By Don Messerschmidt
Lain Singh Bangdel (1919-2002), Nepal's preeminent modern artist of the 20th century, would have been 100 years old this year. He was born on a tea estate near Darjeeling, and after high school he attended the Calcutta Art School, graduating top of his class in 1945. His first job was as a graphic artist with the prestigious commercial art firm of D.J. Keymer in Calcutta. There, on a Monday morning, he joined over 30 other artists seated in desks joined together in long rows, in one room.
Lain was temporarily given the place of someone who was away for a few days. Later that week, a tall and imposing man arrived, came over to him and asked, in Bengali, “Arrey, kokhon eley?” (“Hello. When did you arrive?”). “This is my table. Are you sitting here?”
He was Satyajit Ray.
A place next to Ray was quickly arranged for Lain and they soon became good friends. They saw each other as struggling and venturesome young artists “doing something extraordinary, something mad,” as Lain put it. Over the next few years Lain watched Ray's fame evolve from a little-known graphic artist to world-renowned filmmaker. Lain also moved on, from graphic artist to become an admirable painter, eventually becoming one of Nepal's most famous, as well a novelist and expert in art history.
Under Satyajit Ray’s supervision, artists and copywriters turned their illustrations and story lines into compelling magazine and newspaper ads for Keymer’s clients. One day, Ray showed Lain a preliminary layout promoting fine silk fabric. It featured a nearly naked young lady, with the caption, ‘Daughter of Aurangzeb’ (the last Moghul emperor of India). The pitch was for silk so fine it was almost transparent. It was bold imagery for an Indian audience but, as Lain said, “The story was there.”
One day, Ray invited Lain to join him and others at the Calcutta Coffee House, an long-lasting institution once described as “that fomenting hideout of all creative and intellectually inclined youth.” Over steaming cups of coffee and discussions about politics, cricket, the economy, the arts, and the like, Lain met many of the young artists and writers who in those days helped make Calcutta the creative center of India.
Ray also helped launch the Calcutta Film Society, and invited Lain to join and view classic international films. Ray borrowed them from foreign embassies, and though they were supposedly censored from the public, the authorities paid no attention. It was Lain’s introduction to some of the ‘greats’ of 20th century European cinema, such as Russia's Sergei Eisenstein and Vsevelod Illarionovich Pudovkin, and Italy’s Vittorio DeSica. The documentary-like objectivity of their films inspired Ray to become a filmmaker, and encouraged both he and Bangdel to pursue realism and naturalism in their art.
In 1955, Ray produced his first film, 'Pather Panchali' ('Song of the Little Road'), which with two sequels became famously known as the 'Apu Trilogy'. Ray's Apu was an underfed, ill-clad country boy who moved from a simple life in rural Bengal to the chaotic turmoil of Calcutta’s teeming streets, village to city, tradition to modernity. Critics declared it a flop, for it was unlike anything they had ever seen on the Indian screen; it was clearly not a Bollywood blockbuster. Imagine their surprise when 'Song of the Road' won the Best Human Document award at the 1956 Cannes International Film Festival. As more international honors followed, Ray’s films gained worldwide fame and applause.
Altogether, Ray produced thirty artistic films, most with a humanist flavor, plus several documentaries, all in Bengali. His films have become timeless masterpieces, still popular at classical film festivals. The Apu theme appears in many of them. The most well-known include 'Distant Thunder', 'The Music Room', 'The Lonely Wife', and 'The Home and the World'. Ray also made several films in Nepal with Bangdel’s help, and they collaborated on the production of 'The Adventures of Goopy and Bagha’ (1969).
If opposites attract, here it was. Ray–tall, aloof, and urbane, borne into big city life, and Bangdel–short and shy, from a mountain village, who came to Calcutta as a stranger. Despite their differences, each understood the troubling contradictions of modern life and sought to express them in their own ways: Ray with camera on celluloid, revealing the troubled lives of poor Bengalis in Calcutta, and Lain Bangdel in novels about Nepalese migrants living around Darjeeling and in figurative paintings on canvas.
Shortly before his death in March 1992, Satyajit Ray was recognized by Hollywood’s Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science with a long overdue Honorary Oscar for Lifetime Achievement in Cinema, “in recognition of his rare mastery of the art of motion pictures and for his profound humanitarian outlook, which has had an indelible influence on filmmakers and audiences throughout the world.”
Ray, too ill to attend the Oscar presentation, remarked that it was like an epithet to his life’s work, “The end of prizes, I think. There is nothing more after this.”
This essay is adapted from the author’s book, Against the Current: The Life of Lain Singh Bangdelâ€•Writer, Painter and Art Historian of Nepal (2004, Orchid Press). The description of the Calcutta Coffee House is from 'About Calcutta: Places of interest', online at Calcuttamall.com (1999-2000).