The Material Universe of Rabindranath Tagore through the Eyes of Satyajit Ray
By Shoma A Chatterji
A review by Subha Das Mollick
In Satyajit Ray’s film Nayak, theatre director Shankar Da tells his protégé Arindam, “A film actor is nothing but a puppet. A puppet in the hands of the director, a puppet in the hands of the cameraman and a puppet between the blades of the editor’s scissors.” Theatre, on the other hand, is a living, breathing medium that draws its sustenance from a live audience, adds Shankar Da by way of explanation.
Ray knew that in the world of cinema, human presence can be reduced to a mere shadow or a silhouette or a frozen frame and objects can get a life of their own. That is why the lorgnette in Charulata, the lipstick in Mahanagar, Arindam’s black glasses in Nayak are as much bearers of meaning and memory as the owners of these objects. Ray did not infuse life into these objects the way Dziga Vertov made his camera come alive and acquire an autonomous existence in the 1929 film Man with a Movie Camera. In Ray’s films these objects drew their life force from their owners. They became extensions of the owner’s persona. That is why the maestro took as much trouble to find the right objects as he took to find the right cast for his films. For him these objects were not mere props. They were bearers of the characters’ hopes and anxieties, companions in their lonely moments and representatives of the material universe to which the characters belonged. In some cases the objects like the stone picked up by Paresh Babu one rainy afternoon or the slippers given to Goopy and Bagha by the king of ghosts, were endowed with special powers to determine the course of the narrative trajectory.
Shoma Chatterji writes in her book Woman at the Window:
“Objects within the cinematic field can sometimes be substitutes for dialogues or words. …..The brass tumbler rolling off the stones lucidly portrays Indir Thakuran’s death. ….
A close look at the ‘objects’ used for detailing brings us to the possible meanings that lie beyond the concrete objects per se, and their role in ‘detailing’.”
Shoma Chatterji’s book Woman at the Window: Material Universe of Rabindranath Tagore Through the Eyes of Satyajit Ray, published by Harper Collins in 2017, takes a unique look at Ray’s films and other films by making the objects in these films the subject of her analysis, instead of the human characters – or sometimes in tandem with the human characters. In various chapters of the book, the author reminds the reader of the pivotal role played by objects like ‘Rosebud’ in Citizen Kane, the shoes in Gold Rush, the suicide note in Unishe April, the gramophone in 36 Chowringhee Lane, Badge No. 786 in Deewar, the black and white reel with Zubeidaa’s song and dance number in Shyam Benegal’s film Zubeidaa and of course, the various objects in Ray’s films. All these objects pulsate with metaphoric and metonymic connotations way beyond their material value.
Shoma Chatterji posits these objects with the help of theories propounded by Marx, Jean Baudrillard and others. While Marx assigned ‘use value’ and ‘exchange value’ of objects, which he viewed as commodities. According to Marxist theory, slaves and industrial labourers are also commodities. Baudrillard declared in one of his manifestoes, “We have always lived off the splendour of the subject and poverty of the object. It is the subject that makes history, totalizes the world. The object is shamed, obscure and passive.” Chatterji argues, “Would women, who are often socially and economically considered objects, assume subjectivity as women when studied in relation to the objects they are closely associated with?” To illustrate her point, Chatterji cites the example of an aging singer’s tanpura. The singer, who is perhaps no longer in public demand, retains her aura through her tanpura.
Arguably, Woman at the Window is the first of its kind to be published in India – a unique addition to the genre of serious books on cinema. Kaushik Bhaumik has eloquently put in his foreword, “One of the first things that struck me when I started to engage with the book was its timed appearance with respect to the ascent in the West of something called ‘object – oriented philosophy’,…Dedicated to overturning the anthropocentrism of philosophical and social thought that holds human beings as the centre of all existence, Harman and a few others have posited a radical autonomy of objects with respect to human will. Objects are things unto themselves and need to be seen as independent of human interest.”
There is a difference in the way objects are viewed by oriental cultures and western cultures. Western cultures fetishize objects way beyond these objects have lost their ‘use value’. These objects become showpieces in museums and collectors’ cabinets. Some objects acquire an aura by virtue of the price tagged on them at auctions. In oriental cultures on the other hand, objects are often endowed with anthropomorphic qualities. Clay idols and phallic stones are worshipped, precious stones are expected to determine the destinies of those who wear them and talismans are expected to protect men at war (Recall Karna’s impenetrable golden armour – a gift from his father Surya). One only has to delve into folk tales to rejoice in the agency enjoyed by talking drums and singing vessels. Objects are often equal to humans and sometimes substitutes for humans. In Tagore’s play Shaap Mochan, the king sends his veena or lute as his representative when the princess wants to meet the king. The princess exchanges garlands with the king’s veena.
Shoma Chatterji’s idea of exploring the material universe of Tagore is not only novel, it promises to open up many windows for scholarly exploration and get the India academia interested in ‘thing theory’ that is gaining popularity in the west. In her study of the adaptations of Tagore’s literary work by Ray, she works at the intersection of visual, material and literary cultures – an exciting and virgin field, holding promise for cerebral and aesthetic fulfilment.
In her book, Chatterji devotes the last three chapters to the study of Teen Kanya, Charulata and Ghare Baire , which happen to be the adaptations of Tagore’s novels and stories by Ray. In the five chapters (Including the introduction) preceding these three chapters , the author lays the foundation by dwelling on the themes ‘literature and cinema’, ‘Tagore, women and cinema’, ‘cinematic value of objects’ and ‘Satyajit Ray, his celluloid women vis-à-vis cinematic value of objects’. In the last mentioned chapter, she analyses the role of objects in adaptations from Bibhuti Bhushan and Narendranath Mitra and questions whether the objects have a gendered quality structured into them. She also draws her readers’ attention to the fact that food recurs as an object in many films of Ray, right from Pather Panchali to his last film Agantuk. She argues that Ray has used food not only as a cultural component, but also to make political statements.
The medium of cinema is uniquely equipped to turn objects into subjects and endow them with life. What gets a passing mention in a literary work, takes on a new significance in its cinematic adaptation. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine the garden sequence of Charulata without the swing, the lorgnette and of course the khaata that Charu lovingly gifted to Amal. Charu’s beautiful gift came with a condition, “Whatever you write in this khaata, you cannot send for publishing. It will stay between us.” Amal, a bit of a hedonist, does not heed Charu’s sentiments. The way the snapping of strings within Charu is cinematically portrayed, takes the film way beyond the original literary work. The objects – be they embroidered khaata or embroidered slippers or embroidered hanky, are central to this cinematic portrayal.
Woman at the Window is a not to be missed book for cinema lovers, Ray fans and film scholars alike. In this centenary year of Ray, it offers a fresh look at Ray’s craft. Ray’s attention to details is legendary. But after reading this book we realize that these details were not mere mise en scène details for Ray. Each object he chose was a part of the world he carefully constructed. Chatterji writes in her introductory note, “Objects in the cinema of Satyajit Ray are enriched by cinematic value, posterity value and value as a subject for future study.”
In exploring the material universe of Tagore as reconstructed by Ray, Shoma Chatterji “makes visible the invisible elements in the Ray – Tagore link.”
(Pictures are courtesy the author)
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