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Trajectory Of Salil Chowdhury’s Protest Songs: The Making Of An Artivist Icon

The following article is re-published here with the authorisation of the author, Humayun Azam Rewaz, and the original article can be found here.


November 19 is the birthday of legendary Indian composer, lyricist, poet and writer Salil Chowdhury. Marking the day, Humayun Azam Rewaz writes about Salil’s protest songs.

Good music is the authentic expression of something — a person, an idea, a feeling, a shared experience, a Zeitgeist.

— Simon Firth

Creative art work is an expression of the author’s consciousness regarding the contemporary world derived from inner passionate narratives and highly influenced by the idiosyncratic perceptions of the human mind. Salil Chowdhury (November 19, 1925 – September 5, 1995), a legendary musician, explored his creative faculty throughout his life.

Mass movements such as the Indian People’s Theatre Association and the New Song Movement in Chile, Cuba proved that music and musicians can lead a political uprising and can shape the political actions of the mass. Violetta Parra, John Lenon, Victor Jara, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Hemanga Biswas, Salil Chowdhury; all these names attained immortality through their artivism, a term coined by critic and contemporary art theorist Rosalind Krauss. Unfortunately, the IPTA movement could not maintain its credibility for long. On November 2, 2019, the National Public Radio, America reported that the song ‘El Derecho De Vivir En Paz’ (The right to live in peace) gave voice to the protesters in Chile. The song was written by great Chilean artivist Víctor Jara as a tribute to Ho Chi Minh. The song that was composed in 1971 and became the voice of protesters again in 2019.

Nobel laureate Bob Dylan and another great music icon Joan Baez are still international icons that inspire young minds to fight against oppression. Just a few days back, students of Dhaka University demonstrated the song ‘Un violador en tu camino’ (The rapist is you) which is a contemporary Chilean protest anthem for feminist movement against rape. Debojyoti Mishra, an eminent music composer from Kolkata led several anti NRC, CAA musical rally in January 2020. Protest songs have an interactive relation with the mass and successfully connect the mass in any space.

The dialectical relationship between culture and politics is rarely celebrated as a genuine combination, particularly in Bangladesh and India. But, Salil Chowdhury brilliantly blended the essence of entertainment and political spirit in his works. Salil named his rebel songs as the ‘Songs of consciousness and awakening’. Salil’s musical career has two phases, the IPTA phase and the Mumbai phase. In the first phase of the early 1940s, he was a political activist, the people’s artist. But in the second phase, he became a brilliant entertainer, quite professional, and an artist of the industry.

The song titled ‘Ei roko, prithibi-r gari-ta thamao’ invites us to examine its intertextuality. The lyric of the song, recorded in 1978 and sung by Salil himself, denotes insightful assertion of a passenger who mistakenly boards on the moving wheels of this universe. Rendering a rhythmic tune of westernised Jazz, the composer-singer simply renounces the hazardous past with self-grown articulations.

Salil grew up in a tea garden in Assam because his father worked there for long time as a doctor. His father was a music enthusiast. Young Salil grew up with such a perfect orientation to extraordinary music from entire world. Salil’s artistic grooming got further perfection under the supervision of his elder cousin Nikhil Chowdhury and his professional orchestra team named Milon Parishad in Calcutta.

His political ideas and musical thinking both got certain level of maturity during student life in Bangabaashi College in Calcutta. Sociopolitical condition of home and abroad including the Second World War, the Bengal famine and the political chaos of the 40s awaken him to response with social responsibility. He was an active member of the peasant movement. In the meantime, he met with the IPTA members in a conference and become a member of the organisation in 1945 and the communist party onward. In this writing, I will talk about his protest songs. Around 68 lyrics are documented in the Salil Collection of works published by Dey’s publication. Around 50 songs’ recorded version is available in the Salilda.com which is designed and developed by one of his great fan Gautam Chodhury.

‘Uru taka taka taghina taghina’ is one of the earliest compositions for the IPTA during 1944/45. It is a rural folk song which explains the joy of sowing and harvesting by peasants. He transposed folk motif to modern music style. ‘Aalor desh thekey aandhaar paar hoyee’ was also written and composed for the IPTA during 1945/46. In this song, Salil did experiment with vocal-harmony and singing in multi layers. Salil blend musical metaphor with poetic texts in the songs, like, ‘Surrjer shoraghate e kuyasha chire dao’, ‘Besurer dabanole osurer jani hobe shesh’. He always believed in the power of music. He mentioned it in several songs, like in ‘Amra gan gai, kenona amra gan gai’.

‘Gowrisringa tulechhe shir’ is one of the most celebrated mass songs. Probably it was composed in 1946 as a response to the Second World War. Then came ‘Dheu uthchhey karaa tutchhey’ — a historic song composed on July 29, 1946 to support the Naval Mutiny. The soldiers called for a major strike against the British government which drew enormous response from the mass people. Salil show extraordinary musical skill in the song. The chord progression, orchestration and vocal harmony were such a unique blending which set the benchmark for Choir music in India onward. The strike was successful and the song earned its place in history. The official record came in the market in 1981.

‘Karaar duaar bhaango’, ‘Haatey moder ke debey ke debey se bheri (1949)’ and ‘Bhango bhango bhango bhango bhango kaaraa (1948)’ these three songs were written on different occasions but maintain a inter connection in the textual correlation and also in musical arrangements. It is assumed that those were composed during 40s. The songs were composed to support the freedom fighters’ strike in the prison of Andaman Islands. ‘Haatey moder ke debey ke debey se bheri’ again proclaims the power of the masses. It is one of the very few IPTA songs which were recorded during that historic period.

The year, 1949 was so resourceful for Salil. ‘O aalor patho jaatri, ejey raatri, ekhaney themo na’, may be the most well-known mass songs of Salil which was composed in that year. It was formally recorded for three times in 1949, 1971 and 1981 by renowned artists including Debabrata Biswas, Prity Sarker, Manna Dey, Sabita Chowdhury and a chorus team led by IPTA artist Montu Ghosh. The first part of this song is poetic and mostly like prayer but the later part is totally loud and full of energy to wake up, take lead, and uphold the beauty of truth.

“Most often I would not even have two annas in my pocket. There would be warrants in my name. I had to walk a lot, but never thought that it was something painful.”

The metaphor of light and dark is a signature for Salil. It comes again and again with different meanings. Another song titled ‘E je ondhokaare bosey bandhadarey sudhu byartho ghaato aanaa’ composed in 1952 expressed pretty pessimistic Salil. He was always very honest to his true feeling. The communist party leaders failed to sense that poetic spirit and very unfortunately they criticised and banned some of his great creations like ‘Gayer bodhu’ composed in 1949 and that provoked the separation onward. The party also banned ‘Palkir gaan’ and that made Salil totally disappointed.

In 1949, Salil first appeared as a lyricist, composer and singer with the LP record containing two popular songs ‘Nondito nondito desh amar’ and ‘Nobarun rage rangere’. Most of the available records were done a long after that period when he was not an active political activist anymore. His continuous musical encounter makes him a legendary icon. In an interview with Kalpana Biswas, Salil once said, ‘Most often I would not even have two annas in my pocket. There would be warrants in my name. I had to walk a lot, but never thought that it was something painful.’ He was blacklisted in the mass media. His songs were censored by the state and very unfortunately by his own party also.

Salil created an outstanding piece in 1950 as response to ‘Krishnakoli’ by Rabindranath Tagore. The title of the song was ‘Sei meye’ which tells the plight of a dark girl who suffered through the famine. He adopted western Jazz music style in his music. But he didn’t leave the local instrument rather created new tune by using them. He composed several songs like ‘Dhan katar gaan’, ‘Ovinobo deshpremik’, Shantir gaan’, ‘Setu badhar gaan’, ‘Biz bonar gaan’  and so on. All the titles refer to typical social life but depict political messages through poetic presentation. The farmers, workers and specially the youths are the subjects of his songs. ‘Naker boodle norun pelam’ was one of his very first sarcastic songs composed in early 50s which was censored.

‘Hei samaalo dhaan ho, kasteyta dao shaan ho (1946)’ and ‘Ayre o ayre (1946)’ both songs were responses to the historic Tevaga Movement. That year, another movement of post office worker also inspired Salil to express solidarity and he composed the famous poem by poet Sukanta Bhattacharya titled ‘Runner’. ‘Obak prithibi’ was composed in 1946 as a response to the naval mutiny. Salil’s another popular song ‘Bicharpati tomar bichar’ was written in 1937 to celebrate the Andaman prisoner release day.

He was always keen to pick local music and blend it into a new one. Assamese folk song Bihu, Kirtan, folk songs of Chittagong, African dance music, American Jazz, eastern melody, western polyphonic style all these got new expressions in his music. But after the Independence in 1947, the IPTA started to lose its appeal. Most of the big names, including Salil, left IPTA within the next few years.

In 1982, Salil composed a few more great songs including ‘Pothe ebar namo sathi’, ‘Sedin aar koto dure’, ‘Odhikar ke kare dey’, ‘Ektu chup kore shono’ and many more which also gained popularity. These lyrics are sublime in arrangement but quoted with deep passion which Salil nourished during IPTA movements. Salil once said about his creations, ‘I think that is art. If I succeed in that, I am an artist’.

All these diversified creations made Salil an icon of a political activist, a great artist but who is celebrating that political stature of Salil now? Simply no one!  KN Panikkar observed that, IPTA movement agenda of creating mass political consciousness to ignite counter-hegemony fails later as the political front could not manage it with same enthusiasm of cultural intellectuals. The absence of dialectical relationship between left politics and culture may be considered as the root cause of the dissolution of the movement. Salil faded into this apoliticising era and the entertainment world embraced him. Our political intellectuals, in the same way, failed to mediate politics and culture to the same direction. So, cultural organisations are still considered to be non-political body. And that made a great artivist like Salil Chowdhury a much unknown figure in the contemporary political discourse! ‘Pothey ebar namo sathi’— let’s re-check those!

Author Humayun Azam Rewaz is a young cultural activist.

Cover photo licensed to Bobby Chowdury

A Protest Music Interview: Madara

The Manusmriti, a sort of a bible for Hindu people, divides the Indian people into categories based on their work and their social duties. This scripture is at least 3,000 years old but today, still, people in India have to endure this ancient system that now has a new term: caste.

Although discrimination on the basis of caste was legally banned in 1948 the problem continues in India today. But some people try to fight this old system and use their voice in a positive way. One of them is Madara, a rapper from an upper caste family who has witnessed how this outdated social system affects all aspects of the world he lives in.

Halldór Kristínarson: Your song Jaat Kya Hai focuses on the caste system in India. How have you personally seen this system affect people?

Madara: I come from an upper caste Hindu Family and of course I’ve seen discrimination in my family in about every other conversation. It’s almost a trend to call them names, use curse words to assassinate their character and suppress their voice. My grandfather and my uncles have been the biggest example whom I have seen treating lower caste people badly or bad-mouthing about them for no reason.

HK: What other issues motivate you to make music and pen down some lyrics?

M: Every issue I’ve personally experienced or read and which conflicts with my personal ethics or because of which I have seen people around me suffering. Like child marriage, colorism, racism, dowry, farmers suicide, education system, unemployment, prostitutes, etc.

HK: Has your music always been politically driven or made in protest?

M: No. I didn’t start my rap with protest lyrics. I’ve written many tracks on different topics as I don’t believe in sticking to a certain type of rap, rather I like to call myself a conscious rapper who writes on contemporary topics. It’s just that I’ve released only the political ones for now.

HK: Have you received any backlash or threats for the music you make?

M: Yeah a lot, I keep getting death threats every now and then but I’m habitual now. Everybody dies but not everybody lives.

HK: How is the protest music scene where you live? Are there many musicians and artists using their voices for good?

M: Protest scene here is not how we would like to imagine it to be honest. As per Law we do have freedom of speech in our constitution but reality is quite different. Most of the artists who want to speak up against the system, don’t, as they are afraid of the consequences.

HK: One of my favorite rap songs of 2019 was the banging Tukde Tukde Gang. Can you explain a bit what that song is about?

M: That song explains the faulty education system of India. If our ministers are holding fake degrees and not accepting it, how will they teach us? I was doing my research on social evils in India and I found out that the root cause of everything is education in which the government is investing very little and when someone raises their voice against it they’re called “Tukde Tukde Gang” but in reality it is the government who should be called that for using religion politics to break people.*

HK: Who are some of the artists that have inspired you? Specifically regarding your lyrics, are there any people who have made an impact on your work?

M: There are many, I love reading and hence in the field of writing I would like to mention Harishankar Parsai, Javed Akhtar, Kamleshwar, Piyush Mishra, Rahat Indori, Munnawar Rana, Paash etc.

HK: How have you been coping with this strange year of 2020? Are there any online live performances schedules for your global fans?

M: It’s been one terrible year all around. There are no online live performances as of now. I’ll start performing in 2022. I’m just surviving on my savings for now, using them to make my tracks.

HK: Thank you very much for participating. Is there anything else you’d like to shout from the rooftops?

M: Never stop questioning!

* “Tukde Tukde Gang is a pejorative political catchphrase used in India by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its sympathisers accusing their critics for allegedly supporting sedition and secessionism.” Taken from Wikipedia

Video Of The Day: Ayo Burn by Nuka ft. Kaam Bhaari

The video of the day is by Indian artists who are tired of their government, like so many. The song was written around two years ago but released in the first days of this new decade.

According to Wild City the artists, Nuka and Kaam Bhaari “rap in English and Hindi, respectively, as their weapons of choice to lash out against the government and the apathetic, apolitical populace, as they address subjects such as marital rape, environmental destruction, data privacy, misogyny, farmer suicide, corruption, education and much more. Put together, it’s a glimpse into the country’s current affairs, and an urgent call to action.