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Satyajit Ray - Growing up, 1921 - 39

1921, Ray Family

Satyajit Ray was born on May 2, 1921, in an intellectual and affluent family in Calcutta, India.

His grandfather, Upendrakishore Ray (Roychowdhury) was a distinguished writer, painter, a violin player and a composer. He was also a pioneer in half-tone block making and founded one of the finest presses in the country – U. Ray & Sons. He died six years before Satyajit Ray was born.

His father, Sukumar Ray (1887-1923), the eldest son of Upendra Kishore, studied printing technology in England and joined the family business. He too was an eminent poet, writer and illustrator of nonsense literature in the tradition of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear.

Sukumar Ray fell ill the year Satyajit Ray was born with a dreaded tropical disease of the time – Kala-azar. He regularly contributed poems, stories and illustrations to ‘Sandesh’, a children’s magazine in Bengali which Satyajit Ray’s grandfather had started publishing and printing. Need less to say the child Satyajit was fascinated by the block making and the printing process.

In 1880’s, Ray family had embraced ‘Brahmo Samaj’, sect within Hindu society. Brahmo was a reaction to Christianity (at that time, India was under British colonial rule and Calcutta was the seat of power), western literature and orthodox Hindu practices such as ‘Sati’. With a cosmopolitan and rational outlook, Raja Ram Mohan Roy founded the Brahmo. Later Brahmos were led by Devendranath Tagore, father of Rabindranath Tagore.

The progressive outlook of the Brahmo Samaj strongly influenced Satyajit Ray’s work. Many of Ray’s films would later show this progressive outlook and a strong aversion to religious fanaticism (Devi, Charulata, Teen Kanya, Sadgati, Ghare Baire and Ganashatru to name a few).

1926, Early Childhood

About three years after his father’s death, the printing business changed hands and Satyajit and his mother had to leave their spacious house. They moved to Satyajit’s maternal uncle’s house. His mother taught needlework to supplement the household income. Here he would also meet cousin Bijoya, his future wife.

At an age of eight, Satyajit joined Ballygunj Government School, until then he had been taught by his mother. Satyajit was an average student.

While still at school, he became a film fan, regularly reading Hollywood trivia in magazines like Picturegoer and Photoplay. Western classical music was another interest. He would often pick-up gramophone records at flea markets. He matriculated when he was just short of fifteen.

1936, At College

His mother insisted upon Satyajit joining college. At the Presidency College, Satyajit read science for the first two years and for the third year, he took economics. (An uncle had assured him a job if he graduated in economics.)

At the cost of academics, Satyajit was spending more and more time and energies in pursuit of his two interests- Watching films and listening to western classical music on his gramophone.

In films, his interest had shifted from stars to directors, savouring offering of Ernst Lubitsch, John Ford, Frank Capra, and William Wyler. He became a subscriber of Sight & Sound.

He graduated in 1939. At the age of eighteen, he decided to give up further studies. Even though he had no formal training, he was planning to become a commercial artist. He had a natural flair for drawing. His mother however felt that he was too young to take up a job. She suggested that he should join as a student of painting at Shantiniketan. After initial resistance, he agreed.

Next: At Shantiniketan, 1940-42

Young Satyajit Ray ©Ray Family
Young Satyajit Ray ©Ray Family
22 years old Satyajit Ray ©Ray Family
22 years old Satyajit Ray ©Ray Family
It was the most exciting period. I had discovered a New World. When I watched a film I was no longer interested in what the stars were doing, but was also observing how the camera was being deployed, when the cuts came, how the narrative unfolded, what were the characteristics that distinguished the work of one director from another.
Satyajit Ray
'My Years with Apu', about his developing interest in Cinema in college