Satyajit Ray and the Music He Lived By

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One of Satyajit Ray’s earliest childhood memories of listening to music was in Shantiniketan. That was right after his father’s death when he was barely six years old. On moonlit nights, in the tranquil surroundings of the Khoai, rimmed with serried ranks of taal trees, Satyajit’s mother Suprabha would give vent to her sorrow by singing some of the most sublime songs of Tagore with little ‘Manik’ by her side. Back in Calcutta, music was an integral part of all family gatherings and festivals in the Ray household. His paternal aunt (Bulu pishi) fondly remembers Manik’s love for music. She had a piano in her house and little Manik who visited her quite often would insist on listening to a particular Tagore song played on the piano, repeatedly. The annual ritual of the Brahmo festival ‘’Maghothsabh’’ turned out to be an exasperating experience for the child and the vedic hymn ‘Sangachhadhwam’, or the song by Rabindranath with a rather similar tune came as a wonderful relief after three exhausting hours of sermon. Though Rabindra Sangeet and Brahmo Sangeet were his staple diet, popular western music such as waltzes, marches, polkas etc. played on his toy gramophone also helped to extend his musical horizon further. Nothing in the music seemed alien to him. The opulent melodies went straight to his heart and transported him instantly to a world of ineffable delight. But all of this didn’t quite prepare him for what was to come next which would eventually turn into an obsession and leave a lasting impression on him, both, as an individual and as an artist.

In his ancestral home at north Calcutta, while browsing through Arthur Mee’s edition of the ‘Book of Knowledge’, he chanced upon two things which captivated him instantly. One was a page filling picture of the sun, not as we see it but as it actually is – a flaming orb set against the blackness of outer space. The other was a picture of a man seated at a piano. He had a dome like forehead, flowing dark hair, deep set eyes, and lips firmly pressed above his chin that jutted out in defiance. This turbulent and tempestuous image of Ludwig van Beethoven bowled him over completely and inspired him to explore the man and his music. Mere reading about the composer was not enough. It only whetted his appetite for his music. Luckily, he did not have to wait for it too long. At first, there emerged only one record of Beethoven in the Ray household. It had a mauve label from which the HMV legend had almost faded. This happened to be the last movement, ‘Rondo Allegro’, of Beethoven’s Violin concerto in D Major, Opus 61. He was thoroughly enchanted by the melody, but the music didn’t quite correspond to the brooding image of Beethoven he had admired in the pages of the Book of Knowledge. For this he had to wait seven more years until he heard the first movement of the Fifth Symphony in C Minor. Middle period Beethoven with its characteristic boldness of contour, simplicity and memorability of lines, sense of architecture, occasional outbursts of boisterousness and the heroic action-packed finales made a firm and decisive impact on Satyajit in his youthful prime and he pursued him obsessively throughout the length and breadth of Calcutta – from the grand and imposing Imperial Library to the grimy depths of Chorbazar.

The next stage in Satyajit’s musical evolution took place in Shantiniketan, in the august company of the Jewish-German professor, Alex Aronson and of his flautist friend Dinkar Koushik who happened to be his classmate at the Kalabhawan. It was in the company of Professor Aronson that Satyajit could at last overcome his apprehension about the celestial and contemplative works of Beethoven’s late period and get a deeper and more profound insight into the glories of the classical and romantic period composers. On the other hand, Kaushik, a serious practitioner of Hindustani classical music, instilled in him a passion for the same. Listening to the plaintive Indian ragas in the most serene and tranquil settings of Shantiniketan, induced a sense of contemplation and wonder even in the most prosaic and earthbound Satyajit who gradually succumbed to its charm. Shantiniketan was a revelation for him, as more than anything else, it made him aware of his roots and of our tradition in music and art.

In the post-Shantiniketan phase his passion for music and cinema took a serious turn and became objects of study. In cinema, he was taking note of the technical aspects of the medium and the directorial touches, trying to find how a director gives a distinguished film its mark of distinction. In music, he devoured Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, and Indian classical music, studying them with reference to the miniature scores which became his essential bedside reading. In course of his deeply penetrating study of cinema and music he made one very important observation which deserves to be mentioned here. ‘’ How interesting to know, for instance, that films and music had so much in common! Both unfold over a period of time; both are concerned with pace and rhythm and contrast; both can be described in terms of mood—sad, cheerful, pensive, boisterous, tragic, jubilant. But this resemblance applies only to western classical music. Since our music is improvised, its pattern and duration are flexible. One can hear a complete raga in a three-minute version of an old gramophone record, and we know that a raga can be stretched to well over two hours. Also, the structure of Indian music is decorative, not dramatic. It builds up from a slow beginning to a fast conclusion, becoming more and more intricate and ornamental in the process. This is rather like an Indian temple, which builds up from a solid base, goes through narrower and narrower layers of ornamentation, and ends up in the dizzy heights of the shikhara. The mood of the music is predetermined by the raga, and convention demands that there should be no departure from it. Unlike Indian music, Western music can depart from the tonic or Sa, and much of the drama arises from this modulation of certain basic melodies from key to key. This can be likened to the vicissitudes experienced by characters in a story. At the end, the music has to return to the tonic or Sa, which again is like the resolution of a conflict, where one feels nothing more needs to be said, as the drama has come to an end’’.

As a composer, when he started composing for his films, he concentrated on absorbing diverse musical traditions and blending them seamlessly. His overall aim was to compose background music that belongs to the film rather than to any recognizable musical tradition. As he put it in relation to ‘’The Home and the World’’, one should not feel like thinking about whether certain themes are Indian or western – they are just purely music. The ultimate objective is to create music to interest and satisfy viewers with both backgrounds, Indian and western, while expressing the inextricable mixture of influences at work in the characters.”

Music was always Satyajit’s first love and the genre of music he was most attracted to since his childhood was western classical. In his childhood or even in his early youth, films were at the most a once-a-week affair, while music played on the hand-cranked gramophone took up all his spare time at home. At an age when the Bengali youth almost inevitably wrote poetry, he was listening to European classical music. However, despite his long and abiding interest, the sheer thought of using classical compositions as background music in his films made him shudder. He was terribly upset with Bo Widerburg’s use of the second and slow movement, the ‘Andante Cantabile’ from Mozart’s Piano Concerto no 21 in his film ”Elvira Madigan” . With reference to that, he said ” That’s terrible. Scandalous!! Because then you see, you are assuming that the film will rise to the level of the music, but what often happens is the music is brought down to the level of the film. Particularly, in this case the two do not mix – like water and oil ”.

In his own films, Satyajit has occasionally used western classical music in the background but largely desisted from using it to underline the inherent mood or emotion of a scene. He has made incidental use of such music from time to time. In other words such music is often heard being played on the radio, or by someone in the neighborhood and in his penultimate film Shakha Proshakha , he had one of the music loving characters obsessed with such music and therefore he found a valid reason to use it in the soundtrack.

The first instance of western classical music being used in a Ray film is in Jalsaghar. Towards the end of the film, there is an emotionally charged scene where dawn breaks in at the end of a fateful night and the lights in the music room go out one by one signaling the end of an era of decadent feudalism. To get the right texture of the music, he played Jean Sibelius’ Violin Concerto backwards and mixed it with the music that Ustad Vilayat Khan composed for the scene. And the fact that the keys of both the compositions did not clash, he could achieve the precise effect he wanted. Next, in the film Devi, he carefully constructed a loop consisting of the ninth to twelfth bars of the first movement of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony and used it to create the tension in Doyamoyee’s abortive nocturnal attempt to escape with her husband. There’s not much of the symphony that you will hear except a very small fragment of the initial rumble, played in a loop over and over again. In Mahanagar, when Arati (Madhabi Mukherjee) goes out canvassing for the Autoknit knitting machines, she inadvertently knocks on the door of a house occupied by a middle-aged British gentleman. As the gentleman opens the door, we can faintly hear a Schubert Impromptu being played in the background. Later, in the same film, when Arati visits an upper-class Bengali household in the neighborhood, one could faintly hear the Schubert impromptu coming to an end, followed by Chopin’s well-known Etude, Opus 10, no 3. In Kapurush, after getting over the initial shock of discovering each other under the oddest of circumstances, Karuna (Madhabi) and Amitabha (Soumitra), join Karuna’s husband Bimal in a nice, cozy, late-evening chat. Overlapping the incessant chatter of the garrulous Bimal, under the influence of alcohol, we get to hear a substantial part of the first movement of Beethoven’s Piano concerto no 4. played on the radio (BBC perhaps). In Seemabaddha, Shyamalendu Chatterjee, the hero. throws a party in the honour of his newly arrived sister-in-law Tutul. Before the guests arrive, Tutul, Dolon and Shyamalendu indulge in a healthy banter and in the background, we can hear an excerpt of the first movement of a Joseph Haydn Piano Sonata. One encounters an extremely peculiar use of classical music in the film Jana Aranya, in stark contrast to the overall mood of the film. The mood of the film is dark and dismal while the music by Gluck is one invested with a celestial grace and poise. While Somnath’s elder brother fiddles with the radio, he accidentally hits upon a station playing the flute passage, Dance of the Blessed Spirits from Gluck’s opera ‘Orpheus and Euridice’. According to Satyajit, this is one of the longest, loveliest, and most perfectly proportioned melodies ever composed. Finally, in Shakha Proshakha, his penultimate film, he creates a mentally deranged character who is sensitive to the deeper rhythms of life and is obsessively interested in western classical music. To give us an impression of Prashanta Majumdar, ‘s world of music Satyajit uses several hauntingly beautiful pieces from Bach, Beethoven, Couperin and the early 9th and 10th century sacred Gregorian Chants.

Satyajit, though opposed to using western classical musical pieces in his films, favoured using elements from well-known Indian classical ragas and raginis. Some of these, particularly dawn and evening ragas and those associated with the spring and the rainy season, according to him, were ‘matchless’ at conjuring moods, natural and human. I shall cite one example to illustrate how beautifully Satyajit uses various classical ragas to express the underlying moods of a film. While speaking of Pather Panchali he says ‘’The main theme of Pather Panchali, usually heard on the bamboo flute, evolved in Ravi Shankar’s mind even before he had seen the film. One of the first things that Ravi Shankar did when I met him shortly after his arrival in Calcutta was to hum a line of melody which he said had occurred to him as a possible theme for the film. It was a simple tune with a wistful, pastoral quality which seemed to suit exactly the mood of the film. It went on to become the main motif of Pather Panchali.”. This simple, wistful, pastoral tune is based on the Rajasthani folk raga Mand. He also mentions that ”The music that accompanies the ballet of the waterbugs in the film was originally played as one of the several variations on the main theme with no specific scene in mind. In fact, there was no scene of dancing insects in the film at this stage. It grew out of the music in the cutting room.” The unforgettable piece of variations was a composition which blended the raga GAUD SARANG with the main musical motif. Satyajit describes the scene where Durga dances in the rain as follows. ” Take the scene where a young girl, frail of body but full of elemental zest gives herself up to the first monsoon shower. She dances in joy while the big drops pelt her and drench her. The scene excites you not only for its visual possibilities but for its deeper implications as well: that rain will be the cause of her death” Durga’s elemental zest is not only captured visually but aurally as well, through a magnificent composition in raga DESH played memorably on bamboo flute by Alokenath Dey with Ravi Shankar on the sitar. Right after Durga’s death, Apu is sent to fetch a friend of his mother. He passes the ruined yard and we see a litter of overturned and broken pots, damaged fencing, a dead frog, the calf standing in its roofless flooded pen, a cooking pot hanging uselessly. Durga is dead; the friendly neighbour tries to comfort the mother. Then we see Apu cleaning his teeth by the pond with his finger. His hand suddenly becomes still, suspended. The mother draws water, Apu does his own hair, daily routine is resumed, and life goes on.’. The background music which heightens the underlying emotion is a marvellous rendition of the solemn and sombre raga MIYAN KI TODI played on the sitar with brief interjections on the bamboo flute. Also, this is one of the rare instances when pakhawaj is used as an accompaniment to the music. And finally while describing the heart-wrenching scene where the father Harihar discovers that Durga had died in his absence, he says ” For one crucial scene I had a musical effect in my mind, which I decided to persuade Ravi Shankar to maintain. This was the scene in which Harihar returns from the city to discover from his wife that Durga had died. Sarbajaya had remained silent the first few minutes and Harihar wrongly surmised that she was vexed because he had delayed his return. As Harihar hands her a sari he had bought for Durga, Sarbojaya can contain herself no longer and breaks out weeping. Sarbajaya’s grief-stricken outburst however didn’t sound right. So, I decided to substitute the lamentation with a high controlled instrument like the tar-shehnai, which would be suggestive of grief. The tar-shehnai for the lament scene, was played by one of its best exponents – Dakshina Mohan Tagore and I kept wishing that he stuck to the high notes of the raga PATDEEP for two full minutes, that was so aptly chosen by Ravi Shankar.

1 Comment

  1. Jayabrata Nag

    May 2, 2021 at 9:29 pm

    Biswajit Mitra’s article here paints a finely detailed music-scape reflecting Ray’s musical genius as it anoints the nooks, crannies, hidden corners and ample dramatic flatlands of his films with a creative generosity and peaceful benevolence… much like how a full moon on a dark night infuses the prosaic with a surreal and unusual deep mystery. Thank you Mr Mitra and Song Pedia.

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