RMIM Archive Article "222".
From the RMIM Article Archive maintained by Satish Subramanian
# RMIM Archives..
# Subject: Anil Biswas
# Posted by: ADhareshwar@worldbank.org (Ashok)
# Source: Cinema Vision
# Author: Satyavrata Ghosh
From the RMIM Article Archive maintained by Satish Subramanian
REMINISCENCES OF A FRIEND FROM PRISON
By Professor Satyavrata Ghosh
[From `Cinema Vision India', Vol. II, No. II, 1983, pp. 54-56.
In the journal, this article appeared ahead of the piece by Anil
Biswas. I, having read them in that order, feel that it is
better to reverse it! Note that the author is referred to by
Anil Biswas in his piece. Also of interest is the contrast
between what he thought were Anil Biswas's views on `Indianness
in music' and the much more nuanced view in maestro's own
Music is not my forte, but the readers will refuse to accept me
if I don't touch upon Anil Biswas's music. He has been known
as a great `music maker' in Indian films. But that was years
ago, back in the thirties, forties, and the fifties. He started
with Sagar Movietones in 1935 and his last film was Motilal's
`Chhoti Chhoti Baaten'. There is a small incident about its
release. Motilal owed him some money for the picture. When,
however, it was released he wrote to Anil to come and collect
it. When he arrived from Delhi, to rejoice in the release of
the film, he was destined only to join the funeral.
Motilal had suddently died giving all his friends and admirers
the slip. On Anil, an emotional (sic) man otherwise, the
incident left an indelible impression, conveying a lesson of
life, the transitoriness of all our possessions, life being the
most precious of them.
When I think of Anil and music together, my mind goes back in
time by about 52 years to 1930 and to the barracks of Bar-
isal jail. The country was on fire because of the
Congress Movement of Civil Disobedience. It was more so in
Bengal, after the first successful armed uprising, the Chitta-
gong Armoury raid, and its aftermath. We were both in jail
as undertrials for picketing. Though already initiated into
the revolutionary movement, we were in jail as Congress
satyagrahis. That was the peculiarity of Bengal politics.
Most of the revolutionaries, I may say, from Netaji down-
wards, used the Congress as the camouflage for their secret
Jail was `wonderful.' Hundreds of young men were bundled into
the barracks. `Breakfast' was _labsi_ (even the omniscient God
does not know what variey of porridge it was) and what fol-
lowed as lunch and dinner would repel even an omnivorous being.
The bed, including the pillow, was made of cement (there were
no `trusts' and no scarcity those days) with an old and worn-
out blanket as the only cover.
Locked up in the evening, we would jump about, though
not in enjoyment, for we did not know anyway else to fight the
mosquitoes. The British Lion was an easier opponent! As we
could not sleep, music was the only pastime and Anil was our
natural leader. By natural, I mean that he had the natural
(actually inherited) talent for it. His mother was a religious
singer of no mean eminence. That's probably why Anil and his
siter, Parul Ghosh (wife of Pannalal Ghosh, the flute maestro)
have been such well-known names in the world of film music.
His songs in jail, however, were limited in range:
laathi-maar bhaangre taala
jaato sab bandi shaala
(Kick and break the iron locks of all the prison houses)! It
was appropriate and also inspiring.
In a few weeks again we breathed the free air of the outside
world but I was soon arrested under the Bengal Criminal Law
Amendment Act of 1930. Anil proved a step cleverer. He ran
away from the clutches of the Law. (We, however, used to call
it a Lawless Law).
Meanwhile, we the associates of his early political days, were
left behind in Bengal to languish in British jail for an indefin-
ite period, almost throughout the thirties. We were released
only in 1938 as a result of a general amnesty of all detenus.
Anil, on the other hand, entered into new bondage by marrying
Mehrunissa (Ashalata Biswas, a well-known actress of her times
and a bewitching beauty). Anil was well-established while we
were struggling for a footing in life.
Those days were difficult. Even with topping the list in the
M.A. exam, I could not get a job, not even in a private firm.
One of us, the most outstanding, Shreemanta Bhattacharya,
died of malnutrition. Niren Ghosh, now an important C.P.M.
member of Lok Sabha and a brilliant scholar (whose academic
career was cut short by arrest), could not make both ends meet
and sought lifelong refuge in communism. Anil's success was our
satisfaction and it appeared more enchanting from a distance
(Barisal, our home town, and Bombay are about 1500 miles
It was 1946. I was in Jaat College, Rohtak and was one day
reading the Tribune. In the advertisement column, I suddenly
came across the name of Anil Biswas and read that he was
staying at some hotel in Lahore. He was on a tour recruiting
singers for films. I got hold of his address and dropped him a
postcard. The reply did not take long in coming. I
`discovered' my long-lost friend and decided to start for Bom-
bay (little knowing then that some day I would become a
India had the last political upheaval on the day of my journey.
The R.I.N Ratings rose in revolt on 18th February in Bombay.
There was curfew in the city when I arrived but I knew nothing
about it in the train. Anil, however, came to V.T. to receive
me, literally passing through bullets which were being scat-
tered all round. Tommies on trucks were using innocent Indi-
ans looking out of windows for target- practice.
Anyway, we reached his Tulsi Villa residence on the seaside at
Dadar. We talked and talked to make up the gap of sixteen long
years. The curfew outside was a blessing in disguise. He
could not move out on his professional work. After dinner,
every night, we used to walk to the shore nearby and he would,
almost in monologue, speak out of his heart and his mind. It
was a sort of autobiographical outpouring. They could be nar-
rated in the first person, but I choose to use the third.
In Calcutta he was hardly independent and could not leave much of
his own imprint on music. Yet, he introduced some novel
features, Bangla _dhol_ in a _Tarja_ song, and the East Bengal
dialect in a play called `Parivartan'. He was himself a _dhak-
dhole-khol-tabla player from an early age.
In music he has been versatile--he mastered _khayaal_,
_thumri_, _dadra_. He specialized in _ghazals_, folk songs,
and _padabali kirtans_ of the Vaishnavite Bengal. He has also
written a book in Bengali on the _ghazal_, the first of its
kind. It is in the press now and will very soon see the light
It is well to remind readers here that Anil's earlier career was
never carved out for music. He should have been an active revo-
lutionary, at the most, a singer of inspiring patriotic songs.
But music was in his blood. And he was destined to be success-
Anil has been of the earliest to establish a distinctive school.
His classical and folk-songs had a pure Indian flavour. He was a
pioneer in introducing orchestral music to Bombay's film world.
He leaned heavily on his Indian inheritance, classical and
folk, even on Tagore's music. But in their presentation one
could easily discern the imprint of his personality. He once
made an attempt to produce a film which would contain all types
of Indian tunes. It was `Hamdard', a story of a blind musician.
It had _khayal_, _thumri_, _qawwali_, _bhajan_, _geet_, and
also _Rabindra Sangeet_. The four _khayaals_ depicting the
four seasons are remembered even today--''ritu aaye, ritu
jaaye''. He always felt that Indian music could fulfil the
demands of any cinematic situation for years to come. He
was, therefore, averse to the attempt, in some quarters, to
borrow the exotic appeal of Western music. It was not just
plagiarism, it was outright imitation.
The preference of some directors for borrowed music on the one
hand and the persuasive efforts of some high officials on
the other, ultimately induced Anil to try new pastures, to
change his medium from film to the radio, with a free hand in
creating a National Orchestra (an idea that Anil had very close
to his heart since his tour abroad, particularly to the Soviet
Union), and also to improve the quality of light Hindustani
I was sceptical about it. By that time I was a Principal
of a Government College and knew the way official work is done.
But he had the zeal of a new convert. I very soon discovered his
disillusionment whenever I used to stay with him in Delhi.
There was only one (personal) good out of the evil of his frus-
tration. He was disgusted with office routine so much that he
used to be my `driver' during his office hours, playing
`truant' as he (also we) used to do in our school days. To
met the demands of our revolutionary duty we used to miss
classes without any compunction.
With three extensions to his contractual tenure of government
service he had some day to retire. Later, he became an Advisor
for Music at the prestigious (politically Left-inclined)
Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. His status was that of
a Professor and he used to `boast' that he was the only Matri-
culate University Professor in India. Probably there have been
But Anil cannot sit idle. He used to run classes in music
for socialites in Delhi. He also accepted the responsibility of
looking after the production of gramophone records for a
Calcutta-based company in its north India zone. He began
life with a recording company and ended his career with it.
His principles stood in the way of his acceptance of suggestions
from untrained people and also of prostituting the purity of
music for profit. He stood steadfastly by pure Indian music,
whether in films or on discs. It cost him not a meagre amount
in terms of money, about Rs. 50,000 a year. Earlier, he had
performed a similar feat by sacrificing a film career (even
though at a low ebb then) for a Government job. To most
men, fame and fortune are stronger temptation--but not to
Anil Biswas is a `vegetable' now. He is a `has-been' and
does not crave for anything more. He has had more than `his
share of glory and gift'. He has `no ambition either'. All
the words within inverted commas are his own.
But this has actually meant an absence of enterprise, an
escape. Otherwise, he could have plunged into action
again in the International Year of the Child and could have
organized children's choir groups in Delhi schools, which the
country badly needs. It is shocking and sickening to listen to
our school children singing the anthem. They don't even know
the _Saraswati Vandana_, let alone sing it correctly. What a
contrast with Western countries where such things are not
only better organized but done in a way that is
inspiring.Anil could also organize and bring out gramophone
records or cassettes of patriotic songs of India with which he
began his musical career in jail (if I can put it that way).
He owes it to his own talent. Society also owes it to him to
pull him out of his present lethargy (a state of `vegetation',
to quote him) and utilize his immense experience and
musical gifts (if not genius) in the A.I.R., T.V., films and
other media of mass interest. That will probably be the best
culmination of a colourful career for a boy born in poor
surroundings in a cottage at far-off Barisal in 1914, who rose to
the highest pinnacle of popularity and success.