Picturing the Postmaster: Tagore, Ray, and the Making of an Uncanny Modernity

Article excerpt

The true image of the past flits by. The past can be seized only as an image that flashes up at the moment of its recognizability and is never seen again.

-Walter Benjamin, "On the Concept of History"1

People also complain that I have never treated a really contemporary subject, the sufferings, poverty, and struggles of today. But I want to show, not just single aspects of our life today, like contemporary politics, but a broader view of Indian history, which has not been explored properly in the cinema.

-Satyajit Ray, "The Artist in Politics"2

Satyajit Ray's celluloid portraits of Bengali modernity are perhaps the singular most celebrated filmic repre sen ta tions of the syncretism and contradictions of British influence in India. Ray has per sis tent ly traced the long trajectory of colonialism's impact on India, making films that capture the milieu of anticolonial struggles, as well as the fresh novelty of in de pen dence. In films as various as Ghare Baire/The Home and the World (1984), Charulata/ The Lonely Wife (1964), Devi/The Goddess (1960), Jalsaghar/The Music Room (1958), and Shatranj Ke Khiladi/The Chess Players (1977), Ray returns us to thresholds of the Indian anticolonial movement. These films evoke both the epochal sensibilities and the cultural confusions facing those swayed by newly radicalized struggles for po liti cal autonomy at a time when much of their quotidian lives are still steeped in the enduring habits and postures of British colonialism. In other films yet, most notably the Apu trilogy (1955, 1956, 1959),3 the Calcutta trilogy (1970, 1971, 1975),4 Mahanagar/The Big City (1963), and Aranyer Din Ratri/Days and Nights in the Forest (1969), Ray grapples with the heady changes of the postcolonial era. At stake in the transitions between the colonial and postcolonial epochs that Ray traces in these films is an effort to seize the turbulent images of a fast- fading colonial past in order to reckon with the discontinuities of the present.

In Ray's cinema, the present moment is rarely conveyed as the culmination of a stable synthesis of past history. His use of montage, for instance, suggests the extent to which breaks and disruptions become constitutive of how contemporaneity is rendered in his films: the arrival of an unidentifi- able missive in Agantuk/The Stranger (1991); the passage of a convoy of military trucks that interrupts the long- lost lovers' conversation in Kapurush/The Coward (1965); the spliced images of the protagonist in a formal suit waiting in an En glish rose garden in Pratidwandi/The Adversary (1970), when in fact he waits half- dressed for his pants to be repaired at a tailor stall on a busy alley in Kolkata; the close- up of a power grid and framing shots of a locomotive cutting its way across vast grain fields in Pather Panchali/Song of the Road (1955); the musical interlude in Devi, where the camera lingers on an aged devotional singer rather than on the forcibly deified girl, Doya; the opera glasses Charu uses that constantly shiftthe camera's gaze in Charulata; and the eruptions of a madman amid the tranquility of a village in The Postmaster (1961).5 These and myriad other such interruptions endow most of Ray's films with a sense of montage.6 Montages of this kind reflect the films' framing of history as allegory. If, for Walter Benjamin, allegory materially disrupts narrative unity or a singular sense of continuous history, by keeping alive a vast field of associations that comprise historical truth, Ray's filmic montages secure a similar end.7 These filmic moments, in their associative articulation of the past, re orient the viewer's mnemonic relationship to history, which, as Benjamin notes, "does not mean recognizing the past as 'the way it really was.' It means appropriating a memory as it flashes up in a moment of danger ... [which] threatens both the content of the tradition and those who inherit it."8 Thus, in many of Ray's films, the tumult of the postcolonial moment is variously framed so as to highlight a deep ambivalence with the past as a synthesis of tradition; a strategy that, across Ray's oeuvre, signals the coming of a new age. …