The Music of Ritwik Ghatak

“Why do you always sing sad songs?” Ishwar asks his sister Sita in Subarnarekha. “It is almost as if there is nothing in this world beyond pain and suffering.”

When art stems from lived experiences, it must be truthful. And truth is seldom under the compulsion to have a happy ending. Cinema, for Ritwik Ghatak, was not a medium of ‘storytelling’, but the strongest way he could reach out to the masses. Talking about his shift from theatre to film, he once said, “We used to give open-air performances where we could rouse and inspire an audience of four or five thousand. But, when I thought of cinema, I thought of the million minds that I could reach at the same time. This is how I came into films, not because I wanted to make films. Tomorrow, if I find a better medium, I’ll abandon films.” Ghatak chronicled the partition like few others – the refugee crisis and the rootlessness of a people affected him deeply, on a personal level. He spent his childhood in East Bengal, amid green meadows and songs of boatmen. His characters, too, feel suffocated in the city, searching for a lost childhood and a home – suddenly a new country they can perhaps never return to. His films thus leave us with a sense of emptiness, giving us a feel of what it is like to not ‘belong’ – there is poverty and suffering, there is struggle. Yet, sometimes, there is hope. Sometimes, there is love. And wrapping it all up, there is music.

Ritwik Ghatak

The music of Ghatak’s films, not talked about as often as they should be, is perhaps what first helped me connect with them. Indian classical music, folk songs, and Tagore seep into the pores of his films, adding character and more value to the stories he chooses to tell. ‘Melodrama is a birthright, a form in itself,’ he had once remarked, and music and sound enhanced the ideas he wanted to communicate. Ghatak himself had a deep understanding of music – he learnt to play the sarod for a brief period under Ustad Bahadur Khan, who was involved in making the music for several of his films. He loved Beethoven, and applied his compositions in the background score of a few films as well. Though uncredited, he made a documentary on Ustad Allauddin Khan, sarod player and multi-instrumentalist, a guru to several acclaimed musicians including his daughter, Annapurna Devi, and Pandit Ravi Shankar among others. Music formed an important backbone of each of Ghatak’s films, but I shall primarily talk about Meghe Dhaka Tara (1960), Komal Gandhar (1961) and Subarnarekha (1965) – commonly referred to as the partition trilogy. It is the music of these three films that have stayed with me the most, along with the pain and love that its characters experience.

Ritwik Ghatak and Ustad Bahadur Khan: Learning the sarod (Courtesy: ‘Ritwick’, written by Surama Ghatak)

Shaktipada Rajguru’s tragic tale of a family uprooted by the partition and struggling to live a decent life in new circumstances is immortalized by Ghatak’s Meghe Dhaka Tara. The pain of Nita (Supriya Choudhury), the protagonist and one of the three strongest women characters of the partition trilogy, is felt the most – the struggling refugee woman who sacrifices her life and love for the rest of her family. The only person in the family who understands her is her elder brother, Shankar (Anil Chatterjee). An aspiring singer, Shankar is not an earning member of the family and spends his days practicing on the riverbank. Most of the film’s songs (music by Jyotirindra Moitra) are by Shankar – compositions in Indian classical to which Pandit A. T. Kanan, renowned vocalist of the Kirana gharana, lends his voice. The film begins with, and is punctuated by brief, calming aalaps. Shankar’s respite is his music, which seems to run in a parallel world of its own, in an attempt to drown the clutter of their suffocating existence. Shankar is looked down upon by his family because he doesn’t contribute to the family income – his dreams of becoming a vocalist are not appreciated by anyone in the family except Nita. While the chhota khayal ‘Jai Maata’ captures the carefree self that he maintains as an exterior, ‘Dukha Daridra Dur Kijiye’, that he sits down to sing one night, conveys his deeper sadness and helplessness.

Shankar and Nita, Meghe Dhaka Tara

Towards the end of the film, when Shankar returns to his home after making a name for himself as a celebrated musician, he sings ‘Lagi Lagan Pati Sakhi Sang’. This return is one of personal victory, as it can be called – the neighbourhood where he had spent his formative years being considered a failure now looks up to him as a celebrity, young boys run up to him to ask for his autograph. The composition in Hamsadhwani – a raga commonly associated with happiness and joy, thus comes naturally to him. He walks past the same riverbank where he had spent days practicing, but now there is confidence, a distinct change in the way he sings. This version of the khayal, sung beautifully by Pandit A. T. Kanan and enhanced by Anil Chatterjee’s acting on screen, remains unforgettable. It is a song of happiness and homecoming, before yet another tragedy hits the family.

Ustad Bahadur Khan plays most of the background music in Meghe Dhaka Tara, and this is another common thread that connects the films of the partition trilogy. He was also the music composer of Subarnarekha, which featured a very short sarod recital as well. Sita (Madhabi Mukhopadhyay) sings several compositions in Indian classical music – most of which have a tinge of sadness in them, as her brother points out. Her tunes of loneliness are temporarily broken when Abhiram (Satindra Bhattacharya), his childhood friend, professes his love for her. That day, Sita sings a happy song, ‘Aaj ki Ananda.’ The song that Sita practices in their humble dwelling in Kolkata, ‘Khelan aaye hori barkha ke,’ also paints a happy picture – times are tough, yet there is the joy of starting a new life with the man she loves.

Madhabi Mukhopadhyay as Sita in Subarnarekha

“I cannot speak without Tagore,” said Ghatak in an interview. “That man has culled all my feelings long before my birth. He has understood what I am and put it all in words. I read him and I find that all has been said and I have nothing new to say.” It is thus not surprising that Tagore’s songs find themselves effortlessly in Ghatak’s films. ‘Aj dhaaner khete,’ a popular rabindrasangeet that is mostly taught to children is used more than thrice in Subarnarekha. The song talks of large, open rice fields, a flowing river, and the clear, blue sky – very much like what Ghatak describes his homeland to be, in his stories and essays. As Sita grows up with her brother Ishwar (Abhi Bhattacharya) in the outskirts of a city, this is the song she learns from her music teacher. Sita’s childhood is embroidered with this song, and it stays with her forever. Later in the film, she sings it to her son, born in Kolkata. The description of nature doesn’t appeal to him, and he asks his mother, ‘What do rice fields look like, ma?’ Yet, it is the same song that he hums when he sees a rice field for the first time, without his mother by his side. This is how the film ends, with the lives of Ishwar, Sita, and her son shattered by the tragedy of life but bound by Tagore.

In Subarnarekha, Ghatak provides a strong commentary on the life and culture in post-partition Kolkata through the eyes of Ishwar and his friend Haraprasad (Bijon Bhattacharya), who come to explore the city for the first time. ‘Ghastly’ fun is how Haraprasad describes it – the race course, the bars, the brothels. He uses the music of the climactic orgy scene in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita as he shows the bars of Kolkata. “Was I influenced? Not at all. The music merely helped me say a lot of things,” he says.

The use of sound to make an impact is perhaps most prominent in Meghe Dhaka Tara. The night Shankar leaves home, Nita asks him to teach her a song. They sing ‘Je Raate Mor Duarguli,’ a rabindrasangeet that translates as –

On that night when the storm broke open my door

I did not know that you entered my room through the ruins,

For the lamp was blown out, and it became dark;

I stretched my arms to the sky in search of help.

I lay on the dust waiting in the tumultuous dark and I knew not that storm was your own banner

When the morning came, I saw you standing upon the emptiness that was spread over my house

This is a song of despair. With it, one accepts darkness as her companion for life, while the other leaves it behind – the ruins of a family pushed into forgetting themselves. As the two of them sing, hardly able to look into each other’s eyes, most of what we see are their silhouettes, and a crisscross of light and shadow playing on their faces. This scene haunts us, and its mood is intensified by the sound of a whip lashing repeatedly towards the end of the song. The same repetitive whiplash is also heard in another dramatic scene, where Nita comes out of her fiancé’s room and walks slowly down the stairs – after discovering her sister’s relationship with him. The use of sound to bring out the tragedy in a situation again reminds us of Subarnarekha, where Abhiram, who is orphaned as a child, meets his mother seconds before she passes away. The moment she dies, a train passes with blaring noise.

The suffocation that Ghatak felt in the city impacts every film of the partition trilogy. Komal Gandhar was partly based on his experiences of working with the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), one of the strongest cultural movements of his time. Ideological differences led him to leave the group, but it left a profound influence on him. Ghatak crafted a brilliant tale around the travelling theatre movement, rivalries between and within groups, the effect of partition on art, and a love story. Anasua (Supriya Choudhury) and Bhrigu (Abanish Banerjee) are members of separate theatre groups, but they are attracted to each other while working together on a play. What brings them together is partly theatre, but another reason is the partition – they find peace in common roots. ‘Ekhankar akashtao dhowa’ (‘Even the sky here is filled with smoke’) – is how a character in Bhrigu’s play describes the city. The effect is perhaps similar to Sita’s son asking what a rice field looks like in Subarnarekha. As the team travels to Kurseong for the rehearsal of a play, someone again sings Tagore, ‘Akash Bhora Surjo Taara’ (‘The sky, filled with stars and the sun’), almost a celebration of the escape from the cacophony of the city. Even the name of the film is borrowed from a Tagore poem, ‘Naam rekhechi Komal Gandhar mone mone’ (‘I’ve named her Komal Gandhar in my heart’).

The members of the theatre troupe in Komal Gandhar often break into songs like ‘Esho Mukto Koro’ (‘Come, free us’) throughout the film – songs of hope in times of trouble. Often called a musical for this reason, it is in keeping with the note at the beginning of the film, that it is the story of a group of theatre-crazy youths who’ve come together as a family, and art is what binds them together. What is important in Komal Gandhar is that their theatre is not ‘art for art’s sake’ – there’s a greater cause as they travel across the length and breadth of the country and speak of the lives of its people. Bhrigu, who leads the team, encourages everyone to march at a protest rally because ‘it is their duty’, even though there’s a play to be staged the next day. This brings forward Ghatak’s philosophy with greater force, of art as “a means of expressing my anger at the sorrows and sufferings of my people.”

Anasua and Bhrigu in Komal Gandhar

Ritwik Ghatak’s films are for his homeland, his country, and his people. Thus, beyond Indian classical music and Tagore, folk music that is born from the land he yearns for so much, leaves a lasting impact. He uses folk music in all the three films of the partition trilogy, but most prominently in Meghe Dhaka Tara and Komal Gandhar. Throughout Komal Gandhar, the song ‘Aamer tolay jhamur jhumur’ plays in the background. A traditional marriage song that would be most expected in a village wedding scene flows easily through the veins of a film that has little to do with one. The song, Ghatak explains, reminds us of unification – marriage, the archetypal opposite of partition, either of a nation or of a theatre troupe. The song ‘Epar Padma, Opar Padma’ is also beautifully used in the film, that we hear when Anasua and Bhrigu stand on the bank of the Padma river – on the opposite side are their homes, but a place that is now beyond their reach. Perhaps the song, too, helps in bringing them close.

Ranen Roychowdhury’s ‘Majhi Tor Naam Janina’ is another beautifully used song in Meghe Dhaka Tara. The lyrics are roughly translated as,

Boatman, I don’t know your name.

Who shall I call?

Who shall row me across?

Like the people of his films who search for roots together, Ghatak and Roychowdhury, both from East Bengal, shared a special bond. This song speaks of a person on the riverbank who doesn’t know the name of the boatman and hence cannot call him to travel to the other side, but it has an obvious, deeper meaning – it is a call from the thousands who lost their homes in the partition, who shall spend the rest of their lives searching for one.

“I am not afraid of using any amount of coincidences in my fictional films,” he said. Ghatak’s films are poignant, sometimes disturbing, but a constant reminder of the troubled times that our nation is built on. Music breathes life into these films, often complementing his stories and sometimes making a statement in itself. Every song, every sound takes his ideas forward, making his films unforgettable. Years after, these films still hold up a mirror to our faces, like the father in Meghe Dhaka Tara who shouts ‘I accuse!’

Whom?’ His family asks, but he’s left with no answer.

From the ind.igenous desk


  • ‘Ritwik’, by Surama Ghatak. Anustup Publications
  • ‘Ritwik Ghatak: The Celluloid Rebel’, by Shoma A. Chatterji. Rupa Publications
  • A boatman named Ranen Roychowdhury: Link
  • ‘Knowing Ghatak’ by Aneek Chaudhuri: Link
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5 Responses

  1. Beautifully written! Got literal goosebumps while reading.
    As someone with maternal and paternal ancestries steeped deep in erstwhile Opaar Bangla, I could even imagine what Opaar Bangla might have been like before everything tore apart – a place which even the generation previous has only heard stories of and about – perhaps, never will be able to set eyes upon that land, the blood of which flows through my veins, separated through the unforgiving gulf of time and tragic circumstances.

  2. A good one that draws the line of difference between Ray and Ghatak.
    In some areas, though, the analysis becomes a little sketchy.
    Yet, we must appreciate the effort the writer has put. Very revealing , despite minor slips.

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