Salil Chowdhury: A Phenomenon in Modern Bengali Music
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.