Bengali Features

Going In Circles With Satyajit Ray

Satyajit Ray’s famous children’s film, Goopi Gyne Bagha Byne (1969), has a fascinating segment known as ‘Bhooter Naach’ or the Dance of Ghosts. While Ray is well known for his mastery over western music, this segment bears testimony to his vast knowledge of Indian music. He has chosen a well known segment of Karnatak or Carnatic classical music called ‘Tani Avartanam’ for the ghost dance sequence. It is not a random collection of beats. It has perfect instrumentation, pace and structure with a wonderful flavor of the South (India). He has presented the finer elements of Karnatak music and maintained the inner rhythm of all the instruments used. Each bit is edited precisely in a time bound chain of notes called avartanam.

Tani Avartanam is a popular segment of almost all Karnatak classical music presentations. Usually it comes at the end of the music session. It was designed initially as a short pause for the main singer as classical singing performances last long. By the end the singer is bound to get tired as he/she finishes long renditions. Normally, about 3-4 percussionists accompany a presentation that lasts few hours. The percussionists could be playing instruments like Mridangam, Kanjira, Ghatam, Morching, etc. I am restricting the names to these four as these are the ones that have been used in the Ghost dance sequence. Tani means alone (to be on one’s own), avartanam means a circular (avartana) string of notes. When the musician feels the need for a pause to round off the ‘kacheri’ (program), he asks the percussionists to take over and give the solo rendering. Each instrument and the artiste get the opportunity to present their virtuosity one after the other in a sequential order. Each percussionist plays one avartanam (circular round) as his turn comes. If there are four instruments, each player plays one avartanam and makes way for the next player to take over. He waits for his turn at the end of the chain to take up another avartanam. The presentation segments are in three identifiable tempo or pace. They could be broadly identified as Vilamb (slow pace), then the pace picks up to Madhyam (medium pace) and at the end it is Dhruta or Teevra (fast pace) where all instruments come together playing in unison reaching the cesando. Over the years the tani avartanam that began as a pause for the singer slowly turned into a fascinating segment of the kacheri (presentation). Audiences began to respond more and more enthusiastically and their reactions fuelled the players to tryout newer innovations within the permitted time. As it happens most of the time, the percussionists themselves would be stalwarts in their own field. They would be raring to let go. The audience would be regaled with their skill, mastery and extempore responses. The musician’s adrenaline begins to rise, fuelled as it is by the audience response. After this performance, normally, the singer concludes the kacheri (performance session).

Ray has chosen this fascinating form of tani avarthanam for the ‘Bhooter Naach’ sequence and used it very effectively. Totally, there are six avartanams (rounds) matching the six dance segments. The sixth one is the ensemble of all instruments reaching a crescendo with all the dancers forming a tableau.

Four categories of characters and Instruments are allotted to each group. There is a broad representation of four kinds of people. They are divided as per the identifiable class they belong to. Their costumes and actions differentiate them and the instruments allotted to them help in maintaining their separate identity. The four class of people can be broadly classified and the instruments allotted to them are:

1. Ordinary people going about their life. The Mridangam, is the instrument allotted to them
2. The soldier class – armed with swords, shields, uniforms. The Khanjira, is the instrument that goes with them
3. The ruling class is represented by the Britishers holding pistols, identifiable dress etc. The Ghatam, is the instrument for them
4. Lawyers, money lenders, religious heads etc have a noticeable fat roundness to them. The Morching is the instrument allotted to them

The dance sequence has six rounds. Each round begins with the ordinary people and ends with the fat people. All the four instruments Mridangam, Kanjira, Ghatam and Morching play in that strict order. It is easy to identify the instruments as they begin to play with the entry of the characters they represent. As far as the pace of the music is concerned, for the first and second rounds, the instruments play in Vilamb (slow pace).  For the third and fourth rounds the pace is medium (Madhyam) and for the fifth and sixth rounds it is the (Dhruta/Teevra) fast pace that reaches a crescendo.

The sequence itself follows a five-act structure.

The first act is a ‘prologue’ , introducing the people of each class dancing in the four segments that separates them. We get to know the dancing figures well from each class. They seem to be going about their day to day life.  The Introduction takes first two rounds of the scene. In the Second act, ‘conflict’ begins to emerge. It is the third round of the dance sequence. This segment shows some sort of tension building up among the dancers. The third act is where the ‘climax’ or tension escalates. The dancers are now more and more agitated. This is the fourth round in the scene. In the fourth act and the fifth round in the chain, the tension reaches a ‘resolution’ point, with people in each of their respective segments killing their own people. The fifth act is the ‘epilogue’ or ‘denoument’, where we see a tableau formation of all the dead souls coming together. This is the sixth and final round of the sequence ending in a tableau formation of all dancers.

Each rendition of an instrument ends with one avarthanam in its allotted place in the chain.  The entire sequence made of 6 rounds is of about 6.30 minutes and unfolds as follows:

FIRST ROUND – PROLOGUE OR INTRO: Vilamba slow pace. People from day to day life. A segment total of 1.31 minutes.
1. The Mridangam lasts 30 seconds as the ordinary people go about their life.
2. The Kanjira lasts 23 seconds with the soldiers holding swords shields etc.
3. The Ghatam lasts 20 seconds as we see the British with pistols and batons etc.
4. The Morching lasts 18 seconds Various fat people like lawyers, businessmen, religious heads.

SECOND ROUND – INTRO: Vilamba slow pace. People from day to day life. A total of 1.28 minutes.
1. The Mridangam lasts 30 seconds.
2. The Kanjira lasts 15 seconds.
3. The Ghatam 15 seconds.
4. The Morching lasts 28 seconds.

THIRD ROUND – CONFLICT: Madhyam pace. A total 1.20 minutes.
1. The Mridangam lasts 27 seconds.
2. The Kanjira lasts 20 seconds.
3. The Ghatam lasts 13 seconds.
4. The Morching lasts 20.

FOURTH ROUND – CLIMAX: Madhyam pace. A total of one minute exactly.
1 Mridangam 20 seconds.
2 Kanjira lasts 8 seconds.
3 Ghatam lasts 10 seconds.
4 Morching lasts 22 seconds.

FIFTH ROUND – RESOLUTION: Dhruta or fast pace. A total of 57 Seconds.
1. The Mridangam lasts 26 seconds.
2. The Kanjira lasts 11 seconds
3. The Ghatam lasts 8 seconds
4. The Morching lasts 12 seconds

SIXTH ROUND- EPILOGUE: Dhruta or fast pace. It is a a tableau formation that lasts 16 seconds as all the instruments come together.

The precise time given for each round and the various dance steps choreographed as per their class identity is absolutely amazing as these instruments are not that easy to fix in a time frame. The editing and the dance moves have been precisely and perfectly synchronized.

I hope this input of this iconic sequence of Goopy Gyne Baagha Byne helps film students in understanding how to structure and present an art form and make it fit the cinematic narrative perfectly. For film enthusiasts, this might provide yet another glimpse into how Ray worked, always perfecting his art. The entire sequence has a strong historical, sociological, and cultural perspective as it comments on the history and fragility of human existence.

Note: The entire sequence of the dance of ghosts can be watched here.

Header Photo: A sketch done by Satyajit Ray for the ‘Bhooter Naach’ sequence.

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