This article is an adoption of a Bengali piece by Agni Roy, as featured in Ananda Bazar Patrika. The author delves into multiple facets that contributed to the transformation of young Manik into the iconic filmmaker Satyajit Ray.
On the 2nd day of May in the year 1921, a child of great promise was brought into this world in the city of Calcutta. His parents bestowed upon their new born son the name Manik. The boy was a witness to a wondrous phenomenon during his early childhood. Through the narrow slits of his balcony blinds, he beheld a mesmerizing dance of light and shadow, as the bustling city below cast its myriad forms and figures against the walls of his home. The young boy marveled at the swaying silhouettes of passers-by, the whirring blur of cars and rickshaws, and the rhythmic motion of bicycles gliding through the streets.
Little did anyone know that these enchanting images would serve as the seedbed for Manik’s boundless creativity, as he grew into the masterful artist and filmmaker that the world would come to know as Satyajit Ray. Indeed, it is to those humble blinds and the captivating shadows they cast that the world of cinema owes an immeasurable debt of gratitude, for they inspired and nurtured the fertile imagination of a true maestro.
Verily, fate dealt a cruel hand to Manik, depriving him of his father at a tender age. However, his mother, Suprabha Roy, would often take young Manik to Lucknow to visit her barrister cousin’s abode, a yearly ritual. It was within those walls that the young Manik was first introduced to the alluring world of music. The melodious voices of musical maestros like Atulprasad Sen Gupta and Ustad Ala Uddin Khan resounded within his ears, and their notes, like the sweetest of nectars, found a permanent abode in his mind.
During his visits to his aunts and uncles, Manik had the pleasure of experiencing the narrow lanes of Lucknow, the enigmatic Bhulbulaiya, the magnificent Rumi Darwaza, the awe-inspiring Bara Imambara, the sprawling Kaiser Bagh, and the grand Lakhu Gate. All that he saw and heard on those excursions took root deep within the mysterious gray matter of his brain, never to be forgotten.
After the death of Sukumar Roy in the year 1926, the youthful Manik and his dear mother were obliged to take up residence at the homestead of his uncle in Bakulbagan. To bid farewell to their ancestral dwelling, with its incessant chatter of the press and venerable butler Ramdahin, must have been a burdensome task indeed. Yet the tender age of young Manik might have spared him from the pangs of such emotions. As he recounts in one of his narrations, “I don’t think, at that age, going from a grand domicile to a modest one, or from a prosperous position to an ordinary one, is an exceedingly arduous task.” However, the melancholy of his extraordinary mind may have permeated his being, which is reflected in the character of his alter-ego Apu. Like Manik, Apu was compelled to depart from his home, alongside his bereaved mother, to a land wholly unfamiliar.
Manik’s sojourn in education did commence at Ballygunge Government School. During those halcyon days, he ventured forth on prolonged holidays to many a far-flung locale, such as Muzaffarpur and Darbhanga, among other such wondrous places. Yet, the most enchanting and captivating experience for Manik was to behold the breathtaking beauty of Kanchenjunga. When he returned to Calcutta, he would often compare his experience with the paintings of his grandfather, Upendrakishor Roy. Fortuitously, Manik’s mother was offered a post at Maharani Girls School, Darjeeling, where they tarried for a protracted period of seven years. Though it was ostensibly named a Girls’ school, in actuality, it was a co-educational institution, and eventually, Manik also continued his studies as a pupil of that very school.
Since his tender age, Manik had been endowed with a gift of brush and pen, for he was exceedingly skilled in painting and drawing. His talent caught the attention of none other than Ashubabu, the school’s drawing teacher. In one of the exams, Manik was graded 10+F. When the confusion was raised to the teacher the students were informed that ‘F’ signifies first.
However, it is a wonder to behold that Manik hath once been beset by the malady of stage fright. He once expressed “Rarely does one encounter such a fear of the stage, as I have. Upon receiving the news of my selection for an award, I was filled with a dreadful dread at the prospect of receiving it in the presence of so many people. And, to compound my distress, I would have to walk back to the auditorium.”
In later years Manik went on to study economics, but the subject never captivated his heart. His fancy lay in pages of magazines like ‘Picture Goer’ and ‘Photoplay’. News of Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons interested him more than his textbooks. The news of Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons ignited his interest far more than the dryness of textbooks. Moreover, he found himself enraptured by the mellifluous sopranos of Deanna Durbin.
It was during his early days in college that fate would smile upon him, as he happened upon two tomes penned by the Russian filmmaker, Vsevolod Pudovkin. Henceforth, his interest in the world of cinema burgeoned and he began to admire the works of cinematic virtuosos like John Ford, Frank Capra, William Wyler, and Ernst Lubitsch. He avidly subscribed to the hallowed pages of ‘Sight and Sound’ magazine, and soon developed a passionate interest in Western Classical Music.
Manik’s love for music was such that he would save his meager pocket money to procure records of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto, Dvorak’s New World Symphony, Beethoven’s Egmont, and Coriolan Overtures. In his book ‘Apur Pachali‘, he confessed to dedicating much of his time to films and Western music, at the expense of his studies.
In his later years, Manik was admitted to the illustrious Kola Bhavan, nestled in the verdant environs of Shantiniketan, where he received tutelage under the likes of Nandalal Bose, Binodbihari Mukhopadhyay, and Ramkinkar Bez. In this hallowed institution, he devoted himself to the study of various facets of creativity and was oftentimes spied frequenting the studio, museum, or library, in his ceaseless quest for knowledge.
It was not uncommon to see Manik setting out on a weekly visit to Calcutta, every Tuesday without fail, with an eagerness to procure the latest publications and recordings. And upon his return to the peaceful abode of Santiniketan, on Wednesday evenings, he would be laden with a cornucopia of treasures – newly published volumes, the latest English periodicals, and the most coveted gramophone records of the day.
Upon the demise of the esteemed Tagore, Manik found himself bereft of the enchantment he once felt for the hallowed grounds of Shantiniketan. He divulged to Nandalal Basu that his passion for the traditional arts had waned, and instead, he now yearned to acquire expertise in the realm of commercial art. Though Nandalal had consistently showered the budding artist with ample encouragement and lauded him for his remarkable progress in drawing, which had advanced by leaps and bounds in a mere two and a half years, particularly his dexterity in wielding the Japanese calligraphic brush he bade adieu to his dear student, who was now poised to embark on a new journey, one that would lead young Manik to transform to Satyajit Ray.
In April 1943, four months after his return from Santiniketan, Satyajit joined the advertising agency DJ Kimmer. Satyajit recalls in his book ‘Apur Panchali’, “While flipping through the pages of the newspaper, I noticed that there was a similarity between some of the advertisements. Later I realized that they were created by the same company, a British advertising firm – D. J. Kimer and Company. In due time, I found that a Bengali artist was behind the creation of those advertisements, and further inquiry led me to Mr. D. K. Gupta, the manager of the Calcutta office, who also happened to be a Bengali gentleman.
Through the acquaintance of a mutual friend, Mr. Lalit Mitra, who was known to both my uncle and the Gupta family, I was introduced to Mr. D. K. Gupta as Sukumar Roy’s son. This prompted a glitter in the eyes of Mr. Gupta I later understood why his eyes glittered on hearing that.”
However, it was a momentous incident at D. J. Kimer and Company that brought about the biggest turning point in Satyajit’s life. Although Mr. Gupta was the head of the British company, he lay a deep fascination for Bengali literature and poetry. He ventured into publishing under the name of ‘Signet Press’, and Satyajit’s talent was put to use in creating book covers. With Satyajit’s contribution, books of poems were published with striking covers, garnering widespread acclaim. These covers were sometimes handwritten verses, sometimes pen or pencil drawings – Satyajit was the first to do this in books.
In 1944, D. K. Gupta decided to publish a condensed juvenile version of Bibhutibhushan’s Pather Panchali. Satyajit, who was more immersed in Western music, literature, and films, had not read Rabindranath well, let alone ‘Pather Panchali’. D. K. Gupta handed him a copy of the original book and advised him to read it. As Satyajit delved deeper into the pages of the book, he became more engrossed with each passing moment. The image of an impending train journey through the forest kept replaying in his mind.
Who knew this was the beginning of history?