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Family of Innovators: The Rays’ quest for modernity

Virtually everybody has heard of the filmmaker, writer, graphic artist, and composer Satyajit Ray (1921-1992) but except for Bengalis, few know much about the exploits of his formidable ancestors and their kinsfolk. And yet, over years of versatile creative engagements, Upendrakishore Ray (1863-1915), his father-in-law Dwarakanath Ganguli (1844-1898), his brother-in-law Hemendramohan Bose (1864-1916), his son Sukumar (1887-1923), and daughter-in-law Suprabha (the parents of Satyajit) charted new paths in literature, art, religious reform, nationalism, business, advertising, and printing technology. Not simply a chronicle of one family’s extraordinary accomplishments, the history of the Rays and their collateral connections is also a history of some lesser-known facets of Indian modernity.

From Scribes to Professionals: The earliest known members of the Ray family belonged to the scribal classes of Mughal-era Bengal. After the coming of the British, the family made successful transitions into a variety of new roles and professions whilst avoiding white-collar office-work, law and medicine – the favoured option for most of their scribal peers. This unusual approach has been retained well into the present – unlike most Indians of the modern period, hardly any of the Rays have ever held an office job or been a lawyer or doctor.

From Zamindar to Artisan: Not all the transitions negotiated by the Rays were socio-economic. At least one was profoundly personal. One branch of the clan, who were wealthy landowners in Mymensingh in eastern Bengal, adopted Kamadaranjan Ray, the five-year-old son of a kinsman and installed him under the new name of Upendrakishore as the son and heir of the family. Shuttled between two different social identities from childhood, the artistically gifted Upendrakishore never fully embraced either. At odds with the mainstream Hindu faith of his adoptive as well as biological families and not keen on living as a rural landowner or a scribe, he moved to Calcutta, studied science, became an artisan (repairing musical instruments and then establishing himself as a photographer) and writer, converted to Brahmoism, and married Bidhumukhi, the daughter of one of the great Brahmo radicals of the age, Dwarakanath Ganguli.

Dwarakanath Ganguli. Bethune School and College Centenary Volume 1949. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Dwarakanath Ganguli. Bethune School and College Centenary Volume 1949. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Brahmoism, Social Reform, and Modernity: A monotheistic variety of Hinduism influenced by Unitarian Christianity, the Brahmo faith never had too many adherents but its social reform initiatives were highly influential. One of the greatest Brahmo reformers was Upendrakishore’s father-in-law Dwarakanath Ganguli. The founder of one of the earliest Bengali journals for and about women, he and his associates established two boarding schools for girls, where Ganguli himself did most of the teaching and which were the very first girls’ schools to prepare their students for university.

The New Woman: One of Ganguli’s students, Kadambini Basu (c.1862-1923), eventually became one of the first two women graduates of Calcutta University, and as if that weren’t enough, went on to enroll in medical school, becoming one of the first women doctors in India. Just before commencing her medical studies, she raised many eyebrows by marrying her mentor Dwarakanath Ganguli, who was nearly twenty years her senior and a widower with two children. It turned out to be a very successful match, proving that the New Woman could excel in both professional and personal life.

Kadambini Basu Ganguli. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Kadambini Basu Ganguli. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The New Nation: Dwarakanath Ganguli’s reformism was not confined to the private, domestic sphere. Along with many of his Brahmo associates, he worked energetically to build up one of the earliest nationalist bodies in British India, the Indian Association. Founded in 1876, it predated the Indian National Congress by some ten years and one of its most striking initiatives was Dwarakanath Ganguli’s investigation of the ill-treatment of tea-garden labourers in Assam. Ganguli’s exposés appalled people across Bengal and India and triggered revisions of colonial labour laws.

The Very Image of the Modern: Whilst working as a photographer, Upendrakishore grew interested in the printing of photographs. The booming print culture of nineteenth-century Bengal could only offer woodcuts and Upendrakishore was the first Indian to master the new half-tone process that captured intermediate tones between black and white and, therefore, enabled a printed picture to retain the tonal variations of the original. Learning this complex craft entirely from books and instruments he procured from England, Upendrakishore soon become the premier blockmaker of Calcutta. Although he was never to step outside India, he also attained a global reputation with articles in the leading British journal on printing technology proposing improvements to the half-tone process. His highly-praised innovations reversed the logic of the colonial marketplace, in which the West was in charge of all innovation and the East merely a grateful purchaser.

Importing, Advertising and Selling the Modern: Upendrakishore was a businessman but it was research and innovation that lay closest to his heart. His brother-in-law Hemendramohan Bose (1864-1916) was very different. A very successful perfumer, Bose’s innovative advertising campaigns for his cosmetic products – especially the literary competition named after his hair oil Kuntaleen, which pioneered product placement in India – deserve a place in any history of modern advertising in South Asia. Bose was also among the first indigenous businessmen to sell phonographs, phonographic recordings (including of Rabindranath Tagore singing his patriotic songs), bicycles, and motor cars to the Calcutta gentry.

Edutainment and the Future Nation: Upendrakishore wrote and illustrated for children from his undergraduate days, contributing prolifically to the new children’s magazines emerging in nineteenth-century Bengal. Brahmos were prominent in this field too, and the project complemented their involvement with women’s education. The overarching aim was to create a true civil society in India, where men and women would participate equally (though not identically) and which would be constantly replenished by young people inculcated with the right values. Perhaps the most famous exemplar of this project was the magazine Sandesh, which Upendrakishore founded in 1913. Initially written and illustrated entirely by Upendrakishore and printed with his own blocks, Sandesh represented the culminating achievement of his career, combining his literary gifts, artistic abilities, technological wizardry, and artisanal insistence on doing everything with his own hands.

After Upendrakishore – New Identities and Old Values: Upendrakishore’s eldest son Sukumar (1887-1923) was a worthy successor to his father. His nonsense writings extended the family’s hegemony over children’s literature and despite being clearly inspired by Carroll and Lear, were Indian and Bengali to the core. Charismatic and gregarious, he was also a leading young activist of the Brahmo Samaj and engaged in many a battle with its elders. His wife Suprabha combined tradition and modernity in a different way. After her husband’s tragically early death and the bankruptcy of the family business, she and her son Satyajit – delivered by the aging Dr Kadambini Ganguli – faced a calamitous situation, from which they were saved by a combination of old values and new identities. The widow and her son, not even three years old at the time, found a home with Suprabha’s brother and the future filmmaker grew up in the kind of large and traditional joint family that unimaginative Bengali modernists considered stifling. His mother, meanwhile, took up a job, which was uncommon even amongst the Brahmo women of the time, taught her son at home (he was sent to school only when he was eight), sculpted (often selling her work for good money), and took charge of the kitchen (her cooking was supposed to be superlative) for her brother’s large household. Meanwhile, her son, although not yet displaying much talent, was silently assimilating the values, priorities, and, inevitably, the limitations of the entire tradition that his mother represented with such consummate skill. Satyajit Ray’s cinematic odyssey would be dazzlingly original but it was also, in many ways, a continuation of his family’s long quest for a modernity that was authentically Indian and confidently global.

 Sukumar Ray with his wife Suprabha Ray in a studio (1914). Calcutta State Archive. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Sukumar Ray with his wife Suprabha Ray in a studio (1914). Calcutta State Archive. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.


Featured image credit: Street Scene, probably Calcutta (1865). Museum of Photographic Arts. Accession Number: 1993.033.008. No known copyright restrictions via Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. Kiranmayi

    What a fascinating history!

  2. Debal Deb

    Nice article. But I wonder why the author omitted two important facts: (a) Upendrakishore was the first Indian to be a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, and (b) he introduced half-tone block making — which ushered in a new era of printing high-fidelity black-and-white photographs.Later, Sukumar improved on this halftone printing technique.

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