In 1935, when he was about fourteen, Satyajit Ray created perhaps his first masterful image. This was a black-and-white photograph of himself and his mother. His father — dead for more than a decade by then — is present in the composition as an image within an image. Thus, Ray’s photograph of a photograph is also a photograph about photography. Its subject is a living Art’s still, silent, luminous, publicly private, mysterious, yet lucid relationship with Death. Moreover, this relationship between Art and Death variously draws together, but also keeps apart, mother and son, father and son, mother and father.
Sukumar, Suprabha and Satyajit are beautifully arranged here in a single composition. Yet each gazes in a different direction, presenting (or being made to present) himself or herself to the viewer, and to the source of light, at different angles. The whites of the widow’s thhaan, of the funereal tuberoses, and of the starched, drawn-thread table-cover catch the daylight to produce a whiteness that contrasts sharply with the surrounding darkness, out of which glimmers Sukumar’s portrait. Mother and son also catch the light. Satyajit’s shirt-collar seems to be turned up, in a sobered-down version of the style of some of his more flamboyant schoolmates described in his childhood memoir, Jokhon Chhoto Chhilam. Suprabha, with one hand resting on her son’s shoulder, is chiaroscuro embodied, her pose statuesque. The expression on her face recalls the unsentimental “concentrated serenity” that Marie Seton remembers noticing on the “several beautifully modelled Budhhistic looking heads” sculpted by Suprabha and kept in their home. (This was Seton’s first visit there, and Suprabha had taken her, soon after her arrival, to see Sukumar’s photograph hanging in a bedroom.) Most strikingly, in this photograph taken by Satyajit, the light half-falling on his mother’s face picks out her cleft chin and full lips. These would later become distinguishing marks in the most memorable images of her son.
“Every photograph is a certificate of presence,” writes Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida, a meditation on favourite photographs occasioned by his mother’s death. In Ray’s image, this “presence” becomes indistinguishable from absence. Parents, living or dead, are present both in the flesh, even inside the flesh, and in ghostlier shapes, imprinted by actual rays of light on sensitive substances, in what Barthes calls the “counter-memory” of photographs, with its curious ability to displace people or their remembered forms. Ray also often writes about his conflating what he remembers of his father with what he takes on from his mother’s memories of her dead husband.
But behind the classical immobility of this photograph is a different order of fun as well — a hidden flick of the wrist. Nothing thrills an artist more than the adventure of finding solutions to the technical problems of his art. Ray’s caption to this photograph in Jokhon Chhoto Chhilam crisply describes how he devised a way of taking it by pulling on a piece of thread tied to his camera’s shutter. In this, he is living out, still in miniature, his kinship with a paternal line, which habitually delighted in the novelty of eccentric or pioneering contraptions. He grew up with pictures of, and poems about, fantastical, Heath-Robinsonian pulleys and cranes, with family elders immersing themselves in printing presses and block-making processes. Throughout the first section of his memoir, the account of Ray’s childhood absorption in visual devices, like the camera, magic lantern, stereoscope and bioscope, is interlaced with the story of his fascination with magic and legerdemain. Lightness of touch would later become an essential quality in this most Olympian of auteurs.
Ray’s image — together with his means of capturing it — alludes to, and subtly transforms, the overtly sentimental role of photography in his paternal and maternal families’ Ways of Death. He recalls his grand-uncle, Kuladaranjan Ray, being a skilled professional in making large photographs, usually of dead people, after extracting their faces from family group-photos. To be enlarged and “finished” by Kuladaranjan was part of the distinguished after-life of the Brahmo dead. Satyajit remembers seeing many times how such portraits would be taken out of their brown-paper wrappings and stood on tables, and the freshly bereaved would look at them and wipe their tears. This is linked, in his memory, with a somewhat misplaced and mistaken adult pity that was showered on his two-year-old self after his father’s death and the abrupt changes in fortune that followed: “The words, ‘poor creature’, are used for children only by grown-ups; children do not think of themselves as objects of pity.”
Death, and the resulting dispossessions, must be divested of their lugubriousness. Yet one has to remain pitilessly true to the transforming nature of loss, and to its less noble effects on the lives and personalities of those who survive them. These are the lines along which the profundity, sophistication and discipline of Ray’s early life and, later, of his art were to evolve. This photograph is his earliest published attempt to take up the central and constitutive relationships of his life and compose them into an aesthetically ordered image for the purpose of making it accessible to a ‘public’ gaze.
Ray’s photograph becomes a sort of ur-image for tracing an important theme in his cinema: the widowed mother, rock-like, yet somehow spectral, intensely present within, and behind, her young son, who faces, with famously opened eyes, the complicating light of the world. Out of this image emanate some of the best films of his early and middle periods. The most movingly recognizable is Aparajito (1956); the most neglected, “Samapti” (in Teen Kanya, 1961); and the most disturbingly ‘modern’, Aranyer Din Ratri (1969), with Kaberi Bose as the luscious Jaya, reduced to a “ghost” by her husband’s suicide. It would be crude and silly to be simply biographical and ‘Freudian’ with these films. Indeed, the full measure of how much these films dare, rather than repress, has perhaps not been confronted yet. Ray himself wrote that Bengali audiences were not ready, in the mid-Fifties, for his “psychological” depiction of Apu’s “excessive harshness” towards his mother. But in an incomplete piece written inside a shooting notebook for the film, Ray is emphatic about the “daring and profound” aspect of the mother-son relationship in Bibhutibhushan’s original novel: the strange “surge of release” Apu feels after Sarbajaya’s death (though Ray makes him weep bitterly too). This essay was abandoned in 1956. Suprabha died in 1960, and Ray returned to the situation the very next year — but this time as Tagorean romantic comedy.
But the celebration of ‘natural’ and youthful sexual love in romantic comedy often makes it one of the most heartless genres in literature. The object of this finely comic heartlessness in Satyajit’s, rather than Rabindranath’s, “Samapti” [The Ending], becomes the young Amulya’s widowed mother, Jogmaya. She exists in Tagore as a device for bringing about, without any overt heartache, the eventual consummation of her son’s marriage. But in Ray, she necessitates the creation of two “endings” instead of one. First, the erotically deferred, implied consummation of Amulya’s marriage to the wild girl, Mrinmoyee, figured in Tagore by her full-blooded kiss at the end of the story. The second ending, and the one with which the film finishes, is the termination of Jogmaya’s exclusive, though always desperately anxious, relationship with her son. Tagore’s story ends with Mrinmoyee’s kiss in the darkness. But Ray ends with Jogmaya climbing up the stairs to her son’s room with a plateful of food for him. Mrinmoyee and Amulya have finally been united in his room. We hear a door bang shut as we see Jogmaya climb up the stairs, and the last shot is of their closed bedroom door, preceded by Jogmaya’s pathetically upset face as she realizes that she has been unceremoniously shut out from her son’s conjugal life.
Both Amulya’s and Mrinmoyee’s mothers bring to their children potentially oppressive miseries. And there are moments of truth, in which both are allowed to step out of the comic frame and voice their wishes and fears without being caricatured. Yet Ray’s subplot is that of Jogmaya’s instigated use of psychosomatic blackmail in order to bring her son to her, and her eventual inability to keep up the pretence of being ill, because of her terror of how he would react when he finds out. Both the mother and the wife yearn for Amulya while he stays stubbornly away, and they both write him letters. Ray weaves together these sequences and ties them up with a beautiful motif on the flute, which plays for both women the same music of longing. But the harshest moment comes when Jogmaya’s friend asks her whether, in spite of being stubborn, her son continues to “pull” her: “Boli, she tomake tane to'” Jogmaya does not quite answer this question, except for a few half-sentences: her jewel of a son…ever since her husband passed away…he hasn’t done anything for which he ought to be blamed.
It is impossible to get to the bottom of how artists draw from the fount of their intimate histories. All we have here is a lucid camera in a chamber of light. And the “treasury of rays” — Barthes’ translator’s unwittingly ironic phrase — that is born out of that vanished, yet enduring and therefore real, conjunction of bodies and things and light.