Wednesday, June 27, 2007

An interview with Ritwik Kumar Ghatak (1975): Part 5

(Continuing from Part 4)

Section 8: An artist's social and political responsibility

We are going through this nightmare (dipanjan:reference to emergency) now, but we are not really protesting it or standing up against it. What do you think?

What can I say? The situation is terrible and you do not even know the half of it. I have seen it all first hand -- too many times -- and I have all the contacts. But what can I do against it? I tried to do whatever little I could in different ways. I am not a politician, so I can not really mobilize people or organize anything. What I can do is not going to be of any use -- these problems can not be solved by art.

How do you think we can resist the spread of decadent culture? (apasanskriti)

First of all, I find the word apasanskriti absolutely detestable (dipanjan:typical usage of this Bengali word without an exact English equivalent implicates hedonism, in general, and the implied value judgment is not too far from moral policing). You can not really blame today's misguided youth individually for their nefarious activities. The whole society has been collapsing and now has reached such a stage that none of us knows how to stem the rot. You have to get to the root which is the economic reality of our class-based society. Young men and women are not finding any jobs -- there are seventy thousand unemployed engineering graduates in Calcutta alone -- and they have nothing else to do. So these boys are turning into hooligans and taking part in criminal activities -- what else can you expect? Moreover, the family system is breaking down. In the past, there used to be love or respect or something akin to that for one's parents. Now you can clearly see that those relations are decaying and that is part of the total collapse -- all humane relationships are getting wiped out. And this is how a society falls apart. So to do something against this at this point... well we can try and say what we should, but I do not think that is going to help much.

Can we not start a proletariat cultural movement similar to what IPTA started?

If you can put together a group of young boys and girls, it might be possible. Why not? But you need fresh blood - all of us have become very old and we are not that capable any more.

Somewhat related to this, in Jukti, Takko, aar Gappo, there is a sequence where you said "Independence of 1947! Pooh!". What is the significance of this line?

The significance lies in the fact that, by 1947, the British leaders were in a soup. They were in big big trouble. I am not sure how much you know, but I know exactly what happened. First of all, their whole economy collapsed because of war expenditures. Without the Americans, they would have been finished, "all those heroes" were finished -- Churchill et al. Then on the other side, they had to deal with the Subhash Bose situation which led to an intense uprising in entire country. I used to roam around the country back then. Even if I leave Bangladesh-I-mean-West-Bengal-I-mean-Bengal aside, the rest of the country especially Madhya Pradesh -- and I was in Madhya Pradesh back then, in Raipur and Nagpur -- was trembling with excitement. What Subhashbabu finally managed to accomplish is a different issue, but the reaction he generated among Indians, common men and women of India, was intense. They were really really mad at that time and then came the 42 Quit India movement. After that, the naval mutiny in Bombay followed by Air Force mutiny -- and no one even knows about that one because it was completely suppressed by the British. Overall the foundation of the British rule in India was shaking. If we could keep fighting, shouting and sacrificing a few more lives for a few more years, they would have been forced to leave India anyways. But the way our leaders made the deal -- a pact with Mountbatten to grab power -- betrayed the entire history of our national freedom struggle. "Gandhi was against it". But the "higher group of our national liberation struggle" could not wait any longer to put themselves in power. I have been talking -- shouting really -- about this betrayal all my life and I will keep doing that.

(dipanjan: In an interview with Leonard Mosley, Nehru said -- "we were tired men and we were getting on in years too. Few of us could stand the prospect of going to prison again - and if we had stood out for a united India as we wished it, prison obviously awaited us. We saw the fires burning in the Punjab and heard of the killings. The plan of Partition offered a way out and we took it. […] We expected that Partition would be temporary, that Pakistan was bound to come back to us."[The Last Days of British Raj, p-285]

Section 9: Shantiniketan, Rabindranath in national consciousness

We would like to know about your experiences at Shantiniketan.

Most of my significant and memorable experiences of Shantiniketan are associated with Ramkinkar Baij. You do not really need to write about our rowdy and drunken adventures and how we used to barely escape arrests.

(dipanjan:Ritwik's last unfinished documentary was on Ramkinkar and in a sad coincidence, Samaresh Basu's final unfinished -- and arguably his best -- novel Dekhi Nai Phire was also based on Ramkinkar's life)

Did you not have any personal contact with Rabindranath?

Rabindranath used to visit Amrakunja in the morning. His morning lectures -- I do not know why they have not been published yet -- were just incredible and so was his charismatic appearance, his magnetic presence. I can not really say anything more than that.

Were you part of his funeral procession?

On the day he died, I was in our house at Bakulbagan -- my sister used to be a student in Beltala Girls' School. There I heard that he had died. Immediately I started running and there was already a huge crowd. I joined them and followed them all the way.

How do you feel about his absence in our thoughts at the national level? What can progressive democratic culture still get from him?

Everything. I don't know if you remember, one of our comrades -- I will not name him -- "decried Rabindranath" and defamed him using the name "RabindraGupta" in a Marxist magazine. This happened during the Ranadive period. All of us were told not to (read him) and they used to call him names -- "bourgeois this and bourgeois that" -- in a disgusting way. I used to tutor an undergrad girl named Ila who was a sister of Shobha Sen. As soon as I mentioned "RabindraGupta", she just went berserk. Rabindranath is inside our blood, we can not go anywhere without him. No matter which aspect of art you talk about, he is right there. Just look at how that girl reacted -- Bengalis can not live without him. We should not even have to discuss this -- to any Bengali artist, any artist ... (he is extremely important)

But won't you admit that there is a tendency to deny him completely at many levels? Therefore, if you could show some examples from his works...?

I can show plenty. Right now, right here. I do not have any of his books with me, but I do not need books. However, having to convince people about Rabindranath by citing examples is extremely shameful and degrading. Rabindranath is Rabindranath -- perhaps there have been three or four artists of comparable greatness in world history. Just read Sabhyatar Sankat which he wrote just before his death and you will understand. The scoundrels who blaspheme him are absolutely worthless. Unto the last, there is one sentence which will be engraved in my mind -- "to lose faith in mankind is a sin" and therefore, I will not. He is saying that there has been every reason to lose faith, but he will not because it is a crime to do so. "The crisis in civilization" -- there is an English translation as well, just read it. What else can I say? Rabindranath is an ocean and I can not reduce him to a few words. So if you ever find any scum dissing him, tell them on my behalf that I would beat the crap out of them.

Section 10: Classical Music

Which classical musician has influenced you the most? And could you please share a few memories and anecdotes regarding him?

That person -- my guru who initiated me and taught me how to play Sarod -- was one crazy man. Quite a few years ago, he was living at Maihar since he was the court(darbari) musician of Maharaja of Maihar. I went there to direct a documentary on behalf of Sangeet Natak Akademi and then I learned a lot from him as I often used to listen to his reminiscences.

He ran away from home when he was eight. His teacher was his elder brother, Aftabuddin saheb -- a master flute player and a baul as well as a devotee of Kali. All this I heard from Allauddin saheb himself who used to open up to me because he loved me a lot. In his childhood, he used to study at a maktab and on his way, there was a Kali temple. A muslim boy, he was never allowed inside the temple and was often beaten up by Brahmin priests. At night, his elder brother used to tie his feet with ropes to a pole and one night, he ran away in spite of that.

After coming to Calcutta, he used to sleep at Nimtala Ghat and eventually managed to get a chance at Star theatre. That was around the time when prostitutes and call girls used to be the actresses. His job was to play flute and he used to get five rupees a month. Then he moved to Udaipur and tried to meet Wazir Khan -- the greatest Sarod player of his time. At first, Wazir Khan completely ignored him -- we are talking about a period that is one hundred years in the past, a different era altogether -- but ultimately he came up with a plan. He lied on the road in front of Wazir Khan's carriage and would not get up until Wazir Khan agreed to teach him. Back then music used to be a big secret, not easily obtainable. I do not know how much of that era you guys have seen, but I have seen a little bit.

Anyways Wazir Khan finally relented and said -- "all right, why don't you become my servant and do all my chores?" Allauddin then started doing all the housework and never even got to touch an instrument. After two years like that, Wazir Khan admitted that Allauddin deserved to be his disciple and the lessons started which went on for fourteen years. When Wazir Khan finally gave Allauddin Khan saheb the permission to play -- as you know, ostads need to give you explicit permission before you can perform anywhere, for example, my guru died before giving me the permission, so I have never played anywhere except in front of my wife and children and that too I have given up; I have given my Sarod away -- Khan saheb came back to his village in Brahmanbaria.

One day when he was practicing on the bank of Titas, he tried to help out a group of neighborhood boys in finding their ball inside a Masjid and in doing so, he fell down and broke his right arm. All the doctors had given up on fixing it as it was completely shattered, but he returned to Maihar and for days, just prayed to Chamunda Kali without eating or sleeping, and the arm gradually started to heal. I am just repeating what he told me. Anyways the arm was still badly injured and it was the right arm with which he played Sarod. He started relearning everything with his left hand and eventually became the best musician of India. His determination and mental strength were just incredible. I can keep talking about him for hours and it will never end because he is my guru and I am ... Ustad Haafiz Ali Khan is another great Sarod player. Vilayat is unparallel. When he is in mood, only Ali Akbar Khan at his best can probably match him. Ravi Shankar is more of a performer, but they are real musicians. Among the artists that are alive -- I am talking about the vocalists now -- I admire Bhimsen Joshi a lot.

Section 11: Film Society

There is a tendency among film society audience to only watch uncensored vulgar pornographic films. How can we resist this temptation and stop what has been hurting an important movement?

You can not really do anything because some of these rascals -- excuse my language --are only interested in that. And if they demand it, you will show those movies because you are thinking of getting some of your expenses back. "Film society has become another business". You need to "decry" this and loathe this completely, but you don't. This country is in a deep downward spiral. I am a drunk -- and I do not hide the fact; most people know quite well that I drink -- so leave me out of this, but you all need to be a lot more vocal and aggressive. You see, I -- and Satyajit as well -- do not go to watch your film society screenings any more because the films you are exhibiting can not be watched by gentlemen. I do not want to show them to my wife, my daughter. You will have to take up the fight. I can not. I have taken myself out of this. You know what is in my hand and that much I can do, but film society screenings and audience, you will have to...

We are asking you to help us understand why this is...

There is nothing to understand, or analyze. You just need to stop showing those films. What do you think you are doing?

What should be an alternate agenda of film societies then?

In addition to screening good films, you will need to organize discussions, workshops and seminars which can help to inculcate good taste. "That is all". But first, stop exhibiting those horrible films. It just does not make any sense. Primarily Mizoguchi, we need to get all the prints, then from Italy, France... Even in England, Lindsey (Anderson) is doing some good work. Tarkovsky from Russia, Wajda from Poland, Shirley Clarke from America -- "it will run for a year".



Holden Caulfield said...

He was only 51. He should have lived a few more decades. He should have made movies on the politicians of India. He should not have been a drunkard. I have to read more on the IPTA.

Ghatak is the real thing. As I understand it, the spirit of Komal Gandhar has to be revived. What wonderful compositions! I have to read more about Salil Chowdhury as well.

I think the Marxist-Capitalist categorization is confusing. There are good people, and there are bad people. Adjectives!

Dipanjan said...

His late-life drinking was a result of intense frustration. Ironically, he was strongly against it when he was young.

Yes, those little boxes and the labels on them are not particularly helpful in trying to understand him. Unfortunately because of those labels, a lot of people have dismissed him too easily. I might have done the same if a week-long retrospective of his films fifteen years ago had not shaken me fundamentally. Luckily I was 18 and impressionable.

Dipta Chaudhuri said...

I always thought because of Ritwik's temperamental behaviour as a person, he 'scared' away press, producers as well as the genteel Bengali bhadralok. As a result, he was neither financed nor documented as much as Ray.

The visceral feeling which almost all of Ritwik's films evoke is something unique to him.
Sadgati is the only one film which probably comes close.

And, if you were 18 at the time of that restrospective 15 years ago, then we got 'impressioned' at exactly the same time!

Thanks for the translation!
(And to help lift the dark mood, how about a post on cricket?)

Dipanjan said...

Yes, that is correct. By his raw emotion and temperamental personality, he managed to alienate both the establishment left and the mainstream (Ananda etc.). Also there is an east-west divide in how we Bengalis deal with visceral feelings and as far as appreciation and respect from Calcutta intelligentsia go, that went against Ritwik. There is an article by Samar Sen on how quite a few intellectuals, including himself, used to under-estimate Ritwik when he was alive --

"Ritwik bishoye amaar bibek dangshon hoy. tNaar jiboddoshay jakhon dekha hoto majhe majhe, tNaar protibha sombondhe abohito chhilaam na, ekta naakuNchu bhaab chhilo. Gato bachhor tini mara jaabar par (1976), tNaar tin-charte chhobi dekhe bismito bodh kori. Besh koyekjon shilpi progoti bhangiye chaliye jachchhe, kintu Ritwik, anek durbalata sattweo, bhejal chhilen na."

-- Babu brittanto ("Dekha Chhobi")

Madhu R said...

Hi Dipanjan,

This is an amazing amazing translation that you have made of Ritwik.Though I haven't acquired a taste for his movies yet(find them too theatric and melodramatic) the interview is mindblowing.His knowledge of movies is just phenomenal.

Ritwik's FTII proteges are the realist neo cinema usherers in Kerala.If you are interested in Ghatak you might also be interested in his students(the real ones at least :-) )..

Here is John Abraham's(a true Ghatak student)ode to Ghatak.