Editor’s note: In a prolific career spanning nearly four decades, Satyajit Ray directed 36 films, including feature films, documentaries and shorts. His films have received worldwide critical acclaim and won him several awards, honours and recognition — both in India and elsewhere. In this column starting 25 June 2017, we discuss and dissect the films of Satyajit Ray (whose 96th birth anniversary was this May), in a bid to understand what really makes him one of the greatest filmmakers of the 20th century.
After completing his graduation in Economics from Presidency College in Kolkata, Satyajit Ray went to Shantiniketan in 1940, to study painting at the Visva-Bharati University founded by Rabindranath Tagore. It was at Shantiniketan that Ray met the eminent artist Benode Behari Mukherjee, who was a member of the faculty there. Benode Behari was severely myopic in one eye and blind in the other (he became completely blind a few years later, following an unsuccessful cataract operation), but despite his physical handicap, he was an artist par excellence, who continued to produce one remarkable work of art after another. Ray was deeply impacted and inspired by Benode Behari’s art, and many years later, as a tribute to his teacher, he made a documentary film on the latter’s life and works, aptly titled The Inner Eye.
With a running time of 20 minutes, and starring the artist himself, this documentary opens with Benode Behari Mukherjee planning the design of a five feet high and 60 feet wide wall in a newly developed building in Shantiniketan, with the help of 20 murals, which in turn are in the form of coloured tiles manufactured in the district of Purulia. Only a fraction of the daunting task is an enormous and complex jigsaw puzzle, which the artist, now completely blind in both eyes, is seen descending upon with great zest, groping around to locate the pieces and their outlines, and placing them in their proper positions in the puzzle — not once wincing in despair at the daunting task that lay ahead. In his own baritone voice and impeccable diction, Satyajit Ray goes on to narrate Benode Behari’s family background, and how, at a very early age, he showed great promise in sketching and drawing. At the age of 12, Benode Behari attended Patha Bhavan — the school in Shantiniketan, and at the age of 15, he shifted to Kala Bhavan, as a student of the art wing of Shantiniketan, where he received tutelage under the great artist Nandalal Bose.
Very early on during his learning years, Benode Behari had decided that he had no interest in mythology — which used to be a staple subject of most budding artists of the time. Instead, he turned his attention to his surroundings — drawing the arid and desolate landscapes of the countryside outside the Shantiniketan campus, along with the lives of the Santhals who inhabited them. Ray goes on to explain that although drawing flora was not a problem for Benode Behari, but how, thanks to the artist’s weak eyesight, drawing small animals and birds was possible only when they were not in a state of motion. Through a series of sketches, drawings and paintings of his early student life, we get a glimpse of the remarkable new talent that had just appeared in the horizon of the Indian art scene.
We further learn from the film that upon his return from a rather rewarding trip to Japan, where he learned a lot from the works of such great masters of Oriental art as Tawaraya Sotatsu and Toba Sojo, Benode Behari was assigned to paint a fresco for one of the dormitories of Kala Bhavan. Inspired by an Egyptian fresco he had seen earlier, in which a lovely pond occupied the centre of the artwork, Benode Behari put a pond in the centre of his fresco too, but went on to pack twenty years of his loving and unhurried observations of the countryside, all depicted around that very pond. Needless to say, the resulting work of art was a telling study of the rural way of life in Bengal.
Ray goes on to talk about some of the other works of Benode Behari in the years that followed, including a fresco on the wall of China Bhavan in Shantiniketan, where a more austere composition of life on campus replaces the free-flowing lyricism of the pond fresco. In yet another fresco — which Satyajit Ray goes on to describe as ‘the only example of a truly epic conception in twentieth century Indian art’ — the artist plans, researches and executes an elaborate depiction of the lives of the saints and mystics of medieval India, covering three walls of a large hall. With shades of influences from various disparate art forms from all over the world, and yet all of them coming together as a synthesized, cohesive and organic whole, it is virtually impossible to believe that the entire fresco was painted directly on the walls, without any preliminary tracing whatsoever — a feat that only reveals the remarkable confidence that an artist of Benode Behari’s stature had in his own capabilities. While talking to Ray about the masterpiece, Benode Behari says, in his trademark wit — ‘I’ve taken only those elements which seemed pre-Renaissance to me. And whether it’s Byzantine, or Jain, or Pot, or Paata — a historian may differentiate between these forms, but how does it matter to an artist like you or me, tell me? If you put a folk figure next to a Jain one, whose daddy is going to chide you for that?’
In the years that followed, Benode Behari moved around a bit — first to Nepal, where he was offered the job of curatorship at the National Museum in Kathmandu, then to Rajasthan on a teaching assignment, and finally to Mussoorie, where he started his own school. It was during this final period that Benode Behari Mukherji lost his remaining eyesight forever. However, he continued to paint, draw, sketch, illustrate and create murals for the rest of his life.
Satyajit Ray’s deep reverence for the artist is evident as much from the fact that he set out to make the film with no financial backing whatsoever, as from the tone of his narration. Sparsely does Ray mention Benode Behari’s handicap, choosing to show the richness and uniqueness of his art instead. The underlying tone of the film is not one of pity, not even of sympathy. It is one of deep awe and respect. In changing the mood of the film from heavy to witty, the music from light and peppy during the Kathmandu scenes to the hopeful and optimistic through the recital of Raag Asavari during the film’s final scene, Ray himself paints a beautiful picture of the life of a remarkable man – a devoted artist, a born fighter and, in more ways than one, a great philosopher. All of this is revealed not only through Benode Behari Mukherjee’s art, but also in the final shot of the film, when Ray signs off with a quote from the man himself – ‘Blindness is a new feeling, a new experience, a new state of being’.
Bhaskar Chattopadhyay is an author and translator. His translations include 14: Stories That Inspired Satyajit Ray, and his original works include the mystery novels Patang, Penumbra and Here Falls The Shadow.