Written by 8:36 AM Music

Salil da – the complete composer

Madras Blog

Who is Salil Chowdhury?

Salil Chowdhury, better known by his nickname “Salil-da,” was an accomplished artist who contributed to the film industries of Hindi, Bengali, and southern India. He created some immortal tunes in Malayalam films.  The film Chemeen, the first South Indian film to win the Indian President’s Gold Medal, had songs composed by Salil da.  He composed songs for films in 13 languages, around 75 Hindi films, 41 Bengali films, and 27 Malayalam films, besides MarathiTamilTeluguKannadaGujarati, Odiya, and Assamese films.

His prime years of productivity were the 1950s and 1960s. The fact that he could perform well in so many different styles was one of his greatest assets. 

He was a gifted composer and musician who excelled in the flute, esraj, violin, and piano. The most popular songs to come out of Bollywood were written and performed by him, and he is remembered with great affection. 

His place of birth and musical influences

On November 19, 1923, Salil Chowdhury was born in the small Bengali village of Sonarpur. He grew up in the rural Bengali town of Harinavi. However, he also spent considerable time in Assam, where his father was a doctor with a military posting. 

Salil spent much of his childhood listening to his father’s collection of Western classical music. As a result, he carried this musical inspiration with him for most of his life. The young Salil was taught the importance of incorporating social consciousness into artistic practice. His father first introduced him to the idea of combining art and politics. The hardships and social conditions of the times were reflected in the plays that his father would perform for the villagers and laborers. 

His Alma Mater

Calcutta’s Bangabhaashi College was his alma mater. There, his interest in politics blossomed. He started caring about the “Quit India” movement and the plight of the poor. A member of the Communist Party of India since joining after college, he participated in the Peasant Movement of 1945. 

His social activities

Joining the Indian Peoples Theatre Association (IPTA) followed shortly after he became engaged in the peasant movement. A more politically aware populace was one of the goals of this theater’s productions. These theaters toured from village to village, putting on plays that often-addressed British imperialism, social injustice, and the growing freedom movement. As a result, Salil Chowdhury was compelled to take his work with the IPTA into the shadows, where he remained for the better four years. 

His transition from flute playing to songwriting

He started as a flute player but eventually became a songwriter. He spent his time among ordinary people, writing, composing, and performing. The government banned his plays and poems, making it impossible to find a commercial publisher interested in them. Many of the works he produced during this period have vanished. It was a tough life for IPTA performers. Many people helped for free, but others, like Salil-Da, were paid. In their quest to get where they needed to go, they frequently walked and occasionally went days without eating. Sometimes the police would show up and start randomly beating people if they found out where the troupe was performing. There was a high loss of life due to torture, violence, and starvation. 

Salil Chowdhury stood out during his time with the IPTA because he brought a fresh perspective to the band’s music. His familiarity with Western concepts of harmony, so different from traditional Indian music, was honed over the years by listening to his father’s collection of Western classical music. Eventually, he and the IPTA had a falling out. He was leaving for several reasons, including Communist Party infighting, personal jealousy of his success, and the Party’s attempts to censor his writing. 

The turning point in his life

During this time, something significant happened in his life. “Rikshawalla” was the title of his Bengali short story. A Bengali film adaptation of this story was a smashing success. The success of this film had a lasting impact on Salil-Da. 

In 1953, Salil Chowdhury adapted his Bengali film “Rikshawalla” into Hindi and began working in Bombay’s film industry. The original title of this movie in Hindi was “Do Bigha Zameen.” Since this film did so well, many others in the Hindi genre followed. Notable among them were Madhumati (1958) and Do Bigha Zameen. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Salil Chowdhury’s schedule was jam-packed. 

The immortal song

Bombay Youth Choir

He and Ruma Ganguly founded the Bombay Youth Choir in 1957. Western ideas of harmony were a significant inspiration for this. 

On occasions, he was hired by music directors to compose the background score while they choreographed the songs and dances. His work as a background composer for other music directors includes the track “Anokhi Raat” (1968). 

One of the defining features of his approach was the degree to which it ran counter to the industry standards for making movies at the time. When working with a lyricist, the standard procedure was to get in touch with the lyricist first, then bring the lyrics to the music director. For each song, Salil-Da would write the music and the lyrics. Many people attribute his music to be exceptional.


Strange as it may sound, Salil wrote the lyrics and composed the music of several ‘jingles.’ In the ’50s and ’60s, they were not called jingles; instead, they were songs recorded to promote products or give critical social messages. Salil composed some songs for Rexona Soap, Lipton Tea, Hamam Soap, CookMe cooking powder, Paludrin tablets, Dulaaler Taal Michhri (Palm Sugar !), etc. He also composed a song warning villagers about Malaria and asking them to take Paludrin! A couple of record collectors have managed to discover these old 78rpms. Seems like they are from ’67-’68.
‘Ato rang roop mayaa’ – Sabita for Hamaam Soap 
– Geeta Dutt sang Hindi, Gujarati, and Marathi versions of the Hammam Soap.
– Geeta Dutt also sang the well-known jingle for Rexona soap – “Rexona sabun ke gandh se milaa hai.”
This song has four versions. Although the song is in Hindi, the versions have commentaries in Hindi, English, Tamil, and Bengali. The record was released in a 78 record and was specially made by the Gramophone Company of India for Hindusthan Lever Ltd. It was a Lintas record (QC1710). 
‘Chaa bono bihaarini’ – song for Lipton Tea sung by Tarun Bannerjee and Supriti Ghosh and directed by Asit Sen. Was released on a 78rpm record. There is also a Hindi version of this song, released on a 78rpm record. 

* A song about the anti-malaria medicine “Paludrin” warning the villagers about Malaria and advising them to take Paludrin. There is also a Hindi version. 

A friendly but informative and educative song for visitors to the big city of Calcutta about the menace of pickpockets on the buses and streets. The song “Kono ak pocketmaarer kaahini shonaai shono” was based on Salil’s classic “Kono ak gaanyer bondhu” and a 78rpm record was released. 

Salil da also composed the following commercials –
Commercial on CookMe Spice powder.
– Commercial for Dulaler Taal Michhri (cane sugar from Dulal)
– 12-second piano music for HMT watches 
– Excellent title music for Bombay Film Festival documentary (Year unknown)

(Source: salilda.com)

His transition to immortality

Salil Chowdhury’s end came suddenly and untimely on September 5, 1995. He lives on with the melodies he created.

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