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Salil Chowdhury: A Phenomenon in Modern Bengali Music

Manab Mitra

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By shifting his place of work from Calcutta to Bombay in the '50s, Salil Chowdhury also moved out of phase of direct political statement in song. It would, however, be wrong to assume that his lyrics took leave of left-wing politics or social concerns. Moreover, despite the preponderance of political lyrics, Salil had also written songs in which politics was not the principal motivation. And it was this type of lyricism that tended to prevail in his work from the '60s. Along with the changing dimensions of his lyrics, there came newer dimensions of his music. His exposure to wider horizons and varied experiences in the large film world of Bombay and later south India brought fresh challenges which he met by expanding and sharpening his compositional capacities. This was the period in which Salil Chowdhury's modes of composition and orchestration became more influenced by Western classical music, on the one hand, and Hindustani 'ragas' on the other. It is interesting to note the growth of a young composer who came from rural Bengal with a flute in his hand, leaning heavily on folk music in the beginning. That young man traveled a long way to become almost a classicist, using wide and deeps strings and horns with movements strongly resembling those of a classical Western orchestra and, at the same time, composing nostalgic tunes in Bageshri and Kalavati as well. Salil Chowdhury's treatment of and compositions in several 'ragas' are as remarkable and as uniquely his own as his experiments with Western classical music. But, as observed before, Salil methodically refused to follow any convenient line of action. He refused to be satisfied with any definite mode of musical expression. His occasional flirtations with Mozart, his experiments with the relative minor and major scales which have been seminally important impact on modern Indian music, his adaptations of the melodies of 'Soviet land so dear to every toiler' or even 'Happy birthday to you', which he reworked into quite a serious song, 'Klanti naame go', his encounters with west Indian rhythms like Lavern, his deep attachment to the nostalgic tone colors of Champ, his sudden composition in Hamsadhwani in Ektal - nothing in particular can define him.

The compositional variety Salil Chowdhury has shown in music has tended to surpass his lyric art with the passage of time. His lyrics have sometimes betrayed, despite the strong overall appeal of his songs, an unfortunate inconsistency of language. In written Bengali, the so called 'chaste form' ('sadhu bhasha') of verb declination has been effectively discarded long ago. The living everyday language, the language of contemporary literature and that of the media, are generally free from all traces of archaic forms. From the '50s, the tendency has been towards adoption of colloquialism and this has rapidly grown stronger with time. But in modern Bengali songs the lyrics has somehow retained, though not always, a linguistic archaism for a painfully long time. Some lyrists have, of course, tried to avid the inertia of archaism as much as possible, especially since the '60s. But due to the absence of any strong tradition of music criticism and rather uncritical public acceptance, archaic forms and worn-out phrases have survived in the modern Bengali lyric with an alarming tenacity. It is not at all uncommon to find colloquialism sitting right next to a devastating archaism - something which would never be forgiven in Bengali literature. This persistent archaism and its annoying coexistence with colloquialism is not only illogical but absurd, especially when encountered in a contemporary and urban musical idiom, with modern orchestration and all. It is rather disturbing that even in the late '70s and early '80s, examples of such contradictions could be found scattered in some of Salil Chowdhury's songs. The fact that this self-contradictory mixture of archaism and modernism has always been present in a lot modern Bengali songs cannot justify the appearance of such anachronism in the lyrics of a composer like Salil Chowdhury who has otherwise changed and revolutionized the modern Bengali song.

However, from the '60s right up to the '80s, when most of the recorded modern Bengali songs revealed a surprising indifference to the society out of which they grew, Salil Chowdhury's lyrics offered, from time to time, perceptible indications of social awareness and concern. His songs and lyrics never failed to address important social issues and maladies which almost all other established lyrists of our times have methodically excluded from their work. One of the most remarkable examples is a song recorded by his daughter, Antara, in the '70s. In that song, a little girl asks her mother to tell her a different story - and not one that starts with the customary 'Once upon a time there was a king and a queen...' The keeps asking her mother, with a child's innocence, questions which are essentially explosive. Questions about social injustice, the evils of a society divided into haves and have-nots, which may well appear strange and unreasonable to children. Salil Chowdhury, wrote this song, essentially critical and political in nature, from a child's point of view - an attempt which no other established Bengali lyrist is known to have made.

Composing songs for children is another exemplary aspect of Salil Chowdhury's contribution to our music. In the '70s and in early '80s he composed a series of songs for children, imbued with a wonderful sense of fun, highly interesting lyrics, melodies and orchestral work. In fact from the '70s and increasingly, in the early '80s, Salil Chowdhury's instrumentation underwent some evident reorientation. The classicist tended to go pop. The instrumental idiom of the then popular Western music, which has created a new international soundscape with electronic and synthesized sounds, found increasing application in Salil Chowdhury's work. This, added to the audibly enhanced role of chord progression, sent new vibrations through his music. In fact, this is probably a feature which has greatly influenced contemporary Bengali modern music in general. Always in love with movement, Salil has recorded a collection of his old political songs with new arrangements in the '80s. Though refreshingly experimental in character, some of the arrangements do betray the weakness of exaggeration, with the vocal overtures sometimes conjuring up the image of some philharmonic young people singing happily on their way to a picnic rather than political protest. His application of vocal harmony in this collection, 'Ghum bhangar gan' (Songs of Awakening), though displaying his sovereign authority over the techniques of harmony, do not always do justice to the purpose of these songs, should there be any.

Despite a few interesting additions, the present decade is proving to be the master's lean years. Is this a sign of fatigue? Lack of any motivation other than commercial? Has he also become a victim of the general decay pervading, of late, the entire soundscape of modern Indian music? Another question could be equally pertinent: How much can one expect of a composer who has, over several decades, generated most of the important accents in modern Bengali as well as Indian music - and for how long?

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