Creativity and Modernity in Colonial India

The Rays Before Satyajit: Creativity and Modernity in Colonial India
Chandak Sengoopta
Oxford University Press  418pp  £33.99

Genius generally manifests without ancestral antecedents, as with Leonardo da Vinci, Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein. Occasionally, though, it arises from a talented family, such as the Bach, Darwin, Tagore and Tolstoy families. A less familiar instance – the subject of Chandak Sengoopta’s The Rays Before Satyajit – is the Ray family of Bengal, which produced post-colonial India’s finest artist, Satyajit Ray, maker of classic films including the Apu Trilogy, Charulata and The Chess Players, which were inspired by his unique sensitivity to Indian and western culture.  

During the colonial period, the Ray family included artists, musicians and writers, entrepreneurs, scholars, social reformers and even a cricketer, Saradaranjan Ray, known to the local British as the ‘W. G. of India’, after his similarly bearded contemporary, W. G. Grace. Most were men, but a few were women, such as the pioneering doctor Kadambini Ganguli. Some were orthodox Hindus, but the majority were members of the Brahmo Samaj, including Upendrakishore (1863-1915), Satyajit’s grandfather, and Sukumar (1887-1923), his father, whose fame endures in Bengal through their writings, drawings and songs: especially Sukumar's nonsense verses, which have an appeal in Bengali comparable to that of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear, whose works excited Sukumar. 

Writers on Satyajit Ray, including myself, have covered his family in outline. Sengoopta is the first to focus exclusively on what he calls their ‘heroic creativity’, which he uses ‘to illuminate the larger history of their age and their complex, changing society.’ Sengoopta brings to this challenge his own background as a Bengali (long based in Britain), his intimacy with the language and a willingness to trawl Bengali sources in impressive depth; indeed his endnotes fill more than a third of the book. This combination yields fresh and valuable insights, such as his analysis of Upendrakishore’s celebrated re-tellings of the epic Mahabharata for children, which thrilled his grandson Satyajit. Although these necessarily omit the original’s erotic and scatological episodes, they retain its extreme violence and warrior values and, more surprisingly, its high-caste disdain for the working classes, expressed in the mixture of broken Bengali and rustic Hindi spoken by an ogre who threatens to eat the heroes: language that ‘all Bengalis of Upendrakishore’s time associated with up-country menials working in Calcutta’. Even a socially progressive Brahmo like Upendrakishore was reluctant to be accused, at a time of anti- colonial resurgent Hinduism, of disfiguring a Hindu classic. 

Less satisfactory are the sparse references to Ray’s films. Even Charulata is omitted, despite its relevance to themes discussed by Sengoopta, including Bengali culture, British-Indian politics and the place of women. Nor is there a Ray family tree, crucial to the reader given its complexity. Nonetheless, this book will be welcomed by those with a deep curiosity about a great 20th-century artist.  

Andrew Robinson's books include Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye (I.B. Tauris, 2003).

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