A Tale of Mind and Matter: Ray’s Search for Aestheticism within Modernity
By Sayan Chatterjee
In an early sequence from Satyajit Ray’s Apur Sansar (1959), a sudden knock on the door interrupts Apu playing his flute in bed in a shabby, drab apartment. The displeasure on his face at his private moment of joy being interrupted is evident. Thinking it would be his landlord outside asking for rent again, he is reluctant to leave his bed and almost resumes playing his flute before deciding to get up and open the door only to find his old friend Pulu outside. While dining on cutlets in a local restaurant later, Pulu inquires about Apu’s unemployment and offers to arrange a clerical job for him, but on their walk back home Apu declines the offer, stating that since he has no familial obligations, he has no reason to settle for the mindless drudgery of undignified clerical labor even though he is unemployed and clearly suffering financial hardships. When Pulu asks him, “Do you plan to pay your rent forever by selling your books? Don’t you want to improve your station?” Apu nonchalantly answers that men with inherent creative talent, like Gorky, Keats, Dickens, Dostoevsky, Lawrence, find a way to make it big in life without having to depend on regular employment, and even pokes fun at Pulu’s aspirations of going abroad to get an engineering degree, and returning home to win a lucrative job and settle down. He goes on to narrate the semiautobiographical novel he is working on, centered around an educated, culturally enlightened protagonist who, undeterred by his personal losses, professional failures, and poverty, finds beauty in small and practically insignificant things. He is at once a rational intellectual, free from superstitions and religious dogmatism of rural life and a sensitive romantic who values aesthetic experience more than his material reality. This description of Apu’s protagonist perhaps accurately encapsulates one of the most consistent and characteristic essences of Ray’s vision as an auteur throughout his career.
Critical scholarship on Ray’s work, most notably Chandak Sengoopta’s, has often identified a clear transition from a firm, optimistic faith to utter disappointment in the example of industrial, urban modernity that Ray witnessed around himself during his middle and late career, especially following the end of newly independent India’s progressive, aspirational era under Jawaharlal Nehru’s premiership in 1964. This is indeed undeniable. His Nayak (1966), Aranyer Din Ratri (1970), Calcutta Trilogy (1970-76), Shakha Proshakha (1990), Agantuk (1992) are all symptomatic of an ever-increasing sense of bitter disdain for the material ambitions and moral rot of Calcutta’s professional upper middle class. However, what is interesting is that similar strains of anti-bourgeois criticism are clearly evident even in some of his early films such as Jalsaghar, Parash Pathar (1958), Kanchenjungha (1962), and the aforementioned Apur Sansar made in the same optimistic Nehruvian period while he was also seemingly championing a western brand of modernity and progress in works like Aparajito (1956), Devi (1960), and Mahanagar (1963) at the same time. Therefore, a closer examination of his work perhaps evinces a deeper, less simple reason for this duality than just a dislike for banal urbanity.
It is a truism that Ray himself was a thoroughbred liberal humanist, and more importantly a very sophisticated and cosmopolitan one at that, not unlike India’s first prime minister he so admired. Explaining why he preferred Nehru to Gandhi in a 1970 interview, Ray admitted that like Nehru he was also “in a way a kind of a product of East and West” (Cardullo 50). In fact, almost all his works evince an advocacy of a certain level of internationalism. To better understand this, we must once again go back to the scene of the conversation between Apu and Pulu. The five specific authors Apu names – Gorky, Keats, Dickens, Dostoevsky, and Lawrence – all represent entirely different literary movements, genres, and national histories stretching from early nineteenth century romantic poetry and Victorian social melodrama to twentieth century Russian realism and British Modernism, but what unites them is not only their often-difficult childhoods riddled with poverty, financial ruin, death of one or both parents, and close encounters with the harshness of working-class life but also the crucial fact that they are all foreign writers to Apu. It is unsurprising that the sensitive and creative litterateur Apu, who is a stranger to neither poverty nor death of loved ones, would find inspiration in the struggle of these writers against worldly sufferings and their eventual triumph through art. But what is perhaps more noteworthy here is that the privilege of being acquainted with the works and biographies of such foreign writers comes from a certain level of cultural literacy that is more likely acquired in a city than in a village. As Apu speaks on, we come to know that like himself, the protagonist of his semi-autobiographical novel also leaves his village for the city refusing to be a priest like his father and wanting greater education and intellectual refinement. The association of urban space with a certain sense of enlightenment and of a village with regression is prevalent throughout the Apu Trilogy. In Panther Panchali, a neighbor remarks, “Living in a village makes one small-minded”; similarly in Aparajito, the headmaster of the village school where Apu is a student commends him for his excellence, hands him books on famous scientists and explorers, and notes, “Just because we live in a remote corner of rural Bengal, it does not mean our minds have to be restricted to a corner as well.” This steady pull of modernity from one film to the next is even more significantly pronounced in Ray’s adaptation than in Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s original novels which often hark back to Apu’s past provincial roots even after he has moved away to the city. From Nischindapur to Benares to Manaspota to finally Calcutta, Ray’s trilogy on the other hand is a consistent saga of change and growth.
But this desire for progress that is only possible in a large urban space does not solely stem from a congruence between Ray’s ideological making and Nehru’s nationalistic, city-centric vision of India’s industrial progress at the time, but also in Ray’s own appreciation for qualities of intellectual curiosity and cultural globalism that are neither sufficiently nurtured nor understood in the vast, rural hinterland. Throughout Aparajito, this desire to be a well-read and well-travelled modern subject is evident in an adolescent Apu. He runs around his village hut dressed up as an African tribesman; he excitedly shows his mother Sarbajaya the globe he has won as a prize after excelling in his examinations and winning a scholarship to Calcutta, explaining to her how the whole world is encapsulated in that small spherical structure; he laments to his friend that his overprotective mother wouldn’t let him travel abroad and see the world. Even his later films which are noted for their anti-bourgeois condemnation are characterized by this penchant for cultural modernity – a modernity that is very metropolitan at its core. Most notably in Agantuk, Ray’s final film where he most caustically articulated his disappointment with industrial civilization through the character of the globe-trotting anthropologist Manomohan Mitra, the character explains his experiences in London and other major European cities as “nutrition for the brain” and “the first step towards understanding humanity” while lambasting the greed and vanity of the urban bourgeois in the same scene.
This anger in Ray is therefore not a simple “dismissal of all things urban” that Dhritiman Chatterjee’s Prithiwish Sengupta accuses Utpal Dutt’s Manomohan of, but rather a rejection of a transactional, interest-driven, result-oriented value system that a capitalist society breeds. It is an anger against the very utilitarian spirit that underlies all industrial modernity – the notion that every action should have a cause and effect, that the cause of material sustenance and well-being trumps all, and worst of all, that a person should not have a consciousness above and beyond all practical interests. And just like his advocacy of cosmopolitan liberalism wasn’t exclusively tied to his appreciation for Nehru’s grand nationalist project, this anger is also not rooted solely in his growing dejection with India’s sociopolitical reality through the seventies and eighties but is quite clearly manifested even in most of his early Nehruvian era films, including and especially the likes of The Apu trilogy and Kanchenjungha.
Therefore, when Apu scoffs at Pulu’s aspirations to be a well-paid engineer and live a good life, it isn’t necessarily all of industrial modernity or even the notion of socioeconomic mobility that he is scoffing at. In fact, Apu gratefully admits that the reason he suddenly feels happy, spirited, and creatively inspired is that he has finally had a filling meal in a long time, thanks to Pulu. But it is Pulu’s absence of a romantic interiority capable of feeling pure aesthetic pleasure for its own sake that Apu is critical of, albeit jokingly. This is why he goes on to say that even though his fictional protagonist, who very much represents himself, may never improve his station in life or achieve any quantifiable success or recognition for his merits, he has found happiness in the act of living itself. When Pulu angrily reminds Apu that he isn’t devoid of literary interests either, he immediately apologizes.
In Kanchenjungha, this aesthetic versus material binary is beautifully presented through the contrast between characters such as the ornithologist Jagadish and the shy, young, but independent Ashoke and Monisha on one hand and the wealthy and conceited patriarch Indranath Roy and the pragmatic and pompous Banerjee on the other. Walking down a serene, hilly path in Darjeeling, Jagadish tells a curiously attentive Ashoke about his hobbies of travelling, bird watching, and classical music. He marvels at the navigational abilities of migratory birds flying all the way from the Arctic to the tropics, and fears that the radiation from nuclear tests polluting the air in an ever-increasingly industrial age would kill these wonders of nature. While he and Ashoke discuss birds, his niece Monisha’s suitor Banerjee, played by N. Viswanathan, elsewhere remarks to her about Jagadish: “He’s nice. He is very different from us. We’ve become too worldly. Whatever we do must be of immediate use and yield a tangible result. An industry implies budgets, calculations, profits. Everything is worldly and practical. A flood somewhere devastates the crop… so let’s build a dam, check the flow of the river… which will require material, machinery, man-power…”
Ray posits these contrasting worldviews side by side from the very first scene of the film, where the practical and acquisitive industrialist Indranath willfully shuns the opportunity to engage with any notion of pure, non-practical natural beauty, jokingly telling Jagadish that he has no interest in learning about any bird unless it’s edible. In a pivotal scene later in the film, he tells Ashoke that unlike his close friends who joined India’s freedom struggle and were either killed or arrested, he not only avoided any acts of protest or dissent in order to survive and enjoy “the fruit of independence” but more importantly, earned an honorary title from the erstwhile British rulers that he cherishes and cares for more than independent India’s future. Taken aback by Indranath’s unapologetic amorality and self-serving ambition, the lower middle class Ashoke, who had originally come to Indranath in dire need of employment, refuses his offer of a reasonably lucrative job and walks away laughing. He later tells Monisha that if he were in the crowded and competitive Calcutta, he would have perhaps never had the idealistic courage to turn down a job worth three hundred rupees per month, even if it was offered out of charity, but the ethereal beauty and atmosphere of the majestic Himalayas in Darjeeling had emboldened and inspired a higher consciousness in him to ignore his daily material needs and stick to his principles and independence. Importantly, it is this same otherworldly beauty of the sunbathed peak of Kanchenjungha that eludes an irritable Indranath in the closing scene.
The recurrent but crucial question that Ray’s advocacy of aestheticism poses for us here is about the nature of the individual who possesses the ability to feel it. Apu, Ashoke, Jagadish, Manomohan Mitra are all graced with sensibilities, intellect, and a language cultivated and honed in urban and so-called civilized spaces. In order to intellectualize or even articulate their organic, unadulterated joy in the beauty of birds, mountains, forests, meadows, prehistorical cave paintings of a bison – all that is beyond the reach of industrial modernity, they had to be modern subjects themselves. It is certainly interesting to note here that Ray’s own ancestors successfully managed to seek and acquire these cultural and intellectual rewards of modernity while avoiding its industrial and materialistic bondages. Born during Bengal’s nineteenth-century sociocultural Renaissance, both his grandfather Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury and father Sukumar Ray were well-travelled and brilliant students, writers, artists, musicians, progressive Brahmo reformers, and polymathic innovators in publishing, photography, and lithography. The early Rays, including Upendrakishore, were from Moshua village in rural East Bengal, and like so many eminent intellectuals and reformers of the nineteenth century, had originally migrated to Calcutta for their education. But as Sengoopta noted, this provincial-to-urban journey surprisingly never featured a white-collar office job for any of the Rays. It would not even be inaccurate to say that most professional and cultural endeavors that the Rays had embarked on were not means to merely material sustenance but also some internal, aesthetic enrichment beyond it.
Satyajit Ray’s own conception of modernity is characterized by this consistent romantic or humanistic craving for a pure internal contentment that is perhaps not against but certainly outside the “industrial” or “worldly”. But this again begs the larger question: does an individual’s subjectivity have to be trained and informed by modern intellect and bodies of knowledge in order to reach this aesthetic realm? Or does the modernist tendency to theorize and rationalize beauty through language sully our natural ability to feel it? The answer to this question requires a level of philosophizing that is beyond the purview of this essay, but at as far as Ray is concerned, we do perhaps witness a certain push near the end of his career for the idea that modernity as a whole, in spite of its colossal cultural achievements, has robbed us of our pristine, innate connection to nature. This is why in Agantuk, anthropologist Manomohan admits that he regrets not being a “savage” like the tribal communities he has studied, not being able to draw something as spectacular as the Bison in the Cave of Altamira, because unfortunately, he is a product of civilized modernity whose subjectivity is already saturated with Shakespeare, Bankim, Marx, Freud, Tagore. “That’s why,” he says, “I can’t do without field notes. I wouldn’t need them if I were a savage.” He can observe and study the natural order of things but never truly participate in it. His tragedy is perhaps that, like his creator Ray himself, he is acutely aware of this lack but can never undo it and regain the paradise already lost. The ultimate success of Ray’s modernity perhaps thus lies in at least its consciousness and acknowledgement of its own limitations.
Cardullo, Bert, editor. Satyajit Ray: Interviews. Jackson University Press of Mississippi, 2007.
Sengoopta, Chandak. “Satyajit Ray: Liberalism and its Vicissitudes.” Cineaste, vol. 34, no. 4, Fall 2009, pp 16-22.
Sengoopta, Chandak. “Family of Innovators: The Rays’ Quest for Modernity.” OUPblog. April 2016.
Sayan Chatterjee is a fourth-year doctoral candidate and graduate teaching assistant at the Department of English in Ohio University, and is currently working on his dissertation “Victorian Melodrama in Post-Independence Bengali Cinema 1950-1970.” His article “Milestones of Modernity: Vidyasagar, Empire, and the Indigenization of Social Reform” is forthcoming in Victorians: A Journal of Culture and Literature. Sayan is also the 2021 recipient of Ohio University’s Earl C. and Margaret Shively Scholarship, awarded to a doctoral scholar of Literature who has demonstrated outstanding excellence and progress over the course of their program. Besides Victorian and Empire studies, his research and teaching interests include British Modernism, Postcolonialism, Transnationalism, and Race and Immigrant studies in anglophone fiction and cinema.
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