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The cinematic musical genius of Satyajit Ray – Centenary special

Though Ray used some masters of classical music for his early works, he had his own ideas about what the music should be like in each film of his and so eventually took over the role himself, creating some iconic scores in the bargain.

Image: Sagar Patil / Cinestaan.com

Shoma A Chatterji

The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines music as 'the art of combining vocal or instrumental sounds (or both) to produce beauty of form, harmony, and expression of concepts of music'. According to Wikipedia, 'music is one of the universal cultural aspects of all human societies. ... The creation, performance, significance and even the definition of music varies according to culture and social context.'

Examined closely, both definitions fit Satyajit Ray smoothly as the only renowned filmmaker other than Charlie Chaplin who took complete charge of creating the music for his films from the moment he made Teen Kanya (1961) till the last film he directed. His son Sandip Ray, a filmmaker in his own right, depends on his father’s theme music for his own films and has gone on record to say so.

In celebration of the centenary of Satyajit Ray, who routinely appears in all-time best directors' lists compiled by reputed journals and critics, it is relevant to look deeply into the way he looked at, treated, created, composed and directed the music in his films.

Debajyoti Misra, an internationally renowned composer and music director, who was introduced to the world of music by his erudite father at the tender age of three, says, “I functioned as the main violinist in Ghare Baire (1984) and observed while working with this great man that he defined within the same persona the two roles of music composer and music director.”

Explaining the difference between the two, he says, “If we take the example of Pather Panchali (1955), Pandit Ravi Shankar composed the musical score but Ray directed the music. This means that while the music composer creates the music, the positioning, the visualization, the placing and the holistic perspective of the audio-visual orchestration is given by the music director, in this case, Ray.”

Ray asked some of the most celebrated Indian musicians to compose the music for his first few films, such as Pandit Ravi Shankar for the Apu trilogy and Parash Pathar (The Philosopher's Stone, 1958) and Ustad Vilayat Khan for Jalsaghar (The Music Room, 1958). For the latter film, Ray also used sitar and surbahar exponents Imrat Khan and Wahid Ali Khan alongside Ustad Bismillah Khan, who was roped in for the shehnai. Begum Akhtar portrayed the role of Durgabai, a singer. He then chose Ustad Ali Akbar Khan for Devi (The Goddess, 1960).

Over time, Ray came to understand that the famous music scholars he worked with for his first few films were too busy to give him the kind of time and space he demanded. Secondly, professional musicians would never bend their talents or compromise even a bit with the demands of a film. Last but not the least, he could feel an undercurrent of resentment because these greats were being guided and controlled by a person who knew much less about music than they did.

So, it was a clash between creative persons from different fields — on one side, masters in music knowing little about cinema, on the other, a filmmaker with very clear ideas of the kind of music he wanted for his films.

Ray had his own creative ideas about what the music should be like in each film and knew he could not do this with other people’s ideas dominated more by their music and less by the subject/film they were composing the score for.

So he decided to take over the baton from Teen Kanya (1961), which comprised three short stories adapted from Rabindranath Tagore. For his documentary The Inner Eye on his artistic guru Binode Bihari Mukhopadhyay, who was slowly going blind even as the film was being shot, Ray used a composition by Nikhil Ranjan Banerjee as the theme music.

Ray created a musical theme for every film of his. This became so much a part of his signature that when one of these plays on television before a commercial or show that has no link with him, we can immediately identify it with the filmmaker even if we may be unable to pinpoint the film.

“I began to love music long before I began to love cinema,” he would often say. Mishra adds that “his childhood nourished with the creations of Western composers" gave him a strong musical base .“I think he began to think of the music right when he was writing the screenplay of his films," he says.

Ray’s Brahmo Samaj upbringing was soaked in music because even his wife Bijoya, her mother and three sisters were talented singers, and they were related to the Rays. The Brahmos, a breakaway religious sect from the Brahmin community in Bengal, were progressive in their social and family lives; their women were educated, modern and encouraged to practise the liberal arts. Thus, Ray’s mother could not only read English, but could also translate the stories to her son in Bengali when he was little.

Ray was brought up within this progressive ambience and this finds reflection, first, in the women characters in his films and, secondly, in the music he composed, which, if Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (1969) is taken as the best example of, is layered with influences drawn from many schools of music from across the world.

For Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, Ray composed all his scores using Occidental musical notes. Then, he discovered that musicians in Bengal were unfamiliar with Western notations. It took them time to convert the notations to Indian, especially Bengali, ones. So, Ray learnt and began composing in Bengali notations. The magical results can be heard even today. It is as if his music, after he decided to compose and direct it himself, often also writing the lyrics for the songs, gets embedded in the films.

During the early stages of his work as a composer, Ray used to compose his tunes on the piano. For the background scores, he generally used violins, cellos and double bass guitars and not the Indian bamboo flute. He also had a great love for several Indian percussion instruments and superbly used the timpani, a Western drum, on some occasions.

“One of the outstanding features of the songs of Goopy Byne Bagha Byne are the lyrics that children and adults would equally enjoy and the use of drums focused on the drummer of the duo, Bagha, while Goopy stuck to vocals,” explains Mishra, who can play a host of instruments, having trained in the violin under renowned classical violinist Sisirkana Dhar Choudhury (who died of a cardiac arrest aged 83 on 9 March this year) and begun working and training under the great writer-composer Salil Chowdhury as an 18-year-old.

Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne also stands out because Ray picked a relatively lesser known but classically trainer singer, Anup Ghosal, who had a PhD in music, to give voice to the songs lip-synched on screen by Tapen Chatterjee, also a new find, portraying Goopy. There are 10 songs in the film, with lyrics penned by Ray. He picked up a four-page story written by his grandfather, the late Upendra Kishore Roy Choudhury, and expanded it into a full-length feature film.

He used some Carnatic tunes for some of the songs in the film, which vested the numbers with a slightly comical tone, as the film, while entertaining, also carried subtle political messages against dictatorship, corruption in high places and the significance of silence. Songs like 'Dekho Re Noyon Mele' or 'Ek Je Chhilo Raja' are timeless for fans of Bengali music and cinema.

On the other hand, the rhymes recited by the King of Ghosts (Bhooter Raja), said to be a designedly distorted version recorded in Ray’s own voice, were not sung but had wonderful music to string them together, which may be interpreted as Ray’s own creation of rap and its introduction into Indian cinema. Rapping (also rhyming, spitting, emceeing) is a musical form of vocal delivery that incorporates "rhyme, rhythmic speech, and street vernacular”, performed or chanted in a variety of ways, usually over a backing beat or musical accompaniment, and this is clearly borne out in the performance of the King of Ghosts in the film.

Ashani Sanket (Distant Thunder, 1973), Ray’s second feature film in colour, explored the man-made famine in Bengal that took the lives of more than five million people in 1943. The film was an adaptation of Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s classic of the same name. But Ray gave it his personal perspective and interpretation.

What makes the film a classic despite critics coming down on it at the time is Ray’s music and soundtrack. The opening frames are backed by ominous drum beats, as if issuing a warning that something terrible is about to happen. The same kind of music is repeated towards the end when disaster and tragedy have struck the village, hitting the people's value system heavily.

There are spaces of silence too at different points of the film which give it an identity card for its rural backdrop. There is a moment when it is raining and suddenly, the loud sound of war planes can be heard. Chhutki and Ananga look skywards while returning from the forest after collecting wild potatoes for lunch. They probably sight the planes which are kept out of the frame. But the scene on the ground is filled with the luxuries of nature now somewhat marred by the digging and rummaging for roots.

The music of Charulata (1964) has become iconic in world cinema. Ray picked up the main tune from a famous Tagore number, 'Momo Chittey Niti Nrittey Ke Je Naachey', and extended it into a long, melodious, subtle signature tune that created the effect of water flowing like a slow undercurrent throughout the film. The tune gets embedded into the film and plants itself in the minds of the audience as well. The words of the song or the song itself are never articulated throughout the film.

The story goes that Ray’s passion for Western classical music was born when, as a boy of nine, he heard a gramophone record play Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in the home of his mother’s brother. This particular record and its music made such a deep impact on the boy that he grasped whatever he could — books, notes, papers, records on Western classical music, with, of course, a special love for Beethoven. His family gifted him a small gramophone and he considered it one of the best gifts of his boyhood.

Essentially a loner with few friends, a boy who thought more than he played, or drew, sketched and listened to music more than he did anything else, Ray became a devoted listener of music. Perhaps, this was a precursor to his creating and directing music for his own films. Over his long career, Ray made 36 films (29 features, five documentaries and two shorts), and provided music for as many as 30 of them.

So it may come as a surprise that Ray had no formal training in any kind of music — Western classical, Hindustani classical music or even Bengali music such as that composed by Tagore. He learnt everything by ear and even composed by listening to himself humming or whistling a note and then asking his musicians to put it to music. But he taught himself the piano, which still stands in his study as a memory. Atop this piano stood a bust of Beethoven. Mozart was a close second. But when it came to film music, he regarded the Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev his guru.

Ray took every opportunity to learn about and listen to Western classical music during his two-year stay in Santiniketan. This was possible because of the encouragement he got from a German Jewish professor of English at Viswa Bharati who had an enviable collection of records of Western classical composers’ works. The professor threw this open to Ray to listen to as many times as he wanted.

Mishra recounts an anecdote about how Ray and his wife Bijoya — a talented singer in her own right — would often listen to the compositions of Bach and Haydn on Radio Berlin during World War II. Few are aware that Ray once had an offer from the British Broadcasting Corporation to make a documentary on Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, but he could not accept it. This is an indicator of how news of his command over Western classical music and composers had reached far and wide quite early.

The late Dinkar Kaushik, one of Ray’s oldest friends from his Santiniketan days, who later headed Kala Bhavan, said Ray toyed with the idea of making a documentary on Pandit Ravi Shankar in 1948, long before the sitarist became an international celebrity. “He asked me to get back a sketch book of his from Ravi Shankar from Delhi," Kaushik once said. "When I thumbed through its pages, its contents amazed me. It was filled with close-up sketches of Ravi Shankar at his sitar, done from every imaginable angle, marking fade-outs, highlights, crisscross marks for shootings, detailed studies of the maestro’s hands, fingers, everything. It was a collage of work that did not merely inspire but evoked instant emotional response.”

Ray never got down to making that documentary. But a few years ago, HarperCollins India brought out a hard copy of Ray’s original script for the film.

Ray was very fond of Indian classical music, Rabindra Sangeet and Bengali folk music as well, all of which he used extensively in his films. But what is not widely known is that he was vastly more knowledgeable in and passionate about Western classical music.

Filmmaker Utpalendu Chakrabarty made a documentary film produced by the National Film Development Corporation called The Music Of Satyajit Ray in 1984. The film was cast on an OTT platform last year in celebration of Ray’s 99th birth anniversary. The documentary moves between the studio where Ray and his orchestra are composing the background score for his then upcoming film Ghare Baire (Home And The World) and his home, where he sits in front of a Roland piano, either striking musical notes or using his pen to write down notations. He was, perhaps, the only filmmaker of his time who could both read and write Western classical music notations.

As the camera focuses on Ray speaking about the musical talent in his family across four generations, including his mother Suprabha Roy, who had cut a record once, the camera pans through old monochrome photographs of his forefathers. This throws up a subtle pointer to Ray having been born into music in a manner of speaking, as much as he was born into the creative arts like drawing and painting, prints and fonts, and creative writing. The narrative cuts back and forth with clips from Ray’s films that are enriched by his music and scenes of Ray composing at home and in the studio with his orchestra.

Ray had an uncanny ear for silence, too. His Pratidwandi (The Adversary, 1970) has long tracks of silence as the camera follows the protagonist Siddhartha Choudhury; the soundtrack is either quite silent or filled with ambient sounds such as the cries of birds, the sounds of moving vehicles, etc. Sometimes, the soundtrack is silent even when we find public vehicles moving on the roads, and that is perhaps recorded from Siddhartha’s perspective, where he is absent-minded even while walking and is not taking note of the visuals or the sounds around him.

Ray also scored the music for documentaries like Glimpses Of West Bengal, Gangasagar Mela and Darjeeling: Himalayan Fantasy directed by his art director Bansi Chandragupta, House That Never Dies by Tony Meyer, Max Mueller by John Thiele, and Quest Of Health by Harisadhan Dasgupta. Among feature films of other directors, Ray is credited for the music of Baksha Badal (1970, director: Nityananda Datta), Shakespeare Wallah (1965, Director: James Ivory) and Phatikchand (1983, director: Sandip Ray) as also for Sandip’s TV serials like Satyajit Ray Presents (Part I and II).

As if all this were not enough, Chunibala Devi, who, at 75,  portrayed the iconic doddering Indir Thakrun in Pather Panchali, asked Ray if he would like to hear her sing a particular song. She sang beautifully. Ray was taken aback, amazed by her performance and her music. This song, in Chunibala’s voice, was used in the film. The actress, who had done two silent films when she was young, died before Pather Panchali was released. The song, an old philosophical folk number, was replayed on the soundtrack when little Apu is following her hearse to the crematorium after her death in the film.

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Satyajit Ray Centenary