“Though I have leftist leanings, I can never deny the Almighty” — This was a statement by Salil Chowdhury which never went well with Indian Marxists.
Deeply influenced by the IPTA movement, Salil Chowdhury’s compositions spoke poignantly about class struggle.
They inspired the oppressed to be optimistic and march ahead. Yet his compositions were never devoid of serene and sublime romance. The grand lyricist-composer who would have been 87 if alive now, has not died in the hearts of countless admirers.
How can a socialist believe in god? Salil Chowdhury was continuously confronted with this question. A god-fearing person can never be the vanguard of the proletariat. This hurt the sensitive creator and many a times disturbed his creative instincts. Yet he stuck to his belief. No wonder, Jago Mohan Pyare from Jagte Raho is an immortal creation in Raga Bhairavi which conveys the pathos of a misunderstood north Indian villager (Raj Kapoor) desperately seeking drinking water in a heartless urban Kolkata.
Salil Chowdhury started the trend of people’s songs in Bengali in the true sense of the term. Tuning poet Sukanta’s creations and wielding the baton as the majestic voice of Hemanta Mukherjee rendered them, Salil Chowdhury proved that the mass was far above individuality. He continued this spirit even in his own creations like Pathe Ebar Namo Sathi and Ami Jharer Kache Rekhe Gelam. No other composer dared to inspire Lata Mangeshkar to render Saat Bhai Champa so flawlessly.
The gross commercial atmosphere of Hindi films never permitted Salil Chowdhury to exhibit his protest-oriented skills to the hilt. Yet the voice of the landless peasant (Balraj Shahni) comes through like never again in the song, Dharti Kahe Pukar ke. Influenced by the grand Russian parade after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the song had Manna De singing in a way which could never be repeated by the singer himself.
Turning Dilip Kumar to a singer in Musafir in 1957 was a great challenge for Salil Chowdhury. The latter insisted that Dilip Kumar try his voice musically. Dilip Kumar was initially reluctant. Being persuaded by Salil Chowdhury, he agreed to render the number, Lagi Nahin Chute Ram. The song was a critic’s delight, and a hit too.
The romanticist in Salil Chowdhury was at its altruistic best in O, Sajna Barkha Bahar Aye from Parakh. Pandit Ravi Shankar protested to the usage of the sitar counter in the song, terming it popularisation of a classical instrument by force. Salil Chowdhury never resented the criticism of his colleague from IPTA. Later, after hearing meticulously to the haunting Lata Mangeshkar number, Ravi Shankar was himself compelled to withdraw his comment.
Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Chopin were big inspirations for Salil Chowdhury. No wonder, Mozart’s 41st symphony gave birth to Itna na Mujh Se in Chaya. Chopin was the source of Raton Ka Saye Ghane in Annadata. Phir Ek Baar Kaho, the dreamy romantic Dwijen Mukherjee-Lata Mangeshkar duet from Maya was influenced by Pat Boone’s Anastasia. Yet, no one could accuse Salil Chowdhury of plagiarism.
Salil Chowdhury never thought highly of Kishore Kumar as a singer initially. He tuned Kishore Kumar’s hit numbers, Chota Sa Ghar Hoga (Naukri) and Munna Bada Pyara (Musafir) in the 50s . He composed all the tracks for Kishore Kumar in Half Ticket and struck a good rapport with the eccentric genius.
So deep was Kishore Kumar’s respect for Salil Chowdhury that Kishore Kumar sat at the feet of the composer rehearsing Guzar Jaye Din for Annadata after not being able to record it correctly for 18 takes. Recording it properly in the 19th take, Kishore Kumar took an oath never to sing the song in any function as a mark of respect for Salil Chowdhury.
When beats overtook melody in Hindi film songs from the mid-70s, it was the refreshing genius of Salil Chowdhury which revived lilt with Rajnigandha Phool Tumhari and Na Jane Kyun. By the 80s, the iconic composer of Madhumati Prem Patra and Anand was a frustrated soul. His creativity died and his body only remained to witness the greatest degeneration in popular and film music.
He shifted to Mumbai in 1994 to revive his Midas touch, but in vain. On September 5, 1995, the romantic socialist left for his heavenly abode. His musical journey can best be described in his own words, Ey Roko Prithibir Garita Thamao (Please Stop The World’s Carriage, I Want To Get Down).