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‘Feelings, Lyrics, Orchestra — Everything was Different in Salil Chowdhury’s Songs’: Jyoti Chowdhury

July 4, 2023 | By

Jyoti Chowdhury on Salil Chowdhury, Bimal Roy and the making of Do Bigha Zamin — a special feature by Ratnottama Sengupta

Salil Chowdhury with wife Jyoti Chowdhury and daughters Aloka, Tulika and Lipika

Salil Chowdhury with wife Jyoti Chowdhury and daughters Aloka, Tulika and Lipika
(Pic: Ratnottama Sengupta, Aloka Nanjappa, Tulika Mukherjee)

I used to live in Bhowanipore, the only daughter of Girija Mohan Bhattacharya. My grand parents lived with us. I studied in Ramesh Mitra Institution and then graduated from Ashutosh College with Philosophy and Botany. Salil Chowdhury was my tutor – he had studied philosophy but not science, so he would read up at night in order to teach me. Like him, I was involved with the activities of Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA). I did not perform but I used to attend all their programmes and meetings, and so I was acquainted with a number of personalities.

Salil and I got married in 1952. Earlier that year, Bimal Roy had come to Kolkata. Satyen Bose’s Rickshawala, from a story by Salil, was showing in the theatres then. Kali Banerjee had played the role enacted by Balraj Sahni and my cousin Manik Chatterjee (who later worked with Bimal Roy Productions, assisted Basu Bhattacharya, directed Ghar, and died at the young age of 40) played the son. Ritwikda (Ghatak) took Bimalda to see the film. He liked it so much that he decided to work on it after his return to Bombay.

On the morning of our wedding day – August 14 – we received his telegram, and 15 days later Salil left for Bombay. I stayed back since I had enrolled in the Govt College of Art and Craft after completing my BA.

Among my teachers were Modernist painter Gopal Ghose, and Rathin Moitra who simplified iconography with free flowing lines and vibrant colours. Along with sculptor Pradosh Dasgupta and painter Nirode Mazumdar, they had founded the Calcutta Group in 1943. Gopal Ghose had a lot of affection for me, and he was a close acquaintance of Bimalda.

Our principal was Ramen Chakraborty, a contemporary of Binode Behari who had himself trained in the Govt College, in Santiniketan, and in the Slade School in London, to master the techniques of woodcuts and multicoloured prints from visiting French artist Andre Karpeles and Mexican artist Fryman. Incorporating the best of both, East and West, these masters created watercolours, woodcuts, engravings, etchings, focusing on everyday life.


Lata Mangeshkar, Salil Chowdhury and Manna Dey

Salil, since his childhood, was into music. His father Dr Gyanendra Chowdhury, who was the Medical Officer at the Hathikuli Tea Estate near Kaziranga in Assam from 1931 to 1951, used to play instruments like the flute and clarinet. In order to pursue his studies Salil used to live with his maternal uncles in Kodalia, Sonarpur in South 24 Parganas. He had joined the IPTA while still in college.

Actually Kolkata had this tradition of neighbourhood youths coming together to form choirs and stage plays. I had gone to see Sirajuddaula, an amateur production, along with my cousin Madan, my paternal aunt’s son who was Salil’s friend. That’s how we first met, and that’s how he came to be my tutor.


In 1952, after finalising the script of Do Bigha Zamin, Salil returned to Kolkata. We went again during the Christmas break, and that’s when I spent two weeks in the makeshift guest room next to Bimalda’s office in Mohan Studios. The meals came from an Irani hotel across the street.

That room with a three-fold mirror and other paraphernalia also served as a make up room. Nirupa Roy used to do her make up there. I would also watch Balraj Sahni at work. He was always clad in a saffron dhoti. Curious to know why he wore that colour, I found out that on the black and white screen that colour would look closest to a soiled dhoti that a rickshaw puller would normally wear.

Salil Chowdhury with daughter Aloka (Bubun)

Salil Chowdhury with daughter Aloka (Bubun)
(Pic: Ratnottama Sengupta, Aloka Nanjappa, Tulika Mukherjee)

Those days I used to be very shy and reticent, so I didn’t have any conversation with Bimalda, but I did meet Binadi — his wife Manobina Roy — before I went back to Kolkata at the end of my holiday. I returned to Bombay in 1954, with our first-born Aloka whom we called ‘Bubun’ after Bimalda’s youngest daughter.

Kishore Kumar Salil Chowdhury

Kishore Kumar recording a song with Salil Chowdhury as Shailendra and Cawas Lord look on. (Pic: Facebook)

We stayed then at Janaki Kutir in Juhu, a rented bungalow with tiled roof, that was later home to Kaifi Azmi, his wife Shaukat and daughter Shabana. It had to be renovated because it had neither water nor light. Renowned actor Raj Kumar was our neighbour while Shailendra and Prem Dhawan were regular visitors. We spent six months there, then we moved to Andheri to be closer to Mohan Studios, where Bimal Roy Productions office and Salil’s Music Room were located. Later we bought a house and moved to Perry Cross Road, in Bandra.

Do Bigha Zamin was followed by Naukri, then Biraj Bahu. Salil also scored for some outside productions. One was Awaaz /1956 directed by Zia Sarhadi for Mehboob Khan Productions. Another was Tangewali  1955 directed by Lekhraj Bhakri. R K Films Jagte Raho/1956, directed by Sombhu Mitra and Amit Maitra was another remarkable work. That’s how we decided to stay on in Bombay.

Kanu Ghosh was his assistant at this point and Sebastian D’Souza was his music arranger. Gradually Basu Chakraborty, Manohari Singh, Antony and other musicians joined him. Years later, when Salil used to score in Madras, Rahman’s father used to write the score. Rahman said this in an interview, if I’m not mistaken.


Lata Mangeshkar and Salil Chowdhury

Lata Mangeshkar and Salil Chowdhury


Salil was a composer, lyric writer, poet. He also wrote stories. But he was most at home with music. He used to pace through the room humming to himself, probably thinking of the situations and composing tunes. Prem Dhawan, Viswamitra Adil, Rajendra Krishan, Shailendra — these lyric writers would come over for discussions, Lata Mangeshkar would come to rehearse, so did Asha Bhonsle, Talat Mahmood and other singers.

Binadi was always there, checking on us at Mohan Studios, helping us set up home at Janaki Kutir, making us feel at home in Bombay. When I had my other daughters — Tulika and Lipika — she was like an elder sister to me. Through her we also got acquainted with her cousin Sonali and renowned documentary filmmaker Harisadhan Dasgupta, who were also living in Bombay at that time and used to visit the studio.

Binadi encouraged me to go back to painting since I was on the verge of life as an artist when I came away from Calcutta. But I had found happiness in my husband’s success!


Nargis, Bimal Roy, Nirupa Roy, Salil Chowdhury, Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Radhu Karmakar

The Indian Delegation in Moscow, 1959 (Third from L to R) Nargis, Bimal Roy, Nirupa Roy, Salil Chowdhury, Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Radhu Karmakar (in front)


I was not privy to Salil’s discussions with Bimalda or other directors, only with lyricists and singers since they used to come home. So I can’t throw much light on how Bimalda contributed to the songs. But working with him must have enhanced Salil’s ability to score for films. I do know that Bimalda used to give suggestions and they would regularly have extensive, exhaustive discussions before the recordings.

I was seldom present for the rehearsals and the only occasion I was present at a recording was during Do Bigha Zamin. Lata was singing  Aaja re aa nindiya tu aa. Ishaan Ghosh was the recordist, and Bimalda was present in the studio. This lullaby, along with Nanhi kali soney chali in Sujata, another of Bimalda’s films, has often been cited as the best in Hindi cinema.

Aja ri aa nindiya tu aa (Do Bigha Zamin, 1953) Salil Chowdhury / Shailendra / Lata Mangeshkar

Bimalda was also the president of the Bombay Youth Choir that Salil had set up with Ruma Guha Thakurta and actor Ashim Kumar who worked mostly in Bhojpuri films. (This is not the same Ashim Kumar who took the name Manish Kumar when he featured in Saraswati Chandra.) Lata also used to sing with the Choir.

Ashim Kumar, Svetoslav Roerich, Manobina Roy, Devika Rani and Salil Chowdhury

Ashim Kumar, Svetoslav Roerich, Manobina Roy, Devika Rani and Salil Chowdhury
(Pic: Ratnottama Sengupta, Aloka Nanjappa, Tulika Mukherjee)


Salil shared a very cordial relation with Bimalda who held him in great affection. Everyday when he set out from Mount Mary Road, he would stop at our place since Perry Cross Road was on the way to Mohan Studio. Salil was a late riser, so Bimalda would wait in an easy chair and call out, “Jyoti, a cup of tea for me?” Waiting for Salil to get dressed, he would have the tea and puff away on his cigarette without bothering to indulge in any chitchat. Some days he would go for a stroll in the garden that surrounded the house, take note of the trees and plants, flowers and fruits, chikoos and alphonsos. This was a double storied house that was home to a diplomat before we moved in.


Salil Chowdhury with wife Jyoti Chowdhury and daughters

Salil Chowdhury with wife Jyoti Chowdhury and daughters – Aloka, Tulika and Lipika with his sister Lily standing behind
(Pic: Ratnottama Sengupta, Aloka Nanjappa, Tulika Mukherjee)

Bimalda was deeply affectionate towards me too. Even when Salil moved away from me (towards Sabita), Bimalda did not hold it against Salil or give up on us. Binadi wanted him to be strict but Bimalda was unwilling to intervene. “I can’t bring myself to be curt with him,” he told Binadi. It was exactly my feeling he had expressed.

Binadi was much stronger in expressing disapproval of his behaviour. She was a determined woman with a strong moral sense about loyalty to one’s spouse and children.

She was a great support for me. I can’t say enough as to how much that meant to me. She once told me, “Why are you staying on (in a relationship) with him?” But I could not bring myself to sever all connections with him. Anger had not turned my love for him into ashes.

I got to know Salil when he was an idealist youth involved in IPTA activities, least bothered about what he would eat and where he would spend the night. Before I realised that acquaintance grew into something deeper and we got married and had children and family and home.

Salil Chowdhury with his daughter Tulika

Salil Chowdhury with his daughter Tulika
(Pic: Ratnottama Sengupta, Aloka Nanjappa, Tulika Mukherjee)

Did fame change Salil? Not really. He was warm as before. Fame did not cast its shadow on our interpersonal equation. He was an honest person who was never disrespectful nor used foul language.

The world has come a long way since Salil Chowdhury composed music for timeless films like Madhumati, Parakh, Komal Gandhar, Kabuliwala, Chhaya, Anand, Rajnigandha, Mere Apne, Trishagni. For his background score he was sought after even for films that had no songs, like Kanoon, or which had songs by other music directors, like Shankar Jaikishan in Lal Patthar. But neither music nor morals today is what it used to be 50 years ago.

Music today has no resemblance to Salil’s. If melody ruled to express emotions then, it is beats that count in  songs that are now an excuse for outbursts of physical energy. Feelings, lyrics, orchestra — everything was different in Salil Chowdhury’s songs. That is why, even today, the minute they start playing, you know them to be his.

(This interview was recorded by Joy Bimal Roy in 2011 for a book planned on Bimal Roy.
Transcript: Ratnottama Sengupta)

Jyoti Chowdhury passed away on 7th January 2023


Nabendu Ghosh, Salil Chowdhury and Asha Bhosle

Nabendu Ghosh, Salil Chowdhury and Asha Bhosle


Of Timepass and Passing Time…

Script & Screenplay Writer Nabendu Ghosh
Remembers Salil Chowdhury

“We — Asit Sen and I — were busy preparing a shooting chart for Parineeta. At this point Hrishikesh Mukherjee returned from Calcutta and recounted a story to Bimal Da. Story of a farmer named Shambhu, his wife Parvati and their son Kanhaiya. It germinated from Tagore’s poem, Dui Bigha Jami where a farmer loses his two acres to the greed of the zamindar, but was recast against the backdrop of industrialisation.

Bimalda and all of us in his team liked the story very much. Who had written it? Salil Chowdhury, that young man from IPTA who had shot into limelight by penning Kono ek gnayer badhuA certain housewife in rural Bengal, the cult song decrying the horrendous Bengal Famine, soulfully rendered by Hemant Kumar.

Bimalda told Hrishikesh, “Ask Salil Babu to come to Bombay right away.”

Three days later Salil arrived. He bowed to touch my feet and said, “Nabendu Da, now I am joining your team.”

“We are fortified,” I replied. “For, you are more skilled than Sabyasachi Arjun who could shoot with both hands. You are ‘four-armed’ : you write songs, you compose music for them, you write poems, and you also write stories.”

Salil smiled a shy smile. Hrishi, Asit and cameraman Kamal Bose clapped and broke into laughter.

This drew Bimalda out of his office room, “What’s this mirth about?”

I said, “We are delighted to have Salil Chowdhury in our team.”

(Excerpt from Eka Naukar Jatri/ Journey of a Lonesome Boat by Nabendu Ghosh.

Translation: Ratnottama Sengupta)

Kono ek gaanyer bodhu (non-film) Hemanta Mukherjee / Salil Chowdhury / Hemanta Mukherjee



Post Script by Ratnottama Sengupta

They were all ‘Kaku’ to me. Asit Sen, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Kamal Bose, Tarun Bose, Paul Mahendra, Salil Chowdhury. By virtue of which their wives were my Kakima — Mukul Kakima, Shatadal Kakima, Mina Kakima, Nandini Chachiji, Jyoti Kakima, respectively. The one exception was Collin Pal: He was ‘Mesho‘ as his wife was my Hanshu Mashi. One by one they have all left Malad/ Bandra for the Land of No Return, leaving us with the glowing memory of their warm smiles. Jyoti Kakima was the last of the Kakimas to bid good bye, in January this year.

Needless to say, I have been closer to these Aunts, whose spouses were busy — much like my father, Nabendu Ghosh — creating classics with the celluloid maestro, Bimal Roy. And we, the children of these Kaku-Kakimas? More than friends, we were, are, and will remain. Because we all belong to the extended family of Bimal Jethu (Bimal Roy) and Bina Jethima (Manobina Roy) — as the Roys were to Papri, Bubun, Bappa Dada and Rupu, Bapi and Shilpi, Vasudha and Poonam, Deep and Gopa… And to me and Shubhu Dada and Khoka Dada!

Hardly surprising that, when Jyoti Kakima came to watch Mukul, the short film on Baba, a year after his passing, she reminisced about the friendship that warmed the hearth of their homes. Here’s what she wrote in her own hand:

“I will always cherish the great affection Kanakdi had for me. We would often meet at Bimalda and Binadi’s residence – who will remain an unforgettable part of our life till my last breath.”

So, a few years ago when her daughters Aloka, Tulika and Lipika organised a heartwarming get together of her family and friends in Kolkata, I was naturally on the guest list. This, I’m certain, was because I was the daughter of Nabendu Da and Kanakdi rather than because Bubun (Aloka) and I were batchmates in Elphinstone College. “Jyoti Kakima is the only person now to have known my parents before my birth,” I had written then.

Aloka, Tulika and Lipika with Ratnottama Sengupta

Lipika, Tulika and Aloka with Ratnottama Sengupta
(Pic: Ratnottama Sengupta)

Yes, Salil Chowdhury was a young bundle of talent bursting with creative ideas when he, Nabendu Ghosh, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Mrinal Sen, Geeta Shome, Shobha Dutt, Tapas Sen would all interact as members of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA). Dreamers all, they were all writing, singing, acting to usher a utopian society where those who lived by the sweat of their brows would not be trodden under the feet of the punji – property – owners.

Thus Salil Chowdhury was writing songs about the runner, the palki bearer, the rickshaw puller, those starved by the manmade famine in Bengal of 1943… Thus Nabendu Ghosh was writing about the skeletons dying on the high streets of the jewel in the crown of the Imperialist government, and of those hiding from daylight as they could not afford a rag to cover their bare bodies. Thus they forged a bonding that saw them share the credits for Do Bigha Zamin, Biraj Bahu, Naukri… And when it was time for Nabendu Da to call the shots, Salil Chowdhury created the haunting score for Trishagni complete with that lilting number in Asha Bhosle’s voice, Kahin door se…

Aisa lagey kahin door se (Trishagni, 1988) Salil Chowdhury / Yogesh / Asha Bhosle

No surprise then, that Jyoti Kakima treasured the priceless memory of one evening when Nabendu Da visited their house in Bandra. “I offered him tea and with it I served muri (puffed rice)  spiced with aam tel off the mango pickled at home. Nabendu Da was delighted. He wrote in my autograph book: ‘Whether you seek my autograph or not, I will not let go of this muri with aam tel...’ Long after he has attained immortality, I hold on to that memory…”


Jyoti Chowdhury with daughter Aloka

Jyoti Chowdhury with daughter Aloka

For me, as the former Arts Editor of The Times of India, a special attraction was Jyoti Kakima’s paintings and drawings. Of course, I had come to admire them much later in life – just like I realised the true worth of Manobina Roy’s photography only in the last years of her life.

My mother Kanaklata was always ecstatic about ‘Binadi’s photos’ but why did I not see them as world class art and social documentation? Was it because, in the patriarchal order that obtained while we were growing up, what the breadwinners did counted for more than what the ladies did as ‘time pass’?

This question first raised its head in my mind when I went to review an exhibition of paintings by Neelima Dasgupta. It was being mounted by her sons after she passed away. “Neelima Di was so good, we used to learn from her,” said Ganesh Haloi, who is ‘Master Mashi’s to an entire generation of artists from Bengal. He then asked me, “Who’s to blame that she stopped painting after her marriage?”

Today, I have the answer when I look back at the creation of Bina Jethima and Jyoti Kakima, on the screen career of Geeta (Sen) Kakima or Jharna Boudi, wife of Suhas Roy. They were all women of their times who found happiness in the success and glory of their talented husbands. They were happy to bring food to the table, to raise their children as worthy citizens of Tomorrow, to care for the needy and the dependent in their surroundings, and then to paint or sing, to pursue photo art or to write, as Subarnalata did in Ashapurna Devi’s awarded novel.


Paintings and Artwork by Jyoti Chowdhury

Since painting does not require an audience the way dance or music do, “why did you not continue painting as a ‘career’ like Karuna Saha, Amina Kar or Amrita Shergil did?” I had put the question to Jyoti Kakima when her daughters had organised an exhibition of her art in Mumbai. “Especially since you were in the same class as our contemporary master Shyamal Dutta Roy?”

Her reply? “I wasn’t so smart…” That’s all.

But it was her own desire that had prompted her to join the Government College of Art and Craft in Kolkata hallowed by legends like Havel and Brown, Abanindranath, Mukul Dey, graphic artist Haren Das, sculptors Chintamani Kar and Pradosh Dasgupta  surrealist Bikash Bhattacharya, watercolourist Shyamal Dutta Roy and abstract artist Ganesh Haloi… “That, and encouragement of others,” Kakima said.

Jyoti Chowdhury painting exhibition

The poster for an exhibition of Jyoti Chowdhury’s paintings

How did that training help her? What were the strength and advantages of that formal training that stood by her when her husband had veered away from her, towards a singer?  “I not only made a lot of friends and gained knowledge about lines and hues. I had conversations with artists making breakthroughs in Contemporary Art. That surely fortified me with mental preparedness.”

In the 1950s, Contemporary Indian Art was taking baby strides on the globe. People were inspired by nationalism to seek an identity through lines, they were driven to paint by passion, not by money. Did Jyoti Kakima, Jharna Boudi, or Neelima Dasgupta have any regret when the art market boomed in the 1990s and the early years of the present century? None whatsoever, Jyoti Chowdhury was “just not interested.”

So when Aloka, Tulika and Lipika mounted her art, they were not priced. They were purely for the viewers’ pleasure. “Maa always painted as a hobby, she had no commercial ideas. But she was so proud of her work, she always showed them to visitors to our home. This was all she wanted:  a recognition of her skill.” That’s why they decided to display the art made fragile by time without waiting for larger plans thwarted by the pandemic.

Good thing that they didn’t wait for Delhi Kolkata Madras to grace the artist who was already 92 then. Jyoti Kakima could see for herself that she was being recognised as the first of a lineage now being carried forward by Tulika, an art teacher by profession, and her daughter Boshudhara, an installation artist.

(Ratnottama Sengupta is the daughter of script & screenplay writer Nabendu Ghosh)

(The views expressed by the authors in this article are personal)

More Must-Reads in Silhouette

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Apni Kahaani Chhod Ja: Leave a Story That Will Be Retold

Nabendu Ghosh: The Master of Screen Writing


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A National Award winner for her Writings on Cinema, Ratnottama Sengupta is a natural writer with keen understanding of Cinema and Visual Art. A Journalist since 1978, she has been with The Times of India, The Telegraph, Screen and been the Editor of the online magazine Daughter of writer Nabendu Ghosh, she writes extensively on Cinema and on Art. She has contributed to Encyclopedia Britannica on Hindi Films, and has to her credit many titles including on Plastic Arts. Ratnottama has curated 'Little Languages Film Festival' in Delhi, Bangalore, Kolkata; 'Prosenjit: A Retrospective', Delhi; 'Bimal Roy Centenary', Goa, Kolkata; 'Bengali Cinema After Rituparno', Delhi; and initiated the 'Hyderabad Bengali Films Festival'. * She has been on IFFI Steering Committee; National and International Award juries; with CBFC; and on NFDC Script Committee. She scripted Mukul, a short film on Nabendu (2009). She debuts as director with And They Made Classics.
All Posts of Ratnottama Sengupta

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4 thoughts on “‘Feelings, Lyrics, Orchestra — Everything was Different in Salil Chowdhury’s Songs’: Jyoti Chowdhury

  • Rajan NS

    This is a fascinating account of the life and times of Salil Chowdhury, narrated by none other than Jyoti, his wife, and one is very thankful to Ratnottama (with her dazzling credentials as a writer on films, film music and as a director herself) for converting it into a beautifully written piece. One gets such a close glimpse of the many facets of Salil’s moods, work and the wide expanse of his creations. It is an eye opener that such a genius was so simple and down to earth, devoted to sharing with others his mastery over music and words. It is only natural that he was closely associated with Bimal Roy, another genius who was also a very simple person, humble despite his immense accomplishments and the recognition and praise that came his way (the first three Filmfare Best Director awards went to him as if ‘to the manner born’, and a total of 11 Best Awards in just ten years, besides many others).
    Salil, making his debut as a composer in Hindi films with Roy’s ‘Do Bigha Zamin’, could blossom and grow to achieve such heights owing very much to this association.
    Although there is a lot of written matter on Salil Chowdhury and his work, this narration stands apart from the rest. I must compliment and thank Ratnottama for the article, the pictures and the post scripts that add depth to an already impressive essay.

    1. Ratnottama Sengupta

      I am so happy that this very personal, very intimate piece of cinema history has touched a serious reader.

      To me, the importance of the piece lies in the insider view of
      a) a composer like Salil Chowdhury whose music lives with us, just as fresh as it was half a century ago;
      b) the birth of a classic like Do Bigha Zamin in its 70th year;
      c) the word profile of an amazing couple, Manobina and Bimal Roy;
      d) the by and large neglected talent of a resolved artist like Jyoti Chowdhury who gave priority to her life as wife and mother.

      It’s a social document of an important time in our national life, really.

  • A Bharat

    Reading Jyoti’s interview is one of the most heart warming experiences one could have. She says much unsaid especially re Salil’s turning away but it it is all there in the silences. Like her beautiful paintings the minute touches about her life are striking. Especially that evocative scene of Bimalda waiting for Salil to get up and pottering around the garden couldn’t have been scripted better by any seasoned writer.It was a great experience.

  • Joy Christie

    We are lucky to have met Jyoti Auntie ji at her Bandra residence. Thanks very much to Gautam Chaudhary (Gautam Da ) he told us that he will introduce us to her and our ardent love for Salil Da. He took us to her home. It was the finest moment meeting Jyoti Auntie ji.

    She showed the whole home to Sarita my wife.

    Showed her paintings ancestral Pitaara. I still forget her warm nature, hospitality and low profile approach. She told my wife “as and when you are in Mumbai milne aayo karo, main bahut khush hoongi “

    Very affectionate and loving personality.

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