indian cinema heritage foundation

The First Two Decades of Bengali Film Music: The Silent Era

04 Jul, 2020 | Short Features by Ujjal Chakraborty
Music composer Salil Chowdhury occasionally performed at live music sessions in film theatres as did his brother Nikhil Chowdhury. Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Let’s reconstruct a music session of Bengali silent cinema. The sources of information used here are the memories – set in social and historical contexts – of a number of people keenly associated with Bengali culture. The family of Salil Chowdhury, the iconic film-composer, is a treasure trove of reminiscences of the music used in silent Bengali cinema. Nikhil Chowdhury, the elder brother of Salil Chowdhury, was a regular participant in the live concerts played for it. Salil, at times, played a couple of notes on the piano during live music sessions in movie theatres. ‘Milon Parishad’, Nikhil Chowdhury’s band, had a contract with Chhaya, a north Calcutta movie theatre, for regularly playing live music during the screenings of silent cinema. The elder brother – who died young and unsung – sowed the seeds of film music into young Salil’s fertile mind and, thus, enriched Indian film-music as a whole.

In the early days, Indian theatre conventions had audiences witnessing the musicians in action. Watching the applauding listeners was inspiring for the musicians. But the norm was broken in the era of silent cinema. Musicians were segregated for the first time.
In the early days, Indian theatre conventions had audiences witnessing the musicians in action. Watching the applauding listeners was inspiring for the musicians. But the norm was broken in the era of silent cinema. Musicians were segregated for the first time. Movie theatres were divided into two segments. The smaller part was reserved for the musicians, while the larger for the spectators. The screen was fixed in-between. Sitting behind the movie screen, the musicians would play the music while watching the projection.

The rule was broken only when a theatre could tempt a famous musician to come to a screening. In that case, the musician was presented as a star. The spectators would also come to see him, along with the movie stars on the screen. Byron Hopper, who played an instrument called ‘cinema organ’ at Madan Cinema (Palace of Varieties), was one such star. Madan used to release daily advertisements in The Statesman declaring the music he would play ‘today’. But, as Salil Chowdhury said, Bengali musicians were not that privileged. 
Byron Hopper, who played an instrument called ‘cinema organ’ at Madan Cinema (Palace of Varieties), was a star. Madan used to release daily advertisements in The Statesman declaring the music he would play ‘today’. But, as Salil Chowdhury said, Bengali musicians were not that privileged. 
What they used to play for Bengali films were more like effects than well-rounded music – though a number of cadenzas (ornamentations), printed on notation sheets, were sent by the producers. It was unwise to avoid playing those decorative pre-composed tunes because producers’ moles often used to sneak into the movie theatres to inspect the projection quality as well as the accuracy of the musical flourishes given. Being disloyal to the approved music could result in the termination of contract. 

The ornamental pieces, however, were not long enough to fill the entire length of a silent Bengali film. In short, the music was never complete. We can easily understand the meaning of ‘complete music’ if we remember operas like Magic Flute (Mozart) and Chitrangada (Tagore). Not even a stretch of 10 seconds was left silent. The music of Battleship Potemkin, Metropolis and Modern Times – all silent films – still enthrall us. In Bengal, empty stretches were left between the pre-composed tunes. Those stretches were filled up with improvised musical effects, leaving little space for truly silent passages during the screenings.
In Bengal, empty stretches were left between the pre-composed tunes. Those stretches were filled up with improvised musical effects, leaving little space for truly silent passages during the screenings.
Before the release of a new silent film, the musicians used to rigorously practice the pre-composed tunes while watching the film as many times as possible. It was indeed a demanding profession, as all members of the band often had to rehearse in unison after the daily night shows. Local bands comprising local musicians used to play the live music for films. They hardly got time to shift to other localities. Cello and double bass players were occasionally invited from orphanages where those two instruments were taught mainly to be played in the congregations of Calcutta. They also used to earn by playing ‘uncommon’ Western instruments during film screenings. The conductor of a local band used to play the role of the music director dedicated to a specific theatre, drawing a monthly salary. The deal ensured the regular attendance of his band members during all the screenings. The system generated regular employment for local musicians.

Instruments like the sitars and the sarods were sparsely used for background music, as it was believed that Indian instruments were meant only to be played solo. Film-makers of the era generally preferred (though the numbers would vary):

•    Three violins and one viola 
•    Two clarinets – b flat & a 
•    Two sets of large cymbals 
•    A set of wooden flutes 
•     A piano
•     A cello (rarely)
•    A double bass (rarely)
•     Organ (not in all theatres)

An unusual fusion was often achieved when khol, a percussion used by the Vaishnava sect, replaced cymbals to make the accompanying music more suitable for mythological films. 
An unusual fusion was often achieved when khol, a percussion used by the Vaishnava sect, replaced cymbals to make the accompanying music more suitable for mythological films. 
Live music was also used to suppress other unpleasant sounds of the movie theatre like the whirring of the projector and the creaking of wooden chairs.

Now we will attempt to explain the ‘tone colours’ (timbres) envisaged for the music of the silent Bengali films. And why were the chosen timbres indispensable.

First, one point should be taken into account in this context. The main rival of Bengali silent cinema was jatra (the folk drama of Bengal). It’s rather easy to understand why, if we study the themes chosen for silent Bengali films. Almost 70 per cent of the film themes – like jatra – were mythological. As such, both jatra and cinema were targeting the same audience.
First, one point should be taken into account in this context. The main rival of Bengali silent cinema was jatra (the folk drama of Bengal).
How did film-makers compete with jatra directors who had learnt the art of enthralling people through centuries? 

To answer the question, we must try to identify the most dominant building block of the jatra. It was undeniably the long monologues and dialogues. Often composed in verses, the spoken lines of jatra melodiously danced on the three musical scales when recited by accomplished actors. It was the poetic dialogues – mostly written in an archaic Bengali in keeping with the mythological characters – that enthralled the audience for centuries. Thousands of villagers would happily spend entire nights watching jatras being performed on open fields in late autumn. 

On the other hand, silent cinema was totally bereft of spoken words. This was a challenge that the film-makers had to contend with. How could they respond to this? 

They decided to depend on the second dominant component of folk theatre, i.e., loud music. Three European/global instruments were profusely used in jatra to hold the attention of the audience. Why did these three dominate silent Bengali cinema?

Let’s go back to the roots.

With the arrival of Portuguese traders in the early sixteenth century, people in Bengal were getting acquainted with European music. Bengalis started to understand a few features of European music – the value of counterpoints, for instance. 
Three European instruments – the cymbal, violin and clarinet – gained prominence in Bengal.
Three European instruments – the cymbal, violin and clarinet – gained prominence in Bengal. We will understand the reasons of violin’s enduring position in the film-music of Bengal, if we study the history of its ascent in the region. 

The violin became popular in regions as disparate as Bandel (a small town on the bank of the Ganga) and Chittagong (a port on the shore of the Bay of Bengal). Churches as well as social gatherings of Portuguese settlements also played a part in popularizing the violin. Why was the violin readily accepted in Bengal? We can hint at two reasons.

1.    The striking affinity of the tone colours between the violin and the sarinda, a folk instrument of Bengal. 

2.    The timbre of a solo violin could closely approximate human weeping, which was one of the main expressions of the collective subconscious of Bengal oppressed for centuries. That’s why death scenes in jatras, theatres and films – with a very few exceptions – have always been underlined by the cohesive outbursts of high-pitched violins. It has often been said that ‘Bengal weeps in the voice of violin’.

The second Western instrument popularized by circuses, jatras and rural bands was the clarinet. The timbre of the solo clarinet is a mysterious fusion of joy and sobbing of a forlorn and helpless orphan. It was, tragically, a familiar sound in rural Bengal due to the perpetual famines. Therefore, the clarinet started conveying the mind of the oppressed that made the bulk of the jatra audience. 

The cymbal, used in the Buddhist monasteries of Sikkim and Chittagong as well as in the European operas popular in Calcutta, was also a popular instrument in jatras. Why? 

Cymbals convey suddenness. They create a sound that underlines the impact of a specific historical incident imposed suddenly on an unprepared mass. 
The feeling of sudden devastation that Plassey engendered prompted Bengal to choose large cymbals as an apt expression for catastrophic events. Consequently, the climax of the battle of Plassey was always expressed by sudden clashes of big cymbals in Palashir Juddha (The Battle of Plassey), a celebrated Bengali play by Dwijendra Lal Roy, the poet-playwright.
Take, for example, the Battle of Plassey. The capricious rise of the British power on 23 June 1757 at Plassey was a haunting example of melodramatic abruptness that Bengalis could never forget. The feeling of sudden devastation that Plassey engendered prompted Bengal to choose large cymbals as an apt expression for catastrophic events. Consequently, the climax of the battle of Plassey was always expressed by sudden clashes of big cymbals in Palashir Juddha (The Battle of Plassey), a celebrated Bengali play by Dwijendra Lal Roy, the poet-playwright.

Therefore, the continuation of cymbals in the Bengali silent films was a fait accompli.

These three instruments were smoothly assimilated in the musical tradition of Bengal and were played in a style that was quintessentially Bengali. So the unsettling question of European hegemony didn’t bother Bengali composers working for jatra, theatre and silent cinema. Violins and clarinets were unabashedly played in the rallies organized by Rabindranath Tagore, on 5 October 1905, against the partition of Bengal. 
 
The influence of early music traditions of Bengali cinema can be felt in later films such as Sonar Kella (1974). Image Courtesy: Satyajit Ray
Ironically, the style of music considered suitable for silent Bengali cinema persisted till the end of the twentieth century. Composing only a few short musical pieces for the entire film was the style discovered for Bengali silent films. Long and complete music was totally shunned.
These are a few of the historical reasons that discreetly created the timbre of the music accompanying Bengali silent cinema.

Ironically, the style of music considered suitable for silent Bengali cinema persisted till the end of the twentieth century. Composing only a few short musical pieces for the entire film was the style discovered for Bengali silent films. Long and complete music was totally shunned. Here is a great example.
 
Satyajit Ray composed only four short musical pieces (ornamentations) for Sonar Kella! Only four! The ‘Camel and Train’ music was a legendary ornamentation composed for Sonar Kella.

Minimizing the number of musical pieces was a lesson learnt from Bengali silent cinema.
 

  • Share
644 views

About the Author

Ujjal Chakraborty is a National Award winning writer, filmmaker, script-writer, artist and scholar who has been involed in various media fields for over 40 years. He studied Drawing, Painting, Designing and Communication/Commercial Art from Govt. College of Arts & Crafts, Kolkata.  He studied Mass Communication, Animation and Modern Film Technology from Magica Institute in Rome, Italy. He has closely worked with Satyajit Ray for over twenty years. He is the author of The Director's Mind: On the Techniques of Filmmaking, Panchali Theke Oscar, Satyajit-Bhabna, Juddher Gyan, Satyajit Ray-er Chalachitrey Choritro-chitron and over 300 essays and research papers on cinema that have been published in various commercial magazines. He has held research positions in the National Film Development Corporation, Ford Foundation, Indian Institute of Chemical Biology and Asiatic Society. He is a regular faculty of Animation Films in the Indo-Italian Institue of Films & Mass Communication, Kolkata. He has also made five short films for the Govt. of Italy.