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Imagining Bengal’s Past: Dance in Ray’s Cinema

By Debanjali Biswas

Satyajit Ray (1921-1992) selectively used dance in his films. Once mesmerised by a performance of Bharatnatyam exponent Tanjore Balasaraswati (1918-1984), Ray was inspired to make a documentary on her art many years later. Bala (1976) remains a richly mined life-story of the dancer’s ancestry, struggles, patronage, and her outstanding command of gestures in Bharatnatyam. Ray was equally fascinated by Kalpana (1948), a dance film directed by dancer-choreographer Uday Shankar (1900-1977). Ray’s biographer Andrew Robinson writes how Indian music and dancing portrayed in Kalpana had a lasting impact on him (2004, 64). The incorporation of Indian traditions and its bridging with western aesthetics, was a potential liberating model when Ray decided to include movements in his films. He recasts the model in Aguntuk (1991) where Shankar’s daughter Mamata (b.1955) plays a character who dances the Santhali Dong with tribal women in rural Bengal, in a bid to assimilate with an antipodal culture while the protagonist/anthropologist gazes on. However, Ray’s earlier films explore performance forms more meaningfully. I particularly look at dance and how it recuperates the cinematic narrative in unexpected ways. This essay is a brief study of the processes, histories, performers, as I analyse dances in two of Ray’s films – Jalsaghar (1958) and Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (1969) and discuss how creatively Ray imagined Bengal’s past with his use of classical and modern dance.

Inside the Music Room

Fig.1.Jalsaghar. Screenshot by Author

Jalsaghar foregrounds the relationship of music with time, as well as history and memory. It is based on Tarashankar Bandopadhyay’s story. Lord Bishwambhar Roy is an impoverished landlord under colonial rule. His complete inattention to his responsibilities as a landlord cannot be explained by his complete devotion to music. The jalsaghar can be seen as an embodiment of the landlord’s idleness “stripped of his productive capacities” (Dube 2005, 18). Ray however creates around this intimate space of musical exchange – memories of tragedy and memories of jalsas interwoven with Bishwambhar’s declining command as a zamindar.

Jalsas are musical soirees that primarily took place in the evenings. A group of men would gather at the invitation of the host to pleasurably enjoy music and/or dance. In the context of this film, I write ‘men’ as no other women were present in the concerts other than the performers. The music and dance shown in Jalsaghar emphasises the depth of Bishwambhar’s connoisseurly knowledge. Ray did not limit the musical styles to one gharana although there is a subtle undercurrent of regional, Bengali performance cultures. In Indian performing arts, a gharana is identified as lineage or an important socio-cultural collective; it is also acknowledged as a style, a subtle body language, as well as a repertory of traditional practices. His ancestral lineage, Bishwambhar believes, had endowed him with an innate refined taste for the idiosyncratic beauty of music. Ray elegantly builds that musical taste into the soundscape of the film with some of the renowned gharanedar artists of the time. With their inclusion in Jalsaghar, Ray subtly invokes how some musical knowledge and skills are perennial when transmitted through lineages and practice.

The music was composed by Ustad Vilayat Khan (1928-2004), a sitarist hailing from a generation of Hindustani classical musicians of the Imdadkhani-Etawah gharana. He was aided by surbahar maestro Ustad Imrat Khan (1935-2018), and Bengali musician Robin Majumdar. Thumri, a light classical musical piece was sung by Begum Akhtar Sahiba (1914-1974) in her own inimitable style. Ustad Salamat Ali Khan (1934-2001) of Sham Chaurasi gharana sang a composition on raga Miyan ki Malhar. Ustad Waheed Khan played the role of instrumentalist Ujir Khan, and maestro Ustad Bismillah Khan (1916-2006) is credited for the haunting shehnai music. I depart from further discussing the soundscape of the film to concentrate on the Kathak performance.

The dance of the Kathaks or a community of hereditary performers, “itself a fusion of rhythmic compositions and footwork, the dance-songs of the courtesans, and remnants of devotional folk theatre, had become Kathak dance, one of the classical dances of India” (Walker 2014, 115). Danseuse Roshan Kumari (b.1941) an exponent of the Jaipur gharana of Kathak, said to have developed in the courts of Rajasthan, west India (see Walker 104-5) is cast as Krishna Bai. A few scenes before her dance, in a conversation with his young neighbour Mahim Ganguli, Bishwambhar expresses an uncompromising rejection for baiji naach as a part of jalsa. Jalsaghar was set in the 1920s when the marginalisation of hereditary Muslim musicians and irreverence for female performing artists were not uncommon. Dance and dancers have negotiated and struggled with processes of tradition and transformation. The baiji Krishna Bai’s performance challenges both patrons to value her skills and make their benefaction towards art, irrespective of their socio-economic positions.

Neither of them is disappointed. There is a courtly elegance and flamboyance in her presentation. In the tradition of the Jaipur gharana with traces of the Lucknow gharana, Roshan Kumari renders vigorous pada-nyaasa or flourish in footwork – an outstanding component of the Jaipur gharana. Krishna Bai’s Kathak dance has been recognised as a trivat – one which is comprised of verbal text, tarana, and percussion recitation showing technical virtuosity. The kavitt is from the Krishna lore – a common thematic material in Kathak where pastoral scenes and amorous exchanges are expressed somatically and musically. Krishna Bai strides into a gat-bhaav depicting Krishna’s playfulness. Her mastery of Kathak shines during the varying types of turns or chakkardar patterns – both clockwise and anti-clockwise, sometimes with double pirouettes performed with complete control. She immaculately lands on sama, the distinct centre, without losing any of the bol or textual syllables. She encapsulates the ascent in layaakari or tempo and maintains those temporal accents. She possesses a dignified restraint even at the crescendo and the sound of her ankle-bells merges with the refrain from instruments.

The performance unravels and unfolds as an intimate act. Roshan Kumari executes complex movements with her wrists, feet, and eyes, that are appreciated by the audience silently, by raised eyebrows and smiles. Sometimes the silent dialogue between the dancer and the patron is marred by another’s naïve, inebriated gestures. Bishwambhar looks at Krishna Bai in an unsensual, admiring way; a hypnotic gaze is returned by Roshan Kumari. Ray also uses these characters to intervene the hermeneutic shaped by Orientalism and notions of immorality and sensuality. Bishwambhar is veritably pleased with Krishna Bai’s finesse, the musicians’ abilities to recreate the aesthetics of a refined cultural performance. If music has denoted the interiorised emotions of Bishwambhar, then Krishna Bai’s artistry makes him see that in some circumstances dance enhances the aesthetic experience of music.

One of the reasons Ray chose to adapt Jalsaghar onto celluloid was because it offered ample scope for music and dance, or ingredients for a marketable, successful film. To satiate his audience, Ray shows three jalsa-s – the occurrence of each is also linked with the social impact of transition in patronage. Bishwambhar’s decline in money and status is framed as a contrast to his unrefined bourgeois neighbour’s rising status. Ganguli is one of those middle-class agents who had benefitted from business connections to the East India Company, from the 1793 Permanent Settlement of Bengal. He is representative of the new world the aristocratic Bishwambhar resists. Their social circle forms the public life of performance culture. Because the music room and music are sites of contested cultural values, and the sustenance of cultural authority depends on capital, Bishwambhar feels little as he hands the last of his finances as inam to Krishna Bai. He has come to realise that his taste, prestige, and patronage have been proven worthy.

The scene following the last jalsa deviates from Bandopadhyay’s text in which Krishna Bai and her patron spend the night together, musicking. In the film, Ray frames Bishwambhar against extinguishing lights, oscillating between joy and lament before riding off to his death at dawn. The last jalsa is a long session of “fast-paced music and the energetic visual rhythm of Kathak dance to telescope time”; as Dube rightly observes, there is no more music after the dance ends, only sound effects foretelling the culmination of an era (2005, 25). Rather than a complete rejection of the past, Ray’s filming of the dance revivifies the protagonist, however briefly. One watches Roshan Kumari’s dance with a sense of ambiguity not knowing what the end of the dance signals for Bishwambhar. In Jalsaghar, the extended sequence of dance pauses the narrative and prolongs time as Ray shows the complexities of the private and the public lives of a patron immersed in a performance culture.

Dance of the Bengali ghosts

Fig. 2.Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne. Screnshot by author

Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne was adapted from Ray’s grandfather, Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury’s (1863-1915) story. The two protagonists, Goopy and Bagha bullied and thrown out of their respective villages, receive boons from magical creatures – ghosts. The king of ghosts put up an elaborate performance for the two men – this becomes an important ensemble presentation in Ray’s film expanding the scope of dance in a musical. The dance departs from Ray Chowdhury’s text and was conceptualised by Ray entirely.

An insight into the choreography sequence is gained from Ray’s extensive research and descriptions in his notebook – Kheror Khata (1967-68). Ray imagines a hierarchy of ghosts from Bengal’s history of reign and labour. The ruling class, the indigo planters, the Buddhist kings, appear as spirits, as do the peasants, labourers, and soldiers. Ray also wanted to maintain his grandfather’s authorial voice by introducing this motley ensemble as amiable, unvillainous. Keeping in mind the history of Bengal, Ray drew the costumes and props. In the absence of facial expressions, the ingenuity in costuming helps the audience to visualise the ghost menagerie. The movement ideas resemble those from Shankar’s Kalpana, and the dance for camera was made by choreographer Shambhu Bhattacharya (1935-2018).

The choreographies of Shambhu Bhattacharya were shaped from his time at Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), the cultural wing of the Communist Party of India in the 1940s. Some of the dance IPTA created, directly came from bodies that are shaped by toil and labour, and Bhattacharya’s movement aesthetics embedded the precarity of those bodies within them. He also conducted extensive research into the folk-dance idioms of Bengal. In the vast narrative of contemporary dance and cultural narratives of Bengal, Bhattacharya’s creative oeuvre remains undiscussed. In Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, his collaboration with Ray ideated the ‘Bhooter Naach’ or ‘Dance of the Ghosts’ – the most visible embodiment of his art till date. His choreography remains self-consciously alternative and experimental while remaining embedded in the pastoral landscape of Bengal.

Aurally, Ray binds the choreography with Indian classical musical traditions. Shrikant Prabhu discusses the influences of Carnatic music in ‘Dance of the Ghosts’ quite elaborately (2020). Ray’s genius and Bhattacharya’s knowledge of various forms are complemented by the music of the sequence – thani avartanam. The thani avartanam is a rhythmic structure in Carnatic music, where avartanam – cyclical pattern of notes is played as thani or on one’s own. This is where percussion artists show their technical prowess by playing with tempi, cycle, sounds, often ending in an energetic conversation between instruments. In ‘Dance of the Ghosts’, the dances of different ghost communities are expressed by four distinct Carnatic instruments mridangam, kanjira, ghatam, morsing. They are played individually in vilamb (slow), madhyam (medium), and teevra (fast) paces, before reaching the crescendo in unison. The polyrhythmic sonic performativity aids in the visual experience of the dance.

‘Dance of the Ghosts’ is a six-and-half-minute interlude; it bridges the mundane existence of the protagonists with the phantasmal unknown. When Goopy and Bagha exhausted from having chased wild beasts by their hoary songs suddenly find themselves in an enchanted grove, a five-pointed star carrying the king of the ghosts appears and orders for the performance of the spirits to begin. A group appears with their faces covered in long masks to the sound of mridangam. Alternating between kick and pause, the movements are rooted in Kathakali – a dance-theatre form from Kerala. The movements are vigorous and abstract, the footwork is fast paced. The second ghost community walks with weapons and long strides to the beats of kanjira. There is a robustness and acrobatic quality to their dancing. Their movements appear to be choreographed from martial dances such as Chhau. The bodies belie the labour of fields and industries. In the third group, foreign-looking men in hats and stiff buttoned coats appear to the sound of ghatam, they do not dance. Neither do the next group, the rotund men who float into the frame; the music from morsing perhaps makes these figures more comical. In each cycle of thani avartanam, the dances begin with mridangam and ends with morsing until they reach a crescendo together.

Andrew Robinson writes that these were four classes of ghosts (2004, 187-188). They were kings and warriors, common people, sahibs or colonial officers, and the fourth group comprised religious preachers, lawyers, and babus i.e., the Bengali elite. “The sahibs are shadow puppets which were under-cranked at sixteen frames per second for a wooden, mechanical effect” (ibid). Shambhu Bhattacharya’s troupe performed as the ghosts of other classes with different make-up and costumes. This demonstrates the prowess of Bhattacharya’s troupe of dancers who were able to convey the peculiarity of each group by slow and frenzied movements. Aurally, the percussive instruments play more intensely as the scene progresses. Visually, we see the groups erupt into chaos. The in-fighting ends with all the ghosts falling on the ground, dead again. In the end, the dead souls rise and dance in a tableau, as harmony amongst them is restored. As outlined by cinematographer Soumendo Roy, the four parts of the dance were filmed separately in a white background and some were turned into negative using an optical camera. As the scene folds and fades away, all four sets of dancers appear to be connected – that, as well as the watery foreground were achieved by manipulation by the same optical camera (Sanyal 2017).

The story it tells is definitely an adult story, Ray said of the dance. This is where Ray departed from his grandfather’s fairy-tale. Through the dance, Ray depicts the departed souls of various classes that had lived in Bengal – a few common people, and the many ruling elites. The formal boundaries of dance and theatre are blurred. The dancing bodies are dismantling and resituating a movement aesthetic of cacophony. The puppets portray drunkenness, brute violence. The dancers show a multi-ethnic, multireligious state who quarrel and perish over resources, religious fundamentalism, foibles of colonialism. This was an act that was politically conscious and grounded in geo-cultural specificity. As a performance text, ‘Dance of the Ghosts’ is enacted in front of Goopy and Bagha who may or may not remember the marauding spirits once they break the enchantment next dawn. The dance serves as a metaphor of peace and resolution, something they must achieve when their journeys continue beyond the forest.

‘Dance of the Ghosts’ is a blend of classical Carnatic music and choreography of a modern and neoclassical repertory. The movements of common people and warriors are reminiscent of a style that became popular amongst dancing groups in Calcutta from the mid-twentieth century. They could be seen as an amalgamation of classical dance and folk-martial styles most popularised by choreographer Uday Shankar as well as Shambhu Bhattacharya’s “creative” interpretation of classical dance. On another note, every time I have seen the film, I had been struck by the lack of female ghosts. Possibly in Ray’s imagination of phantasmal spaces, female spirits continued to inhabit the inner domain, that they were no warriors, administrators, farmers, or preachers. I cannot but wonder what Bengali female ghosts, such as an irate petni or a cantankerous shakchunni would have danced.

Photo: The Week

Select Bibliography

Dube, Reena. Satyajit Ray’s The Chess Players And Postcolonial Theory: Culture, Labour and the Value of Alterity. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. 2005.

Prabhu, Shrikant V. Going in Circles With Satyajit Ray. https://upperstall.com/features/going-in-circles-with-satyajit-ray/ [Accessed on March 24, 2021]

Ray, Satyajit. Kheror Khata: Goopy Gyne, Bagha Byne. Satyajit Roy Society. National Digital Library of India. https://ndl.iitkgp.ac.in/ [Accessed on March 24, 2021]

Robinson, Andrew. The Inner Eye: The Biography of a Master Film-Maker. London: I.B. Tauris, 2004.

Sanyal, Devapriya. Through the Eyes of the Cinematographer: A Biography of Soumendu Roy. New Delhi: HarperCollins India. 2017

Walker, Margaret E. Kathak Dance: A Critical History [India]. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate 2004.

Filmography

Ray, Satyajit, dir. Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne. Purnima Pictures, 1968. Film. 132 min.

-, dir. Jalsaghar. Satyajit Ray Productions, 1958. Film.100 min.

Bio:
Debanjali Biswas is a scholar of cultural anthropology and dance studies. She is a consummate performer and is in the process of completing her doctoral research on performativity and performing traditions of Manipur from King’s College London.

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For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

One Comment Post a comment
  1. This was such a joy to read since I myself have been mesmerised by Roshan Kumari’s performance in JALSAGHAR, specifically the vocals- the rhythmic pirouettes matched by the voice in a circular sense of the beats, as you point out.

    Beautifully written.

    May 7, 2021

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