See the world in a grain of Bengal

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In the 12 years it took photographer Chirodeep Chaudhuri to complete his book A village in Bengal, about his ancestral hamlet Amadpur, it was Satyajit Ray who helped him find his way when he realized that the pictures he had taken were just pretty pictures. Her friends said her job reminded them Pather Panchali but Chaudhuri himself was not satisfied. There was no story. Then, one afternoon in Calcutta, he found a CD of the film and watched it over and over again over the following months, with a slow harvest of understanding.

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“The truth of Ray’s commentary, regarding Pather Panchali, that ‘life in a poor Indian village hiking’ was something I noticed too, ‘Chaudhuri wrote in A village in Bengal. “… my reading about Ray and repeated viewing of his films have led me to understand, albeit on a small scale, the Bengali way of life. Bengali in Mumbai, Chaudhuri is twice remote from Bengal – due to physical geography and cultural distance of not being able to read Bangla. But you wouldn’t know when you saw the work. A village in Bengal offers a surprisingly intimate portrait of a village community, the images imbued with the same quality of incandescence that critic Chidananda Dasgupta noted of the Could trilogy, images lit by a beauty that seems detached from real life. No photograph in Chaudhuri’s book has a caption. It is a bet that works wonderfully because we know, by intuition or by the umbilical cord which is Pather Panchali, what happens in each photograph.

I know the plug of that umbilical cord. Half a decade ago, when I was younger and much less confident, I traveled to a village in Purulia, West Bengal, to visit the home of a reluctant interviewee. The subject abandoned me the day before the trip but gave me permission to visit his family’s house. Who travels several hours from Kolkata to visit the house of a person who does not want to meet her? Why would the family even talk to me? Embarrassment comes so easily when we are young.

The highway is like any other in the country, miles of gray road with swaying trucks and “national” cement and real estate brand signs on the sides. As we approached the village and stepped off the highway, I felt the pull of something familiar. There, on both sides of the narrower road, were thin, wispy white flowers standing on the ground. the Kaash such distinctive flowers of the Bengal landscape – I had always lived in cities, but how many times have I had to see them on screen? How many filmmakers had used them to signal that their story was set in Bengal? It is among these fine white flowers that Durga and Apu, the teenage sister and her younger brother, wait when the fleeing train enters, releasing clouds of black smoke into the countryside; a sequence considered to be one of the most emblematic of world cinema.

I know this place, I thought. Even though from a screen I know this place. I know its language, its abundant ponds, its scorching sun and its rapidly falling evenings. The knot in my stomach has loosened. I could do that. And I succeeded.

Pather Panchali, released in 1955, lasted five years. Three years after independence from 200 years of British rule, a novice filmmaker who came of age in colonial India began making a Bengali film about a village in Bengal. “I do not want to see a film of peasants eating with their hands”, would have said the scenario writer François Truffaut at the exit of a film projection. But Ray clearly wasn’t worried about such answers. More than anything, that’s what strikes me the most: Ray’s position as a young artist, the certainty of his identity. During his 40-year, 36-film career, he made 30 films entirely in Bengali and two documentaries partially in Bengali. Despite the more lucrative Hindi film industry, he has only made two Hindi films.

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This is what Ray bequeathed to us, and I write this as a Bengali – a map of our place in the world, an atlas of habits and rhythms, anxieties and aspirations of Bengaliness. “The educated modern Indian needs to find the umbilical cord that connects him to his own tradition and to the common man and thus save himself from refugee status,” wrote critic Chidananda Dasgupta in Satyajit Ray’s cinema.

Ray’s cinema is known for its humanism. He was not a Marxist, as were his contemporaries Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen. He believed that the potential of the individual was supreme and that no state or system could subsume it. However, the specificity of its location has not diminished its humanism. “He built this bridge between his beloved Bengal and the rest of the world,” actor Sharmila Tagore, who has appeared in five Ray films, said in a documentary on Apur Sansar.

Placing the world in a grain of sand is considered the mark of great art. But it is mainly English and American and sometimes French and Italian cereals in which the world is held to us. Ray located the world in a grain of Bengal. He made us realize that our lives, our feelings and our adventures matter. That we don’t need to measure ourselves in the Anglophone and Euro-centric experiences. That we have our own stories, geographies and histories. And they matter. We count.

Sohini Chattopadhyay is a Calcutta-based journalist and writer. She tweets on @sohinichat.



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