The Amazing Woman Behind Satyajit Ray
Bijoya with Satyajit Ray: soulmates
There are a few persons who choose to remain away from the spotlight, yet so distinctively present through their works. Bijoya Ray was one of those rare personalities. To the common people she was the daughter-in-law of Sukumar Ray-Suprabha Devi; wife of Director Satyajit Ray who made films like Pather Panchali, Charulata or Ashani Sanket – each went down the annals of the World Cinema as an epic – and mother of Sandip Ray. Bijoya accepted those attributions more than gracefully.
In fact, nothing would make the youngest daughter of late Charu Chandra Das, Bar-at-law, Bijoya Das more content than belonging to the renaissance Ray family as the wife of Satyajit Ray. We know the story how she fought against tradition to change her surname from Das to Ray and get married to Satyajit on October 20, 1948 when society wouldn’t accept anything unconventional. As the story goes filmmaker Jean Renoir, who befriended Satyajit during his stay in Kolkata to make his well known movie River, who did not know that Ray had already been wedded to Bijoya, gifted a picture to Satyajit Ray with a special note that he would be happy to see Manik (Ray) wed Monku (Bijoya).
Those who have known her from close quarters know about her gifted talents in several fields – music, acting (she worked as an actress in Sesh Rakshya and Sandhya apart from a few films in Mumbai) and writing. She was an exponent of Tagore songs, who had the experience of singing in front of Rabindranath Tagore himself when she was but a little girl. She had also cut records. Bijoya inherited a special inclination for music from her father. She was fond of Western classical music – symphonies, concertos, chamber music, operas, especially composer Mozart, while Satyajit Ray had the phenomenal ability to remember tunes; he could whistle any symphony he had heard.
Music brought Manik (as Satayjit was known to his close associates) and Monku (nickname of Bijoya) together. “We were both drawn towards Western classical music and films.This strengthened the special bond we shared”, she wrote. Hours passed writing and listening to music, as both remained glued to the radio set at the residence in Kolkata. Love for music paved the way for one to the others heart.
According to their son Sandip, they were fond of Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Gene Kelly... ‘Baba could whistle well and Ma would approve of his tunes by listening to his whistling. When Baba started scoring for his own films, he would compose with western notations. But musicians, back then, were used to Bangla notations…’ She, it's learnt, groomed artistes to pick up the songs; Madhabi Mukherjee was among them. During Monihara (One part of Teen Kanya - Three Daughters) Ruma Guha Thakurta picked up nuances of Baje koruno surey… from her only. She taught Madhabi Mukherji to sing 'Phule phule dhole dhole' while playing her role as Charu in Charulata (The Lonely Wife). “Even a singer like Kishore Kumar picked up the song on hearing : Ami Chini Go Chini Tomare Ogo Bideshinee sung by Ma on a spool recorder which was sent to Mumbai for final recording for Charulata,” Sandip says
Despite her amazing talent Bijoya chose not to pursue her various interests, because she wanted to be an ideal life partner of a man who had aimed at a greater target in life – to be an auteur. Bijoya knew that her husband was born to live his life through his creations.
Recently in her column Lolita Ray, her daughter-in-law, described Bijoya as one without whom we would not get a Satyajit Ray. As Lolita said, diamond had cut diamond. While providing insights into her husband – a reticent individual – Bijoya once told a famous Indian weekly magazine (Payal Singh: Illustrated Weekly, November 20, 1988) that she would always hate to be in the public eye. She would rather enjoy living behind the umbra cast by her husband who was tall enough and had broad shoulders.
Suprabha reminded her daughter-in-law of the deep sense of values nurtured by the Rays. Bijoya’s bashful reply was, “I must try to keep it always upheld Ma…” And she proved later that it was not a mere string of words to please her mother-in-law. Following Suprabha’s demise, Bijoya took over the onus of running the family exactly the same way her mother-in-law did. “As a homemaker Bijoya would never compromise with anything if it was not perfect to the Tee, her culinary talent, impeccable needle works, habit of reading – detective stories, Western Romantic novels, books on music – and sense of time management were simply enviable. In all she made our home a heaven…” Sandip’s eyes turn moist, as he remembers his mother.
Editorial meetings of Sandesh were held at their residence in the congenial ambience, courtesy Bijoya Ray, adding to the mood of the proceedings. Satyajit Ray would run his stories for Sandesh through his wife, to check if they were up to standard. “After Baba left Ma immersed herself in writing all her life, she used to write very well and her letters are a treasure trove”, Sandip says. Even when Ray wrote the Feluda series, it was Bijoya who used to check the first draft. She was an alert ‘editor’.
For Bijoya. Rayt was never an icon, a genius or a world famous celebrity. He was just her husband with whom she spent 44 memorable years.Living under the same roof with one who had no trace of arrogance or snobbery – devoid of any airs – was indeed a pleasant journey.They lived their lives to the fullest extent.One made the other wealthy of knowledge by offering the wisdom that each had in abundance.
Though he had all essential qualities that she sought in a man, considering their age difference – Manik was younger than Monku – both of them shelved the idea of a nuptial tie. They decided to remain single forever. However, nothing could make them stay apart, physically at time perhaps, but never mentally. Communication continued, sometimes in cryptic language. For instance, the young man would help his beau identify the composer and the genre of music she might have heard with great patience.
In fact, the Satyajit-Bijoya combination is like a piece of gold studded with diamonds. Made in heaven for each other, both went ahead and reached the summit (needless to say) and of course, tasted the sweet aroma of success. But scaling the steep track was not so easy. Days were full of struggle. Those were the days when even Bijoya offered her ornaments in pawn to raise funds for the production of Pather Panchali, Ray’s cinematic maiden venture, though the situation eased later following the grant released by Dr. Bidhan Chandra Roy, the then Chief Minister of West Bengal. It was not only her jewellery that she offered to her husband to make the film but her constant unflinching support as he went about realizing his dream...Pather Panchali. Resolute to his dream project, Satyajit chucked his job of the chief visualiser in a well reputed advertising agency D.J. Keymer.
Bijoya had always been one of the staunchest critics of the Master. She had always judged Ray’s films by his own standards, never by those of other common filmmakers. According to her Charulata was one of the masterpieces of Satyajit Ray; also Aranyer Din Ratri (Days and Nights in the Forest) caught her attention. She also enjoyed his children’s films. ‘They are my favourites’, she told the press. Though she had a sneaking fondness for Chiriakhana,made in 1967 that went on to win two National Awards, the film didn’t come up to her expectations – again according to the standard of Satyajit Ray as a director. He readily agreed with his wife. In an interview with Cineaste magazine, Ray described Chiriyakhana (The Menagerie) as his most unsatisfying film.
We might have not got a little boy like Subir Banerjee for the role of Apu in Pather Panchali or Sharmila Tagore would perhaps not dazzle on the screen in Apur Sansar. “When a young Sharmila Tagore reached their house, the onus fell on her (Bijoya) to transform Rinku Di into a village belle,” says Sandip “Not only would she look after the unit members, their meals, and so many small issues so that Baba could focus on the work itself,” he adds.
Didn’t she play a key role behind the selection of Uttam Kumar for Nayak? “Yes she did. In fact everyone in the family from her paternal side was fond of Uttam Kumar. Even my grandmother was his fan so Baba cast him in Nayak without any hesitation. Baba had seen a lot of his films to study his acting prowess and mannerisms, yet her admiration for Uttam Kumar had influenced Baba to cast him in 'Nayak,” Sandip said.
They say: An era ends with her exit from the earth. Not true at all in the case of Bijoya even though she left on June 2 this year at the age of 98 years. As Tagore wrote, “no more you are in front of my eyes, you’ve found a place in between them.” Bijoya who could sing, act, write, keep house with such finesse, and play a key role behind every project undertaken by her husband, indeed lives on for ever.