Today it feels very endearing that Satyajit Ray, disturbed by the commercial failure of his second film Aparajito and wanting his producers to make a profit, deliberately decided to make a film "with popular ingredients like singing and dancing and zamindars" — themes calculated to appeal to a Bengali audience. The endearing part of this is that he thought he would actually make something like a strategic commercial success out of Tarasankar Bandopadhyay's story 'Jalsaghar'. Instead, inevitably, "in the process of writing the screenplay it became a fairly serious study of feudalism and also the music became very high-classical stuff"!
The word 'Jalsa' (Arabic for a gathering or a formal sitting) is often used in India for festive gatherings. Translated as 'The Music Room', Jalsaghar (1958) presents the story of zamindar Biswambhar Roy who, having lost his wealth in profligate living, and having lost his wife and son to an accident, is also losing any grip over the rapidly modernising world around him. He is ossified in memories of his own past glories, especially when he organised successful performances of renowned singers and dancers.
The first Jalsaghar soirée is a flashback to his son's Upanayan ceremony celebrations. The second gathering is organised, by selling the last of the family jewellery, because he must spite the neighbouring nouveau riche businessman aspiring to hold a similar musical entertainment at his own new home. The last Jalsa is held when, pathologically cut off from the world and clinging to his own hubris, he is roused by the inauguration of a new Jalsaghar in the neighbour's house into organising a final Jalsa of his own. He comes to life with full passion and intensity to demonstrate to the world how a true aristocrat gives a party.
Famously, the film's first Jalsa showcased a thumri – "Bhar bhar aayi mori ankhiyaan piya bin" – by that legendary name which is 4th from the bottom in this poster. The name goes "Akhtari Bai (Faizabadi)" – our Begum Akhtar. The second Jalsa had Salamat Ali Khan singing a khayal in Miyan ki Malhar. And the final tour de force performance came from the great Kathak exponent Roshan Kumari. Vilayat Khan composed the music for Jalsaghar. But the protagonist, thespian Chhabi Biswas, had to depend on his acting skills to convey what a connoisseur the Zamindar was – Chhabi Biswas was utterly tone deaf and had no sense of music at all! When you see the film, you realise that Ray has kept shots of Biswas being a music lover – the wah-wah kind of expressions, so to say – at their minimum. Biswas nevertheless managed to play a very convincing esraj in one longish scene.
Jalsaghar poster, Musui Art Collection
First published by Musui Art Foundation
Juhi Saklani is a Delhi-based writer, photographer and cinema lover.