How Satyajit Ray made one of the greatest documentaries on the life and work of Rabindranath Tagore

Bhaskar Chattopadhyay

Feb,04 2018 12:21 58 IST

Editor's note: In a prolific career spanning nearly four decades, Satyajit Ray directed 36 films, including feature films, documentaries and shorts. His films have received worldwide critical acclaim and won him several awards, honours and recognition — both in India and elsewhere. In this column starting 25 June 2017, we discuss and dissect the films of Satyajit Ray (whose 96th birth anniversary was in May 2017), in a bid to understand what really makes him one of the greatest filmmakers of the 20th century.

Rabindranath Tagore’s work and philosophy has had a strong influence on Satyajit Ray’s life and work. Ray made as many as five films based on the short stories, novellas and novels written by Tagore — that’s the most number of times he has ever adapted any one writer’s work.

It was at Tagore’s Shantiniketan that Ray learnt how to draw and paint. In later years, Ray’s drawings, sketches, illustrations and designs have inspired thousands of artists and art enthusiasts all over the world. Like Tagore, Ray’s own music has been deeply inspired by elements of both Western Classical and raag-based Indian Classical music. Ray’s own philosophy — on matters such as religion, science, social structure, education, revolution, civilisation and humanity — has had vivid reflections of Tagore’s way of thinking.

(L) Satyajit Ray; (R) Rabindrnath Tagore

(L) Satyajit Ray; (R) Rabindrnath Tagore

Although he never spoke about it in as many words, it would perhaps be safe to assume that Satyajit Ray’s mind was ignited by the fire that Rabindranath Tagore had stoked. It was fitting, then, that in 1961, on the occasion of the birth centenary of Tagore, Ray was asked to make a documentary on the life and teachings of Tagore. In his biography titled Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye by Andrew Rabinson, Ray has said about the film that ‘ten or twelve minutes of it are among the most moving and powerful things that I have produced’.

The 52-minute film begins with an astonishingly large congregation of mourners flocking the streets of (then) Calcutta, trying to catch one last glimpse of Tagore’s corpse being taken through a funeral procession. Satyajit Ray’s narration states how, despite the poet’s mortal remains having perished, he had left behind him a heritage of words, music and poetry — of ideas and ideals — and how it had the power to move us and to inspire us... now, and for days to come. The film then briefly talks about the city of Kolkata, where Tagore was born, quickly moving on to describe a genealogical table that detailed Tagore’s lineage, going all the way back to the 8th century, when a group of learned Brahmins had migrated from Kanauj to settle down in Bengal. It is in this family tree that young ‘Rabi’, as he was fondly called, was born.

The film then talks about Rabi’s childhood, and how he was deeply influenced by the teachings and traditions of the father of Indian Renaissance — Raja Ram Mohan Roy — a tradition that his father Maharshi Debendranath Tagore had imbibed and passed on to his children. Young Rabi was a thinking child, a dreamer, and was never quite able to adjust to the formal environment of a classroom. After he had moved from one school to another over several years and hated them all, it was finally decided that Rabi would be schooled at home.

The film then goes on to describe his travels with his father, the publication of his fist book of verse at the age of 13, his journey to London at the age of 17, and his voluntary abandoning of higher studies at the University of London. With a mind keen to explore the arts and the written word, Rabindranath continued to be fascinated by Western classical music, and world literature, but he refused to remain confined within the walls of a classroom. At the age of 22, after his marriage, Rabindranath was asked by his father to take over the reins of the family estate, for which, he had to go and live in the heart of rural Bengal, right on the banks of the river Padma. It was the influence of his contact with nature and with the poor peasants of his estate that we see in his later works. It was almost as if a whole new world had opened up to him, a world far removed from the abundances of the western world, and yet, in many ways, similar.

Worried about the education of his children and plagued with the nightmarish experiences of his own schooling endeavours in his childhood, Rabindranath decided to set up an experimental school in a property named Shantiniketan, which his father had acquired a few years ago. It was to be a school set up in the lines of Upanishadic education, like the forest hermitages of classical India. In order to arrange the money to set up the school, Rabindranath had to sell, among other things, the copyright of his books. His wife pitched in by selling some of her wedding ornaments.

In the years that followed, Rabindranath participated in a series of protests against the political upheavals that ran through the province of Bengal. In a bid to crush the possibilities of a united front against the British government, Lord Curzon had decided to divide the state of Bengal into two — each with its own religious majority. But in doing so, he severely underestimated the nationalist sentiments of the people of Bengal, who rose in peaceful protest — singing the soul-stirring songs of revolution written by Rabindranath himself. Tagore participated in these processions in person. But the Swadeshi movement quickly took a shape that Rabindranath could not condone — one of armed rebellion, bordering on the fringes of terrorism. For the rest of his life, Tagore continued to stress on the necessity of peace and tolerance, and explained how the path to freedom was to be paved on the foundations of these two virtues alone. In 1919, in response to the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar, Tagore renounced the knighthood that the Queen’s government had bestowed upon him.

In his later years, while still inspiring many to continue the freedom movement in India, Rabindranath turned his attention to much broader themes, choosing to focus on the meaning of humanity and civilisation itself. It is during these times, that the masses in the Occident came in contact with his teachings and thoughts, and Tagore was soon hailed as a progressive and influential world figure.

In 1941, at the height of the war, Tagore wrote a speech on the occasion of his 80th birthday. This speech, titled Crisis in Civilisation, was to be his last message to the world. Satyajit Ray closes his film with a few words from this very speech, and viewing the film even today, well into the 21st century, we realise that the words are as relevant today, as it was all those years ago. Such was the foresight of the great poet.

I had at one time believed that the springs of civilisation would issue out of the heart of Europe. But today when I am about to quit the world, that faith has gone bankrupt altogether. As I look around, I see the crumbling ruins of a proud civilisation strewn like a vast heap of futility. And yet I shall not commit the grievous sin of losing faith in Man. I would rather look forward to the opening of a new chapter in his history after the cataclysm is over and the atmosphere rendered clean with the spirit of service and sacrifice. Perhaps that dawn will come from this horizon, from the East where the sun rises. A day will come when unvanquished Man will retrace his path of conquest, despite all barriers, to win back his lost human heritage.

Owing to his dislike for the English translation of Tagore’s poetry, Ray decided not to use such translations in his film at all. He felt that it would create a wrong impression of the great poet’s work in the minds of western audiences. Despite this complete absence of Tagore’s poetry in his film, Satyajit Ray’s film is able to capture the true essence of the poet’s teachings and philosophy, and remains, to date, one of the greatest documentaries on the life and work of Rabindranath Tagore.

Bhaskar Chattopadhyay is an author and translator. His translations include 14: Stories That Inspired Satyajit Ray, and his original works include the mystery novels Patang, Penumbra and Here Falls The Shadow.

Published Date: Feb 04, 2018 12:21 PM | Updated Date: Feb 04, 2018 12:21 PM