Goethe University, Frankfurt
Cinephilic Wonder and Anxiety: The Sacred Value of the Apu Trilogy OCNs
This paper analyzes the sense of cinephilic wonder that congealed around the figure of Satyajit Ray by focusing on the initiatives that were geared towards saving the original camera negatives (OCNs) of the Apu Trilogy. In this endeavor, I study the documents within the institutional collections of Aurora Film Corporation (AFC), Kolkata. The letters, sent by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences, emphasize the cultural crisis that would be engendered if the heritage artifacts were not immediately preserved.
I argue that cinephilic wonder operated as a powerful rationale for the restoration project by interpreting the OCNs as contact relics of Ray. Being imbued with a sacred value, the artifacts invoked not only wonder at their material resuscitation, but also a strong sense of anxiety surrounding their potential loss and therefore, necessary preservation. Ray, and the associated OCNs, thus became bearers of an innate sacred value that stimulated wonder, in conjunction with cinephilic anxiety.
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
More Things in Heaven and Earth: Satyajit Ray and Brahmo Worldliness
Despite being born and raised in a Brahmo religious-cultural ecumene, Satyajit Ray was an atheist who turned agnostic. Nevertheless, this paper will try to abstract a secular ‘Brahmo impulse’ that runs through a many-armed Bengali-Indian modernity project that flourished in many directions beyond the religious question: towards individual freedom and female emancipation, public and private ethics and morality, Baconian education, institution-building of various kinds, crossing the dark waters, interest in science, technology, entrepreneurship, jurisprudence, a Weberian ‘great administration of things’, nation-building and indeed bold experiments in art and aesthetics. The impulse could be understood as a persistently renewed desire to explore wonders beyond dominant epistemological and cognitive frameworks; to break from dynastic modes of representation and extend an agonistic but tenacious Bengali universalism to whatever was performed by humans or produced by nature. I will argue with illustrations that it imparts a special dynamism and a profound philosophical, aesthetic, and political dimension to Ray’s cinema and fiction.
Jawaharlal Nehru University
I conjoin the term ‘sapiophilic’ (literally, attracted to intelligence) with Eve Sedgwick’s more established ‘homosocial’, to think about the electric energy in Ray’s travels through cinema with cerebral men who display such a sharpness of wit, wisdom, knowledge and creativity that they become a cult for Bengali intelligentsia across the globe. This aura shrouds Ray and his leading actor of fourteen films, Soumitra Chatterjee, not only in their cinema but around and outside it.
This conjunction between two towering artists remains a tangible/intangible working partnership that tantalizes spectators in fantasies and fetishes about intellection. Do sapiophilic imaginaries signal a death of sexual intimacy? Rather, the erotic inhabits a spectrum of desire — through the homosocial, the heterosocial, the sapiophilic, kinships, and friendships. The director, actor, and spectators are on a continuum, interlocutors whose aspirations are invested in each other. Desire is intellectualized, intellect is desirable: both beckon.
Mount Holyoke College
Deep Time in the Cinema of Satyajit Ray
This paper explores the recurrent channeling of “deep time”—the expansive timescales of geology, evolution, and the cosmos that unfold at the limits of human comprehension—across Ray’s films. Whether in the form of a fleeting reference to the eventual effects of nuclear tests on avian life in the midst of Kanchenjunga’s studiously real-time narrative, or the flickering of stars as Apu’s mother dies in Aparajito, Ray reminds us of these alternate temporal horizons with a regularity that merits attention. I focus on tropes of reincarnation in Devi and Sonar Kella and motherhood in the Apu trilogy, Devi, and, obliquely, Charulata, looking at how these two forms of iterative personhood open up to reflections on cosmic temporalities that move beyond everyday human ones and complement Ray’s persistent interest in the tensions between tradition and modernity.
Royal Holoway, University of London
Wonder, Wanderings, and World-Making: Cosmopolitan Projections in Satyajit Ray’s Films and Fiction
Satyajit Ray’s image as a cosmopolitan director equally at ease in “two cultures” was reinforced by his descriptions of his cultural background as a fusion of “the east” and “the west.” This binary formulation, however, does not capture the specificity of his cosmopolitanism, which was rooted in a hybrid yet distinctively Bengali cultural milieu and shaped as much by a Bengali liberal humanism as by the seductive pleasures of a globally circulating popular culture in the 1930s-50s.
I turn to Ray’s films (Aparajito, Agantuk), children’s fiction, and autobiographical writings, and the children’s magazine he co-edited (Sandesh), to reimagine his cosmopolitanism beyond the usual binaries, in terms of its situatedness, and as an embodied, affective relationship to the world, predicated on a sense of wonder, virtual travel, intersections of privilege and marginality, and practices of world-making involving an ability to project himself – and his young readers/viewers – into other, wondrous worlds.
Uncanny Ray: The Horrific and the Wondrous from Khagam to Monihara
Satyajit Ray’s work, especially in the West, is most frequently framed as an exemplar of cinematic realism and of a universal humanism. However, his deep interest in the fantastic, the supernatural, and the non-human is undeniable when one considers his corpus, especially the stories he wrote for adolescents and young adults in Sandesh, Anandamela, and other publications from the mid-60s onwards. This presentation focuses on Ray’s investment in horror, broadly considered, in stories such as “Brown Saheber Bari,” “Khagam,” “Fritz,” “Neel Atanka,” and “First Class Kamra,” to consider the ways in which Ray retooled the motifs and conventions of the genre (the generation of atmosphere, for example) to render them age-appropriate for his young readers. I end with a reading of his adaptation of Tagore’s Monihara (1961) as a specifically “adult” text to suggest that Ray’s engagement with horror—and especially the genre’s ability to register the political and the ethical—remains consistent, irrespective of his target audience.
Wonder and the Childhood Imaginaries of Satyajit Ray
A consideration of Satyajit Ray’s work through the analytic of wonder is bound to entangle the figure of the child. Ray’s cinematic children are commonly celebrated as privileged conduits to wonder, enabling audiences to experience wonder “through their eyes.” To regard wonder thus—as an encounter at the edge of knowledge and experience—closely aligns it with the realm of childhood. Yet this instantiation of wonder naturalizes developmental logics of childhood that, in turn, authorize other narratives of “growing up,” such as trajectory of nationhood and modernity. As such, wonder’s political purchase is easily coopted. In this paper, I identify and explore these pitfalls of wonder in the reception of Ray’s work and propose alternative interpretive pathways that highlight wonder cultivated through play with temporality and memory in his work. I argue that to take Ray’s presumed privileged relationship to the world of childhood as an element of his legacy requires disambiguating those interpretive tendencies that read childhood conservatively from those that invite more adventurous imaginations of the child.
The Eye and the Veil
His creativity and prodigious output created amazement among Satyajit Ray’s audience. This paper begins with the proposition that the artist himself must feel amazement at the discovery of a vision. It explores the instances of self-reflection by writers and artists preceding Ray, and the education that had a role to play in his discovering the image. I trace the use of the metaphors of birth, the birth of the of the eye, and the concomitant birth of a world, in Ray’s predecessors, and in his own work, keeping in view the function of wonder as a ‘first’ emotion. The Bengali word ‘citra’ means image. This paper tries to think through the forgotten sense of strangeness and amazement the word originally had.
Raja Peary Mohan College,
A Fine Balance: Form and Technique in the Graphic Designs of Satyajit Ray
Ray started his career as a junior visualizer in an advertising agency (D.J. Keymer). Simultaneously, he also moonlighted as a book cover designer for Signet Press where he broke new grounds. Later while making films, he harnessed his design skills to create illustrated scrapbooks, posters, film booklets, set designs, and title cards that quickly acquired cult status. He revived Sandesh, the periodical started by his grandfather, where he began to write and illustrate at the same time. Moreover, his literary works were generally accompanied by his illustrations. Despite all these achievements, Ray’s contribution to graphic design has always eluded proper critical attention outside Bengal, probably eclipsed by his towering presence as a filmmaker. This talk takes certain case studies from his huge repertoire of designs to reframe his encounters with complex forms and repositions him as an eclectic artist who negotiates the idea of modernity on his own terms.
University of North Carolina Wilmington
Madhavi Mukherjee Performs the Modern: Satyajit Ray’s Wondrous Woman
This paper scrutinizes how star-actor Madhabi Mukherjee’s screen performances realize Satyajit Ray’s pivotal female characters—Arati Mazumdar in Mahanagar (1963); Charulata Dasi in Charlulata (1964); and Karuna Gupta in Kapurush (1965)—to inflect a particular vernacular cultural modernity that came to be associated with Ray’s “nabina/modern” Bengali woman. I attempt to shift attention from Ray’s auteurist conceptualizations to a set of creative skills and practices as performed by Ray’s female actors. Exploiting mise en scène criticism and performance theory, I propose that it is generative to foreground Mukherjee’s agency and labor, while not ignoring the intervention and mediation of cinematic technology and technicians. I argue that Mukherjee’s performative intelligence allows her to project and embody the modern, for Ray’s narratives, with a sophisticated understanding of the gender-specific dimensions of human experience in its messy entanglements with historical modernity. Ultimately, Mukherjee renders a reflexive visuality, aurality and temporality in collaboration with Ray’s vision.
Projit Bihari Mukharji
University of Pennsylvania/Ashoka University
Reincarnating Ray: Outlines of an Indian Cosmism
Many of Satyajit Ray’s lesser-studied works, such as his Feluda films or his Shonku stories, evince an abiding interest in mystical and psychic phenomenon alongside a fascination with science. We now also know that Ray was a life member of the West Bengal Parapsychological Society and that some of his stories were directly based on specific parapsychological researches. In his films and stories, he seemed to concede at least the possibility, perhaps even the plausibility, of phenomenon like reincarnation, ghosts etc. Yet, he avoided conceding any such ground to organized religious claims about such phenomenon. Taken together this attitude to psychic phenomenon as well as the genres, such as Science Fiction, in which he chose to deal with them remind us explicitly of what is now called Russian Cosmism. In this paper, I hope to outline the contours of what might provisionally be called an Indian Cosmism through Ray’s oeuvre.
Recuperation, Repair, Restoration, Reuse: Digital Approaches to Archiving Ray
Digital media have afforded artists and archivists the ability to document and record at previously unimaginable levels. Despite claims of infinite storage capacity, the virtual world introduces new forms of precarity for storage and documentation. Users face the paradox of permanence and impermanence simultaneously. In many ways, the constraints and affordances of physical forms of documentation have been reproduced through the advent of digital record keeping. This round table will explore a set of questions about the role of digital documentation and exhibition, examining practices of scholarship, curation, and community building through public access. We will address the capacities and constraints of virtual and physical documentation in relation to Ray’s print archives (posters, lobby cards, sketches, storyboards, notebooks, scrapbooks, illustrations, book covers, and so on).
Ray and the Lens of Childhood
In many of Satyajit Ray’s films the figure of a child appears, even if in passing, as silent witness, staring back at the sordid affairs of the grownup world in rapt puzzlement and questioning silence. This paper delves into a possible genealogy of such gestures of innocence and loss. It suggests that many of these motifs might have stemmed from the legacy of his own family. His grandfather Upendrakishore was a narrator and illustrator of children’s tales, father Sukumar a celebrated pioneer of Bengali nonsense rhyme, and his aunt Lila Majumdar an iconic figure in the world of Bengali children’s literature. Within this context, it recapitulates Ray’s early years as an illustrator of children’s books, editor of the children’s periodical Sandesh, acclaimed author of stories for children and young adults, and the maker of two landmark movies for children based on his own stories.
Figures for the Political: From Raja to Hirak Raja
Rabindranath Tagore wrote two plays about a king who governs from a closed chamber, never appearing to his people. But while the benevolent king in Raja reigns over a happy anarchy, Raktakarabi has an oppressive ruler, enriched by the labours of exploited workers in his gold mines. Both are symbolic plays: the first primarily spiritual, the second economic and social. I argue that Satyajit Ray’s Hirak Rajar Deshe shows the clear impact of Raktakarabi: not only in the central mining motif but in the rendering of Goopy and Bagha, besides other parallels.
I also argue that Raktakarabi had earlier impacted on Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne as well. That film contains various political nuances that come to the surface in Hirak Rajar Deshe. I also argue for the presence of another Tagore play, Taser Desh, in Hirak Rajar Deshe. I try to link this entire line from Rabindranath to Satyajit to certain continuing political concerns in Bengal.
The Optical Field: Seeing in Ray’s Cinema
The sense of wonder, understood as a state of being arrested by the sight of what is unknown, but which excites the desire to know, is placed at the origin of philosophy. My paper will concern itself with what we, anxious, arrested and desiring subjects, see in Satyajit Ray’s cinema and what the camera draws us into seeing. It will examine both our subjective relation to the optical field produced by the cinematic process of substituting for our gaze a world seen by an intermediary, and Ray’s own obsession with the protocols of sight. I will focus principally on Devi (The Goddess, 1960), referring more briefly to the early films, to Nayak (The Hero, 1966) and The Inner Eye (1972).
University of Minnesota
Magic, Modernity, and the Unresolved Question of Optimism in Parash Pathar
This paper enters the world of Paresh Dutta, the protagonist of Satyajit Ray’s Parash Pathar (1958), in order to understand what role magic and the supernatural play in his oeuvre. Arguably Ray’s first foray into urban life in Kolkata (Dasgupta) and comedy as a genre, Parash Pathar, an adaptation of a short story by Rajshekhar Basu, uses alchemy as a way of presenting a speculative solution to the struggle of urban life. This marks an intriguing and, one might say, an odd point in Ray’s cinema. While in many of his works Ray comes across as overtly supportive of rationalist modernity, this paper wonders if it is (im)possible to situate Ray irreversibly on either side of the rationality/supernatural divide. The paper will further pay attention to the conclusion of the film, i.e. a human body literally digesting the eponymous stone, to argue that the mythical stone can be read as a material metaphor for the entanglements of human-inhuman and modernity-magic.
UC Santa Barbara
Must We Capture What Makes Us Wonder? On the Comic Vision of Satyajit Ray
This presentation analyzes the first comedy of Satyajit Ray, Parash Pathar (The Philosopher’s Stone, 1958) to distill certain tropes that recur through his comedic oeuvre. The film narrates the story of a Bengali clerk, Paresh Dutta, whose fortune turns a corner as he chances upon the philosopher’s stone. A satire on the slippery slopes of upward mobility, Paras Pathar ends with an act of humorous desperation. The young man with whom Paresh Dutta leaves the stone consumes it to protect it from the police. The desire to capture the magical and the wonderous and its follies, the paper argues, is hardly limited to this early Ray comedy. It is central to the other fabulist comedies like Hirak Rajar Deshe (The Kingdom of Diamonds, 1980). Through these comedies, the paper concludes, Ray proposes an ethics of wonder that emerges against a desire to capture.
Goethe University, Frankfurt
Genealogies of Wonder. The Art Documentaries of Satyajit Ray
Ray’s four completed art documentaries – on Rabindranath Tagore (1961), Binode Bihari Mukherjee (1972), Balasaraswati (1976) and Sukumar Ray (1987); a fifth film on Ravi Shankar remained uncompleted – vary in length from half an hour to an hour, but they share a similar pattern of argument and mode of presentation: They all start with family trees of the artists, and they devote the majority of their screen time to the presentation of works, which they carefully frame to elicit an attitude of wonder. This contribution will compare and contrast Ray’s genealogies of talent and aesthetics of marvel with the 18th century European notion of genius and the 19th century discourse of “hereditary genius” (Francis Galton). In an exercise of comparative aesthetics at the intersection with media theory, it will address cinema, and Ray’s understanding of cinema, as a technology of wonder in its relation to the other arts.