Satyajit Ray: lives, dilemmas, reputations

Satyajit Ray (1921-1992) was one of the most remarkable creative artists of modern India. Although rooted in Bengali regional culture and radically divergent from mainstream Indian cinema, Ray’s films came to represent Indian reality for generations of viewers across the world. Acclaimed by leading directors such as Akira Kurosawa or Martin Scorsese, Ray was the only Indian filmmaker to have won practically every major film award including an Oscar for Lifetime Achievement. His creativity, however, was not confined to the cinema. A one-man culture industry, he revolutionised Bengali book design as a young man and when he was past forty, started a new, hugely successful career as a magazine editor, illustrator and an author of popular fiction. His songs, composed for his own films decades ago, are still sung by millions and even played a significant role in a recent election campaign in Ray’s home state of West Bengal.

Much has been written on Ray’s films over the years but there is no critical study of all of Ray’s major creative endeavours, of the complex familial, ideological and cultural dilemmas that he had to work through, or, indeed, of the strange reputation this ideologically liberal and anti-colonial artist came to acquire as an apolitical humanist. I shall use my Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship to write a new, comprehensive biography of Ray that will situate him as one of modern Asia’s most distinctive – and complex – cultural figures, whose films represent only one element of his many-dimensional engagement with the arts. The incarnations of Ray that are commonly forgotten or underrated, especially by his Western interlocutors – the bestselling writer, the legendary book designer, the magazine editor – will all be given due prominence in my analysis.

Ray once remarked that his work could be fully understood only by somebody “who has his feet in both cultures,” Bengali/Indian as well as Western. I was born and educated in Ray’s hometown Calcutta, Bengali is my mother-tongue and I have been immersed from childhood in Ray’s films and stories. But I am not merely an insider. A historian trained in the USA and working in Britain for almost two decades, I have an intimate professional acquaintance with Euro-American research in the humanities and social sciences. My biography of Ray, moreover, will be based on rarely-accessible manuscripts and other archival material that Ray’s son Sandip has permitted me to use and also on archival sources in the US and the UK that have not been adequately used by any previous scholar. Bengali material, almost invariably ignored by previous researchers, will be used extensively. Possessing the cultural knowledge to plumb the Bengali and Indian depths of Ray’s work as well as the expertise to address its broader aesthetic and historical dimensions, my study of this iconic but ill-understood artist will offer the first truly comprehensive analysis of his work and the diverse reputations that Ray came to acquire in Bengal, India and the West.

Professor Chandak Sengoopta
Birkbeck, University of London

Chandak was awarded a Major Research Fellowship in 2011; providing £138,617 over 36 months.