JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Shankar gets a job teaching music and starts a musical career. Gita will be married soon to Sanat, and Sita is to sing at the wedding. She asks her brother to teach her a Tagore song, one about a visitation by God. Increasingly isolated both in the family and in the visual compositions, here she sings “her” Rabindra sangeet. This is the only time Nita sings in the film.

Shankar sings the Rabindra sangeet with Nita and is startled to “hear“ the sound of a whiplash.

Nita “feels“ the whiplash again.

Nita discovers she has tuberculosis and does not tell the family. She confines herself to one room of the house, and she continues to work to support the family.

Now a singing star, Shankar comes home for a visit. He discovers Nita’s advanced tuberculosis, shockingly evidenced by her blood stained handkerchief.

Nita’s father addresses the family and us, the audience, with his exclamation of “I accuse!” when he is told of his daughter’s tuberculosis.

Nita’s mother and father contemplate their daughter’s banishment from the family home.

Nita, Sita and
Rabindra Sangeet
 

In Meghe Dhaka Tara and Subarnarekha, Ghatak uses songs by Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), Bengal’s creative genius, who was a poet, playwright, novelist, short story writer, essayist, painter, song composer (0f both lyrics and music), philosopher, teacher, and Nobel Prize winner. Tagore wrote over 2,000 songs, known as Rabindra sangeet or Rabindra song, compositions that incorporated elements of Indian classical music and Bengali folk songs.[48][open notes in new window] In his biography of Tagore, Krishna Kripalani describes the impact of Tagore’s songs in Bengali culture:

“For each change of the season, each aspect of his country’s rich landscape, every undulation of the human heart, in sorrow or joy, has found its voice in some song of his.”[49]

His songs often celebrate Nature and the Divine, specifically in the physical and spiritual context of Bengal.[50]

As previously mentioned, in his films Ghatak utilizes a variety of musical forms, both Indian and non-Indian, and commonly uses Tagore’s music. As Ghatak stated in an interview just before his death:

“I cannot speak without Tagore. That man has culled all of my feelings from long before my birth. He has understood what I am and he has put in all the words. I read him and I find that all has been said and I have nothing new to say.”[51]

Ghatak, like most Bengalis, considers Tagore as the embodiment of all that is great in Bengali culture, as the pinnacle of artistic expression in Bengal. When Ghatak uses a Tagore song in a film, it often evokes among Bengalis nostalgia and longing for an undivided, pre-Partition Bengal. Ghatak situates Tagore songs within the painful context of the struggle for survival of post-Independence Bengali families, and the songs serve to shape and give dimension to the characters of Nita and Sita. In both Meghe Dhaka Tara and Subarnarekha, Ghatak uses Tagore songs at climatic moments to express the joy and sorrow of the post-Independence Bengali woman, who must bear the burden of rebuilding the family in the aftermath of Partition.

Nita’s Rabindra Sangeet           

The only time that Nita sings in the film is just before her sister Gita’s wedding to her [Nita’s] former suitor, Sanat, and before her brother Shankar’s departure to Bombay to launch his singing career. Traditionally, Shankar as the eldest son should have assumed responsibility for the household when his father became incapacitated, but that burden fell to Nita. In the dark and flimsy thatched hut, Nita and Shankar sit feeling melancholy as they look at a photograph of themselves as children in the hills. The sounds of muted raindrops and frogs croaking drift in from the outside.

The claustrophobic interior reflects the suffocation of Nita as her tuberculosis advances. Her home crumbles around her as she herself withers away. Throughout the scene, the heads and profiles of Nita and Shankar are strongly lit from the front and back, often against almost total blackness, giving the composition a disembodied feel. Shankar declares that he is leaving their home in protest against her suffering and smothering at the hands of the family. She asks him to teach her a Tagore song, as she will be expected to sing at Gita’s wedding. As Shankar starts the song and Nita joins in, the camera slowly dollies at a low angle away from them, to a long shot of the pair from across the stifling, dim room. The chasm widens between brother and sister as they sing. The song is about a visitation by God:

I didn’t realize that You had come to my room,
the night when my doors broke down in the raging storm.
Darkness had encompassed everything,
my oil lamp blew out.
I stretched out my hand to the sky,
though I knew not towards whom.
I lay forlorn in the darkness thinking the storm a dream,
ignorant that the storm was actually a symbol of Your victory flag.
Opening my eyes in the morning I am amazed to behold You,
standing [there], filling the room, [filling] my heart’s void.

Because Nita sings this song at a critical moment in the narrative, when her family is abandoning her and she is becoming increasingly sick, the song appears to be a metaphor for her coming death. This Tagore piece also portends of the sequence to come where Nita’s ailing father orders her to leave the house in the middle of the night when a storm is raging outside.

By the end of the song, the camera has dollied back to the pair; in the remaining shots they are now separately framed. The singular composition of the last few shots of the scene signal Nita’s isolation and estrangement from even Shankar. The climatic shot is a low angle, medium close-up of Nita’s frightened face. Her eyes widen as she clutches her neck with her hands and silently gasps for air, while the faint sound of a whiplash comes up on the soundtrack. A cut follows to Nita alone in the blackness, collapsed in a heap on the floor. Her sobs meld into a solitary sarod strain on the soundtrack. Thus, the sound of the whiplash undercuts the deliverance that the Tagore song promises. Salvation and redemption are not in Nita’s future — not even as a symbolic goddess. Ghatak utilizes the extra-diegetic sound of the whip to represent the weight of social and historical forces bearing down upon Nita, as an individual and as symbolic Motherland, and, by extension, to convey an awareness of these forces to his audience. Ashish Rajadhyaksha has remarked when analyzing Meghe Dhaka Tara,

“In the film, there is a constant attempt to bring out the romantic through various conventions and violently negate them, reverse them into an indictment of the romantic sensibility.”[52]

The specific “romantic sensibility” that Ghatak is critiquing here has its modern origins in the so-called “Bengali renaissance” of the 19th century, the cultural era from which Tagore emerged.[53]In this scene, Ghatak politically activates Rabindra sangeet, pushing it beyond its romantic borders to shed light on the social realities of the present.

Continued: the sacrifice of Nita


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