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10 Salil Chowdhury compositions that bring out the many shades of life – Birth anniversary special

Poet, composer and playwright Salil Chowdhury introduced a new rhythm to Indian film music with his blend of Eastern and Western forms. On his 94th birth anniversary (19 November), we revisit 10 compositions from his ouevre that offer original definitions for life.

Shriram Iyengar

Salil Chowdhury was respected as a playwright, poet and composer. Growing up in a tea estate in the erstwhile Bengal Presidency, Salil Chowdhury was introduced to Western classical music. The influence would play a vital role in his development as a composer who combined Western and Eastern forms to create his own stamp on the Indian music scene. Having emerged as a composer at the age of 20 in Bengal, Chowdhury arrived in Hindi cinema with Bimal Roy's Do Bigha Zamin (1953).

With compositions in films like Jagte Raho (1956), Madhumati (1958), and Kabuliwala (1961), he soon became one of the more sought after composers for filmmakers looking for mellifluous compositions that supported the storyline. From Bimal Roy to Gulzar, filmmakers depended on 'Salilda' to create layered compositions that have stood the test of time since. 

On his 95th birth anniversary, we revisit 10 compositions that offer a unique definition of life through music. 

1. 'Zindagi Khwab Hai' — Jagte Raho (1956) 

Sung incomparably by Mukesh, and played wonderfully on screen by the great actor Motilal, the song provides meaning to the absurdity of life. Jagte Raho told the story of a peasant who stumbles into an apartment complex seeking food and shelter. What he finds are people lost in their own little worlds, struggling just as he is. The song, written by Shailendra, takes off from the mystic poet Kabir's dilemma with a wonderful rhythm and melody to make it a lovely song to sing along to.

2. 'Lagi Naahi Chhute Rama' — Musafir (1957)

Few today know that Dilip Kumar is also a singer who was trained in Hindustani classical music. The great actor's talent is fully exploited in this melancholic ode in Hrishikesh Mukherjee's directorial debut, Musafir. As Dilip Kumar's depressed loner sings about the pain of living on despite the failure of his love and life, it is hard not to be moved by the sensitivity of Salil Chowdhury's composition. 

3. 'Suhana Safar' — Madhumati (1958)

The film won for Chowdhury his first Filmfare award for Best Music. The cult classic, written by Ritwik Ghatak and directed by Bimal Roy, starred Dilip Kumar and Vyjayanthimala in the lead roles. While there are a number of songs in the film that are just as lyrical and memorable, this composition, sung by Mukesh, stands out for its beautiful comparison of life's journey with a walk in the woods. A song fit for Wordsworth, one might say!

4. 'O Sajana' — Parakh (1960)

Long before the Mozart of Madras AR Rahman used the sound of falling water as a musical element, Salil Chowdhury used it to great effect in this song in Parakh. The song, sung by Chowdhury favourite Lata Mangeshkar, captures the quiet celebration of love in the monsoon. Apart from composing the music, Chowdhury also wrote the story for the film and won the Filmfare award for Best Story. It is testament to his rare and multi-faceted talent.

5. 'Ganga Aaye Kahan Se' — Kabuliwala (1961) 

Bimal Roy was a close friend and frequent collaborator with the composer, and teamed up with him once again for the film adaptation of Rabindranath Tagore's touching short story, The Cabuliwallah. The song, sung by Hemant Kumar, describes the life of a wanderer using the parable of the river Ganga that keeps flowing. The minimal accompaniments and the touch of a very folksy iktara (a one-stringed instrument from West Bengal) add a spiritual touch to the song.

6. 'Zindagi Kaisi Ye Paheli' — Anand (1971)

The film that played a big role in the making of the legend of Rajesh Khanna, and also got his successor as superstar Amitabh Bachchan noticed, had some wonderful melodies by the great composer. This particular song stands out for the philosophical touch that Mukesh's voice provides, while Rajesh Khanna's Anand walks his own path on the uncluttered Juhu beach of Mumbai half a century ago. The film also signalled the revival of Salil Chowdhury's career, which had meandered in the 1960s. This song remains a classic that continues to show up on music playlists.

7. 'Koi Hota Jisko Apna' — Mere Apne (1971) 

There is something wonderful about sad songs. They remain the most popular, despite their sombre nature. This fabulous composition from Gulzar's Mere Apne features a pensive Vinod Khanna wondering about his life and the direction it would have taken if he had found love. Chowdhury's composition begins with a mournful dirge before settling into a rhythm that elevates Kishore Kumar's magical vocals.

8. 'Guzar Jaaye Din Din Din' — Annadata (1972)

The film is woefully forgotten, but the song deserves better. Picturized on a young Anil Dhawan cycling his joyful way through life, it is a lovely, upbeat melody. Legend has it that Kishore Kumar required several takes to get 'Guzar Jaaye Din Din Din' just right. Salil Chowdhury might be easy on the ears, but he could be tough on the voice.

9. 'Kai Baar Yun Bhi Dekha Hai' — Rajnigandha (1974)

Amol Palekar's rise as the middle class hero had a lot to do with the music in his films. Rajinigandha (1974) had Salil Chowdhury returning to fine form with this sweet romantic melody that propped up Basu Chatterjee's film. The sight of an earlier Bombay speeding past the windows of the cab, and Mukesh's voice serenading you, makes the song a must-add to any road trip. 

10. 'Na Jaane Kyun' — Chhoti Si Baat (1975) 

Amol Palekar and Vidya Sinha came together in a Basu Chatterjee romance again in this 1975 film. Though his musical powers were waning, Salil Chowdhury still delivered two romantic gems that remain unforgettable. This time, it is Lata Mangeshkar who brings out the nostalgia of this now-lost Bombay of double-decker BEST buses, Lambretta scooters and bell-bottom trousers.