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The Last Bengali Renaissance Man

The Unicorn Expedition and Other Fantastic Tales of India

by Satyajit Ray
Dutton, 190 pp., $16.95

The Home and the World

A film directed by Satyajit Ray. produced by the National Film Development Corporation of India

On a visit to Calcutta I was told a story about Louis Malle. The French film director had spent some time in the city to film part of his famous—and in India notorious—documentary on India. One day Malle was shooting a riot scene, not uncommon in Calcutta. This infuriated a Bengali policeman who ran up to Malle threatening to smash the camera. Malle objected. “Who do you think you are?” shouted the Bengali. “Louis Malle,” replied the director. “Ah,” said the Bengali with a sweet smile, “Zazie dans le métro.”

It is no doubt an apocryphal tale, but one hears many such stories in Calcutta. It tells you something about the atmosphere of the place, an extraordinary combination of squalor and high culture, violence and civility.

I was told this anecdote by a young and very successful newspaper editor called Aveek Sarkar. We met in his office, housed in an old building in the center of a commercial district where beggars and rickshaw-wallahs dodged in and out of the hopeless traffic jams, while entire families, the children naked, the adults in flimsy clothes, washed themselves by burst waterpipes. Aveek was dressed in a dhoti and smoked Montecristo cigars. He offered me a fine Scotch whiskey and talked about Bengali poetry. Every Bengali is a poet, he said. There are at least five hundred poetry magazines in the state of West Bengal and when Calcutta celebrates the birthday of its greatest poet, Rabindranath Tagore, poetry bulletins are published by the day, sometimes even by the hour. “We don’t look to the rest of India, which is intellectually inferior,” he said. “Our literature is related to French literature, not Hindi. I don’t even read Hindi. Calcutta is like Paris.”

Aveek introduced me to Satyajit Ray, the film director, graphic designer, composer of music, and author of children’s stories. He lives in a grand old apartment building in an elegantly crumbling area known as South of Park Street. His working room is stacked with books—anything from Bengali literature to fifteenth-century Italian art to modern British theater design. There are inkstands, pens and paintbrushes, and an old-fashioned gramophone. And in the midst of this sits Ray, a tall, handsome man, dressed in a dhoti, drinking tea. He speaks English with a refined baritone drawl, rather like an aesthetic Oxford don. Without having seen Calcutta—or, indeed, his films—one might mistake him for a brown sahib, a genteel colonial relic. He is something far more complex than that, however; he represents a style historically and socially rooted where most of his films take place, in the decaying grandeur of his native city.

Ray had been very ill. He still appeared weary. “It’s a frightful bore making films in India these days,” he said. He complained about the sad state of the Bengali film industry. Cut off from a large potential audience in Bangladesh by a government ban there on Indian films, there are not enough Bengalis to sustain the industry anymore. Compared to the average movie produced in Calcutta today, Ray said he would rather see a splashy Bombay musical: “At least there’s plenty of action and pretty girls.”

His last film was completed from his hospital bed, by issuing instructions to his son. It is possible that some of Ray’s genius will be carried on to the next generation, but not likely. Genius, of course, cannot be taught. Besides that, India has changed too much. It is almost impossible now to make the kind of understated, humanist movies that Ray did. The style is not fashionable, but then it never really was. One of the most remarkable things about Ray’s films is that they ever got made at all.

In an essay about the Japanese cinema, Ray commented on Kurosawa’s masterpiece, Rashomon: “It was the kind of film that immediately suggests a culmination, a fruition, rather than a beginning. You could not—as a film making nation, have a Rashomon and nothing to show before it.”1 It is hard to disagree, but this makes Ray’s achievement all the more baffling. For what, in the Indian cinema, laid a foundation for Pather Panchali, Ray’s first film, made in 1955? It had the maturity of a culmination of something, while in fact it was only the beginning. As early influences Ray cites the humanism of Jean Renoir, the technical economy and realism of Rossellini and De Sica, but he had no Indian masters to follow or challenge. Yet, unlike so many “arty” Asian films, Ray’s work was never a reflection of half-understood Western styles. From the very beginning, his films were unmistakably Indian. How did he do it? What, if not Indian cinema, was his artistic source?

The raw material of the cinema is life itself. It is incredible that a country which has inspired so much painting and music and poetry should fail to move the film maker. He has only to keep his eyes open, and his ears. Let him do so.”2 Ray wrote this in 1948, seven years before his first film was shown. It offers at least a vague and general answer to the question above. There is more to Ray, though, than a sensitive pair of eyes and ears. To find clues to his particular vision one must, I think, go back much further than Renoir or Rossellini, back to the Bengali renaissance of the 1820s and 1830s.

The Bengali renaissance was the product of a small number of families, often divided among themselves in cliques. These families—the Tagores, the Debs, the Rays, the Ghoses, the Mallicks—were mostly high-caste Hindus, and were collectively known as the bhadralok, literally, gentlemen of substance. The British called them the “educated natives.” While the Bengali elite had been large landowners, the bhadralok attained social prominence in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries by acting as middlemen for the East India Company and private British traders. They were the clerks, the fixers, the contractors, the translators, the minor civil servants, and the tax collectors who made fortunes by fleecing the old landlords, who often ended up in penury (the theme of one of Ray’s best films, The Music Room, 1958). Their main enthusiasm was modern education, for which they had an almost unquenchable thirst: science, English literature, European philosophy, and politics. They organized reading societies, established English-language schools, stocked libraries, started printing presses, and published newspapers. The bhadralok, in other words, were the first Indian urban middle class: modern men who sought a spiritual answer to modernization in a fusion of European liberalism and enlightened Hinduism. Anxious to be cosmopolitan, they were still steeped in their own past.

Their position was often ambivalent. Since they were colonial middlemen their interests lay with the British Empire, which their political ideals would ultimately lead them to oppose. Their sons and grandsons, frustrated by the lack of political power on the one hand, and the inertia of Indian traditions on the other, often turned to Marxist radicalism. The reformist zeal of the bhadralok left a legacy in Bengal of Marxist government and occasional terrorism. The cultural sophistication, the fruit of the Bengali renaissance, gave us thousands of garrulous coffee shop philosophers, millions of poets, and the occasional genius, such as Rabindranath Tagore and Satyajit Ray.

Tagore’s grandfather, Dwarkanath, was a typical example of the pioneering bhadralok. He started off as the chief native officer of the East India Company’s opium and salt department, but in true bhadralok style later owned several English-language newspapers. A British friend described him as “a Hindoo with an enlarged mind and a truly British spirit.” He might have said the same about Satyajit Ray’s grandfather, Upendrakisore Ray, an accomplished musician of Western classical music, a graphic artist, composer of songs, and a writer of children’s stories. Upendrakisore launched the children’s monthly magazine called Gandesh, which Satyajit revived in 1961 and in which most of the short stories in The Unicorn Expedition first appeared. Few renaissance men maintain the same level of excellence in everything they put their hands to. Although Ray’s stories, written for teen-agers, never quite scale the heights of his films, they are suffused with the same spirit.

His characters reflect the gentle patrician humanism, so typically bhadralok, and so typical of Ray’s work. There is Shonku, the scientist-inventor, whom Ray himself calls “a mild-mannered version of Professor Challenger,” one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s creations. Professor Shonku travels around the world showing off his strange inventions—a computer the size of a football that knows the answers to a million questions, or Corvus, the crow genius. Like Ray himself, Shonku is cosmopolitan, at home in most capital cities, thirsty for new knowledge, but at the same time he remains very Indian in his fascination with the metaphysical. His adventures take him to Zen gardens in Kyoto and Tibetan monasteries where he learns how to fly off to an imaginary land filled with imaginary unicorns. The Shonku stories, in the manner of Verne and Wells, humanize science. The author’s attitude, his humanism and his faith in science, remind one of a more self-confident age in the West, an age in which we still believed in progress, an age before Auschwitz and the invention of the atom bomb. Indians (and most Asians, for that matter) often like to make the neat distinction between scientific Western civilization and spiritual Eastern civilization. Professor Shonku, again a bit like his creator, quite successfully manages to straddle both.

The sad appeal of bhadralok culture is that it flowered so briefly. Ever since the British shifted the capital of the Raj to New Delhi in 1912, Calcutta has been a city in decline. Its European elegance had always been somewhat anomalous in the almost unbearable climate of Bengal. But Calcutta somehow managed to wear its decadence with a certain amount of grace; the anomaly of high culture in the midst of squalor strikes one almost as a kind of dandyism. It is a common theme in Ray’s work, and a common trait in many of his characters. In his book there is the story of a middle-aged man who used to be a successful amateur actor and earned a decent living. Now reduced to genteel poverty, he is suddenly asked to fill in as an extra in some tawdry local film. His only line is “Oh!” as he is knocked down in the street by the star of the production. He rehearses the scene endlessly on his own, trying to recapture his old élan. He does the scene perfectly.

But all the labour and imagination he had put into this one shot—were these people able to appreciate that? He doubted it. They just got hold of some people, got them to go through certain motions, paid them for their labours and forgot all about it. Paid them, yes, but how much? Ten, fifteen, twenty rupees? But what was twenty rupees when measured against the intense satisfaction of a small job done with perfection and dedication?

  1. 1

    Satyajit Ray, Our Films, Their Films (Calcutta: Orient Longman Ltd., 1976), p. 155.

  2. 2

    Satyajit Ray, Our Films, Their Films, p. 24.

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