The relationship between housewife and genius is not easy to fathom. It is more difficult when the housewife is a vital presence, but unobtrusive. The world is curious and speculates about the genius, deriving a vicarious thrill from the snippets of information that trickle out or are allowed to seep into the public domain. In Satyajit Ray’s case, there is an enduring curiosity about him, his life and his work as a film director, graphic designer, composer of music, and author of children’s stories. He has been described as the Renaissance Man, because of his versatile interests. It is therefore remarkable that Bijoya, his wife, who remained in his shadow, was nevertheless acknowledged as a presence, someone who could not be contained within the conventional limits of the description of housewife, which she was.
It may have been that Bijoya Ray, who passed away on June 2, was no ordinary housewife; she was the consort of the colossus of Indian cinema, whose directorial debut with Pather Panchali (Song of the Road) was exceptional. It catapulted Indian cinema and made it a part of the new world cinema that was shaped by changes after World War II. It broke away from conventional cinema and seduced the viewer into a rural Bengali world, where poverty, joy, tragedy and comedy were sensitively combined without cloying sentimentality, to reveal beauty in the quotidian. Realism replaced the melodrama that had been the dominant genre of Indian cinema, at home and in the world.
As Ray searched for a young actor to play the role of Apu with increasing frustration, his wife found the face that would be immortalised as the boy whose journey would define the genius of the film maker. As she writes in her memoirs, Amader Katha (Our Story; note the plural, where the one is submerged in the other and the sum of the parts becomes greater than the whole), one idle afternoon she looked out of her window and saw Apu playing in the alley behind her house. The boy’s looks matched Ray’s imagination and according to Bijoya, the superb performance was the product of genius, pulling the strings that transformed Subir Banerjee into Apu.
Part of Brahmo elite
Bijoya Ray was the Other to Satyajit Ray. Before she became his consort, she was his slightly older cousin and they grew up together in the same household. The shared middle years of childhood and adolescence probably shaped the sensibilities that gave world cinema extraordinary films like Charulata, Mahanagar (Big City), Jalsaghar (Music Room), Ghare Baire (Home and the World) and his last film, Agantuk (The Stranger). There was a shared passion for Mozart and Beethoven and a rootedness in the quintessentially Bramho Bengali elite culture that allowed Ray and Bijoya to feed an insatiable hunger for Hollywood movies as children and then adolescents into young adulthood. It was possibly this progressive and elite culture that permitted Bijoya to turn to the Bombay film industry as a way of earning an independent livelihood, before she eventually married Ray.
Unlike Shobha Sen, wife of the legendary actor Utpal Dutta or Geeti Sen, wife of film maker Mrinal Sen, both of whom carved out independent careers as actors and were devoted consorts, Bijoya who repeatedly talks about her extraordinary gifts as a singer, never stepped out of Ray’s shadow. For those who had seen her over the years, she was an “unobtrusive though vital presence” in Ray’s life. She had a mind of her own; she may not have been assertive, but she definitely had her preferences is how many in Kolkata recall her.
Ray respected her judgment and she was the first person to vet his scripts. This comes across strongly in her memoirs, and is corroborated by those who knew her and Ray. In her memoirs she gives a glimpse of that vital presence, critical and appreciative of Ray’s work, when she recalls pointing out after the release of Charulata that Madhabi Mukherjee, the beautiful and exceptional actor who played the role, wore the same jewellery throughout the film, which was a mistake. As the wife of the wealthy Bhupati, owner and editor of the newspaper The Sentinel, it was expected of Charulata that she would change her jewellery often.
Bijoya had good taste, which was entirely expected, given her background and connections. It made sense for Ray to use her to groom Madhabi in the role of Charulata. In her memoir, Bijoya recounts teaching Madhabi to sing the lines, ‘Phule, phule, dhole, dhole’, in the exquisite scene when Charulata croons as she swings in the dappled garden, watching her cousin-in-law, Amal, in the throes of literary composition. Bijoya chose her clothes and draped the sari in the Bramho style, which was a subtle signal that the uncertain housewife had metamorphosed into an intelligent, autonomous partner, ready to edit the Bengali section in Bhupati’s new venture.
Ray was not a philandering director, though he came dangerously close to losing his head over Arati-Charulata or actor Madhabi. Bijoya came close, very close to losing Ray. She does not mention this in her memoir, though she does say again and again that there were few people as fortunate as her and in a long life, her troubles had been remarkably few. Those who knew her then said she was deeply hurt, but very dignified. In one version of the story, Bijoya is believed to have confronted Ray in a manoeuvre that would make a Field Marshal happy.
A magical childhood
To sidestep the ugly and the unpleasant and concentrate on the positive and pleasant instead is evident in the narrative of her memoirs, where she describes her magical childhood in Patna, as the youngest daughter of a successful barrister and part of the distinguished and elite Probashi Bengali community. She recalls her childhood, the sudden demise of her father and the shift to Kolkata, which she found claustrophobic because it was a crowded, dense city. Her connectedness to her associates from Patna and family is part of the universe she appears to have created for Ray, which allowed him to concentrate all his mind and energy on making films.
Journalist and music expert Shankarlal recalls that Ray’s famous study was an isolated space in an open house. Conversations in that room were accessible to Bijoya, who rarely intruded, though she must have known what was discussed. She could have joined the conversations, particularly when the subject of conversation was of interest to her, like Mozart or Uday Shankar. She rarely did. This suggests she drew an invisible but definite line between the home that she tended, the support services she provided and the work that went on uninterrupted. It was a remarkable act, of maintaining a boundary, even though the inhabitants of Ray’s world were aware that Bijoya had a mind of her own and the maestro respected her judgment. With her passing, the Ray oeuvre has finally become history.