November 26, 2023
Salil Chowdhury: Pre-Birth Centenary Tribute: “My Worst Nightmare is Fascism”

Chandan Das

“What is your greatest fear?” he was asked.
His reply was sharp and emphatic. “That India may someday be ruled by fanatics who will silence the voice of reason, and intellectuals will be singled out and shot”, he said.
The interviewer pressed further. “What is your favourite dream?”
“All peoples shall be equal”, he said.
“And your nightmare?”
“Fascism”, responded Salil Chowdhury firmly. 

IN an interview with an English daily newspaper on November 21, 1993, the music legend and versatile genius expressed his fears, dreams and nightmares in this way. Undoubtedly the demolition of Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992 and the resultant violence left a deep impact on minds numbed by the terrible course of events. But Salil Chowdhury had learned to recognise 'fascism' right from 1939-40. Mixed in with that knowledge were the experiences of the surrounding public life –the folk elements, the people of the country, their pains, despair, anger and dreams.

In a few days, the prime minister is going to inaugurate the Ram Mandir on the erstwhile Babri Mosque site in Ayodhya. The PM of this land has been not only a Sangh swayamsevak but also a pracharak. Behind the screen, the country is being run by the fascist organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its influence is evident in many Hindutva-governed policies of this regime. And right now we are standing on the threshold of the birth centenary of the person whose cherished dream was a society without exploitation and whose nightmare was fascism.

Time is the fairest   judge. Now, on one side, the constitution of the country, the ideal of secularism is under threat. And on the other hand, standing face to face with the fascistic onslaught is the force of indomitable resistance consisting of those who are constantly fighting to build a non-exploitative society. Such a turbulent time was also the main catalyst in the rise of Salil Chowdhury. Even at that time, the fight against fascism around the world became the main responsibility of those who loved to dream that one day ‘all peoples shall be equal’. Song, drama, poetry and arts and crafts of many forms became important resources in that struggle.

Researchers have discussed his writing, melody, use of musical instruments. Long discussions are, and will be there. Salil Chowdhury   had to face the question 'Why will history remember you?' Salil Chowdhury in a passionate reply ten months before his death stated: "I don't think I have any right to tell others why and how they should remember me." Very right. How and why one remembers him depends on who is doing the remembering. But whoever remembers him, must study the chronology of events. We need to track the undulating path he traversed to become the great Salil Chowdhury.

In 1940-41, Salil Chowdhury came in contact with the Communist Party. He first performed in 1945 at the Rangpur students' conference where he, then a fifth year student in Calcutta University, presented one of his most-remembered early protest songs, Bicharpoti tomar bichar korbe jara (O Judge! the masses, who will try you, have risen today!). Originally a song against the brutality of British justice in its judgment of Indian freedom-fighters, it has become a clarion call against State oppression and injustice.

A few days ago, someone had met Salil. He adored Salil very much. That person said, "Salil, you just go on writing songs – whatever comes in your mind, just pen down, write a song and set it to music." That is, it need not always be a song of struggle and suffering, turmoil and distress. Write, set to music and sing whatever comes to your mind – was his solid advice. There is perhaps no better and more comprehensive proposition than this to get to know an artist and inspire him to be creative. But the natural question – who is the person?

He is an amazing person. Sometimes he is busy with drought relief work. Sometimes he runs to the rescue of flood victims.  Again he appears from Mohini cotton mill in Kushtia at the factory gates of Metiabruz. He is seen with ghungroo (metal ankle bells) tied to the feet, his panjabi tied at the waist with a tight knot of dhoti. Workers are leaving the factories. His dance and song starts. Workers, half fed, tired out, exhausted from overwork, flock to him. At one point the music stops. Legs come to rest. Ghungroo becomes silent. The speech begins – the speaker speaks at length on class struggle and freedom struggle.

Who is he? Comrade Nityananda Chowdhury, a staunch freedom fighter in the organised movement of workers and farmers against British imperialism. He inspired Salil Chowdhury to compose music. He said, "Salil, you just go on writing songs – whatever comes to your mind, write it down, put it to rhythm."

It was the Communist Party that proved the outstanding role of song, drama and poetry in organisation and struggle. Without them, there would be no fight. That can never be.

The influence of that period was indelible in Salil Chowdhury's life. On several occasions he said: "The way my mental, cultural, musical and political consciousness was developed during these seven years from 1946 to 1952, became the foundation of my life's perspective and direction."

There is a conscious effort by many to disassociate Salil Chowdhury from the Communist Party and the mass movement. But Salil Chowdhury himself never tried in the least to deny the influence of the Communist Party and the mass movement in his life. Rather, he has always been vocal about how the mass movement has shaped him. The scavengers' movement led and organised by the Communists in Kodalia, Sonarpur painted a clear picture of the future in his mind. Later, Salil played an important role in many struggles including farmers' movement, railway workers' movement – with his songs and melodies. One day, after a long discussion with his friend all evening, he decided to join the Communist Party. That very night he went out to put up posters carrying Party slogans on the walls.

While explaining the relationship between creation and mass movement, he said, "I have written songs and set them to tune from direct contact with mass movement. I never created protest songs sitting in the drawing room. Especially during the peasant movement and during my stay in Calcutta – I have written songs about all that was happening around me.''

Who else was his inspiration? Was there anyone? Yes, indeed there was one.

Let’s recall the main events of that dark day. On that day, the loud speaker was playing mournfully, 'Bahudin Mone chilo Asha /Dharanir Ek Kone /Rahib Apan Mane…'(For a long time I had this hope that I would remain in a corner of the world at peace with myself…). The poet’s body was passing in front of Salil Chowdhury. He felt his heart breaking as the carrier moved away.  Immediately after the death of Tagore, the city witnessed scenes of intense mourning on an unprecedented scale. That day was August 7, 1941 (Sraban 22 of the Bengali calendar).

And Salil Chowdhury? He was barely 17 then, pursuing his second year ISC from Bangabasi College in Calcutta. That day, he sat at the “rowak” (elevated platform that runs along house fronts) of a house crying his heart out. In his words, "That was the first time in my life that I consciously felt the loss of someone close to me! I went into mourning for a month without telling anyone. Even then my beard and moustache had not grown well – there was no question of shaving. But I used to come to college barefoot as a mark of respect to the deceased. I did not eat fish or meat." After many years, one of his songs became a classic – "Dharanir Pathe Pathe Dhuli Hoye Roye Jabo...” (I shall remain as dust on the roads of the earth). Did those lines carry the feeling of Rabindranath Tagore's last journey?

Salil Chowdhury wrote another description of Calcutta. One that changed his life to a great extent. The Ochterlony Monument on the Maidan was not yet 'Shahid Minar'. The period was 1946-1948. The Communist Party used to hold meetings under the monument. Before the meeting began, the first task of the police was to paste a list on the monument. That list contained the first lines of particular songs. The instructions were written – these songs were not to be sung in the meeting! The tyrannical ruler was afraid of the might of music. Many of the songs that scared the ruler were songs by Salil Chowdhury.

Why were the rulers afraid of the Communists' songs? We may refer to a Party letter circulated among Party members in 1944. The subject of the Party letter was 'Culture and Communism’. An excerpt reads "...we know that civilization is on the verge of ruins today; the capitalists do not have the strength to upkeep it. The driving force of this era is those who are producers. In this era, the power of production is in the hands of workers, farmers, artisans and artists. And the ruling class and the exploiting class want to suppress that power; because otherwise their eternal interests will not survive...Culture is in their eyes a commodity for their profit. They run newspapers, mints, theaters, cinemas, paintings, sculptures, architecture as profit-making markets....The capitalists are actually the class enemies of artists and writers. So basically artists and writers should be aligned with workers and farmers. And this friendship is natural and inevitable in this era. Because we have learned that the working class and the peasantry were the legitimate heirs of culture today, they are the creators of civilization.”

There was much discussion at that time about what culture was and its role in developing the communist movement. The period was tumultuous. In the words of Salil Chowdhury, "That era passed, as if the days and nights were spent in the whirlwind of a dream – thoughts of new songs in the head, a ration of wet chickpeas tied in a handkerchief – day after day would be spent half-starved and feverish. It was a time of fervent hope. 'Revolution' is waiting for us just beyond that horizon – only a few more struggles, a few more sacrifices will make it come and its flood will wash away the tyranny and lawlessness and reveal the sun of liberation – such was our belief and conviction. Subject of  three arrest warrants, hiding sometimes in the loft of a farmer's house, sometimes in an empty railway wagon, sometimes in the bottom of a boat,  I would cross marshy stretches on foot and reach the peasant home in the  village to hold a meeting.”

Time is important. Definitely important. More important is the perception of the soldiers of the time. In addition to organising workers, peasants, students, youth movements, an initiative to develop the communist movement in the domain of literature, music, and pictures was also taken at that time. There are many examples in this context. They are scattered in Salil Chowdhury's life.

In his autobiography he wrote, “Comrade Biresh Mishra called me. He told me he was going to tour across Assam from North Bengal, meeting railway workers at various stations. He asked me to be a companion.  Before every meeting I had to write a song about the struggle of the railway workers and sing it. My journey with Bireshda began by squeezing into the compartment next to an engine. I carried with me only my single reed harmonium.''

Carrying that 'single reed harmonium' on his shoulder Salil Chowdhury sang his own compositions at every station. In his words, "I don’t remember where all those songs have disappeared, only one song survives, composed to the rhythm of the sound of moving train wheels.”

That iconic song is “Dheu uthchhe, Kara tutchhe'' (Waves surging, prisons crumbling…), composed on the occasion of the general strike of July 29, 1946. The words that suggest the sound and heavy effort of a train rushing forward have moved millions of hearts. No wonder that this song possesses timeless appeal, conveying both resistance and reassurance.

On July 29, 1946, the day before the nationwide strike, the song was sung at a huge gathering in the Maidan and the deep voice resonated: "The wheel of exploitation will turn no more / The black smoke will not rise from the chimney / The fire in the boiler will burn no more... / We have hartal today / Today the wheels won’t turn''.

Song was one of the most powerful organisers of the freedom movement. Yes, an organiser. It was from there that Salil Chowdhury came in contact with the Communist Party and contributed to the freedom struggle.

Another thing, which is one of the lessons learned from his life – the role of cultural media like music, drama, poetry is always important in building mass movements, especially against fascism.

Can the revolutionary people’s movement ever forget fellow traveller Salil Chowdury?