Unfortunately, the quality of the plays has been diminished. There have been great efforts, but it's still hard to find a good play.

K.B: Have you seen Bengali plays lately?

S.C: Yes. Not all, but I have seen quite a few. As I said before, there have been great efforts. But very few plays have been successful. Very few of the plays made a lasting impression on me. I believe we are passing through a formative period. Perhaps someday a great play will emerge through all this. Audiences are not satisfied with the plays these days. At the same time there's a great deal of optimism that good plays will be written and staged someday. Maybe that craving will be the catalyst in bringing out good plays.

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