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Dancing with Ray… An Unparalleled Celluloid Experience

May 2, 2021 | By

Challenging the conventional songs and dances in Indian cinema, Satyajit Ray used ‘classical singing and dancing as integral focal points of realistic sequences’ except when he created the unique allegorical psychedelic dream sequence in Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne. Ratnottama Sengupta explores the various nuances of Ray’s dances.

Satyajit Ray by Subrata Gangopadhyay

Satyajit Ray by Subrata Gangopadhyay (Pic courtesy: Subrata Gangopadhyay, Copyright Protected)

A few years ago I was preparing for my talk on Dance in Hindi Films, given to the Film Appreciation students at the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune. I noticed that every major director in the earlier years, beginning with Uday Shankar (Kalpana, 1948) and going on to the likes of V Shantaram (Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baje, 1955), K Asif (Mughal-e-Azam, 1960), Guru Dutt (Saheb Bibi Aur Ghulam, 1962), K A Abbas (Pardesi, 1957), Sohrab Modi (Mirza Ghalib 1954), and Bimal Roy (Parineeta, 1953), had started with Indian classical dance in its purest form – Kathak – and leading ladies Vyjayantimala, Waheeda Rahman and Padmini came equipped with the dance of the Devadasis, Bharatanatyam. However, most subsequent filmmakers diluted the purity of these dances – perhaps to suit the situation in their films. And in recent years that dilution has gone further to take the form of fusion dance, westernised dancing, and group dance to add volume to the glamorous visual of female torsos in movement.

That is when I realized what level of genius is required to create a dance that becomes a visual statement on the history of the land. I am talking now about the Dance of the Ghosts in Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (1969). Satyajit Ray, born on this very day precisely a hundred years ago, was the ‘choreographer’ of this dance which has simply no parallel in the world of cinema. Yes, the director – who had also penned the lyrics besides screenwriting his grandfather’s adventure story for young readers of the family-run magazine Sandesh – had diluted Indian classical dances like Kathakali and Manipuri, but he fused in many more art forms like masks, paper cutouts, shadow art, pantomime, and special effects to create a celluloid experience nonpareil.

Ray’s journey with BhavaRagaTala – the three basic elements of dance that are said to have given Bharata Muni, author of Natya Shastra, his name – had begun ten years before this, with Jalsaghar (1958). The films prior to this – Parash Pathar, 1958 and Aparajito, 1956 in particular – had not got him returns at the box office and though he had got international acclaim, the director desperately needed a hit. Hearsay has it that he was ‘advised’ by distributors to use some ‘song and dance’ in his films. Ray being Ray, he picked up Tarashankar Bandopadhyay’s elegiac short story about the feudal aristocracy in Bengal of colonial India – symbolised by an elegant elephant and a white stallion – giving way to a coarser, machine dominated social order imaged by a truck. And in this tug of war the Music Room became the battlefield between zamindar Biswambar Roy and contractor Mahim Ganguli.

Murjra Room in Satyajit Ray's Jalsaghar

‘Homage to Jalsaghar – Murjra’ oil painting by Subrata Gangopadhyay (Pic courtesy: Subrata Gangopadhyay, Copyright Protected)

By early twentieth century, especially after a captive Wajid Ali Shah of Lucknow had been brought to Calcutta’s Metiaburz along with his bawarchis, khansamas, darzis, hookawalas, tabalchis, sarangi players, tawaifs and baijis, an entire lifestyle had come to be seen as the signature of the aristocrats in the British Raj. A group of professional singers and dancers primarily experienced in the royal courts of north India – the ‘nautch girls’, as they were dubbed by the firangees – delighted with their performances the Babus of bonedi lineage and the moneyed Seths. They would recline against velvet covered bolsters on soft mattresses spread out on the marble floor of the dance rooms that were tastefully appointed with multi-tiered chandeliers, erotic images of semi-nude women – painted sometimes by European artistes, sometimes by Kalighat patuas. These dance halls could be the outhouse of the family homes as can be seen even today in Andul Rajbari; or it could be in the kotha in designated areas like Chitpore.

The patrons would drink sherbet and sip whisky from crystal glasses, smoke from silver hookahs, and admire the heaving bosom of the beauties, their slim midriffs and thrust of hips, their coquettish air and erotic expressions. Above all, their entranced whirling to the beat of tablas and song of sarangis would mesmerize the zamindars and their hangers on, and when the dancers arrived on ‘sam’, they would break into appreciative ‘wah wah’ and shower them with silver coins or even gold mohurs. This was the ultimate mark of aristocracy: a person who had ‘arrived’ in the club of wealth and fame would necessarily be a kadardaan, an aficionado who was passionate about the arts purveyed by these ladies. Hence they would host mujras on any given occasion, to mark the birth of a child or marriage of a daughter, the first rice ceremony or the sacred thread ceremony, or – at the height of frivolity – for the ‘marriage of the pet cat.’

With the consolidation of the British rule, the dancers came to be seen as prostitutes. The noveau riche had little understanding of thumris and ghazals or of parans and chakkars. Jalsaghar has to be seen, understood and admired against this background.

Biswambhar Roy in Jalsaghar

Chhabi Biswas as Biswambhar Roy in Jalsaghar

It unfolds around Biswambar Roy, a 1920s aristocrat whose passion for music has already ruined him, and his neighbor, the nouveau riche Mahim Ganguly. Their rivalry leads the zamindar to pawn his wife’s jewels, reopen his jalsaghar, roll out the carpet, polish the chandeliers, and pour wine in decanter to host its swansong: a lavish soiree in the crumbling opulence of the music room decorated with ivory chess boards and portraits of his ancestors. At the end of the concert, when his upstart rival tries to reward the danseuse, the zamindar restrains him with the grand gesture of gifting her the last bag of sovereigns in his treasure chest.

Ray may have chosen the literary classic for its scope to incorporate music and dance. And what a set of artistes he worked with! His composer was Vilayat Khan, the Gouripur born classical sitarist credited with the introduction of gayaki ang of playing the stringed instrument. (This might be a diversion but I am tempted to add here that Gouripur, about 150 km from Dhaka in Bangladesh, still has a century-old haveli built by the then zamindar Brajendra Kishore Roy Chowdhury who was renowned for his interest in classical music).

Ray used the signature shehnai of Bismillah Khan, the ustad who would later be awarded the country’s highest honour, Bharat Ratna, for transforming the Indian wind instrument – till then only a ‘folk instrument’ – into the voice of every auspicious occasion in the land and Festivals of India across the world.

Akhtari Bai Fizabadi singing a Dadra in Raag Pilu in Jalsaghar

Begum Akhtar singing a Dadra in Raag Pilu in Jalsaghar

That was not all: Ray got Mallika-e-Ghazal’ Begum Akhtar to sing a Dadra in Raag Pilu layered with viraha, the longing and ache of separation, for a sequence in the music room. Long before this Akhtari Bai Faizabadi had won acclaim as an actress for her performance in Mehboob Khan’s Roti (1942) but she forsook glamour to pursue artistry in pure classicism.

There was also a Mian ki Malhar sung by Salamat Ali Khan, brother of Nazakat Ali and father of the younger voice Shafqat Ali of Pakistan. The torch bearer of Shyam Chaurasi gharana, the vocalist – like the other classical musicians in Jalsaghar, had a Calcutta connection before he made his home in Lahore. Given his repertoire of Sufiana singing, he continued to be invited to perform for All India Radio as well as the Hindustani music conferences that were a hallmark of classicism in the subcontinent.

Chhabi Biswas as Biswambhar Roy in Satyajit Ray’s masterpiece Jalsaghar (1958)

Biswambhar Roy in Satyajit Ray’s masterpiece Jalsaghar (1958) enjoying ‘Miyan Ki Malhar’ rendition by Ustad Salamat Ali Khan

Of course, the finale of Jalsaghar was the riveting Kathak by Roshan Kumari, perhaps the foremost exponent of Jaipur gharana, in the role of a dancer who was the new rage among the music connoisseur zamindar’s peers. She danced to a composition that used pakhawaj syllables in place of conventional song text. For half of the eight-minute sequence, the camera watched in long-shot and mid-shot the explosive nritta of the vigorous danseuse who was born to Zohrabai Ambalewali.

Roshan Kumari’s Kathak recital in Jalsaghar

Prior to this Roshan Kumari had danced in some other Hindi films (Sohrab Modi’s Mirza Ghalib, Nitin Bose’s Waris, Raja Nawate’s Basant Bahar, 1956). She was among the most notable exponents – namely Shambhu Maharaj, Damayanti Joshi and Uma Sharma – featured in Films Division’s documentary on the history of Kathak. Later she choreographed for Gulzar’s Lekin (1990) and Shyam Benegal’s Sardari Begum (1996). But her legacy in Kathak is Nritya Kala Kendra, the academy she set up in Mumbai to promote Kathak.

It was the presence of one such assured danseuse that Jalsaghar could offer the poetry of pure dance, complete with footwork and pirouettes, setting the finale apart from the abhinaya-based mujras we see in popular cinema, be it Pakeezah (1972) featuring Meena Kumari or Rekha playing Umrao Jaan (1981). Compared to the nazakat of Lucknow Kathak that we would witness in Shatranj Ke Khiladi (1977), this shining example of Jaipur Kathak was austere. But the rhythmic wizardry and unmistakable technical prowess made it a gleaming finale fit for rasikas.

It consolidated Ray’s international reputation since, as Marie Seton wrote, “It challenged the whole convention of songs and dances in India cinema. Audiences, conditioned to seeing these interludes as dramatic and romantic stresses, had never before been confronted with…classical singing and dancing as integral focal points of realistic sequences.”

****

Twenty years later Ray returned to Kathak for his invocation of Wajid Ali Shah’s Awadh which, at its zenith, was described as India’s Paris. Ray had first read Shatranj Ke Khilari when he was a student in Santiniketan. In mid ‘70s, when producer Suresh Jindal approached him to direct a film in Hindi, he decided to transcreate the Munshi Premchand masterpiece about two nobles in the times of the Nawab who stake their lives to defend their positions for the Kings and Queens of the chessboard rather than thwart the annexation of Oudh by the British.

However, the historical fact of the annexation became a parallel strain if not the core in Ray’s telling of the narrative as fiction alternated with recorded events. In fact he felt the need for a prologue that established the peculiar features of the Oudh-British Raj relationship under a treaty that long protected the Nawab – for nearly 100 years – until the bloodless annexation on 7 February 1856.

That is how Wajid Ali Shah – evoked by Amjad Khan of Sholay fame – wrested so much of the screen time from Mirza and Meer, the chess players immortalized by Sanjeev Kumar and Saeed Jaffrey. That, perhaps, was also the reason why Ray altered Premchand’s denouement to let the chess player live on and continue with their game. “Apart from the fact that their death would seem too melodramatic on the screen, I wanted to convey that Nawabi did not end with the British takeover. Indeed the British domination did not materially affect the upper class whose decadence was partly responsible for the consolidation of the British power,” the celluloid maestro had said to me in an interview I had taken in his Bishop Lefroy apartment when The Chess Players completed a six-month run in London.

Shatranj Ke Khilari

General Outram (Richard Attenborough) with Nawab Wajid Ali Shah (Amjad Khan) and his courtiers (Pic courtesy: Satyajitrayworld)

Dance was required in Shatranj Ke Khilari not so much to underscore the decadence of the aristocrats as to highlight the poetic sensibility of the 11th and last ruler of Awadh. The Nawab who penned ghazals under the pseudonym of Akhtarpriya’ is acknowledged as one of the most passionate patrons of Hindustani music and dance. A number of composers who thrived under the benevolence of the Lucknow ruler enriched thumri. Wajid Ali Shah himself was trained in raga music by ustads such as Basit Khan and Jafar Khan, said to be direct descendants of Mian Tansen. More important to this study is the fact that he himself was a dancer – much to the chagrin of his minister who failed to understand how the Nawab could sit and watch young dancers emoting the sometimes sexually implicit playfulness of Radha Krishna while he was being robbed of his kingdom.

Digressing once more, I would like to point out here that it was indeed under rulers such as Wajid Ali that Kathak, once the art of temple priests who would recount episodes from the life of Krishna with much emotive action and bodily expression, had moved to the royal durbars in search of better prospects. Once that happened, their dance adapted itself to the demands of the new audience and under the Nawab’s patronage, acquired a new dimension, a certain nazakat, a delicacy that was hitherto unexplored.

Kanha main tose hari – Saswati Sen’s Kathak in Shatranj Ke Khilari

This is what we witness in the slow-paced Kanha main tose haari… Birju Maharaj’s captivating choreography highlighted the delicacy and lyricism of Lucknow school of Kathak and brought fame to Saswati Sen. For, though it showed off her feminine charm, there was pathos in the air as tawaifs of early 19th century served like the Geishas of Japan.

Girls dancing in public were frowned upon even in the middle of the 20th century when Saswati Sen started learning. And dancing on screen? It was only for vamps then. “It took a lot of convincing on Manikda’s part before my parents relented,” the dancer who could have been a doctor once recounted to me. “Since I was already dancing on stage, he convinced them saying that it would be just the same – except, the camera would replace a live audience.” Ray’s formidable reputation must have worked magic, too: Saswati Sen danced the exquisite thumri both choreographed and rendered by Pandit Birju Maharaj, her guru of the impeccable Lucknow lineage of kathakars.

Saswati Sen in Shatranj Ke Khilari

Saswati Sen in Shatranj Ke Khilari

Even as I am writing these lines, I am struck by the similarity in the plight of zamindar Biswambar Roy and Nawab Wajid Ali Shah. The stubborn zamindar in a crumbling haveli presides over the decay and passing of the feudal order that obtained in rural Bengal a hundred years ago – and he rides to his death on a white stallion. And the self-absorbed, whimsical Nawab was reigning over an Awadh which, for all practical purpose, was already under British governance: He was retained as a titular head only because the Imperialists needed a buffer between their grounds and those of the Mughal Badshah of Delhi. Indeed, the Nawab was unfortunate to preside over the decimation of Awadh and his banishment to Calcutta on grounds of ‘maladministration’ and ‘lawlessness’. But, much like the zamindar in the music room, he does not give up his passion for the finer arts.

****

Dance of the Ghosts in Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne

In between, Ray experimented with the eerie, psychedelic burst of dancing in Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (1969). On the face of it this ‘children’s film’ was about a tone-deaf singer and a bumbling drummer. However Ray’s telling of the ‘fairytale’ was a garbed plea against war. The message he sent out loud and with laughter? “When people have palatable food to fill their belly and music to fill their soul, the world will bid goodbye to wars.”

But Ray’s recounting of the story is far from didactic. His Goopy and Bagha are a duo of untalented musicians whose playing earn ridicule from the peasants and contempt from the king. But it appeals to the upside-down aesthetics of ghosts, and their charmed king appears with the eerie twinkling of stars and a disembodied voice – innovatively crafted and played out by the towering creator himself – to bless them with three boons: With a mere clap of their hands, they will feed to their heart’s content, they will travel where they want to in their magic shoes, and their music will entrance their listeners.

Ray's sketches of the characters in Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne

Ray’s sketches of the characters in Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne dance sequence (Pic courtesy: Satyajitrayworld)

Adapting grandfather Upendra Kishore’s story, Ray himself wrote the dialogue, designed the music, the costumes of the entire cast, AND the choreography of the Ghost Dance that shows the influence of Uday Shanka’s Kalpana. The dead come alive when Goopy-Bagha play, and perform a surreal dance that pantomimes a brief history of India. The allegorical dance (bhoot/ ghost in Bengali means ‘past’) in four segments is a phantasmagoria of styles and moods that now evokes Baul fakirs, now the sepoys, now British lords, now the Babus.

The dance mesmerises at every repeat viewing – and not only because of its conceptualization.

ghost dance goopy gyne bagha byne

A four stratum ghost dance

The celluloid representation depicts the division of society into caste, class and creed since Time turned ‘civilised’. Ghosts in the first group are shadowy, fluid, amorphous shapes belonging perhaps to the lowest strata of society – peasants, artisans, labourers. The second group has potbellied ghosts wearing costumes that remind us of a zamindar, sometimes the money lender, or an industrialist, and sometimes the priest. Their bulky forms contrast the skeletal shadows that preceded them on the screen – perhaps because they thrived by exploiting the plebians?

The final set of ghosts recall the story of colonization by people who are suited and booted and wear hats and walk with a stick and strike awe with their body language. Indeed, all the ghosts are described later by Goopy and Bagha: they are baba bhoot-chhana bhoot, kancha bhoot-paka bhoot, soja bhoot-banka bhoot, roga bhoot-mota bhoot, haba bhoot- gaba bhoot. They are thin or fat, short or tall, crooked or straight, simple or strange: Read between the words – they are the world we inhabit…across time and space!

Each group appears separately, in harmony; then they reappear to fight and war with and kill one another. The pantomime is danced only to the clash of percussion instruments – and makes us wonder, when did homo sapiens get so divided?

Only a genius of Ray’s stature could visualise this satirical choreography mocking class pretensions!

More to read

Use of Magic and Supernaturalism in Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne and Hirak Rajar Deshe

Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne – The Story of the Kind Bravehearts

Telling the Stories Beyond the Silver Posters of Satyajit Ray

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A National Award winner for her Writings on Cinema, Ratnottama Sengupta is a natural writer with keen understanding of Cinema and Visual Art. A Journalist since 1978, she has been with The Times of India, The Telegraph, Screen and been the Editor of the online magazine CineBengal.com. Daughter of writer Nabendu Ghosh, she writes extensively on Cinema and on Art. She has contributed to Encyclopedia Britannica on Hindi Films, and has to her credit many titles including on Plastic Arts. Ratnottama has curated 'Little Languages Film Festival' in Delhi, Bangalore, Kolkata; 'Prosenjit: A Retrospective', Delhi; 'Bimal Roy Centenary', Goa, Kolkata; 'Bengali Cinema After Rituparno', Delhi; and initiated the 'Hyderabad Bengali Films Festival'. * She has been on IFFI Steering Committee; National and International Award juries; with CBFC; and on NFDC Script Committee. She scripted Mukul, a short film on Nabendu (2009). She debuts as director with And They Made Classics.
All Posts of Ratnottama Sengupta

2 thoughts on “Dancing with Ray… An Unparalleled Celluloid Experience

  • Subrata Gangopadhyay

    Your writing and all the relevant information and photos, videos and my paintings you used today about only proud of Bengal after Rabindranath Tagore Shri Satyajit Roy on his Birth Century are just awesome!!
    Thank you so very much Dear Ratnottama for sharing stunning memories!
    Bests
    Subrata Gangopadhyay

  • Reena Dasgupta

    What an analytical and engrossing write up. You have well penned Ray’s experimenting with different art forms, dance, music and the other aspects which took his viewers to a different level of enjoyment.
    Thank you Ratnottama for his enjoyable post.

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