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To me and most of us, Satyajit Ray is the one great Indian film director whose work took the Indian film industry to the global platform. But for some, he is just ‘Manik Jethu‘ (Manik uncle) like he is to Satyaki, the worthy son of Nemai Ghosh. And hooking through his fond remembrance, I relived a bygone era, that is to date an immunity to India’s global stance. I could not help but share it with the world.
We got engaged in a candid conversation about that time when the Indian film industry was at its most colorful stature. Satyaki grew up in them, while we grew up seeing them. His father Nemai Ghosh was the principal photographer of Satyajit Ray’s unit, starting with Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (1969) till Ray’s last film Agantuk (1991).
In the usual times, it might have not been easy for me to catch hold of Satyaki Ghosh who remains busy with his photography career, capturing some stunning contemporary clicks across photographic genres. But thanks to lockdown, and perhaps the effect on work-life balance, I was able to get in touch with him.
Satyaki Ghosh was brought up in a humble background like any other typical middle-class family in south Kolkata. He always found his Baba (father) to be engrossed with his own work while Maa (mother) used to be busy with household chores.
Nemai Ghosh was an affectionate father; he did not impart any formal training of photography to Satyaki but used to teach him in so many informal ways that Satyaki had the ability to adopt from, thanks to his sheer passion for the art.
Nemai Ghosh used to share various experiences of shooting with his inquisitive son which the son used to grasp and utilize in his thoughts as an artist. “Golpo kore shekhaten,” (would teach through casual conversation) as he would say.
Nemai wanted Satyaki to learn photography after he finishes his academic study (Graduation), so Satyaki had no other option but to learn photography without his father’s knowledge during his student life, even by fiddling with Ghosh’s camera many times.
Maa used to give the camera cabinet’s keys to Satyaki when Ghosh was not around. He used to check each and every mechanism of the camera, like trying to focus, fixing up aperture and shutter speed, without even exposing a single frame. Like any other boy of that age, Satyaki had a keen interest in Football, Cricket and apart from that, he had developed a deep love for photography itself.
Photography was a fling with destiny for Nemai Ghosh
It is hard to believe for a Padma Shree awardee that photography was never his intention. You can say, it was Nemai Ghosh’s fling with destiny from where he started his journey with mirror and shutter. From Satyajit Ray to Antonioni, Nemai Ghosh’s career is a memoir that has no scope for mediocrity, to say the least.
He used to work in the department of transportation for 20 years up to 1987. At his young age, he wanted to be an actor; Theater was his first love and he joined Utpal Dutt’s Little Theatre Group in Kolkata. One famous play that he acted in, the landmark play Angar (1959) on the exploitation of coal miners. Noted Bengali film actor Rabi Ghosh (24 November 1931 – 4 February 1997) was also his co-actor in Little Theatre Group. He did not have the slightest thought in his mind to be a photographer at that time.
He came into the world of photography accidentally when one of his friends showed him an abandoned fixed-lens camera (a Cannonette QL-16) that he discovered in a taxi in Kolkata. His friend paid Rs. 10 to the taxi driver and managed to get hold of the camera.
His friend borrowed Rs. 240 from Ghosh earlier and somehow, he (Ghosh) managed to take possession of the camera as ‘repayment’ of the loan. Once Nemai Ghosh laughingly said, “he (friend) got an offer of Rs 600/- from an industrialist for the camera, but I insisted that he gives me the camera with Rs. 240/- he borrowed from me.”
When Ghosh got the camera in his possession, one of his photographer friends Jay Prakash Mitra taught him on the technical aspects of the camera, like aperture, shutter speed, focusing, film speed, etc. (In fact, Ghosh’s friend, from whom he bought the camera, actually wanted to show the instrument to Mitra only, who was playing cards at Ghosh’s house at that time).
With Satyajit Ray
During that period, Ghosh used to go out very often on weekend trips with some of his friends. That time he decided to visit a small suburb called Rampurhat situated at Birbhum district around 250 KM from Kolkata. Actually, the main purpose of visiting Rampurhat was to watch his friend Rabi Ghosh shooting in Ray’s iconic film Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne in a rural location near Rampurhat.
After reaching the shooting spot, Ghosh keenly observed Ray’s activities in detail, like when he was giving direction to the actors, setting up a camera, lighting arrangements, etc. Within a while, Ghosh started taking pictures of Satyajit Ray while on work, and other interesting moments of shooting with two cartridges of film rolls that he borrowed from Mitra. The memorable shot of Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne was being taken at that time where water was dripping onto Bagha’s dhol. Rabi Ghosh played the character of Bagha in the movie.
He came back to Calcutta and got the rolls processed in his presence at the Studio Renaissance. B K Sanyal, the owner of Studio Renaissance encouraged him after seeing the B&W photos Ghosh took at Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne shooting. Sanyal appreciated the compositions and emotions Ghosh captured in the shooting even being a newcomer in photography.
Nemai Ghosh knew Banshi Chandra Gupta, the famous art director, who worked in most of Ray’s films. He took him to Satyajit Ray and showed the pictures. Satyajit with utmost interest checked those pictures and told “Nemai, you had shot them from exactly those angles that I would’ve taken them”!!!
A newcomer could not have asked more than a generous appreciation from the great master himself. There was no looking back…Ghosh’s journey with Ray started and it continued till his last film Agantuk (1991).
Nemai Ghosh used to often say “Manik Da (Satyajit Ray) indulged me for 25 years for whatever I wanted to do and I learned so many things from him being my mentor.” Once Ghosh said in a television interview, “while showing contact sheets of my photos to Manik Da, on one occasion, he discarded one of my very good pictures.”
Ray said to an astonished Nemai that the particular shot had some marvelous foreground elements but got ruined due to the presence of a flower vase in the background. “He taught me esthetics step by step,” Ghosh fondly said.
After Ray passed away he started working with lots of famous painters in India and vastly documented their life and work. He also documented various stage performances, all of which are commendable. His works on tribals of Bastar and North East, which too received appreciations from the art lovers.
With Mrinal Sen
Ghosh has worked with Mrinal Sen, another stalwart filmmaker from Kolkata who also called him for covering the shooting of his film “Interview”. At the same time the shooting of Ray’s film “Pratidwandi” was also going on. Ghosh used to be present at Pratidwandi’s set when the dates used to clash. The other films for which he worked are Ritwik Ghatak (in Jukti, Tokko, Goppo), Goutam Ghose (in Antarjali Jatra and Paar), Mrinal Sen (in Calcutta 71 and Interview) and Roland Joffé (in the City of Joy, starring Om Puri, Shabana Azmi, and Patrick Swayze).
With Henri Cartier Bresson
Nemai Ghosh became an ardent admirer of Henri Cartier Bresson when Mr. B K Sanyal of Studio Renaissance showed him some pictures taken by Bresson from a book. He actually got the inspiration to be a serious photographer only after seeing his pictures and frantically contacted HCB to meet him once. After certain unsuccessful attempts, he met HCB at the Cannes Film Festival where some pictures of Ray taken by Nemai Ghosh were being exhibited.
Cartier-Bresson was a French Humanist photographer noted for his masterful works on candid photography.
He requested Bresson to write a foreword for his book Satyajit Ray at 70 (1991) and HCB happily obliged him. Apart from Cannes, his work was also exhibited at many other places in the world including London Brussels. Cartier-Bresson said ‘Ghosh allows us to be intimate with filmmaking, and to feel the drive, the alertness and the profundity of this giant of cinema’.
For Michelangelo Antonioni
Ghosh had taken some excellent photographs of the famous Italian filmmaker, Michelangelo Antonioni, when he had come to Kolkata for the retrospective of his work at the International Film Festival of India in 1994. Antonioni was highly impressed with his images and invited him to Italy for exhibiting his work.
‘Digital intuition’ is not a thing
According to Satyaki, the core of art cannot be taught literally by spoon-feeding, but one has to adopt the way of expression from an artist. And he exactly followed this method to learn from his father.
His Padma Shree awardee father, Nemai Ghosh used to take photos from “intuition” as he said many times in various interviews. It is again instinct by which he used to set aperture and shutter speed and even focus while taking a photo.
He once said, “ Bresson used to fix aperture under his long coat. He used to fix focus also just like that and clicked pictures instantly with everything pre-set.” Ghosh never took static photographs and posed photos and did not like the digital camera system.
“Baba was an ardent admirer of analog photography,” Satyaki told. Film, negative, printed photos were part and parcel of Ghosh’s life. His favorite brand was Nikon. Satyaki presented a Leica digital camera to his father in 2013/2014; he used to fiddle around with it, but Satyaki regrets “he never used it in his lifetime, he didn’t look through the camera even ”.
This was ‘Baba’ and ‘Manik Jethu’ for Satyaki
Bengalis call their father most usually as Baba. If there’s an uncle who’s older than father, he will be called Jethu, and if younger, Kaku. Ray was Manik Jethu to Satyaki. Satyajit Ray to Satyaki was like that one father’s friend who’s more a family member less a friend per se.
How did he find Satyajit Ray, who used to enjoy a huge celebrity status at the time?
“I never felt that Manik Jethu (Satyajit Ray) was a celebrity at all. He was like one of our other family members, so I did not have any hesitations to accept him as my uncle, it came naturally. He came once to my studio at the time of making Ganashatru’s poster. I arranged a special chair for him at my studio,” Satyaki tells me on a candid phone call.
Satyaki established a studio for a commercial photo shoot at Prince Anwar Shah Road at Kolkata on 6th October 1987. He had to wait for 4 months for the 1st job and got it on 21st Jan 1988. He worked for organizations and brands like ITC, Tata Steel, etc. and after that, he did not have to look back. Ghosh used to visit the studio every day at 9.30 pm.
He is ever grateful to Ray as he named the studio as ‘focus’ and what more, designed the logo himself. What a great man!
Nemai Ghosh was a man of high ethical standards. One day, he came and left the studio without a single word once he watched some juniors were smoking inside the studio and trying to show him some polaroid print version of the fashion photoshoot they had just conducted. This offended Nemai Ghosh, being a non-smoker throughout his life.
Satyaki said that Henri Cartier Bresson was a huge fan of Satyajit’s work. Artists of the highest level have an internal connection through the bridge of Art. Satyaki had also sent a calendar to HCB once for his evaluation, and this is a matter of pride that he got a positive response from him with his comments.
Satyaki recollects an incident where Ghosh took him to famous the then only celebrity model from Kolkata, Moon Moon Sen’s (daughter of Suchitra Sen) residence and introduced him as his son. On the next day, Satyaki took a few Moon Moon Sen’s portrait shots from some unexposed gates of a full film roll that Ghosh was still using. He appreciated the photos that Satyaki took and claimed money from Satyaki, exactly calculating proportionately for the number of frames he exposed for this purpose. “That is how Baba taught us to be professional”, Satyaki said.
“Baba was a simple man. Like Manik Jethu he used to open the door to receive the guest and used to see him off to close the door. He was very punctual and disciplined in whatever he used to do”. He used to often say:
“If you are not a good person, you cannot be a good artist”
It was Satyaki, who only used to develop and process the films exposed by Nemai Ghosh at his studio. He was not permitted to keep the exposed negatives in the studio (there was an electric transformer nearby and Ghosh was cautious of potential fire hazard). Satyaki used to bring it back home and show it to Ghosh, no matter how late at night it was. Satyaki recollects, very often than not he awoke Ghosh from sleep even at 2 o’clock or 3 o’clock in the morning to show the exposed negatives. That was the mandate.
“This kind of dedication Baba had. He used to quickly check the overall exposure and framing and go to bed again,” Satyaki told me.
When I met Nemai Ghosh
Once, in the year 2018, I got a chance to visit Nemai Ghosh’s house at Bhawanipur at Kolkata, to bring him to Gallery Gold, an exhibition hall in south Kolkata, to honor him as the chief guest in an exhibition organized by one of the biggest Facebook photography group (3 lacs members), named World Photographic Forum, where I am also working as a mentor.
Once I reached, we came to know that he had already left for the venue in his own arrangement. Nevertheless, I caught hold of him in the exhibition hall and was fortunate enough to very briefly interact with him on photography. I distinctly remember that he advised me, “always take photos from your intuition” and raised a question, which I believe he asked so many people in his life, “How do you guys manage to continue with digital photography?” I only smiled and couldn’t answer his questions. Truly, to him, photography and ‘analog photography’ did not have any different meaning in his life.
It is a matter of great grief that Nemai Ghosh passed away in the same year (25th March 2020) when the whole cultural world is preparing to celebrate his mentor Satyajit Ray’s birth centenary.