My journey begins in Kolkata, where I meet Ruby Palchoudhuri, a genuine Francophile who was wearing many hats: that of gallery owner, president of the Alliance Française, and ambassador of Bengali contemporary art in India and abroad. Today she works exclusively for the promotion of the Bengali craft industry, and it is thanks to her help that I meet a young artist who will take me to the villages and act as my guide.
The plane begins its descent towards Kolkata, previously known as Calcutta during the British Raj. I dread coming face to face with this mythical city associated with images of misery and decay. I think of Fritz Lang and his triptych of images in The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb. These two films, with their exotic and sensual imagery, combine scenes of everyday life in Calcutta with a storybook narrative of deceitful priests, power-hungry princes, a trustworthy hero, and a naïve and voluptuous temple dancer. While some have been exposed to Bengali literature thanks to André Gide who translated poet-philosopher Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali in 1917, others have discovered Bengal through the films of Satyajit Ray, who examined and analysed different facets of contemporary society as well as the superstitions common in rural areas. Many Westerners became familiar with the work of Amartya Sen and his concepts related to poverty and development when he won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1998.
But the Bengal I had been dreaming about since my adolescence is that of its villages and artistic creativity of its women, like in the opening scene of Jean Renoir’s The River, filmed in 1950 in Barrackpore, near Kolkata. Actually, it was Satyajit Ray, a great admirer of the French filmmaker, who had been part of the film crew as a location scout. During the opening images, the viewer watches the creation of a drawing on the ground, called alpona, while a narrator introduces the film with the following words:
“In India to honour guests on special occasions women decorate the floors of their homes with rice flour and water, with this rangoli we welcome you to this motion picture.
In the style of a documentary, Renoir filmed the festival of lights rituals, a statue of the goddess Kali, the local market, and scenes along the Ganges and its boatmen. Since the time this film was made, Bengal has been transformed, but the bucolic atmosphere captured on film surely exists and is waiting for me in a village somewhere, because in India, the past and present are intertwined, and different worlds are juxtaposed and merge together. It’s as if you’re slipping from one century to the next, or from one world to another. I’m eager to see an alpona (2), like the one that first fascinated me while watching The River on television with my parents. I’ll never forget the first few scenes of women drawing the petals of a flower on the ground. Little did they know that they were also writing my destiny with the tips of their fingers.
(1) Instead of alpona, it is the word rangoli which is used for the design.
(2) Thanks to social networks, I met two sisters, Malika Ganguly and Manjari Chakravarti, the daughters of one of the three women who can be seen at the beginning of the film and so I was able to identify them. There is Shibani Chakravarti born Ghosh at the center who worked for the Red Cross and the aunt, Karuna Shaha on the right. The latter was a renowned artist in Kolkata. She was part of an all women group called “the group” in the 60 and renamed “Pancha Kanya” by the press.
On the left Khuki, the younger sister of filmmaker and documentarian Harisadhan Dasgupta born in Kolkata in 1923.