I was still in frilly frocks and pigtails when love blossomed.
'Madhumati' made it happen. Its songs were an awakening... I
was possessed by music. Of course, there earlier flings with
music. Shankar-Jaikishan's tunes for 'Shri 420' especially
"Mera joota hai japani... and all that. But this was an
And I wasn't alone. The songs had seized different generations
even my mother, whose aversion to film songs was almost
pathological. But a softness suffused her eyes when the songs of
'Madhumati' hummed from the radio.
And then, I saw the film. Singing every number loud and clear in
the hall, much to the embarrassment of my teenaged cousin, I
decided that love, and being in love, was the most divine of
It was years later, when names began to matter, that I realized
that Salil Choudhury was the man behind the music... mine was no
childish infatuation. Years later, I was to scour the shops of
Connaught Place, seeking the EP of 'Anand.' And the songs of
'Rajnigandha' and 'Chhoti Si Baat' were to be on the top 10 of my
personal hit parade.
And now Salil Choudhury is dead. Just weeks after I was supposed
to meet him, on his visit to Bombay where I would realize a long-
cherished dream of hearing the poet-composer unravel his new
The composer was a dreamer who could spin poetry and music in one
composite tapestry. Melody was his main implement; often he'd
write his own lyrics in Bengali, compose a tune and only then fit
in someone else's lyrics even if that meant erasing his own.
His music was a blend of the western classical (he grew up on
Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart, and a bit of Chopin), folk ditties,
and a smattering of the Indian classical. Yet, except for
straight adaptations like "Itana na mujhse tu pyar badha"
(Chhaya) culled from Mozart's 41st symphony or "Raaton ke saaye
ghane" (Annadata) culled from Chopin, Salil Choudhury rarely let
his influences show.
His roots were in Bengal and in IPTA (Indian Peoples Theatre
Association), the progressive theatre movement which he actively
supported throughout the 1940s. During his years in Bombay, he
never forgot his debt to Bengali musical tradition, returning
every year to Calcutta to compose songs for Lata Mangeshkar and
Hemant Kumar for the puja season.
Salil Choudhury would say of Hemant Kumar, "If God ever decided
to sing, he would do so in the voice of Hemant Kumar."
Hemantda first met Salil Choudhury when the latter was part of a
four-member group which sang numbers with strong communist
leanings. Musical they were but with a limited appeal.
Soon after, Salil Choudhury approached him with several fiery
compositions. Hemant Kumar felt that all of them were too
stridently militant except for a half-finished tune about a young
girl who died in the Bengal famine. The partnership with
Hemantda was on.
There was no looking back for Salil Choudhury. His songs were a
rage, blared forth from loudspeakers especially during the pujas.
As the composer's fame spread beyond Calcutta, Bombay and Bimal
Roy's 'Do Bigha Zameen' beckoned. The communist petrel turned a
softer socialist, evident in "Dharti kahe pukar ke" scored for
Other offers followed. By the end of the '50s, Salil Choudhury
was a Bombaywallah. His songs spanned all moods from the
hopelessness which filters through Talat Mehmood's "Raat ne kya
kya (Ek Gaon Ki Kahani)" to the hope-infused "Jago Mohan pyaare
And then there was 'Madhumati.' It was Bimal Roy again,
recapturing through Salil Choudhury the essence of the melody of
Bengal. This time, Salil was inspired by the verdant hillsides
of Assam... where as a child he had roamed with his forest-
officer father... and where now Bimal Roy would shoot his love
story with a supernatural twist.
Over the years, the sights and sounds of nature had been the muse
for Salil Choudhury. When the songs of 'Madhumati' were
composed, the tweeting of birds, the flight of an eagle, and the
patter of rain seemed to seep into the melody.
'Madhumati' fetched Salil Choudhury his first Filmfare Award in
1958. Though he could have ridden the crest of the wave of
success, the musician went literally into hiding. His communist
activities had come home to haunt him... he had become a hunted
Eventually, Bimal Roy's assistant, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, who was
making his debut as a director with 'Musafir,' signed Salil
Chowdhury. Salil's score for the film was in harmony with the
soft, romantic, hesitant, episodic mood of the film. Another
first was scored by 'Musafir.' It was under Salil's baton that
Dilip Kumar sang his first song in tandem with Lata Mangeshkar.
A year later, Salil Choudhury struck out a new path--he composed
the background score for BR Chopra's courtroom drama 'Kanoon.'
The film was totally devoid of songs. Yet the music almost made
the audience forget the lack of vocals.
As the years rolled, Salil Choudhury composed background music
for B Copra's 'Ittefaq' and Yogesh Saxena's 'Plot No. 5.' Gulzar
used his background score in 'Achanak'... one of the pieces was
to later evolve into a full-fledged song for Gulzar's 'Mere
Apne.' Later, Salil composed the background score for the poet-
A story goes that the tune of "O sajna (Parakh)" was sparked one
rainy evening. The composer was listening to the swish of his
car wipers when he was seized by inspiration. He worked out the
lyrics in Bengali and offered the finished piece to Bimal Roy.
When it was eventually recorded Shailendra penned the lyrics in
Hindi and Lata Mangeshkar rendered the playback.
He took a gamble with the music of 'Annadata.' The song "Guzar
jaaye din din din"... used a scale progression as a method...
here was a marked departure from the accepted norms in film
music. It was a difficult number which the composer wanted
Kishore Kumar to sing because "Only he could give it 90 percent
of its credibility." It's said that even Kishore Kumar was
stymied; the song was recorded after 18 takes.
Came the 1970s and Salil Choudhury disappeared from Bombay's
music scene. Perhaps because melody was out and noise was in.
It was after a long break that he reappeared with the score for
the serial 'Kurukshetra' aired on Zee TV. He also composed the
background score for Shakti Samanta's 'Ahankaar.' He was toying
with other projects when illness claimed him. A blood clot in
his brain stemmed his comeback; he had to go in for surgery.
All was well. The prayers of thousands of his fans and the
loving ministrations of his wife Sabita and his daughters helped
nurse him back to recovery.
And then tragedy struck. Even as he was listening to his
daughter, Antara, singing at home, a fever took hold of him. He
had to be rushed back to hospital. A deadly infection had
overcome him in his convalescence.
His sons from America rallied around. There was a constant vigil
at the nursing home in Alipore where he lay battling for his
life. A specialist was called in from Bombay. But it was no
use... death stilled the musician forever.
His music will live on. There must be many like me who will
never let the memory dim, of the moment when on hearing "Dil
tadap tadap ke keh raha," they discovered the emotion called