Ratnottama Sengupta is riveted by the phantasmagoric Bhooter Naach, the Ghost Dance, in Satyajit Ray’s legendary film — Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne — that has no precedence nor any sequel in cinema worldwide.
Some years ago, I was preparing for my talk on dance in Hindi Films, given to the Film Appreciation students at the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune. I noticed that every major director in the earlier years, from Uday Shankar (Kalpana, 1948), V Shantaram (Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baje, 1955), and K Asif (Mughal-e-Azam, 1960), to Guru Dutt (Saheb Bibi Aur Ghulam, 1962), K A Abbas (Pardesi, 1957) and Sohrab Modi (Mirza Ghalib, 1954) had started with Indian classical dance in its purest form – Kathak — and the leading ladies Vyjayanthimala, Waheeda Rahman and Padmini came equipped with the dance of the devadasis, Bharatanatyam. Subsequently however, most filmmakers diluted the purity of these dances, perhaps to suit the situation in their films. And in recent years that dilution has gone further to take the form of fusion dance, westernised dancing, and group dancing to add volume to the glamorous visual of female torsos in movement.
Suddenly it struck me that Satyajit Ray (1921-92) too had used Kathak in its purest form in Jalsaghar (1958) and then ‘diluted’ the purity of classical movements to design the rhythmic footwork of disembodied spirits. And it dawned on me what level of genius could create a dance that becomes a visual statement on the history of the land itself! Of course, I am talking about the ‘Dance of the Ghosts’ in Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (1969). The towering presence had ‘choreographed’ this dance which has simply no parallel in the world of cinema. Yes, the director — who also penned the lyrics besides screenwriting his grandfather’s adventure story first published in Sandesh in 1915 – had diluted the classicism of Kathakali and Manipuri. But he had fused in so many more art forms like masks, paper cutouts, shadow art, pantomime, celluloid negatives and special effects that it emerged as a class in itself, giving even today’s viewers an experience nonpareil.
In this fantasy that ends as a fable with a timeless moral, Ray experimented with a psychedelic burst of dancing. The narrative pivots on a tone-deaf singer and a bumbling drummer. Essentially though Ray’s telling of the ‘fairytale’ was a garbed plea against war. The message he sent out loud and with laughter: “When people have palatable food to fill their belly and music to fill their soul, the world will bid goodbye to wars.”
But Ray’s recounting of the story was far from didactic. Indeed, he himself is known to have said, “I don’t know if you can truly demarcate fantasy and fable.” So, instead of categorising it as one other the other, he recommended that we see Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (GGBB) only as the story of a duo of untalented musicians. Their playing earns ridicule from fellow villagers and contempt from their king but appeals to the upside-down aesthetics of ghosts. The charmed King of Ghosts appears with an eerie twinkling of stars and a disembodied voice to bless them with three boons. With an enjoined clap of their hands, they could feed to their heart’s content, they could travel where they want to in their charmed shoes, and their music could entrance their listeners.
Building upon this children’s story, Ray himself wrote the dialogue, designed the music, the costumes of the entire cast, and the choreography of the Ghost Dance that is redolent of Uday Shankar’s Kalpana. The dead come alive when Goopy-Bagha play and perform a surreal dance that briefly echoes the past of India — because bhoot kaal in Bengali means ‘past tense’.
The celluloid representation depicts in minute details the division of society into caste, class and creed since time turned ‘civilised’. Ghosts in the first group are the royals – from the age of Puranas through Buddha’s times to the rule of Kanishka Gupta. The shadowy, amorphous shapes in the second lot belonged perhaps to the lowest strata of those they ruled – peasants, artisans, Santhals, Bauls, Mussalmans. The third set of ghosts recall the story of colonisation by people who are suited-booted, wear hats, walk with a stick, indigo planters who drink whisky from bottles and strike awe with their body language. The fourth group comprises potbellied ghosts whom Ray identified as ‘Nani Gopals’. They wear costumes that remind us of city-dwelling zamindars, money lenders, padres who try to teach Bible and orthodox priests who run away from them. Their bulky forms contrast the skeletal shadows that precede them on the screen – perhaps because they thrived by exploiting the plebians?
All these ghosts are described later by Goopy and Bagha: they are Baba bhoot Chhana bhoot, Kancha bhoot Paka bhoot Soja bhoot Banka bhoot, Roga bhoot Mota bhoot. Thin or fat, short or tall, crooked or straight, simple or strange… between them, they are the world we inhabit across time and space!
Each group appears separately, in harmony; then they reappear to fight a war and kill one another. The pantomime is danced only to the clash of percussion instruments – and makes us wonder, when did homo-sapiens get so divided?
The allegorical dance in four segments is a phantasmagoria of styles and moods that mesmerises at every repeat viewing – as much by the visuals as by its conceptualisation. But what were the technical feats that shaped the fantastic performance? In an interview given to Karuna Shankar Roy for Kolkata, a magazine edited by Jyotirmoy Dutta, for its special edition on Ray (published on May 2, 1970), the master himself had guided viewers through the Bhooter Naach. Let me retrace part of the journey.
Ray had, since Teen Kanya (Three Daughters, 1961), scored the music for his films as the ustads he earlier collaborated with were too engrossed in their ragas to understand the needs of a film script. In GGBB, in addition to the theme music that has always borne his signature, the songs had to speak, act, develop the characters…
Let me elaborate. The original story simply said Goopy is a singer. But when Ray sat down to write the songs he had to draw upon words, and since words have meaning, the songs “say” something. When Goopy sings to arrest the march of the advancing soldiers, what could the words say? Clearly they couldn’t say, “Dekho re nayan mele jagater bahar! Open your eyes to the wondrous beauty of this earth” – that is the ditty Goopy sings right after being blessed by the King of Ghosts. Set in the calming morning raga Bhairavi, it would not be appropriate here. So he sings, “O re Halla Rajar sena, tora juddha korey korbi ki ta bol! Tell us, oh soldiers of King Halla, what will you achieve through war? You will only sacrifice your life at the altar of weapons!” At once the song becomes a diatribe against wars worldwide and through history.
So, the words are fed by the situation in which the song is being sung – and the movements were stylisation that sometimes leaned towards the Western classical form of Opera and sometimes towards Bengal’s very own Jatra. GGBB is in that sense a complete musical. Yet, I notice that the songs here don’t carry the story forward – instead, they arrest movement. In that sense they can be said to owe their lineage to Jatra where the songs act like the Greek chorus, commenting on the action and acting as the conscience keeper.
Ray did not settle for the obvious, much heard folk songs of Bengal, be it Baul or Bhatiali, Bhawaiya or Gambhira, Kirtan or Shyama Sangeet, Agamani or Patuar Gaan. Nor did he entirely shun the robust classicism of ragas. He crafted his own folksy scheme that was close to the soil of the rustic protagonists yet uncomplicated enough to appeal to the strangers inhabiting the land where they find themselves amid scholastic vocalists. Here, in the distant land where Goopy-Bagha had travelled in their magical shoes, their music had to transcend the barrier of language. In Ray’s own words, “it had to be deshottar, kaalottar”. And in being so, every one of their songs has become timeless. Be it Mora sei bhashatei kori gaan/ We sing the melody of that or any language, or Aay re aay manda mithai/ Rain down on us, sweets for every taste – today they are a part of Bengal’s cultural ethos.
Ray may have caricatured the learned ustads seasoned in ragas but, repeatedly and in various ways, he uses Carnatic music. When Goopy and Bagha are fleeing from the lock-up, the stylised flight parodies Bharatanatyam movement – “Goopy re Bagha re Pala re pala re! Run run run…” Contrast this with the forlorn music of “Dukkho kise hoy? What causes sadness?” The score uses merely two string instruments – a dotara, a two-stringed instrument, and a violin which is widely used in Carnatic music “but here it is played much like the sarinda that is popular in East Bengal,” Ray had explained in the 1970 interview reprinted in Sandesh.
However, I am most fascinated by the use of Carnatic musical instruments in the Ghost Dance at the outset. As in the rest of the film, this sequence too has heavy orchestration — but the movements are choreographed not to a song, only to a quartet of percussion instruments.
At the risk of repeating myself I underscore that Bhooter Naach has no precedent nor any sequel in any movie made in any country at any point of time. So, to understand the process of its creation, we can only listen to Ray. “The story simply said, ‘the ghosts came and danced’. But how could I realise that in visual terms? Bengal of course has a conventional description of ghosts: their ears are like winnows, their teeth stick out like radish, they are pitch-dark, with arched back. But this would not be artistic. Nor could this meagre description sustain me through an entire sequence that had to create an impact deep enough for the film to rest on. Besides, there is no convention about their dancing. That is why I started to think: What if those who actually lived and died, were to come back? How would their bhoot look and behave?”
Here, let me add that for Satyajit Ray as for Upendra Kishore too, the term bhoot was not synonymous with the English ghost or spirit. Indeed, ghosts have been part of our folklore since our forefathers peopled Bengal, so much so that villagers still won’t utter the word after sunset, preferring to refer to them as “They”. In fact, the bhoot always had a different connotation in Bengal’s literary convention that has an entire genre thriving on bhoot-pret-jinn-petni-sakchunni-dainee-Brahmadaitti… Not only is the phantom celebrated in Sanskrit literature’s Betal Panchavimsati, Tagore, talking of his childhood, writes how he expected one of them to stretch out a long arm from the trees after nightfall. Ray’s ‘Lilu Pishi’ – Leela Majumdar – had authored Sab Bhuturey, a collection of ghost stories, while Ray himself gave us Baro Bhuter Galpo a fun collection of 12 stories meant to exorcise fear! The tradition continues to live on, through the pen of Sirshendu Mukherjee, author of Nabiganjer Daitya, Gosain Baganer Bhoot, and Rashmonir Goynar Bakshothat was made into a film by Aparna Sen.
Now, to circle back to the Ghost Dance: Once Ray had transformed the ‘positive’ – read, live humans — into their ‘negative’, the dead, he realised that they could be kings and colonists as in history books, and they could be farmers and sepoys, Buddhists and Bauls, preachers and rioters too. After all, there were miles of burial ground in Birbhum — the location where Ray was shooting — that were the resting ground for Europeans who had breathed their last in Bengal. Thus, organically, came the thought of the four categories of ghosts distinctly identified through the visuals: A) the royals; B) the exploited class; C) the firangees or foreign imperialists; D) the bloated exploiters – baniyas or shopkeepers, capitalists, preachers.
In the Kheror Khata, notebooks where he drafted every frame for GGBB, Ray actually names his ghosts. So, Warren Hastings, Robert Clive and Cornwallis are resurrected with their guns and their swords. This reminded me of the Terracotta Soldiers I have seen in Xian: the funerary sculptures depicting the army of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China, were modelled on actual lived soldiers, I had learnt. Similarly, the thought of Chatur Varnashrammay have led to the four classification of ghosts – and the depiction of rows of simplified human figures on many of our temple walls – including Konark — could have inspired the vertical arrangement of the four groups, one on top of the other.
In execution, these ‘disembodied’ figures were given body by actual dancers. “We spent long hours together choreographing the sequence,” Ray said of Shambhunath Bhattacharya who had trained students in his dance school to take turn in dancing the classical footsteps. Their costumes and make up were, of course, designed by Ray and devised by art director Bansi Chandragupta, in keeping with their station in life. The exception was the Europeans: Ray used shadow puppets dancing 16 frames a second to evoke their mechanised manner. The action was in ‘five movements’: They come, they dance, they clash and war, they build up a frenzy that is resolved in harmony. The ghosts, after all, cannot die again!
Realising the movements was a challenge that the genius overcame technically. “If the four rows had to be physically shot, with four rows of dancers standing one over another, it would have needed a three-storey space. So, we arranged two rows at first, photographed them by masking top half of the film. Then we reversed the film and operated the camera to capture two more rows. The camera was on a crane and at the precise moments marked by music, we had to zoom back from the close up…”
The music for Bhooter Naach has its origin in the Carnatic taal vadya kacheri – an orchestra of percussion instruments that Ray first heard on radio, then witnessed at the inauguration of an International Film Festival of India (IFFI) in Delhi. He decided to use a unique quartet comprising of mridangam, ghatam, kanjira and morsing. For the uninitiated: mridangam is a double-sided drum (somewhat like Bengal’s terracotta drum, khol) with a body made from hollowed jackfruit wood and the two mouthpieces covered by stretched goatskin. Ghatam, known as ghara in Punjab and matka in Rajasthan, is a clay pot with a narrow mouth whose pitch varies with its size. Kanjira, belonging to the tambourine family, has a single pair of jingles on it. And morsing, a plucked instrument held in the mouth to make the ‘twang twang’ sound, is also found in Rajasthan and Sindh. Ray used mridangam for the royals “because it is classical,” and their dance movement is also purely classical. Kanjira, with its semi-folk sound, he used for the farmers, and ghatam with its somewhat rigid sound was right for the rather wooden, mechanical movement of the Europeans. And the croaking sound of the morsing? Yes, it was just what the comical bloated figures needed!
Finally, we come to the most haunting part of the stellar performance: the Ghost King who grants Goopy Baagha the three boons that change their lives, the lives of the kingdoms of Shundi and Halla, and the definition of fantasy in cinema. Chumki, the decorative spangles predominantly used in zardozi, combined with a soft light that diffused the reflected shine of the beads to work ethereal magic. The radish-like teeth crafted from shola pith – the milky white Indian cork that is hallowed by its association with Puja in Bengal — stuck out of the pitch-black body that had eyebrows whitened with paint. Finally, a thick white ‘sacred thread’ across its chest completed the appearance of the gigantic holy demon, Brahma Daitya.
The matching intonation? We all know by now: It was The Master’s Voice. Sound engineer Babu Sarkar had recorded Ray’s baritone, then played at double speed, and rerecorded it…
Only a genius of Ray’s stature could visualise this!
This essay is part of the online website dedicated to the Kheror Khata Satyajit Ray maintained, detailing the making of Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne. This was launched to celebrate the Birth Centenary of the legend. Republished with permission from TCG Crest.
 Folk theatre from Bengal
 Beyond the bounds of countries or time
 All ghosts
 Big Ghost Stories
 Nabiganj’s Demon
 Gosain Garden’s Ghost
 Rashmoni’s Jewel Box
 Four categorisations
Ratnottama Sengupta, formerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and translates and write books. She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award.
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2 replies on “When ‘they’ Danced…”
Truly an outstanding piece penned by you.You have recreated the whole sequence of Bhooter Naach through your writing so that one can visualize it while reading the article.
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Wow 🥺 what an excellent compilation and write up.
Tad long in this age of nano seconds read🤭 but the ouvre of the Master comes through.
This also proves he understood dance for cinema in his own unique way.
His documentary on Bala was not his best on dance. He neither did justice to her art , nor to the form. Wind blowing on face and a billowing sari, he made a caricature of dance .
But GGBB/ Bhooter naach is a master -piece. Eerie, mystical, musically so unique as you write
Thanx for writing and sharing. Ray da will be dancing reading your assessment and tribute..