At an intertexutal level, the Victorianism of the interior depicting the nineteenth century penchant for all things plush and patinated, evokes as well the useless expenditure and sensationalism of mainstream Indian cinema, in which both gods and humans are given a high-gloss “Color-by-Technicolor” appearance implicitly critiqued by the film. In contrast to the opulence of the interior, the countryside depicted in Devi has none of the lushness of the panoramic views that characterize the depiction of a mythical India in mainstream cinema—with their hills and dales, waterfalls and sunsets, skies and clouds through which heroes and heroines, gods and goddesses pass.
The distance between the exterior landscapes and the interior of Kalikinkar’s household is only too marked. For there are no elements of relief in the landscape in Devi: no baroque ornamentation, no carapaces or coverings that give the bourgeois nineteenth-century imagination its substance or twentieth-century escapism its content. The modern is coded as the shellacking of the private sphere in which more and more layers are added to protect the “private rooms of our prosaic understanding,” to use [Walter] Benjamin’s phrase, from exposure to the public. In contrast, the countryside in Devi reveals that the poor have no such escape to draw into. Importantly, neither does prakriti (or nature) herself, stripped as she is of vegetation or plenitude.
—Keya Ganguly, Cinema, Emergence, and the Films of Satyajit Ray
madhabi mukherjee says NO to the white man and destroys white supremacy structures!
Bhupati’s frequent hyperbole meets its paradoxical other in an unexpected form of ornamentation in Charulata: silence. The silent body works as an especially expressive topography in Ray’s films. Gestures, unaccompanied by words, and silence, as much as words, work as language—and, as a sign of the inadequacy of language—in these texts. The linguistic impasse is expressed in the range of emotional registers on Madhabi Mukherjee’s face—an unspoken, but obviously articulated, series of emotions.
—Gaurav Majumdar, Migrant Form: Anti-Colonial Aesthetics in Joyce, Rushdie and Ray
চারুলতা Charulata, The Lonely Wife (1964)
Ray’s film opens up with a close-up of embroidery: Charulata (Madhabi Mukherjee) sits in her bedroom, sewing the letter “B”, partly framed by a leafage motif, on a handkerchief for Bhupen (Sailen Mukherjee). Embroidery, a stereotypically feminine, domestic act, works as a subversive metaphor in Ray’s film. Stitched onto the main surface and often near that surface’s margins, embroidery disturbs the appearance of the primary surface or material, as it appears, in a sense “over” or “above” the primary material. Embroidery not only augments, but also contrasts the main body of the text—as such, it is an ancillary and a privileged form.
Winfried Menninghaus has observed that the “ornament combines a movement of ‘idealization’ with an ironic moment that puts art at a distance from itself”. The movement of “idealization” suggests an approach toward perfect harmony between the ornament and the main surface; but the ironic moment (the ornamental disturbance of the main surface that ironically augments or further “beautifies” it) simultaneously disallows that ideal concord, calling attention to the difference of surface and ornament. The irony and the idealization combined in the ornament lack the harmony an “ideal” form presumes in its very structure—embroidery is melodic because it is a sign of improvisation, it disrupts the uninterrupted appearance of the surface, and so it breaks a textile plane. If the smooth material surface is a sign of consistency, ornament is a sign of fancy, caprice, and indulgence.
The film is marked by the unseen and by sounds embroidered onto its surfaces, drifting in and out of the domestic space: we hear, but don’t see the producers of the crow’s caws, a vendor’s voice, a storm’s rumble, and a cat’s mewling. In a further act of embroidery, the camera manifestly breaks the unities of various planes (and, by extension, it breaks the “plain”): It follows Charu from a distance, across various frames (banisters, windows, and pillars supporting a balcony) while she looks out. It presents views though and into private spaces: Bhupati’s cousin, Amal, is seen in the background through a door that is ajar as Charulata and Bhupati embrace and at another moment, Charulata’s face is reflected in a glass door as Amal and Bhupati converse. A subsequent scene reveals Amal’s reflection in a clockface as he contemplates his departure from Bhupati’s mansion.
—Gaurav Majumdar, Migrant Form: Anti-Colonial Aesthetics in Joyce, Rushdie and Ray.
“Have you read the Ramayana?”
“It’s the story of Sita. Janaka was king of Mithila. One day ploughing an empty field, he found a little girl on the ground—Sita. Sita was the daughter of the Earth. One day she went back to the Earth. The Earth opened up to receive her. But that was much later. In between…comes the whole story of the Ramayana.”
“I’ll hear the whole story one day.”
I have named her Komal Gandhar
in my mind.
She would sit stunned if she learnt about it,
would ask smilingly, “What does it mean?”
That the meaning is unfathomable is its most certain meaning.
The world is about work and vocation,
It is about good and bad—
Things with which she has made acquaintances with others.
I watch, sitting by her side
how she has infused her surrounding with a peculiar melody.
She knows not her own self.
At the spot where her Beloved’s altar is placed
an agony-incense burns by His feet.
From there, a shadow of smoke engulfs the eyes,
like clouds masking the moon—
Covering the smile a little.
Her voice carries a fading strain of melancholy
She is unaware that is the strain which
binds the strings of her life’s tanpura.
The notes of Bhairavi permeate all her
words and actions.
I cannot conclude why.
That is the reason I call her Komal Gandhar—
It is hard to comprehend why
teardrops glide into the heart
when she lifts her eyes.
—by Rabindranath Tagore (c. 1893-1900, translated by Bishwati Ghosh)
The cultural production of this fantasy is reflexively acknowledged in Komal Gandhar: as Anasuya, an urban group theater enthusiast, transforms herself into a rural Bengali woman, the camera holds her face in a close-up. Offscreen, the play’s director instructs her to assume a certain pose and expression. She wears a white sari with a red border and drapes the anchal around her head, which is slightly tilted to one side: her makeup consists of a big red dot on her forehead, and kohl around her large, black eyes. The soft light transforms her face into an icon of idealized beauty: serene, tender, seductive. When the theatre group goes to the hills, the members look down at the lush green plains of Bengal: one of them glimpses in the landscape the komal (tender), smiling face of a young girl. Later, as Anasuya stands disoriented in the middle of a political demonstration, her head tilted to one side, a political activist remarks that her pose reminds him of his dead sister: in her intimate iconicity she points indexically to countless Bengali women who did not survive those turbulent years.
—Bhaskar Sarkar, “Ghatak, Melodrama, and Experience” (Mourning the Nation: Indian Cinema in the Wake of Partition)
Classical iconic representation makes no effort to grasp the first of a story. Indeed the stories are not starting places. They are pluralized presentations of the dvaita episteme at odds with the theological impulse The mode of existence of the icon as meaningful, from the point of view not of the scholar but of the culturally competent observer (a vast and many-tiered sprawling space of agency always “after” culture but also its condition of possibility) is something like an unrealized genre painting. The culturally competent (in this sense) may provide some generic narrative dynamic to move the devi and her companions along the steam of “history”.
—Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Moving Devi”
On the same note, Spivak discursively moves the Hindu goddess figure of Devi from the static positions offered in the canonic Sanskrit readings, highlighting that the “culturally competent” or lay observers can paint over or give their renditions to the herstory of devi. It is in these reinscriptions that I find complex interweavings between the putatively passive Sita and the fiery Draupadi resulting in a hybrid figure, an entity of Sati—Sita—Durga—Draupadi. This all-in-one form allows the more folkish renditions, especially as appropriated in the cinematic realm, to suture mythology into the real and reinscribe a feminine aesthetic. In film the nexus of Sita—Draupadi—Devi is integral to imagining the feminine aesthetic. The fluid transactions of narrative have allowed for multiple telllings of Sita on the South Asian subcontinent, sometimes emboldening its feminine aesthetic. Often times cinematic characters that have been carved out of the moral mettle of Sita bristle with righteous anger and articulate themselves like Druapadi or self-conflagrate literally and/or metaphorically like Sati, so that the feminine aesthetic cannot be neatly traced to one goddess only. It is the conglomeration of many aspects of the devi that all bear upon Draupadi’s litigious epic question: “Whom did you lose first?” Female characters, from the earliest days of Indian cinema, navigate through the nebulous brilliance of this question looming at us from antiquity, a question that hints at the multiple losses women bear as part and parcel of their cultural ontology.
—Shreerekha Subramanian, “Whom Did You Lose First, Yourself or Me?”: The Feminine and the Mythic in Indian Cinema (Myth and Violence in the Contemporary Female Text: New Cassandras)
Ek Din Pratidin, And Quiet Rolls the Dawn (1979)
Another day, an elderly Bengali gentleman strolled up to me at Metro and asked me the same question. This time, I was a bit rude, “Look, I made this film so that you see it and suffer. You’ll never get the answer and yet suffer.”
“Unlike men, women are constantly looking for a sense of legitimacy to be in a public space.”
—Sameera Jain (dir: Mera Apna Sheher, My Own City)
Womanhood and Divinity as a Ritual in the Films of Satyajit Ray (I)
» Durga in পথের পাঁচালী Pather Panchali, Song of the Little Road (1955)