Durga pooja brings with it an air of revelry that plays out in the drums of the dhakis, floats in the mingled scents of incense and shuili flowers and is mirrored in the festive colours.
Even today as the ads for saris and jewellery on TV remind me that poojo is less than a month away, Antara’s little girl voice resounds in my ears and memories of her father, writer-composer-poet-lyricst Salil Chowdhury, echoes in the mind.
One of my greatest regrets is that Salilda, as he was fondly known, died too young, at 72. He left us on September 5, Teacher’s Day, and I often wonder how much I could have learnt from him if I’d air-dashed to Kolkata before it was too late.
We’d chatted briefly over the phone, about Lata didi (Mangeshkar) who’d been felicitated with an award. Fresh out of college I was fumbling for the right questions. He was patience personified as he introduced a young Lata to me through the magic they’d created together.
I don’t remember what he said. What I do recall is that by the time our 15-minute telephonic ended, I was feeling confident to request a longer interview. “Sure,” he agreed, his voice reflecting his smile.
“Call me the next time you’re in Calcutta.” I would have, if only he’d waited…
Years later, Manobina, the wife of filmmaker Bimal Roy, took me on a stroll down memory lane and introduced me to Salilda who was one of the six young men who’d accompanied her husband to Mumbai. Bimalda had come here with a one-film contract to direct Maafor Bombay Talkies.
Following the success of the Leela Chitnis-Bharat Bhushan tearjerker, he landed another offer from the studio for Parineeta. Salilda was roped in to compose the music but his break as a music director came in Bimalda’s own production, Do Bigha Zameen, based on a story of a dispossessed peasant titled Rickshawala that Salilda had penned back in Kolkata.
Salilda, a fiery leftist, had written many stories on the woes of the poor and poems on the enigma that is life. Some ended up on the Bengali stage and some others found their way into popular Hindi songs. One of my favourite Salilda numbers is the lullaby from Do Bigha Zameen, Aa ja re aa, nindiya tu aa... hummed by Meena Kumari in the film.
The song is sweetly slumberous in contrast to the stark reality the film reflects. This was the only guest appearance the actor ever made and it was only because she’d chanced upon some of the stills while working on Parineeti and insisted she had to be a part of Do Bigha Zameen too. Her voice was Lata Mangeshkar’s.
Lata didi and Salilda together created many more gems together, including Aa ja re pardesi... from Madhumati. After that recording, Didi remembers being presented with a bouquet by Hrishikesh Mukherji, and Bimal Roy clasping her hands warmly, a rare gesture from the hard-to-please Dada.
“I loved Salilda’s music, he knew which of his creations would suit me best,” Didi had marveled in later years. She recorded the only song filmed on a woman in Anand, Na jiya lage na….
Derived from a Bengali song, it offers a window into Dr Bhaskar and Renu’s unspoken love story, yet is often eclipsed by the more poignantly popular, Zindagi kaisi hai paheli…
Lyricist Yogesh admitted to me that the words had just popped into his mind as he pondered over the thoughts of a man who knows time is running out for him.
As Anand, who has decided to spend his last six months spreading sunshine around, chases after a clutch of balloons down the beach, the song talks about the riddle that is life. Bhaskar and Renu smile indulgently at his childlike exuberance.
When they turn away, Anand wipes away tears that escaped their eyes and brings Yogesh’s poetry to life, Zindagi kaisi hai paheli haaye, kabhi to hansaaye, kabhi yeh rulaaye…
(Life is a riddle that makes you laugh one moment and cry the next).
Today, as I write this column, I can hear the dhak beats and the buzzing of the bees around the shuili flowers that heralds the coming of Durga puja.
Already my ma is wondering when I’ll start shopping. A smile tugs at my lips as I flash back to Antara’s honey-sweet voice talking about the gondho of puja (fragrance of the festival).
The smile turns to a sigh as I remember the other song from Anand that her father had scored. I’m filled with regret again. If only…