As Chandak Sengoopta’s book’s title and his acknowledgements testify, this is a prolegomena to Sengoopta’s biography-in-progress of Satyajit Ray, but The Rays before Satyajit is much, much more than a mere prologue to the main event. Immaculately researched and referenced (most chapters have over 200 endnotes and even the 25-page ‘Introduction’ has 99), written in a supple racy prose that effortlessly carries the reader along, chock-a-block with witticisms and bon mots, both Sengoopta’s own as well as those of his subjects, this is a magnificent addition to the ongoing exploration of the birth, development, complications and contradictions of Indian modernity.
Sengoopta chooses to present this complex and sometimes convoluted story through the figures of Satyajit’s father, Sukumar Ray (1887-1923), Sukumar’s father, Upendrakishore Raychaudhuri (1863-1915), Upendrakishore’s father-in-law, Dwarakanath Ganguli (1844-1898), Dwarakanath’s wife, Kadambini (nee Basu; 1861-1923), Upendrakishore’s brother-in-law, husband of his younger sister Mrinalini, Hemendramohan Bose (1864-1916), and a large supporting cast, which includes Sukumar’s older sister, Sukhalata Rao (1886-1969) and his wife, Suprabha (nee Das; 1892-1960), not to speak of better-known worthies like Keshab Chandra Sen (1838-1884), Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) and Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis (1893-1972). The dates of birth and death are important here for they place Sengoopta’s dramatis personae squarely at the centre of that remarkable efflorescence popularly, if somewhat grandiosely, known as the “Bengal Renaissance”.
Seen largely as a matter of the reception and assimilation of European ideas by an upper-caste, upper-class Bengali intelligentsia, most accounts of the Bengal Renaissance are curiously reticent about two aspects of this period — the growth, however imperfect, of an indigenous entrepreneurial spirit and the relationship that the growth of new ideas had with the actual employment of these ideas in material culture. This is where Sengoopta’s book fills in vital blanks through the detailed analysis of the “artisanal spirit” that pervaded the work of Upendrakishore and his son, Sukumar, and which would find its most magnificent expression in the work of that consummate auteur, Sukumar’s son, Satyajit. But we are running ahead of the story here.
Sengoopta begins his account of the Rays of Mymensingh in the opening chapter, ‘From the Old World to the New’, subtitled “a family in transition” by examining in some detail the once-legendary figure of Saradaranjan Ray, whose seemingly incongruous, but wholly representative, interests spanned the worlds of fishing, mathematics, cricket and Sanskrit, a precursor to the combination of mental/intellectual and bodily/physical practices and innovations that was to characterise the lives of Upendrakishore and Sukumar. This chapter also introduces us to another important subject of the book, the influence of the Brahmo reform movement on the growth and development of what would later be characterised as India’s colonial modernity.
Sengoopta’s second chapter, ‘New Faith, New Woman, New Society’, introduces us to two characters who play central roles in the rest of his account. The first is the New Woman, represented by Kadambini Basu and the second is the redoubtable Dwarakanath Ganguli, an exemplar of the New Man gradually stumbling into existence, with his passion for social reform, especially the emancipation and education of women, and his concern for those less fortunate than him, including, most crucially, the coolies of the still fairly new Assam tea plantations. The next chapter, ‘Empire, Nation, Women’ centres around Dwarakanath’s considerable achievements, also illuminates the complications and contradictions at the heart of this nascent nationalist modernity. Dwarakanath may have “criticised the Raj when necessary but… was perfectly prepared to cooperate with it when government initiatives were in line with his own mission of reforming Hindu society and, in particular, the position of Hindu women” (pg. 172); one such instance being the controversial Age of Consent Bill of 1890-91, that sought to raise the age of consent for girls from 10 to 12 years of age.
Moving on, the next chapter details the work and life of ‘The Polymathic Artisan’ – the chapter’s title – Dwarakanath’s son-in-law, Upendrakishore, and his many avatars, including that of internationally-feted printing innovator, musician and creator of Brahmo hymns, amateur astronomer and science populariser, artist and re-teller of Indian epics for children, and founder of Sandesh — perhaps the best-known, certainly the most influential, of Bengali children’s magazines.
The ambiguities of swadeshi forms the pith of chapter five, and its central figure is the bonhomous entrepreneur Hemendramohan Bose, creator of legendary consumer products like Kuntalin (hair oil), Delkhosh (perfume), Tambulin (a concoction to be chewed with paan), and Cocolin (bath soap) — all of which were marketed as being imbued with the spirit of swadeshi (and therefore to be preferred to their foreign competition!) – not to speak of the Kuntalin Prize for short stories, possibly the “first example of “product placement” in India” (pg. 267), which stipulated that either Bose’s hair oil or his Delkhosh perfume had to be mentioned in the story submitted for the competition. “After some entries went overboard with their enthusiasm for the miraculous virtues of Bose’s products,” Sengoopta tells us, “they were sternly reminded in 1905 that such exaggerated praise ruined the literary value of the entry and embarrassed the sponsors.” (pg. 267)
Sengoopta’s sixth chapter, on Sukumar Ray, brings out the poignancy of a life that gave to Bengal and the world the immortal classics Abol-Tabol and Haw-Jaw-Baw-Raw-Law, the unique Pagla Dashu, the intrepid Heshoram Hushiyar — all of whom are hard-wired into the imagination of Bengali children even now — yet which ended at the tragically young age of 36. Sengoopta concludes his book by providing a glimpse into the lonely, dreamy childhood of the subject of his forthcoming biography, and here, too, one is tantalised by the promises of riches to come.
For anyone interested in the “unruly, ad hoc, and inchoate nature of India’s experiments with the modern” (pg. 2), The Rays before Satyajit makes for essential reading.