A genius in focus

Published : Oct 24, 2003 00:00 IST

The exhibition of Nemai Ghosh's collection of photographs of Satyajit Ray is a tribute to the many-sided genius of the great film-maker.

A CURSORY look at the exhibition of a small selection of some 95,000 negatives from Nemai Ghosh's collection Satyajit Ray: From Script to Screen, now showing at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Delhi, would tend to give one the impression that it is the tribute of a star-struck photographer to the many-sided genius of Satyajit Ray - film-maker, story-writer, artist, musician and graphic designer, to list only a few of his accomplishments. Indeed, this is more so as Ray, visually and intellectually, was a giant.

But the truth dawns on one when one takes a second journey through these photographs. One is jolted by the fact that all these photographs are black and white. And Ray, in life, was in colour. This is only the first departure.

Then one notes how each of these photographs captures a moment in time, chosen not by Ray but by Nemai Ghosh. So it is Ray as timed and presented by the visual metronome of Nemai Ghosh's camera.

And to complicate things further, each of the shots has its own particular interplay of light and shade telling us its own story, a story in which Ray is but one of the elements.

Finally, when Nemai and I discussed his work over a leisurely lunch, I found out that even the driving force behind the project that led him to document Ray so extensively had more to do with his life than Ray's. The theatre was his passion before he met Ray. He had worked with Utpal Dutt in the Little Theatre Group earlier. His love for the theatre and his understanding of it are revealed in his photographs.

Shakha Prashaka

About Ray, Nemai Ghosh confesses: "The sheer charisma of that man drew me away from what I claim was my first love. All that I was left with was a camera in my hand and an obsession to follow that gifted man. But at no point of time did I lose my touch with theatre and its progress. Maybe I was no longer a part of it, but I watched from a distance through the lenses of my camera. It was as if the camera was an extension of myself that built an invisible bridge between me and the stage."

This very interesting confession explains how in the whole series we confront Ray as not merely the director, the unseen force behind his creations, but rather as an actor.

Nemai catches Ray at moments when even his relaxed stance bears a resemblance to a theatrical pose, which is much stronger when he gestures emphatically while briefing a wide range of actors, from Utpal Dutt and Sharmila Tagore to Sir Richard Attenborough. But what interests one is that the inspiration behind this series is provided by the likes of Utpal Dutt, Shambhu Mitra and that wizard of theatre lighting, Tapas Sen. Ray only provided the hanger for the creative process to drape itself over.

Indeed, a man as perceptive as Ray could hardly have overlooked this reality. And he has said as much: "For close to 25 years, Nemai Ghosh has been assiduously photographing me in action and repose - a sort of (James) Boswell working with a camera rather than a pen. Insofar as these pictures rise above mere records and assume a value as examples of a photographer's art, they are likely to be of interest to a discerning viewer."

Here we have Ray's word on how to appreciate this work. He asks one not to look at it as just the documentation of moments of a well-known person's life, but rather as a photographer's creation of an independent narrative out of it, using his own choice of moments in time to provide diacritical marks for this narrative and the interplay of light and shade as its vocabulary.

Shatranj ke Khilari

Looking at the exhibition from this perspective, one gets quite a different picture of Ray. He is not just a gifted director, but he is the actor who brings cinematic actions to life with his own intervention. And while this intervention may not be treated as acting strictly, it is much deeper and more serious than that as it has to set the action rolling. Looking at the exhibition from this perspective, one realises the meaning of the adage that truth is stranger than fiction.

Nemai follows this truth not only over the years, but through different ways of communicating it. This comes out sharply in the difference in gestures when Ray is defining action for the young actor, Dipankar Dey, almost as a teacher does, and very differently when he is evolving a shot in which Sir Richard Attenborough plays the British resident, Outram, in his film, Shatranj ke Khilari (Chess Players), adapted from Munshi Prem Chand's story of the same name. Here, the two men engage in a dialogue of equals, with both of them gesticulating in a similar way.

The vision of Nemai Ghosh reminds us that Ray's genius is rooted in the deep understanding of reality around one and acting according to its diktats to achieve one's objective.

Here, one cannot deny the fact that Nemai's approach to photographic technique is a major contribution to the way in which the life and achievements of an exceptional human being ought to be looked at. His use of stark black and white and the glow of natural light removes any chance of his being diverted from the hard realities of the interplay of material surfaces and energy that life ultimately consists of, to reverential and subjective visual presentations.

This, in turn, reveals other aspects of Ray's life: his passionate involvement with the goings-on around him, as one can clearly see from the interest with which he converses with traditional musicians in Sikkim or with which he studies the murals of his teacher, Benode Bihari Mukherjee, at Kala Bhawan in Santiniketan. One can not only see him gesticulating grandly; one can also see him close to the floor, looking up at the ceiling to size up its grandeur, reminding one that a truly great vision is one that is prepared to go through any contortions of the subjective to approach reality more closely.

Indeed, it is this profound respect for material reality that forces a strict technical regime on Nemai Ghosh and illumines moments that contribute to the well-deserved reputation of Satyajit Ray, reminding one that while the illumination enthrals one, it is the humble oil in the lamp that is its origin. And indeed, it is the awakening to the humble in Satyajit Ray that comes out sharply in Nemai Ghosh's choice of images. It is this that is a major contribution to our understanding of Ray's success as a film-maker. He is seen to be a consummate actor; he is also keenly interested in the life around him. As a result he could transform his attitude to understand the other rather than vent his prejudices and preconceptions on them.

It is to Nemai Ghosh's credit that he has been able to unravel the qualities of genius from the mystique associated with them. This could not have been done had he not spent nearly three decades documenting Ray faithfully so that he has a body of material to choose relevant shots from.

Secondly, his strict norm of using only black-and-white prints and not using a flashlight sheared the effort of any decorative element or technical gimmickry. It leaves one with bedrock realities that allow an independent, though sympathetic, reading of Ray's passionate involvement with life around him and his communicating it to others with all the theatricality he could muster. This message is both deeper than and distinct from the hero worship Ray's genius normally evokes.

What amazes one, however, is the fact that it took four years and a change of director at the NGMA to get Nemai's project off the ground. Where a fellow Bengali and a bureaucrat failed to appreciate the value of these photographs, an Indian artist trained in Japan and married to a Japanese actually wrote a letter to Nemai and got him to realise his dream of presenting a show that turns its back on today's fashionable gimmickry and directs us to deeper-rooted things.

This should give us hope that ultimately exceptional work does get noticed in today's India even if it takes time.

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