Categories
Interview Review

Satyajit Ray – Was he really ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’?

In conversation with Barun Chanda, an actor who started his career as the protagonist of a Satyajit Ray film and now is a bi-lingual writer of fiction and more recently, a non-fiction published by Om Books International, Satyajit Ray: The Man Who Knew Too Much

“[O]ne would like to remember Ray as one of the last truly great renaissance men of Bengal, moulded much in the tradition of Tagore, in the sense that his genius manifested itself in manifold directions: film-making, photography, writing, composing poetry, limericks, music, designing, drawing, developing new typefaces, you name it.

“For a long time, he was also our most distinguished cultural ambassador to the world.”

This perhaps is the one of the most apt descriptions of a man whose films were legendary in our lifetime and a part of the concluding chapter in The Man Who Knew Too Much by Barun Chanda. The book is an exhaustive account of Ray and his major films, how he made the films, what were the influences he had, how he directed the films and how versatile he was. Chanda is clearly impacted by this giant of Bengal renaissance, which started with Raja Ram Mohan Roy in the eighteenth century and encompassed Tagore.

The book is as much a memoir by Chanda about Satyajit Ray as it is a narrative about his films. Structured unusually, this non-fiction has an introduction sandwiched between two sections, the first being Chanda’s own interaction with Ray as a hero of his award-winning film, Seemabadha[1](1971), and the making of the movie; the second being the narrative that covers the titular content (borrowed from Alfred Hitchcock’s famous 1956 thriller), The Man Who Knew Too Much, about the genius of Ray as a filmmaker. Chanda shows us how Ray was truly unique and very gifted. He would remember all the dialogues and be intent on being involved with every part of film making, from costumes to camera, lighting and makeup — which is probably why his films had a unique touch so much so that he has to date been the only Indian filmmaker to win an honorary Oscar which Hollywood actress Audrey Hepburn, collected for him as he lay sick in bed (1992) breathing his last, saying: “Dear Satyajit Ray, I am proud and privileged to have been allowed to represent our industry in paying tribute to you as an artist and as a man. For everything you represent I send you my gratitude and love.”

And this note has been quoted by Chanda to bring out the uniqueness of a man who counted luminaries like Arthur C Clarke, Jean Renoir, de Sica, Kurusawa, Cartier-Bresson among his friends. He has unveiled the unique persona further. “As Ray was wont to say, everything that he had done earlier in his career, helped prepare him to be a complete filmmaker. His sense of framing stemmed from his knowledge of still photography. His deep love of Western and Indian classical music helped shape him as a music director. His sense of art direction came from his earlier stint at D.J. Keymer. His power of illustration helped him design the sets of Hirak Rajar Deshe[2]and Shatranj ke Khilari[3], both marvellous instances of art direction. And a combination of these two factors facilitated his making of some of the most original and impressive cinema posters ever.”

Chanda goes on to describe the full genius of Ray’s film making which even stretched to scripts, songs — both the lyrics and music often, and of course his ability to visualise the whole movie beforehand. Ray is quoted as having said: “I have the whole thing in my head at all times. The whole sweep of the film.”

Interspersed with anecdotes about the films, the text highlights the eternal relevance of some of the dialogues and lyrics that Ray wrote himself. For example, listening carefully to the lyrics of ‘Ore Baba Dekho Cheye[4]’ (Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, 1969), one could see it as a comment from a current pacifist in today’s war-torn world. This book actually seems like an eye opener not only to understand Ray’s films, but also to find out what the world needs from the media, an important comment in times of false news and sensationalism.

However, the book is not all adulation. It is also a critique of the persona of a visionary who could risk all for realising his vision. Chanda tells us how to attain perfection, Ray could risk necks: “There was an element in Ray bordering on ruthlessness. To get a certain effect on the screen he wasn’t averse to taking risks, at times to dangerous levels.”

New perspectives are brought in from unpublished interviews: “In an unpublished Bengali interview of Ray which is in the possession of Abhijit Dasgupta, one-time chief of Doordarshan, Kolkata, when asked about his film Sadgati[5], the maestro is quoted to have said: ‘One needed to make a film on this story immediately. As a Marxist, Mrinal Sen would have probably made it differently, more angry … Had this film been angrier I’m not sure it would have served the purpose any better. I don’t think display of anger alone can lead to much of an achievement. To my mind a truly politically angry film hasn’t been made so far. Until now what has been done is to shoot at safe targets. It hasn’t made any difference to establishments in any way. If one were to achieve this kind of a thing, I would sooner be a political worker than a filmmaker.’”

While looking at the maestro through an objective lens, Chanda finds it hard not to express his affection for the giant who impacted not just him but a whole generation of movie goers, film personnel and the world. His last sentence says it all:

“As far as I’m concerned, he [Ray] is always present. Not past. Not even past perfect.”

Chanda, a man who started his life working in the same advertising agency as Ray and dreaming of being an actor, with four books and multiple films under his belt, himself mesmerised audiences as a protagonist in Ray’s award-winning film and then suddenly withdrew from the industry for two decades. Why would he do that? Let us find out more about him and Ray in this interview.

Barun Chanda

First of all, let me tell you I am very honoured to be interviewing a Ray hero from a film I have watched multiple times. So, tell me, why did you act only in one Ray film, have a hiatus of twenty years and then go back to acting with Hirer Angti [6]  in 1992, the year Ray died. Did it have anything to do with Satyajit Ray’s presence or influence?

No. I’ll tell you what – after Seemabadha, I got a cluster of film offers, nine-ten offers and I did not accept anyone of them because they did not seem to be significant enough. I wasn’t interested in making money out of films or becoming a film star. I was interested in acting in good films. If they came my way, I would do. If they didn’t come my way, I wouldn’t. I would go back to my profession which is advertising. I was very happy there.

So, these offers that came didn’t quite satisfy me. And Manikda[7] did not call me back again for whatever reasons. The other significant filmmakers like Tapan Sinha, Mrinal Sen and Ritwick Ghatak – they did not call me. I suppose I was branded as a capitalist actor. Or Imperialistic actor! I suppose it became ingrained in their mind I was an executive and nothing else. They felt they could not bend me into the roles in their film. A pity!

Is this your first non- fiction? What led you to think of writing a book on Satyajit Ray?

Yes, it is my first non-fiction. I had harboured this thought for a long-long time but there is a natural reluctance about writing anything. I am, by and large, a lazy person and there were a whole lot of things that were pretty personal, and I thought, you know, let it be stored in my mind. Maybe, I could narrate to my close friends’ circle certain stories and certain things that happened between me and him. But not for everyone. Even in this book, I have not mentioned a whole lot of things that are too personal, which he confided to me in good understanding that I will not tell another. I won’t speak about it.

Then the centenary year came, and many asked me why I did not write my out my memories. Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri was one of them. He said the time is right and you have such wonderful anecdotes and experience, put it down for posterity. When I did the first part, I realised it could not just be my experiences but also something larger – in the sense what kind of a man was he in real life.

I was also dissatisfied with the books I have been reading about Ray and his works — starting with Marie Seton[8], who was supposed to be a gospel on Ray. I found it was a narration of his films in chronological order and what she thought of them. It was film-based assessment, not of the man himself or his qualities separated from the films. So, I decided to explore his persona. This book is quite different from any written on him. I have sections on music, editing with a whole lot of films but not in a chronological order. That is passé. The second part started with what has not been done. As I progressed, newer sections dawned on me – a whole lot of sections I have not used. I wanted a chapter on “The Rise and Fall of the Ray Empire” – but then thought I’d rather not finally. It would have been terrific, but I did not, perhaps want to spoil the public feeling about Ray. I did not want to criticise. I did do a chapter though — “Director or dictator”.

Absolutely. Your book is dispassionate but has no scandals or any unfair criticism. In fact, it seems to be based on not just your memories but also many interviews and lot of research. Can you tell us what went into the making of this book in this context? What kind of research and who all did you interview? How much time went into the making of the book?

I used Ray’s experiences with actors who are no longer alive – like Chabbi Biswas or Tulsi Chakraborty. I have used Aloknanda Roy who happened to work with Chabbi Babu in Kanchenjunga[9]. I used the living actors. I did not interview Soumitra Chatterjee – I know his feelings on Ray. So, I did not interview him separately. But there is a lot in the book about how Soumitra da perceived Ray or his equation with Ray.

The book worked well for me – I would have gone to a madhouse but for this book. You have to believe me. For it helped my sanity, writing this book during the Covid period[10]. The eighteen months—closer to two years. I could really concentrate on something as I am an outgoing person – not that I am a club person – but I would like to meet my friends, lead an active life. Suddenly, I felt imprisoned – it was like house imprisonment. So, I turned my attention to writing this book and whatever I could get out of YouTube, whole lot of other’s books, Ray’s interviews. One gentleman, Abhijit Dasgupta, who was the head of Kolkata Doordarshan, had conducted an interview. He gave me part of it which I found very intimate. You could do a book on Ray and Mrinal Sen dispassionately –Mrinal’s films would be of historical importance but not of relevance otherwise whereas Manikda’s films can be watched again and again because it touches your heart.

That is so true. Your book is structurally unusual with an introduction in the middle of two parts. Why did you follow such an unconventional format? Do you feel it helped your presentation in any way?

Yes. Because I was writing a different book. No one has written a biography in two parts. In a way it is not a biography, but it is trying to understand and appreciate Ray as a filmmaker. That’s what the book is.

I was in an advantageous position to write on Ray. Actually, Dhritiman Chatterjee could have done the same. I admire Dhriti for his thinking, but I guess there is an innate laziness. He did interview Manikda but I do not know where the tapes are.

I felt the way I did it was the right way. The book came naturally to me. For somethings, I went out of my way — like the titling.

To this date, no Indian director has made a film where the title is relevant to the film. The film follows from the title. The thought is not there. But it is there in the West. That is why you have people like Saul Bass. Ray wanted to do things himself – that might have been why he did the titling too. He would draw and present to the art director who would work further on it. I should have had a whole lot of drawings in this book, but it was not readily available.

I continue to feel I could embellish certain chapters, especially on music. Debojyoti Mishra, a film music director, has written a book in Bengali which actually traces from where Ray has borrowed what piece of Western Classical music. It is not unlike Tagore – there are analogies in the use of music between the two.

Ray spent a few years in Santiniketan when he was young, I think around 1940. Was he impacted by Tagore? Can you tell us about it? Did he meet Tagore or have any conversation with him as it was a year before Rabindranath passed on?

He did not actively seek out Rabi Thakur. He was a very shy person. There is no mention anywhere in his writings about seeking out Tagore, knowing very well Tagore held his father and grandfather in great esteem. His mom knew Tagore well. But he never sought him out. It is rather difficult to understand why he did not utilise the time speaking with Tagore. Maybe, Tagore was inaccessible. I could have asked him, but I never did. I do not know why I never asked.

Why would you borrow from Alfred Hitchcock to name probably one of the last of the Bengal renaissance men? Can you please elaborate?

I thought that the title was absolutely apt. As a director he knew more than any director did. It described him to perfection. He would draw, give music and work with his basic idea with the rest of the team.

What would you say is Ray’s most major contribution to the world?

The brilliance of Ray’s portrayal of the village was outstanding. You watch the film and think you cannot improve on it. And Ray knew it and has said it.

Does Ray continue to impact current trends in cinema?

Ray was a classicist. The film making style has moved away from that. He would not move the camera unless it became imperative to his film. But now, cameras are handheld, and they have fast shooting. Film making has transformed with the emergence of the web series. Shooting has become so much easier and quick, though they work very hard. There is something more raw about web series. The feature film is more stately, more crafted. Films have enough time. You cannot get a good film if the actors are not brilliant. You cannot shoot a good film in ten or twelve days as they do for web series. That is not physically possible. In the West, they take eighty to ninety days to shoot a film.

Ray wrote many novels on Feluda and Professor Sonkhu. Yet made few films on them. He made films of others’ books rather than his own. Can you tell us why?

Maybe, the writing part started late in his life. It was propelled by his need to feed Sandesh[11] and he had to supply stories to Desh[12] — one per year, for the puja [13]special. His writing came as an offshoot – it was an accident. But the preparation was there – if you read his scripts or lyrics, they are fantastic. The scripts he wrote were brilliant. There is much to admire and respect about him. He was a writer too.

You are known to be a writer too. Are your books impacted by your association with Ray?

What I learnt from him was how to write dialogues. The publisher of my Bengali books, Tridib Chatterjee, said he found my dialogues “smart”. Ray’s writing was very tight. I tighten my descriptions. I do not expect the readers to read a book like Tom Jones[14].

Can you tell us about your other books? Coke (2011) interestingly, is available in both Bengali and English. So, which came first — the Bengali book or the English? Are they both your handiwork? Tell us a bit about your novels?

I wrote it in Bengali first and then wrote it in English later. Actually, it was not a direct translation. I write in both the languages. Another one which is in English is Murder in the Monastery. The second edition is being brought out by Rupa, should be available on Amazon soon hopefully. Post-Covid, people have gone into hibernation. So, many have complained they cannot get it.

I have two books in English, Coke and Murder in the Monastery. The others are in Bengali.

Which genre is preferable to you — murder, mystery thrillers or non-fiction like this one?

I get my high writing fiction, especially crime.

Are you giving us any new books in the near future?

Yes, a collection of short stories in Bengali, probably after the pujas. I have created a character called Avinash Roy. He is learned and intelligent but not overtly brilliant like Sherlock Holmes. My favourite character [fictional] among detectives is that of Inspector Morse – I have seen the TV series but not read the books. He was very human. Absolutely brilliant. But coming back to my current book, it is also facing delays, but I am hoping it will be out this October.

Thank you for giving us your time and answering our questions


[1] Translates to ‘bound by limits’

[2] 1980 film by Ray, translates from Bengali as ‘In Hirak Raja’s Kingdom’

[3]1977 film by Ray, translates from Hindi as ‘The Chess Players’

[4] Translates from Bengali to ‘Oh dear look around’

[5] 1981 television film by Ray, translates from Hindi as ‘Deliverance’

[6] A film by Rituporno Ghosh, translates as ‘Diamond Ring’

[7] Satyajit Ray – he was often referred to as such by his friends

[8] Marie Seton: Portrait of a Director: Satyajit Ray, 2003

[9] Ray film released in 1962

[10] Lockdown due to the Pandemic

[11] A magazine started by Ray’s grandfather, Upendrakishore Ray in 1913

[12] A Bengali magazine that was started in 1933

[13] Durga Puja, the main festival of Bengalis, where the Goddess is said to return to her parent’s home for five days

[14] The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749) by Henry Fielding

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(This review and telephonic interview has been conducted by Mitali Chakravarty.)

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Categories
Travel

Of Palaces and Restorations

Rupali Gupta Mukherjee visits a restored palace in the heartland of Bengal

The Courtyard of Rajbari Bawali. Photo Courtesy: Rupali Gupta Mukherjee

From time immemorial, rajbaris, or the palatial homes of zamindars, have been a part of Bengal art and architecture, although many such splendid mansions have fallen into ruin owing to ownership issues or lack of conservation. Some are being converted to hotels, like the rajbari at Bawali. Located sixty kilometers from Calcutta, the palace-hotel enthralled with its restored regal rhythm, glamour and enduring legend. We were transfixed, bemused and in love with the aesthetic elegance.

“The daunting task of restoring the crumbling historic manor into a lavish hotel was a mammoth task. An exclusive 300-year-old colonial mansion transformed into a stunning luxury heritage boutique estate”, said the proud Resident Director of the property, Ms. Mrinalinee Majumdar. Once an imposing abode of the aristocratic zamindar family, The Rajbari Bawali undoubtedly, has revived an integral part of Bengal’s glorious history and culture.

Mr. Ajay Rawla discovered the 18th century palace in a state of ruins in 2006 and tried his best to reconstruct its history. Mr. Rawla, the Chairman, spent around seven years restoring the Rajbari’s past glory. The restoration work received acclaim, award of excellence by INTACH [Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage]. The restored Rajbari Bawali has also been featured by Conde Nast UK on their hot list of “Top 50 Hidden Destinations of the World’. The Duke and the Duchess of York were guests at the Rajbari during their visit to India.

Bawali Rajbari has a remarkable history, dating back to more than four hundred years, starting with the Mughal Emperor Akbar. The name “Bawali” can be traced to its first settlers, forest dwellers from the Baul. Initially, this place was known as “Bowali” but over the years this has changed to “Bawali”. This erstwhile swampland, once part of the Sundarbans, was handed over as a reward to Shoba Ram Rai, an army officer under Maharaja Man Singh of Jaipur, the commander-in-chief of the Mughal Emperor. History tells us that the Mondols of Bawali were originally Roys. Their dominance in the fringes started way back in 1710. Later, the royal family prospered under Haradhan, who enjoyed the benefaction of the East India Company.

350-year-old Radha Krishna Temple built in the
traditional aat-chala style. Photo Courtesy: Rupali Gupta Mukherjee

It was autumn, just before Durga Puja, when we planned a day trip to explore the rajbari at Bawali. As we moved towards the entrance of the rajbari, more than three-centuries-old, Radha Krishna temple, opposite the palace, caught our attention. An arched alley made of red bricks and pillars with Victorian floral motifs. The temple steeple stands out from the rest of the architecture. It has delicate terracotta etching outside, with moss and plants growing in cracks. We were amazed at the rich intricate structural motifs. This is another heritage site that desperately needs restoration, we felt. The West meets the East in the lofty temples and the palace of Bowali. The European style columns that hold up the temples in the village are atypical in the rest of the state. Beautiful gardens dotted with fashionable statues of Italian marble and a sinuous water turret weaves a flowing reverie. It’s really sad that most of the structures are in ruins and on the verge of collapse.

Finally, we found ourselves in front of the main entrance leading to Rajbari Bawali. The welcome was grand with the beating of the dhaak, the traditional drums, and women in traditional attire, clad in red bordered white saris, welcoming guests with the traditional smear of tika on the forehead, flowers and sweets. We were overwhelmed by the antique fixtures, after stepping inside the courtyard which revived the bygone era of the zamindars, nawabs and their lifestyles steeped in grandeur. The welcome drink was refreshing and the entire property was a visual delight, a photographer’s paradise.

The Terrace café, with a part of the vestiges from the roof took us back to the primeval past. A striking segment of the palace merges the new with the ancient, keeping the antiquity alive. Apart from exploring the huge chattels we enjoyed the sumptuous traditional Bengali lunch. The royal lunch was served with utmost warmth and hospitality. The food was exceptionally delicious, was flawlessly soaked in conventional recipe and served in a stately style.  Burnt clay plates lined with banana leaves served lip-smacking kochur loti chingri, kassa mangsho, Bhetki Paturi. The dessert was mouthwatering and elaborate, I loved the misti doi.  The ongoing melodious live concert on the lush green lawn adjacent to the dining arena was definitely scintillating.

It was an astounding experience for us; something, undeniably beyond expectation, we started our journey with the thought of exploring a historical site but we were overwhelmed by the exclusiveness of the palatial structure, antique display, hypnotic charm of the ‘Zamindari Raj’ and the warmth of the employees. I was in a trance for weeks after visiting the elite ‘khazana’ of the colonial era and was keen to know more about its imperial past. My quest brought to light many hidden facts.

Unrestored Part of the Rajbari. Photo Courtesy: Rupali Gupta Mukherjee

The ruins of the rajbari and its surrounding relics was also the memorable shoot venue preferred by renowned film director Mrinal Sen for his Shabana Azmi, Naseeruddin starred movie Khandhar. It was screened at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival. Later after restoration of the Khandhar, in 2003 Rituparno Ghosh selected the same setting, Bawali Rajbari for his National award-winning film Chokher Bali, an adaptation from Tagore’s novel of the same name. This also bagged the Chicago International Film Festival Award [2003] The rajbari is an extraordinary architectural masterpiece about 60km away from Kolkata, steeped in convention and opulence, a heritage boutique resort

It had been more than a month now, but still the spell of the Greco-Roman style Rajbari, the dungeon, jailkhana, cellar storing liquors from 1858, antique decor portico, fax machine and gramophones of archaic fashion, well-ventilated thakurdalan, spacious grand piano room, exquisite chandeliers in the dining hall and the faintly lit vestibule will take you, beyond doubt, to a baffling pensive world of romance!

Glossary:

kochur loti chingri — Prawn

 kassa mangsho – goat meat

 bhetki paturi – fish

misti doi – sweetened yoghurt a Bengali speciality.

Rupali Gupta Mukherjee has a passion for reading, writing and reciting poetry.   She is a nature enthusiast, loves to travel and has a zeal for photography.

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Categories
Musings

Gliding down the Silk Road

By Ratnottama Sengupta

These contemplations have come out of Ruhaniyat-e-Aam, an online festival of migrating music. Hosted by Indus Band, its focal theme was ‘Reconstructing the Silk Route’.  A webinar was the finale of the concept that was put into practice long before ‘COVID’ entered the Oxford dictionary – in 2018 when Somali Panda, founding head of the Kolkata-based Band came up with the novel concept of connecting online with performers in Greece. They played their music, we joined them with my reading, Tamal Goswami’s painting, and Somali’s songs.

Subsequently, during the pandemic, “when the world was compelled to stay indoors, the importance of connecting with the rest of humanity forcefully struck us,” says Somali. She then went on to host this series of interactions with musicians, artists, filmmakers and academicians from Greece, Czech Republic, Egypt, Iran, Kazakhstan and India — all participating in a celebration of the Human Migration that established bonding amongst nations, cultures, civilizations, and created a global community long before the term had come into existence.

The prime purpose of reconstructing the Silk Route — philosophically, ideologically, conceptually – was to forge a measure of friendship. Friends they became – Labros Kantos, singer from Greece; Saimir Bajo from the Czech Republic; Mesbah Kamal, academician from Dhaka; Sharofat Ara Bova, filmmaker from Tajikistan; Arqavaneh Folklore Ensemble from Isfahan, Iran; Mohamed Abu Zid from Cairo, Egypt; Sarower Reza Jimi, playwright from Lisbon, Portugal… Because music connects people most readily since it overrides the barrier of language, “and it gives inner peace and solace,” Somali adds.

 By the time it ended, Ruhaniyat-e-Aam had traced the cultural exchange from the time of Alexander and helped to understand how Hellenic Culture became Hellenistic through synthesis. Most of us know that after Alexander conquered the Persians, he established the city of Alexandria (339 BC). A little more detail: this was in the Fergana Valley of Neb – around modern-day Tajikistan. Leaving the wounded warriors behind Alexander moved on, and in time the Macedonians intermarried with the indigenous populace creating the Greco Bactrian culture that flourished in the Seleucid Empire after his death.

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This festival of Migrant Music set me on a virtual journey down the Silk Road, the 6,400 km caravan tract that was actually an ancient network of trade routes. Formally established during the Han Dynasty of China, it linked in commerce the regions from China to Mesopotamia – should I say modern day Iran? – through India, Asia Minor, Egypt, the African continent, Greece, Rome and Britain too — between 130 BC and 1453 AD. Originating in Xian – now famed for its Terracotta Army – it followed the Great Wall of China to its northwest, bypassed the Takla Makan Desert, climbed the Pamirs, crossed Afghanistan, went on to the Levant region from where merchandise was shipped across the Mediterranean Sea.

What many of us don’t realize is that the Silk Route was not one single road. There were some that were longer and safer; some were shorter and more difficult. Some had been journeyed on much longer and thereby had witnessed more exchange than some of the shorter, more precarious roads and pockets like, say, Bhutan. And few travelled the entire length of the road: goods were handled in a staggered progression by middlemen.

The greatest value of the road lies in the exchange of culture it effected. Art, religion, technology, language, science, architecture — indeed, every other element of civilization was exchanged on these roads, along with the commercial goods that merchants traded from country to country

Marco Polo: Creative Copmmons

With the loss of Roman superiority and rise of Arabian power, the Silk Road became more and more unsafe. However, during the rule of the Mongols/ Mughals, Venetian explorer Marco Polo (1254-1324) travelled right up to China along the road that is now supposed to have been the main artery along which travelled the bubonic plague bacteria responsible for the pandemic of Black Death that decimated the Byzantine capital of Constantinople.

The network was used regularly till about 1453 when the Ottoman Empire boycotted trade with the west and closed the routes. By this time Europeans had become used to goods from the east, and so merchants set out to find new trade routes – over the oceans. That, as we know, led to the discovery of the New World and of new civilizations and forging of new cultures. In sum, we may say that laid the groundwork for the modern world.

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What many of us don’t know: Part of the Silk Road still exists as a paved highway connecting Pakistan and the Uygur, an autonomous region of Xinjiang in China. It had given UN the impetus to plan a trans-Asian highway, and a railway counterpart of the road too had been proposed. The road had inspired cellist Yo-Yo Ma to found the Silk Road Project in 1999 in order to explore cultural traditions along its route and beyond, as a means for connecting arts worldwide, across cultures.

But why look back on the Road that has little to do with how it existed 2000 years ago? Forget the zeros – it is probably not like it was even two and half years ago! So what is its importance?

To my mind, the importance lies in the layers of history lining it. Glancing backward we realize that we stand on the shoulder of giants. Every visit into the past unearths stories of human civilization. And whenever I have done that – as I did in Kazakhstan as part of an ICCR effort in 2009 – I have got answers to questions like:

 A) Where was the Road going and why?

B) Why was it such a life transforming journey?

C) The road traversed through remote parts of the world, especially a huge part was ice covered desert. Then, why did the horse become such an important part of the journey on this road?

D) Horse was only one of the animals that were traded on the route. So, who named it Silk Road and why?

Arabian Nights

 It was so named by Ferdinand von Richthofen in 1877 CE because silk was a treasured part of the trade – indeed it was the primary attraction that started off the trade but few travellers walked the entire length of the road. They came to different posts on the route, exchanged goods, food, plants, and ideas along with spices and tea. Stories of The Arabian Nights give us an idea about the exchanges that were taking place in city like Baghdad. And we realise that the flying carpet was not a mere figment of imagination, it became a metaphor for journeying from one world to another.

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Enough of history? Well then, let’s take note of the cultural exchanges closer to our life and times. Since Ruhaniyat-e-Aam was about Migrating Music, what we naturally traced was the commonality of instruments like sarod, santoor and violin… How come the last named string instrument most associated with Western Classical music gained such acceptance and became inseparable part of music in Iran and in South India’s Carnatic music? Was rabab, the folk accompaniment most widely associated with Afghanistan, the precursor of India’s sarod, internationalized by Ustads such as Ali Akbar Khan and Amjad Ali Khan? Indeed, it was from them that I learnt there have been several versions of the rustic musical instrument that was honed, refined, perfected and sophisticated until it became the sonorous voice of Indian classical music.

Again, our santoor has a close affinity with instruments in China, Persia, Greece, and so many other places. I remember my visit to China for the Festival of India under the aegis of the Ministry of Human Resources, then headed by Arjun Singh. As part of that government-to-government initiative, I visited some music schools and was amazed to see how much our santoor — once called shatatantri or hundred stringed veena — had in common with the Chinese hammered dulcimer, yangqin. There have been many versions of it – in Iran, Iraq, Greece, Armenia. I noticed that the music played on the Chinese instruments were a bit more staccato; in India I learnt from maestros closely identified with santoor — primarily Shiv Kumar Sharma and Bhajan Sopori – that strings have been added to get the murchhana or greater resonance so that the notes linger on…

If we go on to visual arts, the first name that comes to my mind is of Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947). The Russian lawyer-painter-archaeologist-philosopher born in St Petersberg had developed an abiding interest in Eastern religions, in Theosophy and Buddhism as much as Ramakrishna and Vivekananda, Tagore, Vedanta and Bhagavad Gita. His spiritual leanings took him across the Himalayas and make his home in the Himachal town of Naggar where he breathed his last.

Of greater consequence to Ruhaniyat-e-Aam was the fact that in mid-1920s the Roerichs together with their son and six friends went on a five-year-long Asian Expedition that started – in Roerich’s words – “from Sikkim and went through Punjab, Kashmir, Ladah, the Karakoram Mountains, Khotan, Kashgar, Qarashar, Urumchi, Irtysh, the Altai Mountains, Oyrot regions of Mongolia, the Central Gobi, Kansu, Tsaidam and Tibet…” A decade later he was to return to Mongolia and Manchuria to collect seeds of plants that prevent soil erosion.

In plainer words, because of these travels Roerich intimately knew not only the Himalayan range but a lot more of the Silk Road. This armed him with a scintillating palette of colours that painted mesmerizing mountains that are bold yet lyrical, rather mystical, even spiritual. I was absorbed by the tranquility that imbues the hypnotic series of 36 immersive images of the Himalayas preserved in the Roerich Gallery at the Chitrakala Parishath in Bangalore.

Roerich’s journeys along the Road had also prompted him to talk of preventing the destruction of art and architecture and work toward preserving the cultural wealth of the world. This had led to his nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1929.

Deb Mukharji, a retired member of India’s Foreign Services, has also travelled through its hardy folds – and extensively photographed the Abode of Snow. The keen photographer who has authored Kailash and Mansarovar and exhibited Tall Tales of the Himalayas — among many others — is concerned about the ecosystem of the rugged and culturally rich Himalayas. “It is threatened by the highways that are being built through the mountains, either to promote religious tourism or for other purposes, he says after treks that took him from Garhwal to Nepal and Kailash to Manas.”

Cinematographer-director Goutam Ghose has journeyed through the Silk Route to make the ten-part documentary, Beyond the Himalayas. His project had started in 1994 and initially he had travelled with only 5-6 members who drove in a jeep and through the countries. “Our purpose was to look back from here and now in order to connect all the yesterdays that have transformed life and made us what we are today,” the celebrated filmmaker had said to me then.

So many stories of the exchanges enrich our literature too. Saradindu Bandopadhyay, author of many Bengali classics, had penned a story titled Maru O Sangha – The Monastery in the Desert. This was turned into a film, Trishagni/ Sandstorm (1989) by Nabendu Ghosh, another celebrated Bengali writer who became a legend as screenwriter of Hindi films. His film revolved around a monastery in Central Asia, somewhere on the Silk Route.  It showed traders who came to the monastery with a ration of food, clothes and other essentials. Those were days when people could not fly in in a helicopter and drop supplies… it took months for these traders travelling in groups to reach from one stupa to another. There was a focus on the lifestyle of the times. Buddhism was the first organized religion, and monastery being the centre of Buddhism was thus the centre of such exchanges 2000 and more years ago. These monasteries subsequently became the prototype for Islamic Madrasas and before that, of Christian universities: they were built along the lines of the monasteries which dotted Central Asia. And it is believed that the Stupa also gave the concept of the gumbad, the round top of so many masjids and forts too.

Another important exchange that was happening came to light when Trishagni was screened in many international film festivals outside India – in Tehran, Cairo, Thailand… One of the questions that cropped up was this: “You are talking about Buddhism but why are the men (and women) dressed like they dress in Islamic countries? Islam wasn’t there then!” It had to be pointed out that philosophy – and religion is a part of that – and ideas travel but Geography moulds what we wear. Because of the weather, when there was no air conditioner or even fans around, people in some parts of Africa wore no garments and in some parts of the Asian desert men wore long robes to cover the body from head to toe from the hot flying sand particles. They started covering their heads and ears and part of the face, and that wisdom became a convention and then a tradition.

Thus, geographical reality moulded why people in certain parts of the world dress in certain ways. And with the journey of religion, these dress codes also journeyed. The Romans did not wear silk because they admired the style in which the Chinese wore it but because of the inherent quality of silk. Cotton was also much in demand on this route since it was hot in the desert. So was indigo – native to India, primarily, and sought in Mediterranean countries as pigment for dyeing, medicinal and cosmetic use.

These exchanges which are now history happened largely because of geography. Why? I got the answer in the course of a seminar where artistes and academics had come from Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkey. I started realizing that people were travelling from China down to Northern tip of Africa or the Mediterranean country, certain lifestyle changes were taking place. These landlocked pockets that had no access to the sea, had little green and only animals to live off. Naturally, many turned their attention to what was going on the Silk Road. Two very interesting things happened:

1) Many became bandits who would rob these caravans.

2) Many did the opposite: they offered themselves as guards to protect the goods in the caravans from bandits.

So, the same problem generated two different approaches to life, two different lifestyles. Those who became guards would travel with the caravans and they became warriors. They became warriors because they were living in very tough terrains, and they became skilled warriors because they were fighting off bandits to protect the caravans. Before long these men turned aggressive. Wars between tribes became endemic – and many of the lands strived to find stability and prosperity for their people by going into the lands of other people. (Once again, geography and history came together to define lifestyle and culture.)

We find versions of this later when people set out from Europe and landed up in America, and a new culture and civilizational evolved. Another such change took place when people were forced to travel from the Queen’s England to Australia. All these migrations and journeys have influenced the arts, ideas, religion, food habit… Why is it that in India’s Northwest – Afghanistan, to be specific — people cook meat and roti in tandoor ovens while in Bengal well-being is synonymous with ‘maachh-bhaat’ – fish curry and rice? Once again the answer lies in the history of geography – that is, geography moulding tradition and shaping history.

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In 1892 Rabindranath Tagore wrote Kabuliwala, a story that touches the heart of humans everywhere in the world even today. It pivots on a peddler from Kabul who comes to Calcutta each year to sell dry fruits, and befriends a child, Mini. Circumstances force him to go to prison on charges of stabbing a debtor. On his release he goes to meet Mini and finds she is getting married. Rahman realizes that his daughter, now grown up, will also not have any recollection of her father – and he starts on his return journey, towards home.

This story has been filmed in India in Bengali by Tapan Sinha (1957), in Hindi by Hemen Gupta (1961), by Kazi Hayat of Bangladesh (2006), by Anurag Basu for a television channel (2015), by Deb Medhekar in 2018. It has been reimagined in totally different contexts.  Bioscopewala, set in 1990s, had Minnie going to Afghanistan where her father has died in a plane crash. In another script French Afghan writer Atiq Rahimi sets the story after the destruction of the Balmiyan Buddhas. This man from Kabul spells another exchange of ideas: he comes because this part of the world believes in reincarnation — and he is seeking his little girl who died during the destruction of the Buddhas!

Taking her cue from this same story, Sharofat Imam Arabova of Tajikistan made a lilting film where an Indian vendor selling things in that land strikes a friendship with a little girl. Desirous of paying a tribute to the author, the FTII-trained director approached Somali Panda to incorporate Tagore’s music in the script. “And when we did that using a santoor, it was so strikingly in sync!” says the music-maker from Kolkata who extensively used Raag Bhairavi. “That is the power of music – and also the bonding of migrant music,” she adds. And even as she spoke, I was reminded of Mrinal Sen’s Neel Akasher Neechey/ Under the Blue Sky (1959) wherein a Chinese hawker, Wang Lu, sold silk on the streets of Calcutta of 1930s, when India was under British rule. His life changed forever when he met Basanti, a housewife who gets arrested for her involvement in politics.

So what’s common between these stories? What connects the diverse players? Human situation where a man has travelled for work and struck friendship, an equation with a child – the most basic, most innocent form of humanity.

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This is the importance of revisiting the Silk Route and renewing acquaintance with migrant music: that human beings everywhere in the world have been migrating. Individually too we have migrated. My grandfather migrated from East Bengal – Dhaka – to Patna, then a part of Bengal Presidency. Now Dhaka is a different country, and Patna is part of Bihar, a different state from West Bengal. My father ‘migrated’ from Patna to Calcutta to Bombay Presidency which became two states – Maharashtra and Gujarat. I was born in Bombay, which has become Mumbai, lived in Delhi which was earlier a Union Territory and now has become a state. At present, I live in West Bengal. My brother who was born in Patna studied in Pune, graduated in Medicine from Calcutta, lived in UK and worked in Germany, Brunei, Cyprus, Bosnia… So many migrations!

Today technology has opened new highways, new vistas of connecting with the world. And even as we speak (or read, as in this case) we are crossing boundaries almost every minute of our day. Within families to, a child goes out to study in London or New York, makes Singapore or Sidney his workplace, his family perhaps lives in Delhi, and he travels to Johannesburg to  Rio, Texas to Tokyo, Moscow to Hong Kong, Sweden to Israel. So many outposts of civilization – just as people on the Silk Road once did, for their trade.

The crux of it? Stories that tell us about human lives and human emotions highlight one simple thing: Humans are the same everywhere. They are all born of their soil – geography. And geography moulds our history. Because we are creatures of these two forces, periodically we need to look back and trace our commonalities in order to transcend the schisms in society.

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Ratnottama Senguptaformerly 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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