Working with Ravi Shankar: The Music of Satyajit Ray's Apu Trilogy

Print edition : November 05, 2021

Ray and Ravi Shankar. Whilst Ray keenly admired Shankar as a virtuoso sitarist and appreciated some of his compositions for stage productions, Shankar felt a reciprocal admiration for many of Ray’s films, including some of the music that Ray began composing for his films in 1962. Photo: Courtesy: Sandip Ray

Ray’s sketch of Ravi Shankar for his unmade documentary film, 1951. Photo: COURTESY: SANDIP RAY

Calcutta, 1983: Ravi Shankar visits Ray following his first heart attack. They first got to know each other in the 1940s, and in the 1950s Shankar composed some inspired music for the Apu Trilogy and ‘The Philosopher’s Stone’ (Parash Pathar). Despite striking differences in personality and musical taste, they admired each other and remained friends until Ray’s death. Photo: Nemai Ghosh/Courtesy of son Satyaki Ghosh

Ray’s drawings for his unmade documentary film about Ravi Shankar, 1951. Accompanying the atmospheric wash images are laconic shooting notes—“truck forward”, “pan away”, “dissolve to” and so on—that give some notion, however incomplete, of what was in Ray’s mind. Photo: Courtesy: Sandip Ray

An extract from The Apu Trilogy: Satyajit Ray and The Making of an Epic.

The young Ravi Shankar, who composed most of the music for the Apu Trilogy—a Bengali born in Benares in 1920, the very year in which Satyajit Ray’s Apu arrives in the city—first came to prominence in India during the 1940s. By the 1950s, he was regarded as one of the subcontinent’s leading classical instrumentalists—both by fellow musicians and music connoisseurs, including Ray. In 1951, while trying to raise interest in his adaptation of the novel Pather Panchali, Ray made a series of striking sketches for a documentary film about Shankar: a sort of storyboard covering 31 pages of a drawing book, like the one he created in 1952 for Pather Panchali. Although the documentary was never made, the sketches were published in 2005 in my book Satyajit Ray: A Vision of Cinema. Accompanying the atmospheric wash images are laconic shooting notes—“truck forward”, “pan away”, “dissolve to” and so on—that give some notion, however incomplete, of what was in Ray’s mind.

Shankar is seen with his sitar playing raga Todi, a morning raga, at first slowly in the introductory phase known as alap, then gradually speeding up; he is still playing as the film ends. Intercut between shots of him and his instrument at various distances and angles, and the hands of his accompanist playing the tabla, are other, non-musical images. These dwell on nature—drifting clouds, falling leaves, rippling water, lotus flowers flapping, later on trees shaking in a storm—but also include a Rajput miniature painting of the female raga (ragini) Tori (such paintings often depict the Indian musical modes), showing a lady with deer near a lotus pond, as well as decorative details from Indian relief sculpture. Clearly, Ray intended that his filmed tribute to Shankar should suggest some essential unity behind the different Indian art forms. It is as if, already, four years before finishing Pather Panchali, the budding director had visualised the lyrical, hopeful sequence in the film of the breaking of the monsoon (though ironically raga Todi is played in that film by Shankar in the scene following Durga’s death, not before the breaking of the monsoon).

In 1992, hearing of the death of Ray on 23 April, Shankar immediately recorded a new composition, “Farewell, My Friend”, in honour of him. “In the last couple of days, my heart has been heavy with sorrow, of having lost a friend and such a great, creative genius of our time,” he wrote three days after the news reached him. “The result is this dhun”—a north Indian folk melody played in a light classical style—“I played as a dedication to him. One can hear two melody lines intermingled in this piece. The first is the variation on the theme music which I composed about 40 years ago for his first film—the immortal Pather Panchali, the second melody is based on raga Ahir Bhairav. ... While recording I had flashbacks of some of the wonderful time we spent together and I poured my heart out through my music bidding farewell to my dear friend—Satyajit Ray.”

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The mutual respect of Ray and Shankar is evident from the above. Despite an underlying tension and a degree of rivalry between these two powerful but very different creative personalities, and serious differences over the composition of film music, they did indeed remain friendly for decades. Whilst Ray keenly admired Shankar as a virtuoso sitarist and appreciated some of his compositions for stage productions, Shankar felt a reciprocal admiration for many of Ray’s films, including some of the music that Ray began composing for his films in 1962. “He made such sublime films. Pather Panchali, Charulata, Kanchenjungha and Jalsaghar will always stand out in my memory,” Shankar wrote in 1997, in his autobiography Raga Mala; he selected Pather Panchali as “the best film he made, and one of the best I have come across by anyone”, for its “innocent simplicity, straight from the heart without any ego”. In 2009, long after Ray’s death, Shankar remarked to an Indian newspaper interviewer: “Ray understood Indian classical music as much as he knew Western classical music. Here was a director who would never compromise nor allow me to go overboard. He was confident and rigid about exactly what he required from me or any of his composers. Ray himself was an outstanding composer and music sessions with him are still unforgettable. For the Apu Trilogy, he extracted the true essence of rural Bengal from me musically.”

According to Shankar, the two of them first met in Bombay, not Calcutta, at the end of 1944. “We became known to each other, though not close friends.” After Shankar gave his first major concert in Calcutta in late 1945, attended by Ray, the two of them began to meet periodically. In the late 1940s and early 50s, when performing in Calcutta, Shankar used to stay in a hotel (the same hotel used by Jean Renoir at this time), which was near Ray’s office at Keymer’s. “Many times on his way there, or at lunchtime,” Shankar recalled, “we would meet for a short while. We became quite friendly. That was about all, until he approached me regarding his first film, Pather Panchali.”

This was in late 1954. Pather Panchali was still in production when Ray wrote to Ravi Shankar in Delhi and requested him to compose the music for the film. He admired Shankar’s music for the ballet Discovery of India, composed in 1947; he was also familiar with some of his compositions for films. Shankar immediately agreed. But by the time Ray needed him in very early 1955, the sitarist was in the midst of a concert tour. Postponement of the recording was impossible, given Ray’s Museum of Modern Art festival deadline, nor could he contemplate the possibility of replacing the composer. In the event, Shankar managed to combine a very short recording session in Calcutta with a concert. As soon as he arrived in the city, Ray rushed him to the projection room, where he watched half of the film in a roughly edited version; that same afternoon, he composed and recorded the music in a single session ending in the early hours of the following morning.

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At the outset, Shankar, with Ray’s concurrence, decided not to use any Western instruments in Pather Panchali. In addition to the sitar, he used three other string instruments: the dilruba (tarshehnai), the bhimraj (elder brother of the esraj) and the sarod—plus the pakhwaj for percussion.

When the music for the entire trilogy was released on an LP in the late 1970s, Ray described its composition in valuable detail in a sleeve-note, as follows:

“One of the first things that Ravi Shankar did when I met him shortly after his arrival in Calcutta was to hum a line of melody which he said had occurred to him as a possible theme for the film. It was a simple tune with a wistful, pastoral quality which seemed to suit exactly the mood of the film. It went on to become the main theme of Pather Panchali.

“Since I felt that in the short time that I had it would be too constricting for Ravi Shankar to have to compose to precise, predetermined footages, the method we used was to decide on the mood and instrumental combination for a particular scene, and then provide music well beyond the required length. In addition, we recorded about half-a-dozen three-minute pieces on the sitar in various ragas and tempos. This took care of the risk of running short at the time of fitting the music to the scenes in the cutting room. This is by no means an ideal method, but it has its advantages. For instance, the music that accompanies the ballet of the waterbugs in the film [before the arrival of the monsoon] was originally played as one of the several variations on the main theme with no specific scene in mind. In fact, there was no scene of dancing insects in the film at this stage; it grew out of the music in the cutting room.”

In Aparajito, the same five instruments were used, either solo or in various combinations. But in The World of Apu, the musical situation was more complicated, wrote Ray:

“In Apur Sansar, Ravi Shankar had to contend with a story that was much more varied in texture than the first two films of the trilogy. It begins in a squalid north Calcutta setting, shifts to the countryside for Apu’s wedding, comes back to Calcutta and, after the death of Apu’s wife, accompanies the disconsolate hero on his wanderings from seaside to sylvan woods, to the wild and hilly coal-mining areas of Chhota Nagpur, returning finally to the Bengal countryside for the concluding scenes. Five Indian instruments were obviously inadequate to cope with all this, so Ravi Shankar decided to add violins and cellos (even a piano for one particular piece). Also, the usual hectic one-day session was abandoned, and the music was composed and recorded over three days.”

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On the LP release, the music is divided into the following tracks. For Pather Panchali: “Title Music”, “Variation on the Main Theme”, “Indir’s Song”, “The Dance of the Waterbugs”, “Durga Dances in the Rain”, “Life without Durga”, “Sarbajaya’s Grief” and “The Family Leaves the Village”. For Aparajito: “Title Music”, “Harihar Collapses”, “Variation on the Main Theme”, “Apu Grows Up”, “Sarbajaya’s Loneliness” and “‘Apu Leaves for the City”. For The World of Apu: “Title Music”, “Variation on the Main Theme”, “Apu Comes Home with Bride”, “Life with Aparna”, “Aparna Is No More” and “Apu’s Renunciation”.

In the mid 1980s, when the screenplay of the Apu Trilogy was published in English translation, Ray was somewhat more precise about its music, specifying the ragas chosen by Shankar. Thus, raga Desh was used for the dance of the insects before the monsoon, raga Todi after the death of Durga (as already remarked), raga Patdeep for Sarbajaya’s grief, raga Jog with the sudden flight of pigeons after the death of Harihar, raga Jog again (in a different orchestration) to suggest Sarbajaya’s loneliness in the village, and raga Lachari Todi to represent the poignant Apu-Aparna relationship. Ray also noted: “There is one scene in Apur Sansar which is crucial from the point of view of music. It shows Apu’s aimless wanderings after Aparna’s death, and ends with him throwing away the manuscript of his novel as a gesture of renunciation. The music here, scored for flute and strings, has the noble simplicity of a Vedic hymn.” (This is where a piano is also used.)

One memorable piece in Pather Panchali that was not composed by Shankar, for lack of time, involved the comic twanging of the single-stringed ektara, a folk instrument, that accompanied the wobbling sweet-seller, the children and the dog. “This caused a problem for Ravi Shankar when he went on a tour of the United States after Pather Panchali was released [there] in 1958,” noted Ray in his autobiography with a touch of relish. “At one of his recitals he was asked by a member of the audience to play the candy-man music from the film.” Shankar said he had forgotten how the music went!

Both Pather Panchali and Aparajito, especially the second film, suffered from Shankar’s lack of availability (though not The World of Apu). They contained passages of oppressive silence, Ray felt, where music would have helped relieve the slowness. By way of example, “In Aparajito, after Harihar’s death, the very first day Sarbajaya and Apu arrive in the village, dusk is falling and there is practically nothing happening, nothing to see—almost nothing to hear—in that long sequence,” Ray said. “I feel so awkward when I see the scene. But Ravi Shankar hadn’t provided any music and I didn’t have the confidence to write any.” Still, Ray was grateful to Shankar for the music he did compose, because by 1956 the sitarist was in tremendous demand for concerts, both in India and internationally.

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Regrettably, Shankar himself never discussed in any detail his music for the Apu Trilogy, perhaps partly because much of it had been inspired by Ray. He did not say, for instance, what may have influenced his creation of the main theme of Pather Panchali before he had even seen the rough cut. This is despite the fact that he thought his music for the trilogy was the best film music he had ever composed. In Raga Mala, he noted that Ray wrote to him once to say that it was a pity he could not give more time to his film compositions, and admitted: “This was true—it was a hit-and-run affair whenever I recorded the score for anyone: I arrived in the city, saw the film, then went to the studio and did the music. I never had time to stay for editing, mixing or improving it. Yet I do believe that whatever came first was always the best, and when I tried to redo a score it was not as good.”

Neither Ray nor Shankar ever said so explicitly, but Ray’s 1951 fascinating proposed documentary about him probably failed to materialise because of their disagreement over music for films. After the Apu Trilogy, Shankar did not compose again for Ray, who decided in 1961 that he would prefer to compose his own music rather than wrestling with virtuoso players, such as Shankar, Vilayat Khan (The Music Room) and, most difficult of all, Ali Akbar Khan (The Goddess), as film composers. Interviewed about Ray’s music in 1965, Shankar, while enthusing over the Apu Trilogy and Ray as a director, was notably cool about Ray as a film composer: “He is competent. He knows exactly what he wants. He has experience in Western music, specially the piano.” He added that only Charles Chaplin, among great film directors, had also managed to distinguish himself as a composer.

“We had a slight misunderstanding,” wrote Shankar in Raga Mala, after Ray’s death. “I was quite hurt because he wrote somewhere that I was unique as a writer of music for ballet and the stage, but he thought film was something else. If Satyajit thought he was suitable to do the music for his own films—and people did like it—then he must have been. The director is the boss—and especially when he has the stature Satyajit had earned worldwide.” Wonderfully apt though Shankar’s music for the Apu Trilogy was, Ray came to feel that he himself was the more gifted film composer—rightly in the view of many musicians—especially as his knowledge of and feeling for Western music was undoubtedly far superior to Shankar’s. Such Western elements were crucial for his later, more urban films, as compared to the village-inspired Apu Trilogy. “The average educated middle-class Bengali may not be a sahib,” said Ray in 1980, “but his consciousness is cosmopolitan, influenced by Western modes and trends. To reflect that musically you have to blend—to do all kinds of experiments. Mix the sitar with the alto and the trumpet and so on.... It’s a tricky matter, but the challenge cannot be shirked.” Ray’s complex, varied and subtle scores composed over three decades, from Kanchenjungha in 1962 to The Stranger in 1991, including his own highly popular songs for The Adventures of Goopy and Bagha—amply demonstrate this truth.