Ray’s Ravi Shankar – A Blueprint for Posterity
An Unfilmed Visual Script: Satyajit Ray’s Ravi Shankar is a very different and special book. It embeds within itself, a 32 page drawing book containing more than a 100 sketches by Satyajit Ray of sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar playing the sitar on a stage. The drawings capture the mood of the musical flow through form (shape) and suggested movement. The drawings have the mathematical precision of a graphic visualizer and the imagination of an impressionist painter. Did Ray think of making a film on Sankar? He may well have thought it but left the job unfinished. Subha Das Mollick reviews the unique book and explores the possibilities.
In 2014, Society for the Preservation of Satyajit Ray Archives, in collaboration with Harper Collins, published a stylishly designed book An Unfilmed Visual Script: Satyajit Ray’s Ravi Shankar. The book embeds within itself, a 32 page drawing book containing more than a 100 sketches by Satyajit Ray. The sketches are accompanied by technical instructions on camera movements and other things. The first page of this drawing book has the author’s name, that is Satyajit Ray, written in Bengali and the second page has a pencilled note ‘Rough Sketches for a film of’ and then, inside a 4:3 aspect ratio frame, “A SITAR RECITAL BY RAVISHANKAR”.The first frame on the next page is a black frame, presumably, the dark auditorium.All the subsequent visuals are paintings in black and white, inside 4:3 aspect ratio frames. The visuals are that of Ravi Shankar playing the sitar on a stage. His frame is silhouetted against a semi circular backlight. From an extreme long shot, the camera slowly tracks towards him. The camera movements are written in pencil, with arrows indicating the movements from frame to frame. For example, in the first seven frames, there are arrows from one frame to the next, with the words “TRACK FORWARD”.
The drawings capture the mood of the musical flow through form (shape) and suggested movement. They have the power to arrest the reader’s attention and transpose her to the world captured in the frames. It is an indication that Ray could hear the music in his mind when he was making the sketches, although, what exactly was the raga that played in his mind, would never be known. Whatever be the music, he could make it flow through his paint brush. The drawings have the mathematical precision of a graphic visualizer and the imagination of an impressionist painter.
The 30 pages of storyboard are divided into four segments – Alaap, Vilambitlaya, Madhya laya and Drutalaya. The alaap is replete with slow track shots and pan shots. The first ten frames constitute one single shot – slow track in to Ravi Shankar playing the sitar and then a slow pan away from him to the blank backdrop. This shot dissolves to shots of nature – cloud, dry leaves, ripples on water surface and alotus in bloom. This dissolves to a lotus motif on the veena and most interestingly, a Ragmala painting of a woman playing veena to an audience of deers. The woman’s profile appears in dissolves from many angles in many poses.
The transition from alaap to vilambitlaya is through a cut and a change of lighting. These are noted in pencil adjacent to the frames. Visuals of the tabla first appear in the vilambitlaya. The camera movements become faster, all the transitions are through cuts, there are straight shots as well as canted angle shots and the focus is entirely on the performers. The visuals of the Madhya laya, on the other hand, play with sculpture. The decorative panels in relief sculpture have wave like patterns and the patterns seem to flow smoothly from frame to frame. Shankarlal Bhattacharjee writes in the chapter Unheard Melodies in the book, “He wanted to see the melodies of the sitar as curled lines rising upward into the air.” From relief sculpture to the statue of a woman. The brush strokes around the sculpture of a woman’s face are interesting. They seem to be in tune with the music playing in his mind – or they may be coded instruction for the lighting scheme. Only the woman’s face is lit up. The rest is in darkness.
The play of graphic pattern in a dark frame attains an interesting dimension in the top shots of the tabla. From far atop the camera comes closer and closer to the concentric black and white circles of the tabla and a dismembered pair of hands striking the surfaces. The tabla at one point cuts to the sitar – just the sitar playing in the darkness. The camera zooms forward and the sitar takes up a greater portion of the frame, but the remaining frame remains shrouded in darkness, giving the impression ofthe sitar being played by dismembered hands. From sitar back to tabla. Now in one single crane shot the camera comes down from a top shot of the tabla to a worm’s eye view of the tabla. The sitar and the table keep alternating, suggesting a sawal-jawaab.
The madhyalaya ends with the stem of the sitar cutting across the frame horizontally and the fingers playing on the frets. The drutalaya is introduced with a dissolve to a scene of the storm – the rumblings of which one had glimpsed in alaap.
A montage of the storm is raised to the beat of the sitar. And then again the stem of the sitar, but this time diagonally across the frame. Sitar and tabla are inter cut till we see the sitar player from a low angle. A study of the maestro’s intent expression, his finger movements captured in overlapping shots, followed by five ‘swings’ of the maestro playing. The camera holds on a mid shot of the maestro. There is a change in lighting. The camera tracks back to an extreme long shot. The film ends the way it had begun. A raga is rendered, a cycle is completed.
At what stage in Ray’s career did he take time off to paint this detailed storyboard?
Sandip Ray writes in his introduction, “According to Marie Seton, Baba’s biographer, the storyboard was made in 1951. But there are film scholars who argue against this date. Whatever the date may have been, it is not unreasonable to say that the storyboard was made before the time of Aparajito. For Baba left drawing blocks and used red note books (Kheror khata) for the first time to write the screenplay for his second feature film.”
Sandip Ray’s assumption is more likely to be true because Satyajit Ray came to know Ravi Shankar intimately during the music composition of The Apu trilogy. Pather Panchali was released in 1955 and Aparajito in 1956. The Ravi Shankar storyboard must have been made sometime in 1955 – three years before Bert Haanstra’s Glass. So Ray could not have been influenced by Haanstra’s experiments of juxtaposition of image with music. But Ray was all too familiar with Western classical music. In the Ravi Shankar storyboard, one cannot overlook the reference to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons in the visuals of the storm. In the violin concerti Four Seasons composed by Vivaldi, one hears the rumblings of a storm in Spring, which turns into a full blown storm in Summer. Here too the hint of falling leaves and ripples on water in the ‘alaap’ section get energized in the drutalaya section. The drawings capture the blueprint of a storm blowing over the audience.
Blueprints are like musical notations, a detailed visualization of the final artefact, a visualization that indicates the structure, the flow, the tempo, the conflicts and collisions, the unisons and harmonizations. Musical notations are written for western music. Indian music is free flowing and improvised within a raga structure. Ray had hypothesized in one of the chapters of Our Films Their Films that Indian films suffer a formal weakness because Indian directors tend to overlook the musical aspect of a film’s structure. Western musical compositions of symphonies, concertos, sonatas follow strict time bound structures. The performers follow the notations and render their performances under the conductor’s baton. There are dramatic key changes and there are distinctly identifiable male subjects and female subjects, or theme A and theme B.
Western musical structures can easily be adapted in cinema. Bert Haanstra’s Glass, for instance, is composed in three distinct movements – first movement dedicated to traditional glass blowers, second movement showing a mechanized glass factory and its occasional perils and the third movement being an inter weaving of the two. The music is totally in sync with the visuals. Sometimes it seems to be emanating from the actions of the glass blowers. Glass is an exemplary film demonstrating the bonding between the two art forms – music and cinema. Not only are the two art forms sculpted in time, but also they complement and fulfil each other.
Ray found the structure of Indian classical music less adaptable to cinema. In his words:
“A raga is a raga – with a single predetermined mood and tonality – that is built up like a temple, starting from a solid base of aalap, culminating in a spire of flourishes on the higher octaves of the scale. Perhaps one could, with some stretch of imagination, think of a film subject that might be built up like the development of a raga, but I cannot think of this as a form with wide application.”
Ray had penned these thoughts in 1965 – ten years after he created the story board of “A Sitar Recital by Ravi Shankar”. Could it be that this limitation of Indian classical music dawned on him while making the storyboard? Could it be that he left this experiment incomplete because he could not reconcile the two time frames – the performance time and the screen time? Is it possible that Ray could not figure out how to fit the free flowing improvisation of Indian classical music within the strict time structure of a film? Did he find it difficult to apply a scheme of well-orchestrated camera movements and camera angles to a performance that could not be repeated for a second take?
The storyboard runs into 30 pages. One may hazard a guess that Ray had a 30 minute film in mind when he developed the storyboard. An abstract experimental film is not likely to sustain viewer’s attention beyond that time. But to confine it to 30 minutes, he needed a close collaboration with the performer, something that goes against the basic nature of Indian classical music. In the storyboard, Ray has completed the aalap in 32 drawings. When rendered on screen this can be anything from 12 minutes to 32 minutes. The screen time would depend on the pace of the tracks and dissolves. Could he possibly negotiate with Ravi Shankar to ensure the duration of aalap to a pre-determined time frame?
Besides this tug of war with time at a conceptual level, Ray would also have had to overcome technical hurdles of appropriate lighting and camera movements and placements. A performance of Indian classical music cannot be performed in parts, cannot be fragmented. But cinema is a medium where fragments are put together to create an illusion of continuity. If an unhindered performance is to be shot, the camera movements have to be perfect. The crane down from the top shot of the table to its low angle shot, has to be ‘OK’ in the first take. Also, to shoot an unhindered musical performance, one would have had to use a multi camera set up. Doing a chiaroscuro lighting for a multi camera set up is no mean task.
Writes Shankarlal Bhattacharya in Unheard Melodies, “He did not see the film as simply a recital where the accompanist was an integral presence. The recital was also a journey of exploration from concert into the concepts of melody, nature, man and art.” The use of the Ragmala painting in the visual design of the film is like a reminder that transposing music into visuals has been done before. Ray acknowledges this tradition, borrows from it and takes it forward in his chosen medium.
Perfectionist that he was, Ray dedicated a lot of time and energy in developing this storyboard. As a result, the story board itself is a text to be studied, enjoyed and savoured – a text that is the blueprint of two parallel texts – a musical composition and its visualization. If Ray had given a lot more time and energy to take this storyboard to its fruition, we would have had a non narrative experimental film, a celebration of the medium of cinema – a work, the justification for whose existence would have been the sheer exploration of the medium called “cinema”.
I have the vision of Ray with the conductor’s baton, conducting the performance of a multi camera ‘orchestra’ set up to capture a live musical performance of a maestro.
Ray has left behind a challenge to posterity to actualize this story board. It is less impossible today than it was in 1955, using today’s technology – small digital cameras, small but powerful sources of light and sophisticated post production technology for visuals as well as sound.
More to Read
Satyajit Ray’s Ravi Shankar: An Unfilmed Visual Script
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