On May 31, octogenarian composer Anil Biswas, fondly known as Anil Dha, passed away in New Delhi. His contributions to the evolution and enrichment of film music are well known. He died at the ripe age of 89 after scoring music for about 90 films.
Born on July 7, 1914, in a small village of Barisal district of the then East Bengal (now Bangladesh), he showed unusual talent for music at the age of four, and by the time he was 14 he became an accomplished tabla player. It was his mother’s idea to put him through serious musical training. It is not known who his teacher was, but the classical and folk influences in his work are clear. During his childhood and early teens, he worked with amateur theatre groups as a child singer. As an adult, he became a political activist and was repeatedly jailed for his revolutionary activities. He went to Kolkata after the death of his father in 1930 where he came in contact with flute maestro Pannah Lal Ghosh, who later became his brother-in-law. At age 16, Biswas got his first job at a tea stall. Like some other great composers of Indian cinema, he also slept on footpaths many times when he had no place to spend the night.
Anil Biswas was very impressed with Bengali folk melodies and the songs of Rabindranath Tagore and Qazi Nazarul Islam. He received early assignments at Rangmahal Theatre, Kolkata, where he identified with singing, lyrics, dialogues, music, orchestration and acting. Later, he worked with Qazi Nazarul Islam and also scored music and acted in several commercial stage productions. Biswas moved to Mumbai in 1935 where he was first employed by Ram Daryani’s Eastern Art Syndicate and later by Sagar Movitone and its successor National Studios (1940-42), and finally by Bombay Talkies (1942-46) before turning freelance.
In the decade of the ’30s, orchestration was Pankaj Mullick’s favourite research area but Anil Dha is credited with the creation of what may be regarded as the first Indian orchestra of twelve pieces. It was moviemaker Hiran Bose who urged Biswas to move to Mumbai where he could do better. The song ‘Tere pooja ko Bhagwaan banaa mun mandhir aalishan’ in the movie Bharat ki beti (1935), was the composition that propelled the singer-composer into the headlines.
His best known compositions are among the most effective film adaptations of theatrical music, with 12-piece orchestras and full-blooded choral effects in Ameerbai Karnataki’s songs of Gyan Mukerjee’s film Kismet (1943), and even more in Mahboob’s early films in the late 1930s and early ’40s. It was widely known that Biswas composed the enduringly popular songs of the film Basant, but gave credit for these to his brother-in-law Pannah Lal Ghosh due to family compulsions. His recitative prose songs in the film Roti (1942) helped give the film its parable dimensions.
In some of his more traditional compositions, Anil Biswas indicated his affiliation with newly emerging trends in film music, which allowed combining a free atonal counterpoint with folk structures. He was the most important composer to come out of Sonar Bangla with a number of enduringly popular compositions completed as early as 1942. By then, his compositions had touched the apex of popularity and he was accepted as a person who possessed the fundamental recipe for box office success. Not only was he a prolific composer, he was also a complete musician.
At the beginning of his career, Anil Biswas teamed up with director (who later became a producer) Mehboob Khan from 1937 to 1942. During this period, he scored music for eight memorable movies including Jagirdar, Watan, Aurat, Behan and Roti. This was one of the strongest professional and enduring associations ever formed between two great artists in the history of Indian cinema. So close and intimate were they with each other that Anil Biswas called Mehboob ‘Mawaali;’ a term he affectionately used for Mehboob every time the director addressed him as ‘Bengali.’
Biswas also composed for K.A. Abbas’s films Munna and Mahesh Kaul. He was also music co-director for the movie Begunnah, using the name Haribhai. When he distanced himself from Bollywood, Anil Biswas scored background music for Indian state broadcaster Doordarshan’s pioneering TV series Hum log (1984-85) and a number of Film Division’s documentaries in the period between 1979 and 1991.
Anil Dha was one of the pioneers who introduced western orchestration, using indigenous instruments both in the songs as well as in their melodic interludes. This new trend slowly gained popularity and acclaim. The influence of Bengali folk music in his compositions was starkly evident in the songs he composed for a large number of films with occasional touch of classical strands. His most popular compositions were those which reflected the hues of his native Bengali melodies he creatively employed in his work.
A prolific composer, he scored melodies for 90 films in his 30-year (1935-65) long film career. His first ambitious attempt to create a name in music came when he scored music in Roti. Cinema buffs still remember the haunting tune of Sajna sanjh bhayee aan milo, which he composed in raaga Khamaj. A blend of folk and classical, his songs retain their enchantment even after 50 years of their recording in films like Tarana, Anokha Piyar and Aarzoo. The spices of Biswas’s music were originality and use of orchestra on the basis of western system of harmony and contrapuntal notes.
Some of his most popular songs included Dil jalta hai to jalney day recorded in the voice of Mukesh for the film Pehli nazar (1945); Yaad rakhna chaand taro is sohni raat ko (Anokha Piyar –1948), Koyee piyar ki boli bol gaya (Arzoo –1950); Kis ki lagi julmi najaria and Seenay mein sullagte hain armaan (Tarana –1951); Raahi matwale tu chher eik baar (Rahi-1952) and Barkha rut bairi hamaar (Hamdard-1953). Doubtless, there are many more popular songs of the late composer which, for want of space, cannot be listed here.
A modest, unassuming, but highly creative and competent composer, Anil Biswas spent the eve of his life as a recluse in New Delhi almost in isolation, where he died on May 31 almost unsung.