The Mahabharata in a secret note book !
Our fingers still unknowingly touch the cover of his piano whenever we enter his study. Even only 17 years ago, Satyajit Ray was seen sitting on his blackish red chair – lost into his work –beside the big, south facing window. Not merely work – it looked like meditation. A fountain pen was in his hand – at times a brush.
A safe of steel has now appeared beside the piano. Rows of white packets are seen behind its glass covering. Some of the names dear to the Bengalis since adolescence are written in clean printed letters on the spines of the packets. ‘The Adventures of Goopy and Bagha’, ‘The Adversary’, ‘Distant Thunder’, ‘The Middleman’, ‘The Stranger’ …; Many times we saw these names on the outside walls of the commercial theatres of Calcutta! Being painted on huge, heavy cloths, the names were hung on the walls. It’s not difficult to understand that the white packets contain original manuscripts of the screenplays of Satyajit Ray. Never dictated or typed – the manuscripts were written with his own hand and were bound with red, coarse cloth.
Only one name I did not ever see on the walls of the commercial theatres.
Satyajit Ray’s ‘The Mahabharata’!
This is exactly what is written on the spine of a packet. That means Ray planned to make ‘The Mahabharata’. He even wrote something; but didn’t start the shooting.
Strange! Till now we had a sketchy idea that Ray was interested mainly in the contemporary India; Our famines, our unemployment, our fanaticism, our corruption, coming of age of our women. The film in which he looked back the furthest was ‘The Chess Players’; the story of which was based on a real political event of 1857. Ray didn’t openly look back beyond that.
The packet labeled ‘The Mahabharata’ may rectify our idea.
One day, I have taken the permission of reading this ‘Mahabharata’ from Sandip Ray, Ray’s son – whom we lovingly call ‘Babuda’. That doesn’t mean that it’s necessary for one to touch the original pages of the manuscript. It’s the era of scanning! All the pages of the manuscript have been scanned and transferred into a CD. One only has to read the CD in a computer. Thus page after page can be read – even by enlarging the letters of the manuscript, if necessary.
Having read the CD, I have found on every page, that Ray wanted to understand anew the India of the times of Vyasdeva, the composer of the epic. … In that era, royal conferences were organized to choose the most suitable suitor for the princess who herself was totally free to select anyone as her husband from the huge gathering of kings and commoners. Ray wrote about how the royal suitors were eulogized with songs in those meetings. … Ray also took notes on the musical instruments that were played in the battle fields. … After the devastating battle of ‘Kurukshetra’ (in ‘Mahabharata’) was over, what was the truth that Gandhari, the royal mother, felt having come to visit the battlefield that was now filled with gruesome corpses of her own sons and close relatives. … Thus a fresh outline of the Mahabharata forms in one’s mind while reading its pages. This new form is quite modern; respectful, yet without a tinge of superfluous devotion.
At least this much has now been proven that – contrary to the general belief – Ray had a deep interest in the ancient India since the beginning of his directorial career.
If the date – 13 February, 1959 – written on the first page of the manuscript is taken into account, it can be concluded that, had it been filmed, Ray’s ‘The Mahabharata’ would probably have been made around the time of making ‘The World of Apu’ and ‘The Goddess’; because, the dialogues of the first scene of ‘The World of Apu’ is written – possibly for dubbing – in one of the pages in the last part of the manuscript; and a design of a big and wide billboard of ‘The Goddess’ can be found in one of its pages. That means, ‘The Mahabharata’ was Ray’s parallel thought during the making of those two films.
Since Ray wanted to return to the ancient India in the beginning of his life as an artiste, we are almost compelled to conclude that the ancient India was in his blood.
Since it was in blood, then not only the striking stories – but also rural rituals and several streams of ancient Indian philosophy should certainly have inspired Ray. Today we will see how the ancient India often peeps through his modern films. Even having touched the films for some fleeting moments, the ancient India startles us; for instance, the boons given by the king of goblins in ‘The Adventures of Goopy and Bagha’!
How many boons did the said king want to give Goopy and Bagha, the village singer and drummer? THREE ! He says : –
“I, the king of goblins, give three boons when I’m pleased. Three boons, three boons, three …”
In one of the Upanishads (‘Katho-Upanishad’, to be precise) The ‘Yama’ is also pleased with Nachiketa, the son of a sage. The ‘Yama’ is the king of death as well as the hell. A pleased Yama wants to give boons to the young boy. How many boons? THREE !
Let’s quote the Yama’s original dialogue from the Upanishads. What he says in chaste Sanskrit is this : –
“Treen Varan Vrinishva.”
(Original Sanskrit. Three is ‘Treen’ is Sanskrit. The similarity is amazing.)
It’s this in simple language :–
“Pray for three boons.”
Is this similarity merely co-incidental? Or, in this way, the myths of a country speak out through the works of contemporary artistes?
Has the dialogue of the Upanishads returned back to the Ray film having touched the pen of his grandfather (U. Ray), who wrote the original story of ‘The Adventures of Goopy and Bagha’?
It’s quite likely. Because, Ray’s grandfather’s bond with the Indian Mythology was intimate. For children he wrote – in simplified form – many stories from the Indian myths. For many years Ray used to reprint those stories in ‘Sandesh’, the children’s magazine he edited. Ray himself used to illustrate those stories.
These kinds of cultural hints are often scattered in the works of the great artistes. The country’s past talks through these allusions. Today we shall find out a few of such signs.
We will now search for such cultural signs in the films of Satyajit Ray. Many themes flood our mind – mainly from our racial memory – if we just see or listen to the glimpses of such hints. That’s what happens in ‘The Coward’ (Kapurush). The moment Amativo (Soumitra) enters Koruna’s (Madhabi) place – only five/six lines of ‘Chitra, The Princess’ (Chitrangada), a Tagore opera, were played in the background.
“ (The Princess) ‘Arjuna ! You’re Arjuna !’
(Arjuna) ‘Hahahaha Hahahaha, the group of boys,
Go back to your mothers’ lap –
You need not worry.
Oh, how strange and hilarious!’
(The Princess) ‘Arjuna! You’re Arjuna!’”
We listen only this much. The abruptness of the princess’s bereavement saying “Arjuna! You’re Arjuna!” pierces our heart; because, till now we were compelled to remain engrossed with the problems of repairing the hero’s car at the petrol pump. That’s why we were not prepared to listen to the mythical mourning. The thrust of this mourning opens the door of our mythical memory.
As a matter of fact, Koruna (Madhabi) – the female lead – was just playing the Tagore Opera with her Gramophone. The unexpected emergence of a guest compels her to stop playing the record. That’s why we do not listen to any more line of the opera. Yet, like a lightning, the story of the entire opera – ‘Chitra, The Princess’ – comes to our mind. We try to imagine, can Amitavo (Soumitra) – the male lead – be able to become ‘Arjuna’, the mythical valiant?
Arjuna is one of the most striking characters of The Mahabharata. Women adore him for his valor and splendor. Quite naturally Chita, the princess, also falls in love with him. Tagore took the seed of the story from The Mahabharata. Therefore, the spectators of the Ray film – ‘The Coward’ – are also connected to the great Indian epic through the Tagore Opera being played by the female lead of the film.
Suddenly we start thinking, the way the unexpected meeting between the princess and Arjuna was sublimated into a love (though not permanent) – will the unexpected reunion between the female and the male lead of the film be transformed into a love – like their days in college? In spite of being impermanent – will Amitavo, the urbanized male, be able to become the mythical Arjuna – at least for once in life?
Satyajit Ray does not have to compel us to listen to the opera for ten minutes at a stretch to infuse the question into the spectator’s mind. Only one line – “Arjuna! You’re Arjuna!” – is distinctly heard. That is enough.
What has been proven effective with the Tagore Opera should also be equally effective with many other traditional cultural references. For instance, in a Ray film, sometimes we listen to simply a couple of lines of long verses recited during the rituals performed by the women of Bengal. In that case, why shouldn’t we more or less remember, just about in a flash, the legends told in the rest of the verse?
‘The Verse of the Goddess Lakshmi’ (‘Lokkhi’r Panchali’ is its original name in Bengali) is chanted till today in numerous Hindu families in West Bengal as well as in Bangladesh. In that case, whenever any reference to the Goddess Lakshmi comes to a scene of any film, we – the Bengalis – should impulsively remember quite a few topics that are talked about in the verse: a stunning description of dreadful famines, for instance, is one of such issues. Actually the memory of the terrible starvations in Bengal is still vividly alive through the long verse praising the Goddess Lakshmi, who, ironically, is the goddess of rice, gold and wealth.
This long verse is chanted on every Thursday in the Bengali Hindu households for about 300 years. Therefore, it is ingrained in the racial memory of Bengal. (Note: Since this verse is chanted only on Thursdays – the Thursdays are often called ‘The Day of the Goddess lakshmi’ [“Lokkhi-baar” in Bengali] in Ray’s ‘The Hero’: Nayak. )
Can we deflect these spontaneous recollections merely as ‘over reading’ the film? The racial memory of a person – who cannot naturally remember these issues narrated in the verses – is narrow. (She possibly is not Bengali enough!)
The Holy Pool
In an afternoon, black clouds have gathered in the sky in ‘Pather Panchali.’ Durga will go outside with her little brother to see the cloud and rain. It’s the last lap of April. No matter however dark the nor’wester cloud has become – it’s not possible for Durga to go out leaving everything behind. Because, before going out, she has to finish the ritual of ‘Holy Pool’ in the courtyard of their house.
Durga has dug a small, square hole in the soil of their courtyard. That is the ‘Pool’. The Holy Pool. A thin twig still having a few leaves of ‘Bel’ tree is planted in the middle of the small pool. Chanting a few lines from a folk rhyme, the little girl has to pour water thrice from a pitcher into the small gap. Then only Durga may take leave. Meanwhile, the cloud has now become denser. Apu, her younger brother, is now roaming alone and waiting impatiently for his sister. What is the rhyme she chants? –
“Who worships in the afternoon
with the garland beside a pool?
I am a chaste woman…
Who has a good brother
And who will be a good mother.”
Having chanted some more lines, Durga pours water from a pitcher of brass into the pool dug by her. Then having expressed submission by prostrating herself on the ground before the pond, Durga flees from home running quickly. She will not stop before reaching the meadow.
In Bengal, we often see tears in the eyes of the spectators while they see Durga prostrate in submission beside the pond.
The reason is etched permanently in the racial memory of the Bengalis. The people of Bengal have known it while being swung on the lap of their grandmothers. They know that the wishes – the dreams – of the eternal Bengali women are held in the legends told in these kinds of folk rhymes (which is called ‘Broto-kauthaa’ in Bengali).
In Ray’s ‘The Adventures of Goopy & Bagha’, the boons that two of the central characters want from the king of ghosts reflect the dreams of Bengalis. (Mainly the first and the third boon ensuring the daily food and clothing and skilled creation of Art.) In the same way, the folk rhyme that Durga recites in ‘Pather Panchali’ mirrors the heart of the Bengali families.
The dreams have now probably been altered in the lives of the Bengalis who think that they have now become ‘purely urban’. This change is inevitable. In spite of that, the rural rhymes still swing even the hearts of the urbanized Bengalis; because, these are still alive in the depth of their hearts.
For this reason, we very carefully listen to the remaining part of the rural rhyme of ‘Holy Pool’ in ‘Pather Panchali’. It’s obvious that the grandmas among the spectators listen to it intently, because it’s one of the many points with which they identify themselves totally with the film. We understand – through the rhyme recited quite hurriedly – the eternal wishes of the Bengali girls like Durga …
“I will give birth to six sons who will never die.
Their loveliness will not be contained in the whole world.
I will finally die in the holy water of the Ganges –
having left my newborn son on my husband’s lap.
O Mother Goddess, the wife of Lord Shiva,
Give me a brain filled with hope –
Because, my head is small –
I don’t know how to pray.
Like Sati, Savitri and Sita – the chaste mythical ladies –
Let me dedicate my life entirely to my husband.
O Mother Goddess, give me the boon
of spending my whole life happily in my family.”
While listening to the long rhyme, a picture – painted with smile and weep, radiance and darkness – of Durga’s future comes to our mind. The image portrays ‘death’ and ‘happy family life’ alongside. Charming dreams are placed just beside ‘Cultural exploitation’. What the dreams are all about?
Durga will give birth to six children. They will be so elevated in charm and ability that their talent can not be contained even in the entire world …
At what moment in the film a picture of the dreams of her future is painted before the spectators? Just a few moments before the girl goes for the last time to the meadows to play with her brother. As if, the ritual of the ‘Holy Pool’ comes to the film ‘Pather Panchali’ to remind us the things that she won’t ever get in her life.
In the moments like this one – it seems that ‘Pather Panchali’ is meant for ‘untainted’ and traditional Bengalis.
A Ritualistic Chant
for Lakshmi, the Goddess
of Rice and Gold
A frame-bound picture of the goddess of rice is seen in Ray’s ‘Distant Thunder’. Today’s Bengalis are familiar with this picture since the childhood of their great grandmas. This exact picture of the Goddess was seen nearly in every Hindu households of Bengal between 1930s and 1960s.
In every Hindu family, a small throne – usually wooden – is kept in one of the corners of the home. Small pictures and statuettes of gods and goddesses are positioned on this throne. This corner of the home is considered to be a holy spot – the private temple of the family.
Now, let’s come back to ‘Distant Thunder’. We find this particular picture of Lakshmi, the Goddess of rice, on the throne inside the hut of the central lady in ‘Distant Thunder’. Therefore, the picture is perfect as a cinematic detail.
But can it be the only reason of the emergence of this picture in the film – simply as a souvenir of the decade of 1940s?
No, one does not feel so. In the film, the picture of the goddess comes at such a moment when one doesn’t feel the urge to observe details. Then, why does the goddess come?
To understand this, why don’t we remember the episode then?
Exactly after which incident in the film does the frame-bound picture of the goddess Lakshmi come? Let’s see.
… Our lady is respectfully and affectionately called ‘Brahmin-sister’ by her friends, the womenfolk of the village. It is September. 1943. The rice is no longer available in the market. The womenfolk of the village have come to a forest along with ‘Brahmin-sister’ to dig out the ‘Earthen Potato’ (‘Metey-Aaloo’ in Bengali). It’s actually a root that grows up like a huge potato under the moist soil of forest.
The women are now digging out the ‘Earthen Potato’ with an iron rod. On the other side, a man wearing khaki is waiting in the dark behind the bush. He evidently is a stalker. Two flaps are there on the shoulders of his shirt. The flaps show that he has come from a town.
The moment one of the women lifts the huge ‘Potato’ on her shoulders, a row of war-planes approaches above, making the sky tremor with their combined growl. The women’s jokes and laughter are drowned in that ear-splitting sound.
Having taken the chance, the hidden man comes out from the bush and grabs our ‘Brahmin-sister’. He squashes her mouth with his paw-like palm. He is now dragging her to the final limit of stealing her honour.
Brahmin-sister – suddenly having been able to free her mouth from his squeeze – lets out a piercing scream calling one of her friend’s name – “Chhut-kee!”. The friends come running. Having hit the man with a heavy iron rod on his scalp and letting out a stream of blood – they rescue our Brahmin-sister.
She returns home. Marks of dried up mud are seen all over her sari. Her dress and hair are in total disorder. Having entered her room, Brahmin-sister closes the door behind her and stands by reclining on it. She is still panting heavily.
Her restless gaze searches for something in the darkness of the room and finally hits on the frame-bound picture of Lakshmi, the goddess of rice.
Precisely at that moment, one feels a squeeze in one’s heart. Why? Why does the Brahmin-sister remember the goddess Lakshmi exactly at this moment?
The Brahmin-sister was called ‘Mother-Lakshmi’ by an old man (Mr. Dinobondhu Bhattacharjee), a stranger coming from an unknown village. Therefore, to the old man, she herself is a personification of goddess Lakshmi. She is the guardian of the household; of the society too. We find the description of such women in the ‘Ode to goddess Lakshmi’ :-
“Having made the womenfolk with the elements of goddess Lakshmi,
I have sent them to the earth for the happiness of mankind.”
Our ‘Brahmin-Sister’ is also a fraction of goddess Lakshmi. This idea is culturally ingrained in her mind through the rhymes. She has been thinking this about herself since her childhood. Then, is her own idol now being crushed before her?
Will goddess Lakshmi of the family now be impatient? She is the goddess Lakshmi of the family. Will she now leave the family?
At this point, a couplet from the ‘Ballad of Goddess Lakshmi’ comes humming to the mind of the Bengalis. An ‘unchaste’ woman is being spoken about in the rhyme. Is the Brahmin-Sister thinking about herself as someone like this?
“Shyness and related virtues are the real ornaments of the womenfolk –
Some of the women can easily throw away those from their soul and body.”
Has our Brahmin-Sister, too, discarded shyness from her heart? Otherwise, how come she can step into her own hut with such a condition devoid of her innate beauty and tranquility?
The womenfolk of Bengal used to believe from the time immemorial that families were broken for the women who could easily discard shyness from their mind. Will our Brahmin-sister become one among them? Will goddess Lakshmi flee from the village for her?
Running away of goddess Lakshmi symbolizes the arrival of famine. It is but natural for Brahmin-sister to think – ‘Will my husband and our village be famine stricken for me?’ It is quite difficult for her to realize in this tormented evening that – in reality – it is she who has been attacked. She runs towards the river to cleanse her soul.
Many a thoughts of this kind come floating towards us by watching the frame-bound picture of goddess Lakshmi shown precisely at the moment of the humiliated Brahmin-sister’s shedding tears. The women – who still recite the ‘Ballad of goddess Lakshmi’ every Thursday – will spontaneously remember a few lines of the ballad when they watch this scene of ‘Distant Thunder’.
In any reference to famine, a few lines from the ‘Ballad of Goddess Lakshmi’ come to the women’s mind. The way a huge famine will burst out if goddess Lakshmi is dishonored, is vividly described in the ballad :-
“Thin bodies in want of rice have become totally devoid of any power.
Some are committing suicide in hunger.
Because of the scarcity of rice, some are deserting their sons and daughters who are dearer than their life.
Kindly tell us, O goddess Lakshmi, for what sin the people of the earth are burning in this terrible famine.”
Many many years ago – at least half a century from today – I heard these lines from the grandma of my father. She was then 85. So, she listened to it more than eighty years before that time. That means, the description of famine has mingled in the blood of Bengalis through the ‘Ballad of Goddess Lakshmi’. This description of famine sometimes comes back to their mind while they watch ‘Distant Thunder’ – when Brahmin-sister stares at the picture of Goddess lakshmi, with tears in her eyes.
‘Distant Thunder’ is a tapestry of unique folk beliefs of Bengal. The beliefs are unique to Bengal.
108 names of Lord Krishna
Sitting on a paved bank of the river Ganges in Benaras – in Ray’s ‘The Unvanquished’ – an elderly pundit is telling stories, set in tune, to a group of widows sitting around him. He is telling the love story of Radha and Lord Krishna.
Radha is Lord Krishna’s dearest. But, according to Indian mythology, she is married to another man. That’s why Radha, listening to Krishna’s flute, comes in the dead of night to meet him alone on the bank of river Yamuna. At times, her sister-in-law secretly follows Radha to investigate. This is what the sister-in-law grumbles to herself :-
“…What ! Radha!! You’re crying – keeping your head on the chest of Lord Krishna! Wait till I call my elder brother. Then what the sister-in-law did was going stealthily to his elder brother. Calling him there, Radha’s sister-in-law said – ‘Brother! Look. Look at what’s happening. Look at what your wife is doing: crying – keeping her head on the Lord Krishna’s chest!’ Then what Krishna had done was he said to Radha – ‘Radha, you offer the red hibiscus flower on my feet which resembles a lotus. Let me transform myself into goddess Kali to pacify your husband. Then Lord Krishna becomes Kali. …”
Walking from one paved bank to another, Apu stops for a while to listen to the story being told melodiously. He is possibly listening to the story of Lord Krishna for the first time.
An allusion to Lord Krishna comes back again in Apu’s adulthood, in ‘The World of Apu’.
Even before Apu gets married –looking at Apu with an enthralled eye – his would be mother-in-law says – “Where have I seen this face? Oh, no, the face is known to me for a very long time. Yes, yes, I’ve seen it. It’s a god’s face painted by our artists. I’ve seen it many times!” Apu’s friend – Pulu – is standing beside Apu. He suddenly says – “Perfectly Lord Krishna! Besides, even a flute is held in his hand.” The bride’s mother blesses Apu – “Long live Apu, long live.”
Apu plays flute even after his marriage. He plays a ‘Spring Song’ written and composed by Rabindranath Tagore – “If I cannot identify her – will she be able to discover me in this day of new spring …”
The image of Lord Krishna naturally comes to our mind when we see Apu holding a flute in his hand like Lord Krishna. We do not see Apu playing flute after his wife’s death. As if, the necessity of playing flute is over from his life.
The flute comes to ‘The World of Apu’ for blessing Apu, for underlining a unique quality in him. Having made us surprised, Krishna, the Hindu god, comes even to ‘The Chess Players’ for the same reason – for praising Nabob Wajid Ali Shah – although the film is based on two cultures – Muslim and Christian.
Ray’s aim was to discover a few qualities in the Nabob’s character. The main feature among them is his spontaneous capacity to write lyrics. Not only writing – he would also set the lyrics in beautiful tunes. He would also act in the operas written and composed by him. He would often dance with the rhythm of his own songs. There is only one scene of his acting in ‘The Chess Players’. The Nabob is performing as Lord Krishna in that scene. It is a scene of the ‘Raash’ festival. Radha, Krishna’s dearest, and several of her beautiful friends are dancing around Lord Krishna. It is the soft variety of the ‘Kathak’ dance of the Lucknow genre. Today, the Nabob is the central character among Radha and her lovely friends. Exactly like Lord Krishna, a feather taken from the tail of a peacock is obliquely set in the nabob’s gold crown. Almost like Lord Krishna, there is a subtle smile in the corner of the Nabob’s lips. The Nabob has now become the archetype of Lord Krishna. Here lies the wonder! Ray’s aim was to discover in the Nabob’s character a few traits which are totally conflicting with the English culture, so that the Nabob emerges as truly Indian.
In order to show the Nabob as an envoy of the Indian culture, Ray had to depend on the myth of Lord Krishna. Was Ray really that interested in the myth of Lord Krishna?
The answer lies in ‘The Stranger’, Ray’s final film.
Coming to ‘The Stranger’, Ray makes the theme of Lord Krishna an envoy of India. The protagonist, Manomohan Mitra, has returned to India after three and a half decade. He is an Anthropologist. He is now staying at his niece Anila’s place at Rowland road in South Calcutta. The relatives have thought that by this time he has become a total Sahib and has forgotten the spoken Bengali.
But is it true? Has he really forgotten his mother tongue? On the contrary, the moment of his arrival at the niece’s place, he calls her son the ‘Charioteer of Krishna’ – as the boy’s name is ‘Satyaki’. And that’s not all. He sings a few lines from the long, musical verse raving about the 108 names of Lord Krishna.
It seems, being able to sing even a fraction of the ‘108 names of Lord Krishna’ is one of the key signs of being an Indian. On that very moment, the Krishna theme has attained a high-status in the Ray films. It was the same Ray who never gave any heed to the religious sentiment – the same Ray who had made five feature films – from ‘The Goddess’ to ‘An Enemy of the People – in protest against the religious fanaticism.
Finally, the same Ray has given Lord Krishna a prestigious position in his final film. It seems that Ray used to give mythology a higher position than religion, in the Indian society.
That’s quite natural. Mythology remains above religion. Many of us enjoy reading the stories from mythology in spite of being non-believers in any of the institutionalized religions. (For instance, U. Ray – Satyajit Ray’s grandfather – used to write mythological stories for children even being a firm non-believer in the Hinduism bristled with puzzling rituals.)
That’s not all; the exact meaning of the protagonist’s name (Manomohan) in ‘The Stranger’ is Lord Krishna. In one of the scenes, he even directly compares himself with Krishna. How?
When the barrister (Sengupta), a family friend, becomes impatient to know when the protagonist will return to the society of aborigines – precisely at that moment the protagonist starts singing –
“Have patience, Radha, have patience,
While I go to the city of Mathura …”
The song was actually sung by Lord Krishna to console Radha, his dearest. Krishna says, “Don’t lose your patience, Radha, while I am visiting my capital.”
This wouldn’t have been sung at all in the film, had the protagonist not identified himself with Lord Krishna.
We realize while we listen to this song – why in the beginning the hero sings from the ‘108 names of Lord Krishna’. Is it easy at all to decide by which name one should call Krishna among his 108? In the same way, is it easy to decide through which ‘self’ we should understand the central character of ‘The Stranger’?
To convey the variety of credentials of a talented person, Ray has taken recourse to the 108 names of Lord Krishna. Here he has uplifted the common man to the level of myth. In the process, Ray has uplifted himself also; because, the protagonist of ‘The Stranger’ is the envoy of Satyajit Ray. Therefore, comparing Krishna with the central character means searching for an idol of Krishna in his own self. But in which aspect of himself? In his versatility – in his own unfathomable aspects – where many flowers by the same name, Satyajit Ray, are abloom in one forest – flowers of many different colours. Here, like Lord Krishna, Ray is expressed in many forms.
Peace Peace Peace
Gregorian chant is played in Ray’s ‘Branches of the Tree’. The chorus is deep and somber. Proshanto (Soumitra) is listening to the music in the dead of the night. He is the second son of the 70-year-old patriarch who is afflicted by a heart attack. The son had a brain injury in England where he had gone to study Mineralogy. Proshanto, the middle-aged son, can not work any more – not even for a career. He cannot stand the vicious face of severe competitiveness between people. He feels exhausted. He only gets consolation in the refuge of western classical music – in Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. And he gets peace in the spiritual chorus of the west.
One question arises here. Isn’t there any touch of the eastern thinkers in this family?
One gets an answer to the question in the last dialogue of the last scene of ‘Branches of the Tree’. Here, a mantra is quoted directly from the Upanishads, which is an ancient spiritual text of the Hindus – divided into several volumes.
The last scene is this in short :-
Three brothers of Proshanto have just left for Calcutta with their family a few moments ago.
The bed-ridden father is at present alone in his room. Now Prashanta enters his father’s room. The ailing father presses his afflicted son’s hand on his own heart. He says – “You are everything to me, Prashanto, you are
everything to me – peace, peace, peace …”
When the word ‘peace’ is repeated three times? It’s repeated in the section of ‘Reciting Peace’ of each of the Upanishads. Let’s quote the last two lines from the section of ‘Reciting Peace’ from one of the Upanishads (specifically ‘Krishnayajurvediya Upanishad’).
Om, Shantih (Peace), Shantih (Peace), Shantih (Peace).”
What the mantra means is this in a simple translation :-
“Let our acquired knowledge become truly meaningful. We shouldn’t be hateful to each other. Let all the barriers to bliss be wiped out.”
We remember the section of ‘Reciting Peace’ from the Upanishads when the ailing father utters the word ‘peace’ three times. Because, uttering peace thrice is mingled with the traditional culture of India. This expression cannot be wiped out from our racial memory. One doesn’t have to read any of the Upanishads for knowing this. This tri-utterance of ‘Peace’ reaches the ears of each and every Indian even during the plain, rural rituals. We listen to it since our childhood, so this tri-peace is not easy for us to overlook.
Now let’s see what the elderly man wants to indicate to his dear son by uttering ‘Peace’ three times. Does it carry a special blessing for his son?
According to the Upanishads, the first ‘Peace’ is uttered against ailment. It’s a blessing so that an illness cannot become an obstacle before gaining knowledge.
The second ‘Peace’ is voiced against behaving like brutal carnivores; so that the hatred against each other does not become a barrier before knowing truth.
The third ‘Peace’ is against natural disasters: so that accidents cannot be obstructions before acquiring knowledge.
The elderly man utters the mantra of tri-Peace against these three dreadful blows of life. Thus, a circle of good wishes and blessing is drawn around his dear son.
But why is the tri-Peace relevant to ‘Branches of the Tree’.
Is it necessary to say anew that ailment, hatred and accident are behind all the tragedies of the film? The father’s ailment, the hatred between the brothers and the accident of the second brother – these three themes make the foundation of ‘Branches of the Tree’.
Blessing and safeguard – both are ‘created’ by quoting a mantra directly from the Upanishads. This has been done on behalf of the main character of the film; on behalf of the director, too.
Having come near the end of his creative life, Ray became a bit reliant on the Upanishads – an ancient philosophical text.
From ‘Radha & Krishna’
‘Form and Content’
Till now we have confined ourselves into the discussion of various films of Satyajit Ray. Now from his creations we should come to his creative life. Otherwise, it will not be easy for us to realize the depth of the sway of rural and ancient India on him.
All over his creative life, Ray made many films on the basis of new kinds of stories. There was an impatient restiveness in him for laying his hands on novel themes. Even without musing much, we will be able to feel it – if we think about only 3/4 of his successive films. For instance, is there any kind of similarity between ‘The Adventures Goopy and Bagha’ and ‘Days and Nights in the Forest’? Between their stories? Between their social concerns? Between their narrative structures? No, not a bit. ‘The Adventures of Goopy and Bagha’ is tuned in high tempo, and is full of exhilaration; while ‘Days and Nights in the Forest’ is overall sad in spite of its occasional humorous relieves: the story is unfolded in a slow pace. Yet, these two are successive films. How is it possible to achieve the change of mood so sharply?
Again, Ray created ‘The Middleman’ just after ‘The Golden Fortress’. Is the exciting splendor found in ’The Golden fortress’ there in ‘The Middleman’? No. There’s no chance of that. Because, ‘The Middleman’ is concerned with how a good-natured young man starts being drowned into the abyss of darkness. Therefore, Ray had to search for a new idiom for making ‘The Middleman’. Because, the way the tale was told in ‘The Golden Fortress’ – which is an optimistic adventure meant mainly for children – was not suitable for telling the pessimistic account of ‘The Middleman’.
To tell the truth, no other director has ever changed the forms of his/her films so often. It was not true even for Chaplin, Kurosawa, Bergman and their likes. Therefore, they didn’t have to develop new styles of narration so often that Ray was compelled as well as inspired to do.
We have understood simply from these four instances that Ray had to search for new forms to express new kinds of themes and stories. Hadn’t Ray discovered new kinds of narratives, his new themes would have cried alone for being born. Those wouldn’t have found the ways to be expressed. Content lives for the form. Light exists for shadow; life for the death.
The allusion to ‘Radha and Krishna’ comes at this point. But how?
In the branch of Indian thoughts on Rasa, the bond between ‘Radha’ and ‘Krishna’ depends equally on each other like the dependence between ‘Form’ and ‘Content’; also like the dependence between a story and the style of telling the story. In other words, various stories are written because of the existence of various styles of narration; the way Krishna finds expression thanks to the existence of Radha, his dearest. Man finds expression for woman.
We also find the same kind of principle in the Quantum branch of Physics. Any sub-nuclear particle residing in the heart of an atom has two forms – Wave and Particle. The Wave would have been non-existent had there been no Particle. Therefore, we may say that Krishna is Wave while Radha is Particle.
In the Vaishnaba philosophy, Krishna is the meaning as well as the story; Radha, his dearest, is the Form: in other words, the style of telling story. Therefore, hadn’t Radha been existed, Krishna would have become form-less; expression-less. In that case, Krishna would not have had a well-liked place in the Indian Mythology. Rural Krishna is more popular than Krishna, the king, in India, because, he spent the pastoral phase of his life with Radha.
Is there any harm if we extrapolate a little bit from this point? An artist, who often changes his content – has to invent new forms most often. In other words, we can say – by borrowing words from Indian mythology – that a rapidly evolving artist has to find his new Radhas most often. (For instance, Picasso had to find his new Radha, when he switched over from semi realism to Cubism.)
There are two principal elements in the Vaishnaba theory of Rasa – shelter and subject. Radha is shelter. Krishna is subject.
If we extrapolate again from this point, we can say that Ray’s entire life was a long search for new Radhas; in other words, a long exploration of new forms. Had Ray ever identified himself with Lord Krishna (like Apu of ‘The World of Apu’ and Manomohan of ‘the Stranger’) – his entire life would have been deficient had he not found several Radhas in various innovative forms. Totality comes from the combination of the two.
This is what we have listened to in the tête-à-tête between Shook and Shaari, the mythical birds :-
“Shook says, my Krishna is handsome beyond measure.
Shaari says, he would have remained merely a common man hadn’t Radha stood closely beside him.
Shook says, my Krishna held up the mountain,
Shaari replies, my Radha infused the power, otherwise could he have achieved the feat?”
Ray, in the form of Krishna, could accomplish countless difficult tasks that amounted to lifting up mountains. Radha in the shape of new forms infused in him the vital powers which are new languages and new genres of cinema.
Acknowledgement : Sandip Ray and Arup Dey
Assiatance in research : Aparajito Chakraborty
Copyright of the manuscript : Satyajit Ray Society