The Picture Box

Ghosh & Banerjee
Editor, Bengali
Picture Box

Outside, it was cloudy. The child in the window-frame gazed on, wonder-struck, relishing the summer drizzle. Leaves and droplets were all he saw. This helped him scribble down his maiden two-liner. Starting out that day as a seven year old, he found himself on a trip leading him, years later, to the first Indian Nobel Prize. (It's 'stolen' by now!)

Interestingly, the iconic "jol porey, paata norey.." of our toddler days, had another line (authorship un-specified) attached to it. Rhymed together it became : "Jol porey, pata norey / pagla haati-r matha norey" and stayed on. Sounds innocent, but it's really tough to translate. Still, an attempt...

Pitter-patter, on shivering leaves,                                                                                                                                                                                              The mad elephant keeps nodding it's head...                                    

Cut to > Classroom

Cine-Studies, @JU, 1996

A middle aged man in green full-sleeves (in mid-summer), both hands buried in his blue-jeans pockets, was driving home Eisenstein's 'Montage Theory'. His father, Hemanga Biswas was a great friend of Ritwik Ghatak and singer Debabrata Biswas - alias Satyajit Ray's 'George-da'. The soulful rendering of Tagore songs by George Biswas, disapproved by a sermonising Vishwa-Bharati board (holding all of Tagore's copyrights then), mingled well with Ritwik's new-wave gharana of film-making... But that's a digression...

We were a bunch of random creatures, mostly 18 year olds, on a backward evolution curve. The young JU lecturer, who faced 'us' with determination, made Eisenstein's film theory look pretty simple. Placed side by side, image 1 + image 2 (mutually exclusive), produces 'image 3' as its derivative, creating a new meaning that wasn't there at the beginning. One immediately remembered a child poet in his 7 year old avatar. He had set the bell ringing :

Pitter-patter + shivering leaves = mad elephant keeps shaking its head.  

Apart from brevity and aptness, images work out their own correlations. Tagore was damn good at this. His manuscripts show certain edited portions / corrections, with mad men, wild women and smug aliens emerging from them in pen and ink. Some of his sketches and paintings serve as wall décor for a Kolkata metro station named after him. Strange, uncanny figures swirl past as the tube whooshes by. Same way, his poetry often rides on this array of visuals flashing across in rhythmic innuendo. Sometimes they are domestic or mundane, sometimes frankly jazzy. At times the images grow larger than life or even surreal, flowing into what Literature students summarise as 'cosmic imagery'.

"Let's go and watch a cosmic film" Ritwik Ghatak would tell Hemanga Biswas. For his 'Meghe Dhaka Tara', Ghatak used a song from Tagore's 'Gitanjali' : 'Je rate mor duar-guli bhanglo jhore' (night when the storm broke down my door...). In the voice of George Biswas, this added to Ghatak's visual alchemy in a way nothing else could.  

Tagore had been to Soviet Russia, where, Eisenstein's cult film 'Battleship Potemkin' had agitated him considerably. He even tried out his hand at motion-picture documentation, while filming his 'Natir Puja' (a popular dance-drama) at the New Theatres Studio, Kolkata.   

The movie theatres eventually showed him too, in mid-close, singing the 'Jana-Gana-Mana' in his own voice, with arms outstretched. It does have an impact. Also reminds one of the play-out song 'oi maha-manab aashe' ('there he comes - the greatest of all men') in Ray's documentary on Rabindranath.                                                    

A 'grand-predecessor' of Ray in every sense, Tagore came up with a shooting script, 'The Child' -based on his poem 'Shishu-tirtha'. Partly inspired by T. S. Eliot's 'Wasteland', it was far ahead of its time. At a stage, where cinema itself was an emerging medium, it wouldn't have been possible for Tagore to grasp the technicalities of cinematography. But his script was written in manner that had a close resemblance with what we call 'shot division'. This was same as the visual schematization he employed in his poetry.

 "Good for us that he didn't dabble with cinema. At least we can earn a living doing things our way. Had he been there, he would have been the best again!" our cinema teachers would say in jest, "buro-ke ekdom biswas nei" (Never trust that old man). 

We have an anecdote here. A small boy with a smaller note-book, once approached a bearded gown-man (an old friend of his dad and grand-pa), for an autograph. "Leave your notebook with me and come back tomorrow", came the assurance. 'Tomorrow' wasn't far away. The small boy waited in anticipation, while the old man ransacked his study table for that tiny little note pad. 'Got it' he said at last. Flipping through the pages, Satyajit Ray, the autograph-hunter was fascinated with the 8-liner that Tagore the gown-man had scribbled and signed.

For days, through many lands

At much cost, miles away

I went to see the mountains

Went to meet the sea.

But the eyes never saw

A few steps from the room

One drop of dew

On the paddy-bloom.

This spoke of a kind of detailing that would become a dominant trait in Satyajit Ray's style of film making. Ray was already a seasoned film-buff when he joined Shantiniketan to study art (as suggested by Tagore). Ray now came to have Nandalal Bose, Ram Kinkar Baij and Binod Behari Mukherjee as his teachers. They helped him develop a kind of sensibility that linked Vittorio de Sica's neo-realist cinema with Bibhutibhusan's 'Pather Panchali' via Hollywood classics. So Ray's debut film was more creation than a direct screen-translation of Bibhutibhusan's celebrated novel...

And how does it all tie up? Visuals remain in our brain, mixed with sound, cooked with stuff we read/write/learn, till something quite different comes out of it all. We have an easy way out. We can take a book and turn it into a period piece, spending a great deal of money on sets, costumes etc. and very little brain space on actually adapting it. Or we can let it all stew together inside our head, till something quite different evolves and emerges. This is obviously the harder road. Amply explains why we have Tagore adaptations galore, while no movie maker has tried to take up the cinematic challenges posed by the script of 'The Child'.