Pather Panchali, Satyajit Ray's little Song

Publié le 27 Mars 2008


Satyajit Ray’s 1955 “Song of the little road” is a quiet picture of little big events within a rural Bengali family, where the little happenings of childhood occur, and form that most profound event of any life: growing up. The film is part of a trilogy, the Apu trilogy; but I haven’t (yet) seen the other two films. Still, you can of course see Pather Panchali independently. I hadn’t yet seen anything like it before.


It’s a sort of haiku, those short Japanese poems famous for their purity and density. As one watches it, one is struck by the timelessness, the unfathomable simplicity and emptiness of what is shown. The impression is that the action is “so long ago”, in a time when everything was young, when life was poignant and still, like the lilies on a puddle reflecting the grey sky. The grown-ups are in their fretful world, an old aunt is stuggling in hers, and the children with their eyes wide open observe this world:

  Queen-Durga.jpg  King-Apu.jpg 

There is Durga, the startling woman-child, and Apu her wide-eyed little brother, 11 and 5, perhaps. A frequent silence surrounds their lives, which is filled with humour and games. And nature is all around, vaguely threatening, and yet familiar, and playground-like. As one inspired commentator puts it: “Pather Panchali" turns everyday childhood occurrences into wondrous events, whether it is brother and sister crossing the fields filled with white feathery rushes to see a train in the distance, a pursuit of the candy man, a Hindu feast, the wonders of the natural world, an ancient aunt telling bedtime stories to children.” (erwan_ticheler from Amsterdam, link).


This “ancient aunt” is a creation of her own. She’s played by “80-year-old Chunibala Devi, a retired theatre performer who relished coming back into the limelight after 30 years of obscurity” (Link) Physically, she’s an old blind bird, a witch, a harpy. But in fact she’s a friendly old crackpot, which can never harm anyone. Doubled-up, her hair strangely cropped short, as if punished for some ancient collaboration with the enemy, her mumblings full of humour and dignity (“can’t an old woman have her own whims?”), she is admitted at the house, and needs only the bare minimum. But even that is sometimes a strain.

   Aunt-fruit.jpg     Mother.jpg

As opposed to the worried mother, she’s the spirit of the poor household, the element of permanence and liberation from want.. She shares with the children an essential simplicity. Gleefully happy when she’s given stolen fruit that unlike everybody else she doesn’t scold Durga for having pilfered, she knows from lifelong experience that the poor have a right to the fruit of the Earth, wherever they are. But the household is so poor that one day she is sent away, again, and must gather her pauper’s belongings, to seek refuge in another house. We watch her shuffle away with her carpet under her arm, a wizened old hag with her holed-out eye-sockets, and we understand that her hosts have lost their god. When she comes back, it’s to die. And one of the most stunning scenes of the film is when she gently falls on the side, and her head bumps against the ground, with the sound of an empty hazelnut. And as she lies there, in front of Durga’s stare, she’s nothing more than a little bird’s corpse, ever so light, ever so free.


There is something difficult and painful in Pather Panchali; I think it’s the poverty, the stricken life that these people are forced to live and that we are forced to witness. One would like to help them, to give them something, but all we can do is receive Apu’s wide stare, and accept his mother’s anger and tired grief. We cannot change Durga’s thieving and lying habits, which poverty has ingrained in her. We cannot keep the husband and father close to his wife. If he goes away, in his carefree way, we understand that he too is the victim of forces beyond their (and our) reach. One must bear that poverty all along the film. It is there in the broken-down house, the scarce food, the angry neighbour, the gaunt faces of the dwellers, the doomed mother’s concern, the squalor of the yard, the relentless desire of children to eat, all the time. And of course, Durga’s tragedy, her death so young because she stayed out in the rain and caught a simple cold… And finally, the mother’s wail when she can no longer hide the truth from the father, who finally comes back with a little money after six months’ absence, but too late. His little family’s lives were too fragile to wait for him.

Hole-in-her-shawl.jpg  Aunt-and-granddaughter.jpg

Yet there is something immensely joyful and serene in Ray’s film. I think it’s because of the children, the world of childhood, its innocence, its charm, its connection with nature. I enjoyed especially those scenes where the children in the woods, in the fields, on the country roads, with nature so much part of them, a nature that they know intimately, immediately. Another reviewer on Imdb writes:

“The film's structure seems to embody this duality between realism and the figurative. The first half is nearer to social realism, setting out the social hierarchies, introducing characters and their social or family role, defining them against other people, their home and nature. It is full of rich characterisation, even comedy, and full of set-pieces that reveal character and society.

The second half, however, becomes more abstract, even mystical. There is less reliance on words as characters go through strange rites where the emphasis is on observation or action. The nature that had been encroaching on civilisation spills over in these sequences, with stunning montages that recall Dovzhenko. The whole film feels slower, more meaningful and monumental (and sometimes duller). My favourite sequences are in this half, the discovery of the road and railway, the possibility of another life; the silent roaming through a beautiful, dwarfing landscape that recalls the mysticism of the Archers' 'A Canterbury Tale'. (Alice Liddel ( from Dublin, link)

     Apu-smile.jpg     Bro-and-sis.jpg

Indeed the delicate (and at the same time powerful) portrayal of childhood, and the feeling of timelessness, of natural eternity which it evokes, the fact that this eternity is nevertheless steeped in death and loss, the mystery of pain and poverty, all this so powerfully (yet simply) brought to our observation that one wonders: where has Ray “seen” all of it? How has he guessed at all that? All the more so as the film was his first! He has painted childhood, the way Sri Aurobindo evokes it: “After all, what is God? An eternal Child playing an eternal game in the eternal garden.” (link). Those of you who have seen the film, wouldn’t you say that we witness that mystical activity of an invisible godhead, present in the various characters, the fretful mother, the wily children, the old aunt, the dreaming father? I love the title of the film: Pather Panchali, Song of the little road: even if I don’t know why Bibhutibhushan Banerjee (who wrote the book that Ray has used) has chosen this title, for me it is full of the lightness, the gravity and the grace that the film and its music (Ravi Shankar) contain. In Apu’s eyes, I see that little song, in Durga’s revolt and sensuality, in the old aunt’s empty eyes and humourous remarks, and in the simple games of life shown as on the first day of Creation.

Dog-and-kitten.jpg   Durga-rain.jpg

Rédigé par yves

Publié dans #Film reviews

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Just came across one of the long forgotten songs (reminded by one of my friends). The song is in bengali..
Whwn was it written I don't know. But must be arould the time the novel was written (early 1900s). Interestingly it was recorded first time in 1955, the year of Pather Panchali. Singer was Pratima Devi, one of the very well known singers (This is not one of the Tagore songs). This song expresses beautifully the feelings that Apu (who doesn't ralise what death is) and Sarbajaya (mother.. who has to live with the memory and the pain).
The Poet is jatindra Mohan bagchi (just a few years younger than RNT, but influenced by him).

On the top of bamboo forest,
that moon has come up,
But mom, where is my (elder sister) Kajla,
Who would be singing songs?
It is already night mom,
Where is she?

Besides the pond,
All around the lemon tree
Bunch of fireflies glow
The fragrance of the flowers,
Isn’t letting me go to sleep,
In these times, mother,
where is my singing (lullaby?) sister Kajla?

From that day onwards,
Why don't you call her mother?
And whenever her name is taken,
Why do you hide your face
with your cloth?

While having my food,
When I call up my sister to join,
Why she doesn’t come out from her room?
And I am surprised,
Why are you keep silent
And don’t scold her like you used to.

Why don’t you tell me ma,
Where sis has gone?
And when would she come back
Tomorrow in our doll’s house,
There would be the marriage of our dolls,
And if in that there is neither me, nor she,
How would that be?

Like her if I too start playing tricks,
And hide somewhere like her
Then how would you live alone?
Then there would be neither me, nor sis,
How naughty would that be!

The ground below the jasmine tree
Is full of flowers and the ground lilly
Dont trample of them
When you bring the pot of water from the pond
(The small girls usually play with these flowers, making garlands for the dolls or idols, obviously sis when she comes back won't take it kindly if the flowers are trampled upon).
In the branches of the pomegranate tree,
The bulbul bird sings daily.
But be careful, not to disturb it
While plucking flowers
and make it fly away
How would then you answer sister
When she comes back and asks you of it?

It is so late in the night,
That besides the pond,
around the lemon tree
The crickets have started singing
The fragrance of the flowers,
isn’t letting me sleep
In this times, mother,
where is my sister who would sing lullaby to me?
The poet was Jatindramohan Bagchi..
A prose usually has the advantage of the length. Yf possible, yo write a short story or if not it ends up in a novel. It usually can't start in the middle and end up nowhere. The characters and their actions has to be explained in it either in words, in actions, or in nuances. Unlike it is a classical short story (Like Gur.. which became Saudagar.. it doesn't really discuss either the past nor the future, and leaves viewer to make its own interpretation of Amitabh's last statement "The fire hasn't extinguished yet" did he come to realise that he cared for her? "The fire" is in her or in him? The hint that he cared were also there, it was really nothing to do with the making of jaggery. Since even before, when Mahjubeen remarried and the protagonist watched her going off with her new husband, it was not really a look of watching an incidence... it was something more. Was it the fight inside Moti between a carnal desire (fulfilled by new wife) vs the 'mate', which is permanent? This questions left unanswered of course made the audience reject the movie, and unfortunately the critics too. I consider this movie too to be a very good one, though I am in absolute minority in it. And unlike other great movies, which flopped in its time, being avante garde, I think this movie, even if re-released would flop again, exactly due to this. The audience don't like to think and interpret in the hall. They go there for a quick entertainment.
These are the poems in prose, you would find a lot of them in great short stories, say of O'Henry, Maupassant etc.
The poems are even more restricted due to the length. You really can't have it long enough to hold the interest of the readers. And within that restriction you explain something and leave the rest to imagination. If , like Saudagar, there are sufficient ambigous hints, to the audeince, it is a good poem.
Now the question is, the poet has written the poem under some inspiration (which is his mental state at that moment). Could he recreate that while translating? Which would be a few years thence? May be yse, may be pto a large extent, or may be while re-translating, he re-interpreted it in his state at the time of re-transtlation, and it in fact became a different poem, with only the literary similarity? Who knows...
Indeed very beautiful and full of evocation... You don't precisely mention the name of its author: who wrote it?
Poetry anyway is the crux of all translation; because poetry plays on both the musicality and the vision intertwined. That's why it's interesting to have a poet translate his own poetry: in this case, and in this case only, you have a result which you must accept as it is. It may well be quite different from the original, but because it's the poet's translation, he has reworded his emotions and visions with the new words from the other language (which he supposedly masters), and it becomes new poetry.
Interestingly this poem is like "To Kill A Mocking Bird" this one poem has immortalised the poet.. I have read other poems too, none other are as remarkable as this. There is one interesting one "hafeez's Dream"
It starts with..

On a dark moonless night my darling came clandestinely
She chose the even darker lane through the forest of palm trees
With roses braided into her curly hairs,
(Poetric licence- poem says in her grape like hairs.. which I changed to curly - shape)
filling the whole atmosphere with her soft but intoxicating scent,
Wearing a torquoise dress she came and stood near my head,
Striking a glance like a lightning through her smiling eyes lined with black eyeliner,
With a musical voice she asked, oh my most devoted love,
Why are you still waiting for me, awake on a lonely bed?
Her empathy struck my heart with a pleasant pain,
folding my hands in a voice choked with emotion I said,
In the flowers that bloom in the heart by the breeze of your clothes
In your musical voice, the sounds that generate in the heart
In those smells, in those musics, writing poems,
In your door I want to sing every morning,
I don't want fame, nor name, neither it's the money that I want,
Please teach me songs that are worthy enough to praise you,
Withot a single word, with a beautiful abandonement,
She pulled the Sitar and held it against her soft breast,
Her fingers stroke its strings filling it up with divine music,
She then returned my companion to me,
Even before the buds have started thinking of blooming,
And the birds were sleeping in deep and unconscious sleep,
My darling disappeared in the darkness of the moonless night,
through the even darker lane between the palm trees,
From that day onwards the musics are getting flooding out,
Vibrating, trembling of the Sitar, recalling her divine touch,
with each beat it tells the story of her heart,
In every tone, in every nuance, it keep on repeating her secret.
I checked, we have both taken our "poetic" licences , both pure amateurs (at least I am) and yes he has mised almost half the stanzas...
In terms of interpretation, he ahs gone for more literal.. for example baansh (= Bamboo) bagan-er (= Garden's) .. But in villages, not exactly forest, but those plantations (not ver systamatic row wise, more haphhazard way) are called politely as Bagan (= garden).. but bamboo garden is a odd word.
Similarly the sister-- Sholok bala = Shloka Saying is interpreted as story teller.. bt my interpretation Shloka= Hymn = more of poem or in case of child, the elder sister wold be singing lullabies, missing which she is unable to sleep, .. I have tried to get more of the essence without compromising much on poem (I had to a bit to bring the concept, and the context too).. . each interpretation would differ... that's how it is.. the problem with languages are like this.. when you literally translate it becomes garbled, and when you go for translation of the sense, it depends on how each interpret.
For example the
Thanks very Sbasu for this beautiful song. I've looked for its reference, and have found it, perhaps, here: Let me know if the translation corresponds to what you would have said yourself! It isn't as long, so perhaps your version corresponds to the whole of the song.


Actually I forgot how exactly did I find you. Loved reading your article here. I did not know that a french person could see Bengali movies. I am a bengali guy (or simply they call us Bong, lol).
I have watched several french as well. Anyway, would love to read your review about Teen Kanya and Apur Sansar (one of my best movie).

Thanks Soumen for your message. These two movies are on my list, & I hope to say a few words about them soon!

Which French films did you like?

Bonjour Yves,Je viens de voir enfin La complainte du sentier, et quel choc. Formellement, c'est la perfection absolue. Et quelle poignante histoire. Un film magnifique et fondamental. La fin est bouleversante. Vivement le reste de la filmographie de Satyajit Ray et d'Apu en particulier. 

Bonjour Rom,
Merci de ton message. Je suis ravi pour toi que tu aies si fort apprécié la beauté de Pather Panchali: quand j'y repense, je retrouve aussi la simplicité et l'essentiel de cette histoire de vie,
avec sa bouversante pureté. Je crois que c'est parce que le film est fait (pour ainsi dire) depuis le point de vue de enfants qu'il est si différent, si poignant et en même si limpide. Pour
l'apprécier, il faut accepter l'effort, parfois aride, de réapprendre le regard de l'enfance, ce regard qui n'est pas toujours merveilleux, mais souvent fait de frustration, d'incompréhension, de
colère, car les enfants sont comme ça - en tant qu'enfant, on se souvient qu'on a envie de quitter cette difficile vie de l'enfance - mais elle est pour le cinéaste le porte vers l'indicible, le
plein de la vie.
A l'autre bout, du côté  de la vieillesse, il y aura un film comme Agantuk (l'Etranger). Si cela t'intéresse:
Bonne continuation,
Et Joyeux Noël (la fête de l'enfance nue)!

Bonjour Yves,Je suis très tenté par le cinéma de Satyajit Ray, je n'ai vu qu'un seul de ses films : Tonnerres lointains. Certaines images sont vraiment marquantes. J'ai l'impression qu'il y a une certaine correspondance avec le cinéma d'un autre poète-cinéaste : Andreï Tarkovski. L'enfance, la nature... Quel est le titre français du film dont tu parles ? PS : j'aime beaucoup la première photo et les deux dernières photos du post. Et ce que tu dis sur le film, même si je rate beaucoup de choses, n'étant pas très fort en anglais.Rom

Bonjour Rom,
Le titre français que j'ai trouvé de Pather Panchali, c'est "La complainte du sentier" (voir Mais de toute façon c'est son premier film.
J'aime bien ta comparaison entre Satyajit Ray et Andreï Trakovski: je pense qu'il y aurait effectivement plein de choses à dire!
En tout cas, merci d'être passé, tu me donnes envie de voir d'autres films de Ray, et de faire l'expérience de la comparaison dont tu parles avec Tarkovski!
A bientôt,