The 'Runner' Will Return No More
Sandhya Sen

"Music will always be dismantling and recreating itself, and assuming new forms in reaction to the times. To fail to do so would be to become fossilized. But in my push to go forward I must never forget that my heritage is also my inspiration." – Salil Chowdhury

Salil Chowdhury emerged into the world of Bengali music trumpeting the notes of revolution and giving voice to the grievances of his contemporary age. At a time when the dreamy, poetic nature of Bengali thinking was reluctantly coming to terms with rude realities and the harshness of life - in such an era of confusion he created the most marvelous world with his words and music. Using disillusionment and bitter experience as his tools, this revolutionary artist gave fierce expression to towering mountains of unrest among the masses. This has been an unforgettable experience not just for me but for every music-loving Bengali.

It was this Salil Chowdhury that I recently had an opportunity to interview exclusively, through the courtesy of Kamal Ghosh of (the) Megaphone (Company). By that time the Bengali music world had come to call Salil Chowdhury’s creation the ‘Song of New Life’. At first opportunity I questioned him about his role in the development of this music. The answer, in his own words –

SC [Salil Chowdhury]: When with some maturity I came to regard this world and my place – among countless others – in it, the primary emotion that burned deep inside me was one of fierce protest. I railed against the torment and cruelty that was killing humanity little by little. I saw on the one hand terrible famine and on the other hand utter waste. And this terrible unfairness opened for me the creative forces of my music ...

SS [Sandhya Sen]: "Could you elaborate a bit more..", I ask, interrupting the artist’s emotional outpouring. Comes the immediate reply –

SC: The oppression of foreign rule; famine; people crying out to get a bit of gruel for food – it seemed to me that in the circumstances, composing songs of love and loving was not merely ridiculous but downright criminal. After all, the poet or artist does not exist apart from society, but rather has a social duty. And if we forget this duty and instead adhere to some ‘code’ or ‘dogma’, then the art form is bound to become artificial, lose all contact with the masses, and eventually become weak. The use of beauteous metaphors to paper over the suffering of the masses, I call ‘skin grafting’ – in some other art form it might work, but it will not work in music. So it was that the song for those times was (quotes lines of a song by Satya Chowdhury, paraphrased here) –

Starving masses
As far as the eye can see
No lover; no love
We are strangers in our own home
My lover starves; no smile on her lips

I was a village lad, but after matriculation I joined a college in the city. So I travelled from Sonarpur to Calcutta – and got acquainted with the accumulated discontent among the masses in both places. Farm organizations, student organizations; I’ve taken active parts in all these. I was even in the military for a while and I saw the total, disdainful waste of life’s essentials by those in power. These were the experiences that fueled my songs. (In my musical development) I did not tread the conventional path of asthhayi/antara/sanchaari (a technical reference to the exposition/development/recapitulation-like phases of conventional Indian song form). Especially after joining the IPTA [Indian Peoples’ Theatre Association] I realized that the usual sweet and soporific moods and tunes would not suit the experience of those times. So, to express the discontent of the ignored masses I composed the song –

Waves crashing
Cell doors smashing
The light shining
The life waking ...

During the 1944 All-India strikes I went around singing this song in every meeting ground. And at that time everyone went crazy over this ‘song of the scythe’. Also, the famine of the 1950’s is intimately connected with the origins of the IPTA. The weak, the downtrodden masses joined in these cries of defiance. These songs, voicing a desire to escape foreign rule and torture, were expressions of my revolutionary spirit.

Let me tell you about an incident while I was in the military. We were traveling somewhere in Assam in a van, when we came to a particularly slippery part of the road that the van couldn’t negotiate. Do you know what they did? They poured sacks and sacks of wheat on the road, which the van then just drove over – wheat that most of the country was at that time starving for the lack of. Such was life.

SS: The artist pauses to light a cigarette, and in the glow of the lighter I see the piercing gaze and the look that has illuminated his proud visage since those years of 1946 to 1950. I ask –

SS: Your songs during this time were all very martial, weren’t they?

SC: Almost all of them.

SS: But surely love, dreams, and beauty were also no less important, and to deny these would cause music to lose something.

SC: I didn’t deny these feelings, and along with songs of awakening I also developed songs of emotion. But these were not the emotions of idle, comfortable living. Rather, these were tinged with revolutionary fire as well, and dealt with the loneliness and the pain of the individual. If I had written songs expressing narcissistic self-love, and isolated myself from the political struggles of the nation, my music would have withered like a vine that has been uprooted. This is why I think that revolutionary times call for a different language of emotion. Not for those times the lover’s embrace, but rather the sword that she offers from her hand. Do you think I’m wrong ?

SS: Not at all. In this connection I am reminded of some lines of the D. L. Ray song, sung in (his son) Dilip Ray’s fiery voice:

Downtrodden though she may be by foreign feet

My lovers painted arms rise to entwine me …

SC: Right.

SS: What happened next ?

SC: The British departed. We gained independence, but whether in the arts or in music, romanticism was not to return. So even in postwar songs of love we find expressions of terrible suffering, as in –

No garland of flowers, but a wreath of thorns

Do I wear around my neck ..

(Jaganmay Mitra)

SS: Your ballad-style songs too were from this period ? I remember in 1948-50 when your "Gnyaer Bnodhuu" was all the rage all over Bengal.

SC: You are right. Yes, independence did arrive, but it was as if the people had been so oppressed that they had forgotten how to dream. It is in this context that the (above) song of a village wife’s story touched the hearts of so many. And in the process of portraying the very darkest depths of humanity in that song, I had become an instrument and a voice of the times.

SS: But Salil-da, among your numerous contributions to Bengali music a major one is, that no matter how grim the subject your songs always keep intact the musical values while fully developing their aesthetic appeal. For example, the songs "Runner" and "Palki Chale" convey very different moods. Both are very rhythmic but you have beautifully brought out their very dissimilar moods. Will you say a little bit about the background of the composition of these two songs ?

SC: These are both songs of travelling, moving on. The difference is in their destinations and attitudes. The 'runner' (postman) carries sacks of letters, maybe money. But he himself is penniless and nobody ever writes to him. In 'palki' (palanquin) the image is one of going from village to village, and the goal is the joy of arriving. In the former, the benumbed 'runner' has become insensitive to his own pain and it is up to the poet to give expression to that pain. His movement is a rootless one. This movement (now making reference to the unconventional style of this song) will not follow the usual form of going back to the asthhayi and antara. The 'runner' is always moving on.

It was a bit different in 'palki'. The poet, Satyen Dutta, had seen for himself the movement of the palanquin bearers, and I have tried to give expression to their feelings in my song. I took a little artistic license as a composer with my vocalization ("hun hun naa..") of their rhythmic gait. I think this is why the song is so popular. Beginning in a modified C major scale with -

"Palki chale, palki chale, hun hun na . . ."

We end however, with -

"Palki chale re, anga dhaley re, . . ."

In other words, we have now arrived at our destination. The accumulated weariness that we had staved off is being felt in full measure and it is now time to rest.

SS: Excellent. Salil-da, the 'rap' music that is so much in vogue now; it must have begun so many years ago (perhaps 50), and you showed the way in your songs, but in such a refined form.

Salil-da smiles as he flicks the ash from his cigarette.

SC: Let's talk about Rabindranath's song "KrishnaKali Aami Taareyee Boli", and the transformation of the girl in it to the one in my song, "Sei Meye". That girl from MoynaaParaa with the beautiful dark eyes who so inspired the poet - (in my music) that same girl is perhaps burnt and blackened in the hot sun, as she raises her thin-as-sticks arms wailing and begging for a bit of gruel. May we never forgive those who so harshly destroyed the lovely image that our great poet had once so exquisitely created. Such utter despair, such a waste of priceless lives. Can there ever be any compensation ?

Salil-da's emotional force seems to overwhelm us. I ask –

SS: So far you have given us a picture of how your music developed. Not just songs of revolution – a few years ago you gave us another side of your musical expressiveness with the LP record "Hits of Salil Chowdhury", with songs by Lata Mangeshkar, Hemanta Mukherjee, Suchitra Mitra, Geeta Dutt and Sabita-di (Sabita Chowdhury). A love song such as "Naa Jeyo Naa" in Lata's voice; the flow of musical ideas in "Surer Jharnaa"; and the variety of tunes and tempos in the various songs ("Dhitang Dhitang Bole", "Duranta Ghurni", "Pathey Ebaar Naamo Sathi" and "Path Haraabo Boley Ebaar") in Hemanta-da's voice have all painted a gentler, more benign image of your music. Your revolutionary utterances aside, these songs show a much more intimate side of you.

SC: Inevitably. The overworked, war-weary mind also needs its rest, and finds it in the babbling brook, the flight of doves, the voice of the beseeching lover. It would destroy sensibility to ignore these. Just as revolution cannot go on forever, so too its songs need to rest.

SS: The amazing breadth of variety in your song styles suggests that you concerned yourself not only with the song but with accompaniment and the entire musical ambiance. You must have given a lot of thought to orchestration.

SC: Your inference is true, and that reminds me of my childhood days. My father's vocation was medicine, but his lifelong avocation was music. He had considerable mastery over both vocal and instrumental music, and had acquired recordings of a great many symphony orchestras. In growing up listening to these, I unconsciously formed a deep affinity for orchestration.

A brother of mine, Nikhil Chowdhury, had also formed an orchestra which he named 'Milan Parishad'. At the club every afternoon, I sat and listened to their music, and many well-known artists, among them Bhishma-babu, Gopal Nayak, etc. would also attend. We also had a piano at home, and after casually fingering it at first, I quite soon mastered the instrument and others like it. For five years I played the piano regularly. Then when I returned to the village, my constant companion was the flute. I started on it at the age of eight, and found then that many abstract, unconscious feelings would take concrete form in the portals of my imagination. My classical musical training has been mostly from my father and elder brother. Apart from this, listening to recordings of many of our 'ustaads' and attending their performances in all-night sessions at many music conferences developed in me a deep appreciation of the heritage and depth of Indian music.

SS: Do you consciously keep the form of melody and rhythm in mind when you begin the job of composing a tune ?

SC: (In English: ) 'I never stress the form for form's sake'. I compose a tune with the song's message firmly in mind. I am not in favour of using an F-sharp or an E-flat just to impress. 'Because I have believed in harmonised melody throughout my life'.

SS: In that connection, let me ask: many have accused you of distorting the characteristic specialty of Bengali music by adding to it western compositional styles. Would you like to say something about this ?

SC: This to me is the most surprising accusation of all. Our indigenous music is so all-encompassing that we do not need to be beholden to any other culture for anything. At the time of building up the (Calcutta) Youth Choir, it was I who appraised Ruma (GuhaThakurta) of this fact. During my early years I was part of the troupe of (the dancer) Uday Shankar. In our travels, I began to collect the music of all parts of the country we visited, and to pay attention to the instruments and their particular characteristics. I was not merely impressed by them; they were a tremendous influence on my music.

My experience has been that there is an amazing degree of harmony and a great variety in our regional music. It is true that quite a lot of traditional music is dying out for lack of patronage. But if one were to hold up whatever remains in front of our young progeny, I believe they would be mesmerised. In addition, we have Rabindranath, D.L.Ray, Nazrul (Islam), AtulPrasad, Rajanikanta and Dilip Roy . In musical instruments, you would be amazed at how many kinds of percussion instruments we have in the country. There is an instrument called the 'TeroTaali', that has cymbals tied to it all over. You take a spear-like stick and beat on it without taking aim – what a scintillating sound ! These sights and sounds had overwhelmed me. I thought – who if not us will hold these up for our younger generations, so that they may better know their culture ?

Ruma (GuhaThakurta) was highly encouraged by my ideas. The Youth Choir was able to attract Lata (Mangeshkar), Mukesh, Hemanta-da, Anil Biswas. Gita (Dutt) was already with the IPTA. We discovered that the informal approach held the greatest promise to attract the appeal of all classes of people. I was able to accomplish so much because the tremendous energy of youth and the enthusiasm for creating music had me in its grip. But now, I want to know - what is your opinion of how Bengali music is evolving ? – Salil-da suddenly asks of me.

SS: The discipline of constant practice in our musical arts is indeed in decline. But I do not fault the lyricist, or composer, or the artist alone for this. There is of course much criticism of modern Bengali music. But I have faith even in this, because I feel that those who cannot point to a path of constructive change and growth have no right to criticise.

SC: I know you have a great love of artists. This is why I am able to talk with you so openly. But I would ask you to think about this: Music will always be dismantling and recreating itself, and assuming new forms in reaction to the times. To fail to do so would be to become fossilized. But in my push to go forward I must never forget that my heritage is also my inspiration.

SS: But I don’t think you can deny that the voice of modern music is indeed rather weak today.

SC: Agreed. But have you thought about why this is ? From Rabindranath to Nazrul and even beyond, we had a number of powerful creators who were both lyricist and composer. So they were able to match the emotion conveyed by the song with its melody amazingly well. Nowadays, the song is written by one person to the tune of another. If there is a mismatch of talent, the music is bound to suffer.

SS: Dhananjay-babu (Dhananjay Bhattacharya) spoke about the good collaboration between Pranab Ray and Kamal Dasgupta.

SC: And he was right. The partnership of equally talented individuals created a very successful amalgam of lyrics and music.

This crisis would be averted if poets would also write songs. But they don’t, perhaps because they cannot devote enough time to music. And because of this reason, there is a real lack of depth and feeling in the words of our songs. Songwriters are doing the best they can, but blaming them for what they are incapable of will not solve this problem. This is a problem for every knowledgeable music lover to ponder on. What else shall we talk about ? - asks the artist smilingly.

SS: Why is today’s young society so enamoured of 'pop' music ?

SC: How can one blame them ? What does youth desire ? 'Something thrilling, something full of life'. They find that vital excitement in western music. Besides, look around the country and our society – we are surrounded by uncertainty and instability. In that environment they can hardly be expected to devote themselves to a steadfast cause.

A little while ago you mentioned the accusation regarding the pollution of our music with western styles. But consider how our popular music was before then. When Jyotirindranath Tagore raised our consciousness and gave us "Ek Sutrey Bandhiyachhi Shahasra Jiban", that was colored by the influence of western music. But this did not sound strange to our ears, because the harmonisation was not entirely foreign, and because it was an accurate image of the national consciousness of the times. Also note that, when we tune the 'tanpura' using the C and F-sharp notes; that is an example of harmony, is it not ? You must have read about the life of Debussy of France. He came to the East in his search for music. His songs convey amazing impressions of the sea; its tides, during storms, and its other moods.

Another amusing fact. The person who first brought harmony into Gregorian Music was accused of polluting the music and was banished. No one even remembers his name today. But his influence now pervades European music. So we must not be too hasty in judging what may be good or bad.

SS: Over the last three or four decades your songs have been sung by Hemanta-da, Lata, Sandhya, Geeta Dutt, Sabita Chowdhury, Pintu, Haimanti, Arundhati, Banasri – every one of the songs carries the stamp of your music. Of course there are differences ...

SC: This depends a great deal on the mood of the composer. The rest is the artists’ creation. But I am dejected when I think of what we are able to leave behind for the coming generations. Very dejected when I think about it. I feel like a criminal before them. Sandhya-di, I have seen just within Bengal a great deal of potential among our own composers and lyricists. My greatest wish is that you keep a watchful eye on them, so that they do not lose hope and lose their way.

(SS) Salil Chowdhury along with his wife Sabita had created a studio. With Sabita, and with (his daughters) Antara and Sanchari, he has published records, cassettes, and engaged in other creative activities. It was his wish to create an album along the themes of the song "Bicharpati Tomaar Bichar" and other similar songs. I believe that Sabita-di will complete this unfinished task. Salil Chowdhury – lyricist, composer, storyteller, playwright, producer, director, all in one – was a mighty pillar of the framework of Bengali music; a fact which we hope that the Gramophone Company (of India) will keep in mind.

Published in "Nabakallol" magazine, 36th year, Issue 9, 1995, pgs. 161-164

Translated from the Bengali original.

[Translator's note: The 'Runner' in the title of this piece, alluding to the departed Salil Chowdhury, is a reference to the well-known Bengali poem by Sukanta Bhattacharya which was set to music by SC. Also, many of the responses in the above piece contain explicit references and in some cases verbatim quotes from various songs of Salil Chowdhury – quotes that are necessarily lost in the translation. The original article also includes a sketch of Salil Chowdhury and a photograph of a recording session of him with Sandhya Mukherjee. To the interested reader, the original article is enthusiastically recommended.]