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United in master’s melody & memory

The year was around 1946-47. The place was the third floor of 46, Dharmatala Road, a haunt of Leftist intellectuals. The police had placed the premise under lock and key. Two men sat side by side on the stairs. “Can you spell bourgeois'” one asked the other.

More than 50 years down the line, Mrinal Sen, one of the two, revealed to an afternoon gathering at Salt Lake stadium that “Salil had spelt it wrong.”

The mood was reminiscent as the occasion demanded as much. From Sen to Basu Chatterjee, Manna Dey to Yesudas — everyone talked of Salil Chowdhury as they knew him. Three generations of singers from three corners of the country had come together to pay tribute to the master melody-maker on his 77th birth anniversary. The programme was also the launchpad for the Salil Chowdhury Foundation of Music, Social Health and Education Trust.

Sen, of course, went on to talk of more than the spelling skills of his “old friend,” who formed part of the IPTA group, also comprising Tapas Sen, Khaled Choudhury and Hrishikesh Mukherjee. “Salil excelled in whatever he touched — poetry, drama, novel…” Basu Chatterjee was reticent in comparison. “Do Bigha Zameen was already released when I reached Mumbai. One day, I saw a man of a small physical stature walk into Mahalaxmi Studio. They said this was Salil Chowdhury… If he was alive today, he would be the music director of all the films I am doing,” Chatterjee said of the man with whom he shared a rich partnership, starting with Sara Akash.

If the words moved the audience, the music ignited the mood of the stadium in the gathering dusk. The line-up encompassed almost every living artiste who had sung to Chowdhury’s tune, and many who never had a chance.

Manna Dey started off with Mausam bita jaye from Do Bigha Zameen, Chowdhury’s first film in Mumbai, and went to render a series of hits like Zindagi kaisi hai paheli (Anand), Baje go bina (Marjina-Abdullah) and Ay mere pyare watan (Kabuliwallah).

The music sometimes was spiced by rivetting personal accounts. When another veteran singer Dwijen Mukherjee took the stage, Sabita Chowdhury, the composer’s wife, related an anecdote. Mukherjee and Chowdhury would often go off on picnics. One day, during one of their journeys, Dwijenbabu was complaining about the heat. “You would know better since you are closer to the sun,” came the prompt retort from the shorter man.

Yesudas, “Salilbabu’s favourite singer”, according to Sabita, recounted how the composer was a true Indian. “He made me sing Naam Shakuntala tar in Srikanter Will while Mannaji sang the Malayalam version of the song Manas Maine Varu in Chemmin,” he said, before going on to render the evergreen hit in both languages. He followed it up with Ni Sa Ga Ma and the Malayalam hit Ona poove. “Chowdhury’s songs are still a rage down south,” he later said.

The lack of time forced many of the local artistes to share the microphone with visitors from other states. Thus Hariharan gave voice to Aha rimjhimke yeh pyare pyare (Usne kaha tha) with Indrani Sen (which drew a huge applause) and Yesudas’ sonorous timbre added to Shampa Kundu’s in Jaaneman jaaneman (Choti Si Baat). Chowdhury’s veteran saxophonist Manohari Singh also paid a musical tribute as an interlude.

Some of the artistes had even braved physical ailment to be present at the show. Take Madhuri Chatterjee who came to sing Nijere haraye khuji straight from post-surgical recuperating bed. Or Kavita Krishnamurthy who braved a fever to sing Jago Mohan Pritam (Jagte Raho) with Chowdhury’s daughter Antara doing the harmony. Bollywood favourites Babul-Surpiyo and Sonu Nigam took the stage in the later stages as did local leading lights Swagatalaxmi Dasgupta, Srikanta Acharya, Sriradha Banerjee, Haimanti Shukla and Nirmala Mishra, plus Ruma Guha Thakurta’s Calcutta Youth Choir.

How does one play six decades of immortal music in six hours' Yet Tuesday evening will be remembered for a melodious attempt to do as much.

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