1940-41, Discovering Oriental Art
In 1940, he joined Rabindranath Tagore’s Vishva-Bharati University at Shantiniketan despite the initial reluctance. The desire to learn about Indian arts to be successful as a commercial artist, mother’s wishes and the lure of Tagore, perhaps, were too strong to ignore. Tagore had been a close friend of his grandfather and father.
Trips to nearby villages for sketching exercises, were his first encounters with rural India for the city-bred Satyajit Ray.
During this period, he discovered the oriental art- Indian sculpture and miniature painting, Japanese woodcuts and Chinese landscapes… Till then, his exposure to art had been limited to only the western masters. He also undertook a long tour of places of artistic interests in India along with three friends. For the first time, he had begun to appreciate qualities of Indian art. The tour drew his attention to use of small details in Indian art to signify a bigger meaning. A quality that his films would later demonstrate.
Binode Behari Mukherjee, his art teacher at Shantiniketan, also demonstrated this quality in his work. He had an impressionable influence on Ray. About 30 years later, Ray would make a loving documentary on him – The Inner Eye, 1972.
At Shantiniketan too, Ray had found means to pursue his interest in music and films. A German Jew, professor of English, had a collection of western classical records. Ray would often listen to music at his cottage in the evenings. He also found books on cinema in the university library such as Paul Rotha’s ‘Film Till Now’ and Raymond Spotiswoode’s ‘Grammar of the Film. Despite his great love for films the thought of becoming a filmmaker had not yet occurred.
Tagore died on August 7, 1941.
1942, Back to Calcutta
As the year 1942 was coming to an end, Ray missed the city life and his inability to see films at Shantiniketan. Soon he was making weekend trips to Calcutta, visiting his mother and cousin Bijoya, looking for bargains on books and gramophone records at flea markets and watching movies. He was also in love with cousin Bijoya who lived in the same joint-family house as his mother.
In the remote Shantiniketan, he also felt being out of touch with what was happening in Calcutta, India and the world. Mahatma Gandhi had launched Quit India movement against the British Empire, the war was at Calcutta’s doorsteps, and he had missed Citizen Kane that played in Calcutta only for a few days.
In December 1942, Ray left Shantiniketan for good, the day Calcutta was bombed by Japanese for the first time.