Salil Chowdhury’s Music in the light of Hidustani Classical

Calcutta’s sky had cleared and brightened after a pleasant morning shower. Across a sea blue sky, clouds, in a mix of milk white and grey, crossed in a gentle procession. The sparrow that had sought shelter from rain in the shadow of a window in a brick-red colonial building flew across to complete the picture-perfect portraiture of the clear morning. I ventured out to look around the cultural capital of India with a refreshed mind. But it did not take long for me to collapse listlessly, totally dispirited! That was during the time I went to Calcutta to attend the wedding of Antara Chowdhury, the daughter of music genius Salil Chowdhury.

Fat prosperous women being drawn by thin men, in tatters and bent by daily strain of fruitless years, pulling their hand rickshaws gasping to catch their breath is a very disturbing sight for this day and age. Frustrated cycle rickshaws caught in narrow streets played their hand bells plaintively for the right of way even as more of them crowded into it. Rusted and dilapidated town buses struggled on spewing dense black smoke on pedestrians. Yellow taxis looking like museum pieces still braving the pot-holed roads......poverty-stricken hawkers......families living right on the roads.....and beggars galore everywhere!

Sanjay, my car driver commented out of sheer hopelessness: “Do you see, sir? The kind of socialism forty years of communist rule brought to Bengal! What a colossal level of poverty! They have shown how poor can be made poorer still! And rich have grown richer profiting from the poverty of the rest.......”

Towns around Calcutta were even worse. They had neither roads nor the very basic of ‘amenities’. And the villages abandoned by all, had a dull, benumbing lifestyle that goes way back in time. Boral Rokshither Mor, the village where late Satyajit Ray shot important scenes of his film Pather Panchali, has a memorial built in his name. With no maintenance, it is a pathetic, deserted and forgotten memorial.

Boral is the birth place of late R.C. Boral, the famous Bengali composer and singer. He was the pioneer, who introduced the concept of background music to the Indian film music in 1934, in the film Chandidas. Again, he brought play-back singing to Indian film industry in 1935 for Hindi/Bengali bilingual film Dhoop Chhaon/Bhagya Chakra.

I even went to Kothaliya village near Sonarpur of 24 Parghanas district, which had the house where Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose was born. Netaji’s ancestral home was a sad sight amidst disorderly growth of bushes and ruins of old buildings. It was also the birth place of Salil Chowdhury. In all these places, people of all ages in all strata of life that I met knew of Salil Chowdhury.

That evening, I participated in the celebration of the simplest wedding I had ever witnessed. There were neither religious rituals, priests, chants nor the customary big wedding crowd. Salilda’s close family members and a few friends alone had been invited. The Registrar came and registered the wedding. The hundred and fifty odd persons who were there partook of a simple dinner. I was the lone invitee from South India. Apart from Dwijen Mukherjee, a senior Bengali singer, there were none from Bengali, Hindi or South Indian filmdom. A stream of Salilda’s Bengali compositions provided a perfect backdrop to the evening. It provided the setting a tranquil ambience. Salilda’s immortal music created a subtle feeling of his presence.

Next day, as I returned to Chennai all the images, both tranquil and traumatic, kept churning in my mind. The deep slumber of a Bengal so totally oblivious of changing times.........abandoned dreams and memories.....the ever young music of Salilda....just how did Salilda, born in that forsaken village of Kothaliya, create his immortal pieces of music! I had to conclude that he did not create music from this soil but from the universe of human imagination. He had a tremendous infatuation for western classical, but many of his great musical scores were rooted in Hindustani classical music.

He did not stand rooted in any tradition of music. Everyone knew him as a multi dimensional music personality who continued to blend diverse traditions of music forms. But many of his informed fans would have missed the influence that Hindustani music had on his sublime music. In fact, most were unaware of a Salilda who was a great connoisseur of Hindustani music.

Departure from all schools of traditional music forms was the stamp of Salilda’s creativity; yet, he was deeply in love with the emotional highs of Hindustani music. As his scores did not fit in the combinations of notes of Hindustani music completely, the ‘hindustaniness’ of his scores went unnoticed.

The score of ‘Itna Na Mujh Se Tu’ number of Hindi film Chhaya was created with its basics from Mozart’s Fortieth Symphony. But under Salilda’s baton it has the substance of and sounds like Raag Bhairavi. When music critic Raju Bharatan called the song a copy of Mozart in his review, Salilda’s riposte was: “Now does it sound like our Bhairavi or not? In spite of that if you still call it a mere copy, I will simply say it is a creative influence. Even Shakespeare has done it!”

‘Jaago Mohan Pyare’ sung by Lata Mangeshkar for the Hindi film Jaagte Raho is a song that is basically in Raag Bhairav. The classical dance number ‘Chum Chum Nachat Aayee Bahaar’ in the film Chhaya has Raag Bahaar-based score. We can hear the pure Hansdhwani Raag in the number ‘Jaa To Se Nahin Boloon’ of the film Parivar. The folk song ‘Bichuva’ in the film Madhumati has a score that is basically Brindavani Saranga.

The famous ‘Aajaare Pardesi’ number of the film Madhumati is based on Raag Baageshree. In this song Salilda has used the seventh chord ascending string of notes. This is a chord meant to create a sense of endless pathos. The poignant endlessness of these notes pointed to the sorrow and unfulfilled yearnings of the main female character, played by Vijayantimala in the film. Contrary to the usual practice, both ‘mukhda’ and ‘antara’ begin with the note ‘pancham’ and end in note ‘komal nishad’. These notes, too, make us aware of the sense of unfulfilled yearnings. Never before in the Hindi film music was such combination of low and high notes conceived.

Salilda’s Bengali song ‘Shurer Jharna’ was the first attempt at harmonized singing in India’s history of popular music. ‘Jhanana Jhanana Baaje’, a song of equal importance in this obviously western pattern of singing, had its score basically in Raag Kalavati.

Salilda composed the music for the Tamil film Karumbu (1973) but the film was not released. In the film an ancient Tamil poem was made into a modern film song. ‘Thingal Maalai Venn Kudaiyan’ is a devotional song from Tamil classic Chilappadikaram. The song was sung by Yesudas-Suseela duo who had Malayalam and Telugu as their mother tongues respectively. The mother tongue of Ramu Kariat, the Director of the film, was Malayalam. Salilda, the composer, was a Bengali. He was totally innocent of Tamil, not to speak of classical Tamil literature. But for a connoisseur of music, the song is one of the jewels of Tamil film music. The score was based on the Hindustani raag Ahir Bhairav, called as Chakravakam in Carnatic music.

Sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar once accused Salilda that he unnecessarily complicated his background score with musical kaleidoscopes. He cited the example of the famous number ‘O Sajna Barkha Bahaar Aayee’ from the film Parakh. It may please be remembered that Lata Mangeshkar had counted this song as one of her ten best ever. Ravi Shankar had opined that there was no need to bring Western music into songs like these. Salilda totally swept aside this criticism with the retort “He need not teach me anything about Indian Music or about blending Western music into it.....”

Salilda learnt music mostly on his own. In his childhood, he learnt Hindustani music mostly from his father and then his elder brother. But the countless time spent on listening to the records of Ustads and the class of the many Sangeet Sammelans he eagerly sought out to listen to, chiseled the features and nuances of Hindustani music into his soul. Ustad Abdul Karim Khan, Ustad Faiyaz Khan and Ustad Amir Khan were Salilda’s three favourite Hindustani music maestros. The three maestros lived in different times and belonged to traditions that differed. They belonged to different Gharanas and were representatives of different soils.

Hindustani music tradition is one with a long and rich history behind it while being the most advanced artistic expression of our cultural environment. It is said that its foundation goes back to over 5,000 years of history. Its roots can be traced to Indus Valley Civilisation and beyond. Excavations of Indus Valley Civilisation have revealed the early forms of flutes, stringed musical instruments and percussion units that are in use to this day.

The most ancient dance treatise that has come down to us, Ascetic Bharat’s Natya Shastra describes, along with intricate details and grammar of dance, different forms of vocal and instrumental music traditions. The treatise has classified classical music as Margi and popular music as Desi. Silappadikaram tells us that Madhavi danced both Marga dance and Desi dance. In many parts of India, classical music is referred to as ‘Margeey Sangeet’ to this day.

Sangeetha Ratnakaram, compiled by Saranga Dev in 12th century, is the book of grammar that classifies and details India’s ancient music. It speaks of music traditions from Vedic times. It discusses different metres of music and construction of Ragas and then goes on to vividly describe the methods of singing. It also discusses in detail different types of music instruments. In India, traditional music had got intertwined with religion and is functioning since many centuries as a part of worship dependent on temples.

Since 11th century wave after wave of Muslim invasion from different parts of Central Asia and Afghanistan led to formation of Muslim rule in different parts of North India which by 16th century had spread to even parts of Deccan. As Muslim rule settled down, the traditions of music they brought with them penetrated and interacted with local traditions of music.

Traditions of Hindustani music that we see today are the evolved forms of the traditions that emerged from blending of music traditions of Hindus and Muslims. The music that resulted from this great blending of music cultures of Hindus and Muslims blossomed to deliver new forms of music like Thumri, Tarana, Qawwali and Khayal besides new Ragas. Musical instruments like Rabab, Sarod, Sitar, Tabla, Santoor and Nakhra were crafted to suit the styles of new and evolving forms of music. Hindustani music also enhanced the base and span of existing musical instruments like Tanpura, Pakhwaj, Sarangi and Bansuri (Bass Flute) and when Western music breezed in Hindustani music had the secular openness to accept Zither Harp and Harmonium as its own.

Hazrath Amir Khusro is truly the pioneer of Islamic contribution to Indian traditions. Amir Khusro had the patriotic love of Indian soil and had a deep understanding of and was steeped in the traditions of people here. Apart from being a doyen of poets of his time, he laid the foundations of the Hindustani music tradition as we know it today. Following the Persian music traditions, he infused them into Indian music in the form of new Ragas. Qawwali which is a Sufi form of devotional music was popularized by him. It is also said that various genres of music in Hindustani music ambit like Tarana, Khayal, Naksh and Ghazals were his creation.

Among pioneers who were instrumental in the step by giant step growth of Hindustani music were Mian Tansen, Niyamat Khan Sadarang, Ustad Sadiq Ali Khan, Mian Shourie, Sithar Khan Dadi and other illustrious names. These pioneers were able to separate the devotional aspect of the ancient Indian music traditions and create the new tradition of music for pleasure. This led to growth of artistic embellishments in music embracing the entire spectrum of human emotions thereby vastly growing the base and paltforms of music.

Rivaling this Persian contribution to the growth of musical traditions in India was the Hindu tradition of Dhruvapada or Dhrupad which is regarded as the base of modern day Hindustani music. It evolved from the ancient music tradition of ‘Prabandha’ which was largely sung in temples. In sixteenth century, Raja Man Singh of Gwalior patronized this tradition of singing, leading to its growth into modern day Dhrupad singing. Dhrupad singing had its own unique construction and had four parts sung in four different styles and forms.

Pakhwaj, a look-alike of Mridangam, is played with it to provide the beat or tal. Till 19th century Dhrupad singing was an important tradition of music. At about this time a secular and more sensuous form of singing without religious identification evolved as Khayal to take its place. Muslim music artistes like Ustad Hafiz Khan and Ustad Afzal Khan took particular care to spread Dhrupad singing even in Pakistan. In spite of that, it is Khayal singing that rules the roost as Hindustani music in both India and Pakistan. And Tabla is used as the accompanying percussion instrument.

Khayal is a format of singing where a Raga is sung in all its detail in an expansive way imaginatively without changing its form and emotion. The lyrics of Khayal are called ‘Bandish’. An Ustad standing within the form of a Raga, illustrates the sweep and range of the Raga by stretching the lyrics to every part of the vast canvas provided by the Raga. The details and the spread of Raga are magnified by an Ustad’s ability and imagination to explore and expand the infinites of the Raga with the finite ‘Bandish’. There are two types of Khayals. Bada Khayal is sung at a slow ‘pace’, almost like an effort to stretch time to infinity. Chhota Khayal is sung at a faster ‘pace’ ranging from medium to fast clip. One must not run away with the impression that Chhota Khayal is a fast number. It is just a bit faster than Bada Khayal. Listening alone will educate us of its nature.

In Hindustani music the tune or Raga is based on notes arranged in a particular discipline. An arrangement called the ‘Thatt’ is envisaged where all the seven notes Sa, Re, Ga, Ma, Pa, Dha, Ni are used in step-by-step ascendance. This may be called the Constitution of Hindustani music. It is on this base that all the Ragas of Hindustani music are set. There are ten such Thatts. These have been named after Ragas Bilawal, Khamaj, Poorvi, Kafi, Bhairavi, Kalyan. Bhairav, Marwah, Asavari and Thodi.

It is said that at first, in ancient times, there were six Ragas and thirty six Raginis. Raginis are softer score without all the seven notes of a Raga. Based on these six Ragas and thirty six Raginis hundreds of Ragas were created. More Ragas were created by the music artistes in 20th century. But only about 120 Ragas are sung widely nowadays. Some experts mention 150 Ragas. Ragas are identified by the number of notes, the way they are arranged in ascending or descending order, the importance given to particular notes and the emphasis on particular notes. Every Raga is unique with its own distinct feature and mood. To reproduce the appropriate mood or bhava every Raga has been allotted particular time of singing. Some Ragas even have their own seasons when they are sung.

In Hindustani music the beat is called ‘Lay’ or Laya. In recent times, the importance of percussionists has increased to the point of star billing. They are requested by music fans to demonstrate their imagination on their percussion instruments and music events have separate slots where the percussionists imaginatively play just the percussion to the delight of appreciative audience. Tabla is the most important percussion instrument in Hindustani music. Tabla has been brought to its place of honour by Ustad Ahmed Jan Tirakva called the Himalaya of Tabla, Ustad Allah Rakha, and the genius of his son Ustad Zakir Hussain.

Thumri, Ghazal and Tappa are some of the light music forms of Hindustani music. Usually singers cap their stage performance by singing one or two pieces of these. But of these Ghazal is the most popular form in India and Pakistan. Ghazal has achieved its fame and popularity as it is a form that renders Urdu love songs movingly in simple ragas. Mehdi Hasan, Ustad Barkhat Ali Khan, Begum Akthar, Farida Khanum and Ghulam Ali are some of the revered names that have raised Ghazal as a light music tradition on par with classical music traditions.

Gharanas are styles of singing in Hindustani music that evolved separately in different territories with the patronage of rulers of those parts. Gharana can be called a particular tradition of music. These are instructed to disciples in the manner of Guru-Shishya parampara in Gurukuls. Most of the Hindustani musicians became musicians as part of the family tradition. Naturally, they mostly belong to the one or the other Gharana. The success of a Gharana depends on how it goes forward unwaveringly maintaining its uniqueness and keeping its basic format unchanged. There are fifteen important Gharanas. Of these Kirana, Agra, Rampur, Jaipur, Patiala, Delhi, Mewati, Indore, Shamchourasi, Quwwal Baccha, Gwalior and Talwandi are noteworthy.

The famous Ustad Abdul Karim Khan, the first among Salilda’s favourite Hindustani singers, was the founder of Kirana Gharana. There are many who rate him as the dominant influence on Hindustani music in the 20th century. He was born on 11th November of 1872 in Kirana in Uttar Pradesh. His forefathers were Hindu musicians who later embraced Islam. He was the Court singer in the kingdoms of Baroda and Mysore. Ustad Abdul Karim Khan had one speciality that stands out in our view. He knew Carnatic music well. He adapted Carnatic ragas like Abhogi and Ananda Bhairavi for rendering in Hindustani style and popularized them. He was able to play the Veena and Sarangi very well. In fact, he started his career in music as Sarangi player.

He had as front-line disciples geniuses like Sawai Gandharva and Roshan Ara Begum. Gangubai Hangal and Pandit Bhimsen Joshi are some of the prominent names to emerge as Kirana Gharana eminence. It is an emotionally enriching experience to listen to his extended rendering of Raagas like Basant, Todi, Shudh Kalyan, Jhinjoti, Lalith and Marwah. The mellifluousness of his music stands out even with the mediocre sound recording of those years. Ustad Abdul Karim Khan passed away in 1937.

Ustad Fayaz Khan comes next among Salilda’s favourite singers. He was the most famous of the singers of Agra Gharana. In his times, he was the best in Khayal singing. He was born in 1886 in Sikkandra of Agra. It is said that the roots of his music goes back to Mian Tansen. Ustad Fayaz Khan achieved a great momentum for Agra Gharana by creatively blending the singing styles of different teachers. By singing different forms of music like Thumris, Dhappas, Ghazals and Qawwalis in his music programmes he popularized them. Ustad Fayaz Khan, who was placed as one of the best Hindustani singers of 20th century, was awarded the title of ‘Aftaab-e-Mousiqui’.

Ustad Fayaz Khan had the unique distinction of being able to go on to Khayal with panache after a detailed alaap of Dhrupad. His ability to blend the two singing styles with brilliance was notable. He was able to do justice to both forms of music traditions by according them diligence in singing formats and voice culture. He was a great composer and lyricist as well. His pieces created in Raags Jaijaiwanti, Jog, etc. are widely rendered on Hindustani music platforms to this day. His flock of disciples follow with fidelity his voice culture and format of singing. They even mimic his voice while singing. The parade of his famous disciples include names like Atha Hussain Khan, Latafat Hussain Khan, K.L.Saigal (First Super Star among Hindi Film singers), Swami Ballabh Das and Sharafat Hussain Khan.

Ustad Fayaz Khan, in his last days, suffered grievously from Tuberculosis. Earlier he had lost his wife. He did not have any child either. But when he passed away on 5th November 1950, thousands of his fans grieved for him. Even today, his passing away is regarded as the end of an era in Hindustani music.

Pandit Jasraj, once commenting on Salilda’s favourite singer Ustad Amir Khan, said that he is the most important singer of Hindustani classical in 20th century. Ustad Amir Khan is a singer worshiped by hundreds of thousands of fans even today. He was born in 1912 in Indore in a family of musicians. Ustad Amir Khan popularized Taranas (a song form like Thillanas of Carnatic music) as a genre of Hindustani music. He also popularized many Persian songs in India. In the history of Hindustani classical music, he is counted among most important people who because of their creativity in exploring new musical experiences expanded the horizons of music. He broke with traditions to create new traditions of singing. He secured the acceptance and recognition of music critics and his fans for his path-breaking efforts.

To experience the highs and completeness of Hindustani music, it is enough to listen to the music of Ustad Amir Khan. His ‘Aaj Sobhana’ in Shyam Kalyan Raag, ‘Thola Do Jaanam’ in Multani Raag, his Tarana in Raag Thodi and his bhajan ‘Baja Mana Nith’ in Hansdhwani are some of the pieces that all fans of Hindustani music must hear. Unfortunately these records are likely to be available only with fanatic followers of Ustad Amir Khan.

Apart from his concerts, he has sung pieces of Hindustani music in some famous films like Baiju Bawra, Shabab, Kshuditha Paashaann (Bengali). He was conferred the most prestigious titles of Hindustani music like Sangeeth Ratna, Sangeeth Sudhakar and Sangeeth Siromani. Pandit Tejpal Singh, a senior disciple of Ustad, has written a book on his Guru in Hindi titled ‘Ustad Amir Khan – Jeevan Evam Rachanayen’. In this his life history, his unique distinctions and achievements in music have been detailed. Ustad Amir Khan died in a terrible car accident in Calcutta on 8th February of 1974.

We can understand Salil Choudhury in the light of the genius of three Ustads he most admired. All the three Ustads were great singers deeply rooted in the music traditions. They were born into and grew up in famous Gharanas. But they never felt restricted by their traditions. They never attempted to make their music mere rituals. They kept advancing the cause of their music by looking for new emotions and experiences. They boldly entered new paths away from their traditions. They created new paths for their music traditions. This description fits Salilda to a T in the field of Indian popular music.

India’s music traditions are incomparable. Hindustani music is an outstanding role model of how an art form, common to all, that binds minds beyond differences of territory, race, religion and language can be created. There is a great need to continue this tradition in our strife-ridden world. If it were to disappear into the prison of a medieval mind, the loss will be, incalculably, ours.

A few days before he shed his mortal coils, Salilda said: “Music continuously unwinds itself, seeking at all times to find newer and newer forms, to advance to wider and wider horizons. Not doing so is equivalent to the art petrifying into a lifeless statue. But in our urge to leap forward we must never lose sight of the fact that our traditions are spring wells of our creativity and our strength.”