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The Musical Wizard - Salil Chowdhury

- Written by : Onkita Adhikary

The famous German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer had said, “Talent hits a target no one can hit; genius hits a target no one can see” and in many ways than one, Salil Chowdhury was one such genius. A progressive think tank, a reformist at heart, a poet who used words like embers, a nationalist who turned poetry, theatre and music into ammunition during the national uprising, a music composer par excellence, a lyricist, a versatile instrumentalist who could play the flute, piano, esraj and harmonium with dexterity and a prolific script writer and a true socialist at heart, Salil Chawdhury was indeed the maverick genius gifted with the Midas touch.

Born on 19th November, 1925 in a small hamlet called Ghazipur in Bengal, Salilda spent his early childhood in the emerald tea estates in Assam. The colonial regime during those times was oppressive, but it also had brought something new to offer; symphonies of Bach, Mozart and Chopin were Salil Chowdhury’s first brush with music. Young Salil’s mind was a cauldron where the magic of the mazurkas and waltzes would seamlessly blend with the folk music of the women humming songs in the lush green tea estates. It was this strange concoction that Salil Chowdhury’s artistry would become a fingerprint; unique and inimitable.

As a young student in Calcutta he was thrown into the fire of the Quit India Movement and as firebrand activist, young Salil’s imagination and his deeply sensitive mind penned his first composition, “Bicharpoti Tomar Bichar” in 1943 and “Dheu Uthchhe Kara Tutcche” in 1944. Both would become an anthem for Indians fighting for freedom. His understanding of nuances of music and his unique application in the songs would go on to make celluloid history. A chance encounter with the prolific director, Bimal Roy would lead to what was truly a golden era of the Indian silver screen with Salil da scripting and composing music for the masterpiece called Do Bigha Zameen which caught the nation’s eye when it  won the Prix Internationale at the Cannes in 1954.

Over a career spanning decades, Salil da effortlessly churned out melodies after melodies that would bridge the East and the West in the most mellifluous of ways. His repertoire spanned from exploration of folk songs from Bengal with a kirtan like “Jhoom jhoom manmohan re” in the film Biraj Babu to the liting Nepalese tune of “Chota sa ghar hoga” in the film Naukri. Listening to Lata Mangeshkar’s voice in the song, “Main lut gayi duniya walon” from the film Tangewali, the ethos of Punjab wisps through as does the flavour of Carnatic Hans Dwani melt in the the fresh voice of Lata Mangeshkar in “Jhir Jhir Jhir Jhir Badarwa Barse” in the film Parivaar showcasing the genius of Salil Chowdhury. If Mozart’s 41st symphony whispered life into the song “Itna na mujhse tu pyar bada” from the film Chaya, Raag Bhairav came alive in the song “Jaago mohan pyare” with the soulfulness it demanded. Who can forget the magical Afghani soundscape and Manna Dey’s extraordinary rendition in “Aye Mere Pyare Watan” or the Soviet Union’s Army march song “Polyushka Polye'' slipping into the groove of “Dharti kahe pukar” from the film Do Bigha Zameen. Listening to his Tamil composition, “Thingal Maalai Venn Kudaiyan” or to the Malayalam super hit “Kadalinakkare Ponore” from the film Chemmeen, it is difficult to fathom how he could break the language barrier simply by his esoteric music. Salil da integrated music with all its nuances with a magical contrivance to give the Indian audience a benchmark that till today stands the test of time.

When asked about Salilda, the wordsmith Yogesh who had penned the lyrics for Salil da’s soulful tunes in one of India’s finest films, Anand, he replied that if Salil Chowdhury had pursued Literature with all the time he had, he would have matched the genius of Rabindranath Tagore and nothing seems more befitting to the maestro than this. It happens very rarely in history that a person standing at the juncture of massive upheaval manages to make a mark with an indentation that is indelible. Salil Chowdhury is one such enigma who stood through India’s freedom struggle right through to its sociopolitical change and kept India’s story archived in melody for future generations. Salil Chowdhury was quite simply a wizard and let's just keep it at that!

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