Satyajit Ray’s birth centenary will be celebrated on multiple fronts. Some will remember his movies, others his delightful stories for youngsters and adults, and yet others for his film scores. Ray began composing his own music with Teen Kanya in 1961. He also composed for Shakespeare Wallah (1965) and Baksha Badal (1970). Contemporary composer Alokananda Dasgupta tells about what made Ray’s music unique and what can we learn from it today.

Satyajit Ray didn’t only focus on just the background score. He also created theme tracks.
My introduction to films and background score happened via Satyajit Ray. I didn’t understand what I watched or heard, but I picked up the music and the dialogue which I would discuss with friends and cousins.

What stood out to me were his harmonic structures. Some of his scores are so catchy and so deeply embedded in my memory, I can’t think of a Ray film where I did not pay attention to the music. But you also figure out his signature style quickly.

Maybe he was limited, but within his musical world, the blending of Indan and Western classical was very unique at the time. The harmonic content of his Western influences married with Indian classical-and-folk-based melodies was amazing. And he always had a ear for clear theme tunes, even before he began composing. Take the Pather Panchali flute tune, [composed by Ravi Shankar] for example.

Pather Panchali (1955).

How do you compare his songwriting with his score-writing abilities?
I never assessed his scores and songwriting separately, but definitely, the songs were haunting. He is probably a better songwriter. The Carnatic influence in Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne and Hirak Rajar Deshe stayed with me. Ek Je Chilo Raja has such a great melody, as well as Paye Pori Bagh Mama and Koto Rongoi Dekhi Dunyay.

But he is also a master of situational music. His use of leitmotifs, themes, and variations, which most composers do now, was a neat trick to have then. He would make one theme and present it in different forms.

I think he was to trying to orchestrate Bengal, by applying Western musical and cinematic sensibilities to his cinema and music.

Ray’s use of Rabindranath Tagore’s songs is free of frills – and still fresh.
Many people like Phoole Phoole and Ami Chini Go in Charulata, but I don’t. They create a beautiful world for Charulata in the film but still the song did not stand out for me. I rather like the way he used Tagore’s song in Monihara, the horror film from Teen Kanya.

His use of just the singer’s voice, without instrumentation, was fascinating, another of my favourites being the folk song at the end of Kanchenjunga.

In fact, Kanchenjunga is one film where his music makes many scenes work because I am often not sure of what he’s trying to express. I also like how Ray created a waltz on a minor key in Monihara [Teen Kanya] for the theme, which is something that’s done frequently in contemporary horror films, like The Others.

Baje Koruna Surey, Monihara from Teen Kanya (1961).

Some of his music is quite eerie, for instance, towards the end of ‘Aranyer Dinratri’, the dream sequence in ‘Nayak’ and the flashback sequence in ‘Charulata’.
Those moments feels so ahead of their time, like Burial without the beats, or the minimalism of French composer Eric Satie.

Ray uses tremolo picking on the strings, which means they are bowed faster than usual, in the part where the fair begins in the Charulata flashback sequence. It is absolutely atmospheric, highly dystopian-sounding. The man always had an interest in sci-fi, as seen in his stories, and he was drawing aliens much before E.T was made.

This also reminds me of the scene in Samapti [Teen Kanya] where Soumitra Chatterjee grabs Aparna Sen behind the tree. It’s almost a Middle-Eastern scale. You hear it in the end of Mahanagar, where Madhabi Mukherjee and Anil Chatterjee walk away into the crowd. There’s similar Middle Eastern scale in Sonar Kella, when the protagonists on camelback are approaching the incoming train. It reminds me of the work of Kronos Quartet.

In ‘Chiriakhana’, Satyajit Ray created an excellent throwback song, mimicking the nasal singing style in the early talkies.
This also comes from the fact that he studied everything. He created a world of music that fit the genre of the film exactly.

Like, for example, the folk song in Kanchenjunga, or the Rajasthani folk song in Sonar Kella. I don’t know if he was as whimsical as his grandfather, Upendrakishore Roychowdhury, and father, Sukumar Ray, but his quirk was a studied quirk with an empirical quality to it.

One of his quirky musical moments is in Sonar Kella. Note the weird music in the scene where Santosh Dutta stretches in the desert during dusk. It’s so beautiful, but it’s also funny.

But regardless of quirks, he was also one of the composers back then to actually give handwritten notation to his musicians. He was particular about hitting the nail on the head about whatever he tried to do, making sure the sheet music was reproduced exactly. I wonder what his music would be like if he was unsure of what he wanted and went about discovering new things on the way.

Satyajit Ray often structured his screenplays on forms of Western classical music. ‘Nayak’ resembles a fugue.
Fugue is one of my favourites. It’s like you say a statement in one voice, and then a repetition arrives in a different voice, and then again, one over another. Nayak definitely has this with Uttam Kumar’s character being the central subject around whom all the small stories inside the train revolve and overlap each other. It’s like hyperlink cinema.

Also read:

On the sets of Satyajit Ray’s ‘Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne’, all dressed up and nowhere to go

Light of Ray: The Subrata Mitra-Satyajit Ray partnership led to cinema’s most unforgettable moments

Madhabi Mukherjee on ‘Charulata’, its enigmatic last scene, and the sea that returned an offering