Salil Chowdhury – Neglected Genius

Salil_Chowdhury_-_www.filmkailm.comSalil Chowdhury and R D Burman had two things in common; The sheer diversity of instrumentation used in their compositions and they were the nearest thing to genius we have had in Hindustani film music. Novelty was Salil’s watchword, originality his keynote. “This originality,” to quote Naushad, “was always maintained in his music: it gave him an individuality very rarely to be found in a composer.”

A composer’s composer who as Lata put it. “is an ocean of folk music and one of the greatest melody makers of our time”. And Mukesh only fortified Lata’s viewpoint when he noted, “Salil is easily one of the outstanding composers of our time. I feel proud to state that some of my most distinguished songs have been composed by him.”

NOTE: Please click on the highlighted song title to play it on Youtube.

But the ultimate tribute comes neither from ‘Zindagi Khwab Hai’ Mukesh nor from ‘Machalti Arzoo’ Lata but from ‘Baagh Mein Kali Khili’ Asha when she writes: “For a performing artiste like me to be summoned by Salil to render a song was to be served with a warning; that this was the acid test. On how I came through this test, I knew, depended my true value as a singer.”

Salil_Chowdhury_Young_01_-_www.filmkailm.comThere can be no doubt that Salil Chowdhury, by his ceaseless quest for quality in experimentation and his resourceful blend of the best of East and West, has blazed a trail all his own. In the 40 odd Hindi movies to which he has brought melody of meaning, one has witnessed a fusion of all those ingredients that make for novelty, variety and popularity in film music.

For Salil, the music of India was only the beginning, not an end in itself. After all, had he not grown up in an elitist atmosphere  hearing his ICS father play Bach, Beethoven and Mozart? The fact that Salil was thus exposed to the best of the west in his formative years provided him with the background to bring about an orchestral revolution in our music. To him, all the world was a musical stage and all the men and women merely choral players.

The Russian motif of ‘Dharti kahe pukar ke’ (Do Bigha Zamin), the Marathi flavour of ‘Jhoom jhoom Manmohan re’ (Biraj Bahu), the Nepali cadence of ‘Kanchale kanchilai laajo’ (Madhumati), the Caribbean rhythm of ‘Dhitang dhitang bole’ and the Russian folk notes of ‘Dil diwana dil mastana’ (Awaaz), the Goanese strains of ‘Munna bada pyara’ (Musafir), the Hungarian refrain of ‘Dil tadap tadap ke’ (Madhumati), the Punjabi vigour of ‘Koyi na O koyi na’ (Jagte Raho), the Bihari base of ‘Kaise manaun piawa (Char Diwari), the Mozartian movement of ‘Itna na tu Mujhse’ (Chhaya), the Andhra abandon of ‘Aag Paani mein Lagi’ (Jhoola) all point to his versatility and vitality as a musician.


Salil with Rafi, Bimal Roy, Asit Sen, Shailendra during a recording for ‘Usne Kaha Tha’.

Thus Salil was never a composing illiterate, that is why he could travel with his music from distant east to deep south and facilely fit into the tonal format of Malayalam classics like ‘Chemmeen’, ‘Nellu’, ‘Raagam’ and ‘Swapnam’. Language never was a barrier, since his music bore a universal stamp which it owed to SaliI’s flamboyant forays into the musical folklore of India through the  secular fabric of the Bombay Youth Choir (with Anil Biswas sometimes playing the tabla, leaving Chowdhury to do the conducting). This Choir experiment based on Nehru’s vision of ‘unity in diversity’ helped lend Salil’s music a truly broad based eastern context.

Salil with Kishore Kumar

Then there are certain creations of his in which you wait with an eager sense of expectancy for what is coming. Thus, in ‘Chhota sa nagar hoga’ (Naukri), you wait for the point at which you may warble with Kishore those infectious notes of ‘aa aa aa aire’; for the catch-phrase of ‘Dole re dole ho dole’ in ‘Jab se mili tose aankhiyan jiyara’ (Amanat), for the transcendental flourish of the sitar in ‘O sajana’ (Parakh), for the rhythmic sweep of the accordion in ‘Tasvir teri dil mein’ (Maya); for the thrilling orchestral blend of the oboe and the mandolin in ‘Mila hai kisi ka jhumka’ (Parakh); for the quaint intonation of ‘chiki miki chiki miki’ in ‘Rimjhim ke ye pyare pyare’ (Usne Kaha Tha), for the ‘tum nana tuna dana’ innovation in ‘Sanjh bhayi sunari sakhi’ (Honeymoon), for the doggy’s bark in ‘Beta Wah Wah’ (Memdidi), for Rano’s cute call of ‘Kabuliwale! Kabuliwale’ and Papa Hemanta’s husky retort of ‘Pista, badam laya’ in ‘Kabuliwala aaya’ (Kabuliwala).

Salil_Chowdhury_Young_02_-_www.filmkailm.comThe rough and ready technique of the Bengali composer pitchforked into the wider arena of Hindustani cinema was not his cup of tea. Where even a stalwart like Dada Burman was content to go by the mood of the song situation and by the spirit of the Hindi lyric (as explained to him by say, a Shailendra), Salil as a poet himself, would insist on himself penning the song in Bengali before setting it to tune. The process could be reversed, Salil could ‘get’ the tune first (as he did from the sound of the wipers of his car in the case of ‘O Sajana’) and then sit down to clothe it in words. But the point is the full wording had to be there in Bengali with Shailendra called in later merely to re-create the song in Hindi.

A hallmark of his music was the urge for experimentation, which has often yielded diverting results, as in the typewriter touches of ‘Arzi humari’ (Naukri), the wistful escapism of ‘Suhana safar’ (Madhumati), the rugged folk rhythm of ‘Machalti aarzoo’ (Usne Kaha Tha), the choral effects of Mere man ke diye (Parakh) and Bachpan O bachpan (Memdidi). By imaginative adaptation, he has also turned the interlude music of one song into the base tune of another, as in Rim jhim jhim (Tangewali) coming to us as ‘Jhir jhir jhir’ (Parivar). And the never-never tune of ‘Aaja re pardesi’ has its genesis in the snatch of background music that accompanies Raj Kapoor’s unquenched thirst in ‘Jagte Raho.’

Salil_Chowdhury_and_Lata_-_www.filmkailm.comThe fact that his father was a forest officer helped transport Salil, in his salad days, into the verdant jungles of Assam. The sights and sounds he absorbed in the forests equipped Salil eminently for the sensational score he was to produce for ‘Madhumati’ (1958). If ‘Madhumati’ endures as SaIil’s triumph it also became his tragedy. As a political activist, even as ‘Madhumati’ gave him the big box-office breakthrough, Salil found himself in a situation where he had to suddenly go underground. Thus, at a time when every film maker in Bombay was looking for him to sign up, Salil was in conflict with the law of the land. By the time his well wishers could arrange for his acquittal by the Bombay Court,  the psychological moment was gone.

Salil thus found himself Ieft with only the credit that went with the success of Madhumati, not the cash. But then crass commerce never did have any play in Salil’s music. “A business sense”, as Asha has pointed out, “was something totally foreign to his mental makeup”. But then Salil. for all his grip on the grammar of composition, had the humility of the true intellectual. In his candid admission that he was “incapable of self-publicity”, you have the rationale for the Bombay film industry’s banishment of this mood musician to his native Calcutta. For if ‘Annadata’ and ‘Anokha Daan’ (both 1972) came a cropper, the fact remains that the music of both films bore testimony to Salil’s abiding creativity and the same period saw Salil associated with such successes as ‘Anand’ (1971), ‘Rajnigandha’ (1974) and ‘Chhoti Si Baat’ (1976).

Salil_Chowdhury_03_-_www.filmkailm.comMukesh melodies like ‘Maine tere Iiye hi’, ‘Kaheen door jab din’ and ‘Kayi baar yun bhi dekha hai’. Lata lovelies like ‘Na jiya laage na’, ‘Rajnigandha phool tumhare’ and ‘Na jaane kyun’, are still popular. Salil never really failed and his music grew on you, made you think. For Bombay’s producers however, the appeal of Salil’s music was essentially to the mind, not the heart. As they saw it, Salil (like Anil Biswas) committed the cardinal sin of composing, not for the bathroom singer, but for the thinker-listener.

“It’s a sin to associate his name with music,” Salil had once declaimed music director Ravi. By which Salil implied that if Bombay’s cinema puts a premium on anything, it is on mediocrity. As the antithesis of mediocrity how did Salil assess fellow composers? He felt refreshed by the creations of Anil Biswas, C. Ramchandra and S.D. Burman. But he had no great opinion of populists like Shanker – Jaikishen and O.P.Nayyar. Nor even of cIassicists like Naushad and Jaidev. Salil’s point was that the work of these men has largely been within the ambit of tradition while tradition, for him was a means to modernity.

Salil_Chowdhury_02_-_www.filmkailm.comSalil’s viewpoint on Naushad and Jaidev has to be weighed in the light of his contention that a composer must as far as possible avoid using a raag in the background score. “The moment you employ a  raag”, reasons Salil, “the attention of the viewer knowing classical music is apt to wander and that is not the function of background music. Its function is imperceptibly to involve not perceptibly to distract.”

Ironically. it is his mastery in the realm of background music that ultimately pushed Salil into the background. When, against the backdrop of his having scored tellingly for songless films like ‘Kanoon’ and ‘Ittefaq’, Salil was being entrusted with only the background scoring of certain movies. Friends told him it was ill advised but he replied with his slow Bengali drawl, “You know, in the west the two jobs have always been done by two different people. It’s a specialists job, background scoring. So what’s wrong if I take on something for which I am fully equipped?”

A musician with a mind and as the only technician of his kind, his insight was always ‘audio-visual’. Vijay Anand has said that Dada Burman alone had the visual penetration. Not true. Salil all along had a photographic mind. The open question to be debated is, has there been a more imaginative, innovative and interpretative composer than Salil Chowdhury in the annals of Hindustani cinema?


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