I turned my face towards the windows to hide my tears. Grey rain clouds rolled outside, almost as if someone was drawing black drapes before arranging a condolence meeting in heaven. As I watched the trembling leaves, shivering in the rain outside the windows, a deep sadness seeped over me. And yet, I wasn’t alone in my grief -- the entire assembly lapsed into a hushed silence as the news spread. Here I was, miles away from my homeland, I thought, mourning my friend along with hundreds of people I did not even know by name.
A host of memories crowded my mind and I shook my head to clear the pictures. We had all known for some time now, that Manik-da was living on borrowed time. His enfeebled heart was battling valiantly to keep that splendid frame alive but we knew it was just a matter of time before Yama, the god of death, would swoop triumphantly and take him away from us. They say that Yama is totally without compassion when he swoops down to claim his prize. And yet, recently, when I heard Manik-da’s familiar baritone accepting the Lifetime Award from the American Academy of Motion Pictures, I thought to myself that no one with a booming voice like that could be so seriously ill! Who knows, this time too, he will recover as he did when he returned from the US after Dr. Denton Cooley had dragged him back from the brink of death, I had thought. After all, he had come back then and completed an unfinished film.
He was still recovering from that bout of illness when I last met him in Calcutta. Four years before that last meeting, when I had come to Calcutta, Manik-da had come to meet me. My daughter’s father-in-law, BD Pande was then the West Bengal governor and he had thoughtfully arranged for all my Ashram friends to come to the Raj Bhavan one evening and we fell upon each other’s necks in joy. Manik-da, Suchitra Mitra, my dearest school friend Anima Sen, the daughter-in-law of our respected teacher, Acharya Kshiti Mohan Sen, Arundhati Mukherji, Tara Sarkar….
‘Ours must have surely been the Golden Age of Shantiniketan,’ I had declared loftily as I looked proudly at that assembly of famous personages that day.
‘Don’t ever forget,’ Manik-da reminded us solemnly, ‘that whatever we are today is because of what we learnt at the Ashram.’ He always spoke in very measured, reflective tones and I had suddenly felt as chastened as a schoolgirl rapped on her knuckle for overlooking a basic fact.
The Calcutta I once knew had changed so irrevocably since I was a student that I had to ask one Dr Upadhyaya of the University to accompany me, unsure that I would be able to trace Satyajit Ray’s house. Dr Upadhyaya was ecstatic at the prospect of meeting Calcutta’s living legend and kept thanking me for taking him along. We rang the bell outside that famous flat on Bishop Lefroy Road and Manik-da opened the door himself. The veranda was full of potted plants he had probably been spraying with water when we arrived. I had planned this visit on a sudden impulse, without even a formal appointment, yet I found myself greeted warmly when I reached. ‘What a pleasant surprise,’ Manik-da smiled at me as he led us in. I could see several people (probably with appointments made long ago) waiting to meet him as Manik-da took us into his den. A huge portrait of his father, Sukumar Ray, dominated one wall of an otherwise Spartan, cell-like room, strewn with papers.
Manik-da was a giant of a man and his tall frame remained ever erect and slim. His voice, like the deep boom of a temple bell, drew attention whenever he spoke. But that day, for the first time, I felt he had aged. His face had changed so much in the last four years that he now looked terribly gaunt and tired. And his voice no longer boomed, perhaps because he had a sore throat that day. Yet when he smiled at me, or threw back his head to laugh in a particular way, he became once more the Manik-da I had always known and admired.
Manik-da was never a talker: in fact, he gave the impression of measuring every word he uttered and that is what probably gave his speech its air of a deep, reflective gravity. I jabbered on and he listened attentively as usual until I became aware that the crowd of admirers waiting outside kept growing. Embarrassed for having taken up so much of his time, I got up to leave. ‘Sit, sit,’ he kept saying but I excused myself and got up to leave. I could kick myself today for leaving that room so soon but I had no idea then that this would be our last meeting.
‘All right, at least have a rasgulla before you leave,’ he smiled. ‘I know you love them. I’ve seen you eating them at Kalu’s shop in the Ashram,’ he added wickedly.
My jaw dropped at this piece of news. We used to be in such awe of him then that the fact that he had even noticed my love of rasgullas was a revelation. In our Ashram days, Manik-da would stride past a gaggle of us without lifting his eyes. Kalu’s shop was our favourite haunt for his rasgullas were so spongy that you had to squeeze the syrup out before popping one in your mouth else you could choke.
Manik-da was a great friend of my elder brother, Tribhuvan, and I think somewhere in his mind I was always a sort of pesky younger sister. Occasionally, I gathered courage to talk to him but for the rest we left him and his gang well alone. In those days, apart from his aloof air, he was famous in the Ashram as the son of the legendary Sukumar Ray. Often, his mother – an elegant and dignified lady -- would come and stay at Uttarayan, Tagore’s home. She was an expert needlewoman and I remember once being given lessons in kantha embroidery by her. Unfortunately, I never got to know Manik-da’s wife but I was great friends with her elder sister, Gauri-di. Whenever Gauri-di came to Bombay, she would stay with Sushila—another Ashramite friend—and call me. ‘Hurry up and come over,’ she’d order. ‘’I’ve made some payas with new gur today.’
Gauri-di was Kishore Kumar’s mother-in-law and Amit’s grandmother. As she watched us lick the payas bowls clean, she would sigh and say, ‘If only Amit had been able to come as well. He loves my payas!’
I asked her about Manik-da last the last time we met in Bombay. Her smiling face clouded over: ‘What can I say?’ she shook her head sadly. ‘He is a shell of his former self now. It frightens me to see how frail he is getting.’
Several times, I lifted my pen to write and then put it down again. With the hundreds of important letters that must have poured into his Calcutta house, what worth would mine have? Better to go back to our days in the Ashram and remember him as he was then. Once, when we staged the play, ‘Sinha Sadan’, I was given the part of a Muslim boy. A fez cap was procured from Bolpur and someone suggested I borrow a pair of churidar pyjamas and a kurta from Jayant Desai, a student of Kala Bhawan.
I paled: Jayant was a renowned misogynist and asking him for anything meant getting your head bitten off. Anyway, I went. He looked me up and down and then asked: ‘Are you Tribhuvan’s sister?’
‘All right, take this,’ he held out a pair of churidars and a kurta stiffly. ‘Don’t you dare cut it up! And wash it before you bring it back,’ he added, as if I had some unspeakable disease.
Jayant Desai was at least three times my size: no matter how hard I tried to tuck in the kurta, it just would not fit. As for his churidars! Even if I had tied them round my neck, I doubt if I would have managed to get into them. Thankfully, another friend, Jitendra Pratap, who was about as tall as I was, lent me his shervani to tuck the kurta into. I remember he took a photograph of me that day: perhaps he still has it somewhere.
Our make-up artist was Gauri-di, Nandlal Basu’s daughter and she gave me such a splendid makeover that day that even my mother would have failed to recognize me. The masterstroke was a pair of moustaches she had cunningly painted over my lips. She saw her handiwork and dissolved into helpless giggles: ‘You look an absolute goonda now!’ she declared. When the rest of my gang saw me they hooted with laughter. One of them, Sandhya Roy, flung her arms round my neck and whispered, ‘If you were truly a boy, I would be your lover!’ Another one, Jaya Appaswamy, looked at me critically and said, ‘You know, if you were to smoke a cigarette, you would look perfect.’
Fifty years ago, a girl who smoked was a rare sight and in the Ashram, one would not even dream of lighting up. If someone sends a letter to my grandfather in Almora, I told Jaya-di, I’d be thrown out of the family for sure.
‘I’m not asking you smoke a real cigarette, silly,’ Jaya-di replied. ‘Just roll some ajwain seeds in a piece of paper and blow a few smoke rings. That’s all!’
And that is exactly what I did. You should have heard the applause my performance got. So when, a few days later, a handwritten magazine taken out by some Ashramites reached my hands, my blood boiled with rage. ‘Does it become a girl from the Ashram to smoke openly on the stage?’ someone had written spitefully. ‘We feel she should be suitably punished.’
There was no name at the bottom of the comment but we were sure that one of Manik-da’s buddies was behind this. I stormed up to him, waving the magazine angrily in front of me. ‘Do you even know what I smoked?’ I lashed out. ‘It was just ajwain seeds. I can produce twenty witnesses who will swear to this. Why could you all not have said something about my great performance, tell me?’
I still blush with shame when I recall my furious tirade. Did I really have the temerity to ask the most famous director of all times to praise my performance that day? Manik-da listened to my outpouring with no expression except a faint smile. Not once did he say to me, when I did not write that, why are you telling me this? Many days later, his friend Soumendra came to me and apologized for having written that article. ‘But why did you have to yell at Manik-da?’ he asked me. ‘The poor chap knew I was the guilty one but kept quiet.’
On another occasion, we had all gone on a picnic. Every year, the ashram would take us to a picnic to Shiyori or Kopai or Shriniketan for an outing. All the Shantiniketan students – whether they were from Kala Bhavan, Shiksha Bhavan, Sangeet Bhavan or Vidya Bhavan – joined in. Accompanying us were bullock carts loaded with huge pots and pans, firewood and provisions. Our meal was cooked in the open and all of us sat down together to eat delicious khichri, curds, fish and vegetable curry off leaf plates. At the end of the feast, Kshitish Ray, who oversaw the whole affair, would ask loudly, ‘Laglo kaimon?’ (How was it?)
And all of us would roar together: ‘Besh!’ (Wonderful!) and then, ‘Guruji ki fateh!’ (Long live the Guru!). The cooks were our Ashram ones: Harihar, Nagendra, a South Indian cook called Chellum, one from Bihar called Sarju and presiding over them was Sarojini-di, whom Acharya Hajari Prasad Dwivedi had christened ‘Annapurna’. That year, her son, Rahul had suddenly died, leaving behind a young widow, Ranu Boudi. Yet even that could not keep her back from coming. ‘This picnic happens just once a year. If I don’t go along, something may go wrong,’ she had said.
Only those of us who were fortunate enough to have attended those picnics will ever know what they were like. There was our music teacher, Shailaja Majumdar with his Israj, and then there was Amita-di, her lovely voice soaring over the plains:
O anather nathShe never needed a mike: her strong voice floated across to us on the breeze. Then Kanika-di would sing that lovely song, ‘Baje karun suare…’ that Gurudev had specially set in a Carnatic raga for a favourite student from the south, Savitri-di. She would be followed by Kundamunda Reddy. His voice was like a thundercloud that rolls against the mountains. And then, Kshitij-da would conduct a chorus: Rangay rangay…
O agatir gati…
The main voice would be that of our English teacher, Kshitish Ray whose cheerful face was topped with a jaunty beret. A few years ago, when I ran into him at a function, my eyes filled up when I saw what old age had done to him. He had lost his lovely wife and then his beloved daughter. Now left alone, he was laid up then with a broken leg. When I went to see him, he was propped on an easy chair and a tiffin carrier was placed with his easy reach.
He probably saw the horror on my face at this state of loneliness. ‘A boy fetches me some food from the canteen,’ he said wryly. ‘And I lie here all day, remembering the chatter of your voices from the past.’
The other day, here in Germany, I met his daughter, Sharmila. She had been specially invited to sing for the seminar on Tagore, where I was invited to speak as well. I did not know who she was but because she was the spitting image of her mother, Uma-di, I was able to place her at once. Married to a Frenchman she now lives in France and done a great deal to popularize Rabindra Sangeet in Europe.
‘Once in a while I go to visit Baba,’ she started, ‘but it isn’t easy to travel to India frequently,’ and then her eyes filled up with tears. Her Baba was once the life and soul of the Ashram’s annual picnic, I tell her and suddenly I am reminded of Manik-da once again. Our old cook Harihar had got lost after a picnic to Rangamahi that year. We all called out but our voices came back to us like empty boomerangs. There was no sign of the old man and everyone started to panic. Then someone suggested we ask Manik-da to call out Harihar’s name. ‘His voice can reach Burdwan,’ the man had quipped.
Manik-da, no doubt disgusted by our childish high jinks, had moved away from our noisy group and was sketching, his back propped against a tree trunk. Who would bell the cat? Finally, we managed to persuade his friend Soumendra to carry our request to the Artist Under the Tree. We could see the two arguing over something, then Manik-da reluctantly got up and called in his deep baritone, ‘Harihar, O Harihar…’ and I think even the forest stopped to hear him.
A little later, a sheepish and frightened Harihar arrived, saying, ‘Thank God you called, babu, I was hopelessly lost!’ Manik-da’s clarion call had worked. It was the same clarion call that was to rouse another lost soul later—the soul of Bengal’s lost artistic heritage. He may have been best known for his films but there was hardly any artistic endeavour in Bengal that remained untouched by Ray’s spectacular genius. In this respect, he was not unlike that other Renaissance man—his guru, Rabindranath Tagore. Manik-da once wrote: ‘Poetry, drama, the novel, painting, music, philosophy and education—in all these fields, Tagore’s contribution is even greater than that of Shakespeare. I am a Bengali myself, and can say confidently that where music is concerned, few composers can match the genius of Tagore. And I include western musicians as I say this. Not merely as a poet, even as a novelist, Tagore remains unique. His essays have an astonishing range and reflect his far-sighted vision, a quality not often encountered in other essayists. And his fiction characters bear a stamp of his incomparable genius.’
This is probably why Satyajit Ray used Tagore time and again in his films and often his music too. Refrains from Rabindra Sangeet, such as ‘Ami chini go, chini tomaare, Ogo videshini…’ (Charulata) are subtly used. This song, based on Tagore’s Enechchi mora enechchi mora (from Lutepote, Balmiki Pratibha) followed a western notational system. The other day when Sharmila sang several of these western melodies from Rabindra Sangeet to present the cosmopolitan aspect of Tagore’s musical genius, the German audience was utterly charmed.
The same cosmopolitan quality was reflected in Ray’s work as well and this is what made him so popular outside India. His brilliant blending of time, situation, character and narrative into a musical universe was quite unique. And it was a gift that Ray always used to his advantage.
He writes: ‘Film and music have a marvellous harmony. Both respect time, pace, metre and the human heart. Melancholy, joy, reflection – these moods have nourished western music. Our own music heritage is entirely different. Indian classical music is less dramatic, more ornamental.’
Probably to take up Ray’s challenge, two filmmakers actually went to Paris to study western classical music but as Shyam Benegal has written somewhere: Their intellectual arrogance could never dent the natural genius of Ray.
Ray reflected deeply on whatever he thought and did and managed to transform complex thought processes into a single visual image. I doubt if anyone has been able to, or can ever, equal that. He was like a river in spate, no canal or rivulet could hope to match the intensity of his artistic flow. From the early phase of the Apu trilogy, Paraspathar, Jalsaghar to the later one of Charulata, Asani Sanket, Hirak Rajar Deshe, Sonar Kella, Aranyer Dinaratri to the final clutch of Shakha Proshkha, Ganashatru – his genius remained as pristine and strong as always.
What Ray placed before us was a thrillingly new visual universe—he placed before us our everyday world with a completely new dimension. To every spectator – whether he was from the Punjab, the far South or Maharashtra—Ray’s films did not present characters that were tied to a narrow parochial world. His characters spoke to us all equally. Every gust of breeze, every a patter of raindrops in his films touched us all with the same intensity. The men and women we saw in his films had faces that we knew and empathised with for their wrinkles were etched with our pain.
Ray’s magic wand transformed his actors and actresses (whether Soumitra in a host of his films or Madhavi Mukherji in Charulata, Sharmila Tagore in Apur Sansar or Aparna Sen in Teen Kanya) into characters that were greater than their reputations. All his actors acknowledged this and this is why perhaps, Madhavi wrote in Satyajit Ray at Seventy that in Mahanagar, Ray gave me a new life. He opened a tiny window for me that looked out into a huge world. I was just a lump of clay that he moulded first into a statue and then gave the gift of sight.
Rajendra Yadav wrote recently that fiction has lost its heroes and heroines—just memories of them now remain. Memoirs, not fiction, are the future, he seems to imply.
It isn’t that they have died, I want to tell him, they are still alive: it is just that we have forgotten how to recognize them when we see them. And even if we do, we turn our gaze away for to recognize them would mean the defeat of our ability to create them. Our arrogance forbids us to even acknowledge their presence. Satyajit Ray knew this well and his films never failed in identifying the real heroes and heroines of our times. He showed us the indomitable human spirit in all its frailties and weaknesses but also recognized its strength and resilience. Nothing escaped Ray’s eye: especially not the vulnerable spirit of man. His ability to present the human spirit before us was responsible for Ray’s success as an artist of the camera.
As for memoirs, I believe that they nourish the world of fiction. That is, if our own arrogance does not creep in while recording them. Our lives change, values change, our likes and dislikes change too. How can we not reflect this in what we leave for the coming generations to feel and know?
After Manik-da’s death, somehow I could never get myself to write something about him. The world had mourned him in so many ways—letters, seminars, memorial services—where did I stand in this line of admirers, I thought. I belonged to another world and felt as Sudama must have when he went to the court of Lord Krishna. I did not know Satyajit Ray as intimately as many others did: to me he always was and will continue to be Manik-da. A gentle giant whose gaunt face lit up with a special smile when I rang his doorbell one day in Calcutta and who remembered to get me a rasgulla and who came to the door to see me off. How can I forget such a man?
India has always taken a long time to recognize its precious jewels: even Bhartihari became a venerable figure to us when an English missionary translated his work and made it known to the world. Kalidas was placed on a pedestal when German scholars recognized his genius and Rabindranath Tagore became an icon after he was awarded the Nobel Prize. Maharishi Raman, Swami Vivekanand too came to us via the west, with the western hallmark of excellence before we recognized their genius. What about Ramanujan, the mathematical prodigy who nearly starved to death here? I often wonder whether our Anglicised reading public would ever have gone towards the Upanishads if TS Eliot had not been born. Ray, too, became a national treasure when his first film won accolades abroad.
Among my own treasures were a sketch of me by Tagore with a few lines of benediction in his handwriting, a letter Jawaharlal Nehru once wrote to my father, a few paintings by Nandlal Basu, Gauri-di, Jamuna-di and Vinayak Masoji. Two splendid water colours gifted to me by Abanindranath Tagore and Nandlal Basu when I got married—all these I have distributed to my children.
Yet there are a few precious things that I cannot bear to part with: among them are two long letters from Manik-da on handmade paper in his beautiful writing. A few months ago, after a fan sweet-talked me into lending them to his wife who was researching Ray’s work, I foolishly handed them to him. ‘I will return them in two days,’ he had promised and then never came back. I waited a few more days, then—with the help of a friend in the police—I managed to retrieve them. They are both safely back in my hands now along with a photograph of the two of us when Manik-da came to Lucknow to shoot Shatranj ke Khilari.
Years ago, when he was a little boy, Manik-da had taken his autograph book to Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore wrote these lines for him:
Bahu din dhare bahu krosh doore(I walked for miles for many days, spent time and money to see mountains, seas and oceans. I saw everything there was to see but never saw the drop of dew swinging from an ear of paddy near my own home.)
Bahu vyay kari bahu desh ghure
Dekhite giyechchi parvat-mala,
Dekhit giyechchi sindhu |
Dekha hoy naai chakshu meliya
Ghar hote shudhu dui paa pheliya
Ek ti dhaner shisher upare
Ek ti shishir-bindu |
How prescient Tagore was when he wrote those lines! Satyajit Ray went all over the world, criss-crossed the earth to see the most magnificent mountains and oceans. And yet, he never forgot the beauty of that dew drop in his rice field at home.
Illustrations : Nilanjana Basu
Published March, 2010