Salil Chowdhury: A Phenomenon in Modern Bengali Music

Manab Mitra

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As a child in British India, he heard the working people's nocturnal songs in tea-garden in Assam, where his father was employed. And it was there that his father played on an old gramophone discs of European classical music left behind by a homebound philharmonic British colleague. The combination of these early memories must have left a deep impression on a child who later became Salil Chowdhury.
His father sent him later to his relatives in Bengal where young Salil started growing up in the rural milieu. He took up the bamboo flute, an instrument essential to Bengali folk music as the Dotara or the Ektara. Salil was soon on his way to becoming a self-styled flutist - an identity his later compositions and modes of instrumentation were to bear witness to for a long time to come.

Extensive formal lessons in music, in the traditional senses, were not for him. His music lessons were essentially those accorded to him by his surroundings - the environment of Bengal where music grows like nature itself, myriad in its manifestations. He has always been, by and large, an autodidact and a collector of elements of music from all around. And he learned. Young Salil Chowdhury learned his lessons not only from the music people make, but also from the life people live or have to live and then make music because of or in spite of it.
It is impossible to consider Salil Chaowdhury's growth in music without taking into account his social and political engagements, his personality as a socio-cultural activist shaped in the 1940s. Music was Salil's expression. But it was his social and political environment that motivated him to express himself in words and music, in songs.

Barely beyond his teens, Salil Chowdhury faced the turmoils of the '40s: the final phase of the struggle for India's independence, the impact of the second world war, especially its economic impact on the rural population of Bengal - the famine with all its ugly variations, the relief work and the organizational activities of the Communist Party of India.
By the time Salil Chowdhury was initiated to Marxist ideas and was going to college in Calcutta, he had already begun writing songs. His very early songs, though simple in structure, reveal a keen sense of the social situation of the rural population, especially the peasants and sharecroppers, exploited to the bone by the ruling classes.

This young song-writer's journey to the left-wing political and cultural circles of Calcutta was that of a rural Bengali youth, bubbling with creative vigour, trying to make his way into the urban intellectual stronghold of the great metropolis. This entry was by no means easy and was not always rewarded with welcoming gestures. But the leaders of the Indian People's Theatre Association and the leading cultural activists must have recognized the great talent of this young man from Chingripota (now Subhashgram in the 24 Parganas, West Bengal), and he did receive their encouragement.
In a relatively short time, Salil Chowdhury became a key figure in the left-wing cultural milieu where, in the '40s, IPTA reigned supreme. He was asked to compose suitable songs and perform them with his group of singers and musicians at all major gathering and conventions. And Salil did have a song to fit any occasion, any important issue. These songs were directly politically motivated.

There had been politically motivated songs in Bengal long before Salil Chowdhury appeared on the scene. In urban Bengal they started taking shape in the 19th century and culminated in the compositions of Rabindranath Tagore and Dwijendralal Roy.
Historically, Tagore and Roy were also the important initiators of a new genre of songs - the modern Bengali song. Hence in verbal diction and musical idiom, the early, urban political songs, mostly patriotic in nature, were a part of modern Bengali song itself.

Rural Bengal also produced its own political songs, sometimes more radical in nature than their urban counterparts. In the matter of opposition to British rule, political songs originating from rural Bengal (like those of Mukundodas) were verbally more direct and poignant than the 'modern' political songs emanating from Calcutta.

The early decades of the 20th century saw the rise of armed struggle of certain sections of the Indian population against British imperialism. This new political force, the brave struggle and self-sacrifice of the militants, their martyrdom and the ensuing police terror, not only sharpened the political situation of a nation under foreign yoke, but gave a new impetus to political songs as well. In Bengal, Kazi Nazrul Islam's songs ushered in a new age of political expression in music.
The modern Bengali political song took a sharp turn toward direct expressive of protest against and rejection of imperialism. Subversive and explosive lyrics combined with strongly accentuated rhythms and vigorous melodies with cutting ups and downs.

As the Indian Marxists started organizing peasants and workers and as the progressive elements of the Indian intelligentsia consciously started looking for new modes of literary and artistic expression to embody the condition and needs of the exploited masses - and also impart to the people, in general, a vision of liberation - a spate of new political songs came to be written. In Bengal, these songs, fruits of the left-wing cultural activism in general and essentially popular in nature, have been known as "ganasangeet" (people's songs), a term denoting not only a particular genre but a movement as well. This movement of new political songs went hand in hand with the IPTA movement which was sending far-reaching throbs of refreshingly youthful creativity throughout India in the '40s and '50s.
When Salil Chowdhury arrived on the scene with his own compositions, he was already a product of the afore-described history, with IPTA as his historic platform. It would be ungrateful not to mention in the context of IPTA and its activism in new political music in Bengal the names of Jyotirindra Moitra, Binoy Roy, Haripada Kushari and Hemanga Biswas. With their own contributions to the stream of political songs, they were Salil Chowdhury's mentors. Their compositions were, more or less, examples that were readily available to Salil Chowdhury as he became a part of the movement.

Another thing that IPTA offered Salil Chowdhury was its series of conferences which took place in different parts of India. In a certain interview Salil Chowdhury has recalled that these IPTA conferences were somewhat like open universities where so many interesting things could be picked up. Musicians from all over India came and performed at these gatherings and Salil, the innate collector and learner, would be listening hard, taking in elements of the endless varieties of subcontinental music, certain phrases of which he would cheerfully adapt to his own needs in his compositions. An example: the opening movement of his famous political song "Manbona e bondhone, manbona e srinkhole" is an adaptation of a tune Salil Chowdhury heard in Andhra Pradesh. Like his great predecessor, Rabindranath, Salil has utilized, in his long career of in music, a broad range of musical influences from disparate sources, modifying them, reshaping them and thus making them his own.

In one of his most-remembered early protest songs, "Bicharpoti tomar bichar korbe jara", a song against the brutality of British justice in its judgement of Indian freedom-fighters, Salil Chowdhury took as his leitmotiv a popular Bengali 'kirtan' tune, traditionally devotional in character, and laced it with an openly political text, transforming an old melody of devotion into a statement of explosive protest and anger. It is interesting to note that this same 'kirtan' motif had been adapted in a song by Rabindranath for a completely different purpose. In his song, "Bhenge mor ghorer chabi", Rabindranath used the intimate and personal aspect of the traditional tune. Many years later, Ustad Vilayat khan, in his Sitar improvisation on the same tune, cashed in on the same aspect again. But Salil Chowdhury impregnated the melody line with political message, replaced the soft intimate contours with sharp edges - and a new song with a new identity was born from the womb of the old.
The soft intimacy of a folk melody was suddenly transformed into the battle cry of the oppressed people. With this one treatment of a traditional tune Salil chronicled the changes that occur in the attitudes of a people toward its past and present and also those that necessarily take place in the body of music due to changed social circumstances. "Bicharpoti" still remains one of the most famous agitprop songs both in West Bengal and in Bangladesh.

Between 1945 and 1950 Salil Chowdhury composed some of his most important political songs. They were important both in their political impact and in their textual, tonal and structural novelty which proclaimed this young composer's uniqueness. The lyrics were clear, unequivocally direct and consistent in their themes. Moreover, Salil's lyrics manifested a significant poetic skill. Seldom before had a Bengali lyrist addressed the burning issues of his times in songs written with such an acute sense of immediacy, powerful imagery, and such a wealth of vocabulary.

But all these powerful lyrics would have been a waste, had it not been for the structures of the songs. Salil Chowdhury's song structures and his unique mode of phrasing words, melodies and rhythm patterns probably constitute the key to understanding his uniqueness. These are the most significant characteristics that set him apart as a composer from most of his contemporaries.
As a composer of modern Bengali songs in the '40s and the '50s, Salil Chowdhury had to face the formidable challenge embodied in the works of his great forerunners: Rabindranath Tagore, Dwijendralal Roy, Kazi Nazrul Islam and Himangshhu Dutta. The first three were composers as well as lyrists, while Himangshu Dutta was only a composer. These four composers and lyrists had explored, with a great number and variety of songs, countless modes of musical expression, and had created idioms and patterns unknown before their times. They had experimented with almost all musical elements and materials, available far and near, and had shown a broadness of mind and boldness of spirit that remain unique in the history of modern music and that of 'song' in general. Bengali folk music, Hindustani ragas, south Indian modalities, European music - both classical and popular - anything and everything was welcome to them as long as the raw material contributed to the making of a new song. In modern Bengali song between the late 19th century and the end of '40s, the East had already met West, long before such a term became fashionable in the culture industry in the early '70s. The nascent spirit of modern India had discovered itself in terms of its own endless wealth of music and had reached out for distant shores in search of newer musical experiences, thus enriching its own. Rabindranath, in a conversation with Dilip Kumar Roy, the eminent son of Dwijendralal Roy, had already spelt out the ultimate challenge of new Bengali music:

Should we then await the verdict of a special tribunal to find out what belongs to the Bengalis and what does not? Listen, if European music has flavoured your father's songs, what's so wrong about it? Blind imitation would be wrong, but not assimilation. Europe has been our neighbour for some two hundred years now. Well, are we stones or barbarians that we should turn down its gifts?

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