I have a fascination for novels and films where a stately home is witness to the many happenings. That partly accounts for my love of Wodehouse – Blandings, Brinkley Manor, Belpher Castle, Rowcester Abbey – so many of these high-sounding names dominate his works and lend colour to the stories. I must however add that I am no fan of the series Downton Abbey, which I found terrible.
And then there is my other side – a huge love for tragic stories set in large homes – Wuthering Heights, The Last of Uptake, Jane Eyre, Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam, Rebecca… and in this category I also place the wonderful film Jalsaghar made by Satyajit Ray, based on a short story by Tarashankar Bandopadhyay. Chhabi Biswas is just superb as the ageing zamindar Bishwambar Roy. The venue that is witness to the entire proceedings of the film is the Music Room (Jalsa Ghar), which strangely enough, was not shot on location at the Nimtita Rajbari that provides such a perfect backdrop for the rest of the scenes. The music room alone was set in a studio.
What can I say about a film that has Begum Akhtar singing, Waheed Khan singing, both of them appearing live, and the music provided by Vilayat Khan! But to me the highpoint is the eight minutes of high intensity Kathak performed by Roshan Kumari, the great dancer, who also happens to be the daughter of the early playback singer and actress Zohrabai Ambalewali. It provides the perfect build up to the climax, which after the spectacular performance, is set in relative silence.
I do know that Roshan Kumari was and is considered a front-ranking exponent of Kathak but I am surprised that such a dancer was not more in the forefront when it came to performances. What agility and what grace!
I keep going back to YouTube to see this repeatedly and so share it with you all so that you can also enjoy. By repeatedly seeing it I have detected some continuity issues in the shoot and I am sure a master like Ray must have pounced on them but let go because of budget constraints.
In recent days I have had occasion to discuss this scene with my go to man on matters Hindustani – Ashwin Bhandarkar, who has raised the possibility that the female voice reciting the dance syllables is Zohrabai herself. But VAK Ranga Rao, my go to king on such issues thinks that is unlikely. Certainly the title credits do not mention the mother.
This article is part of a series I write on old film songs, chiefly Hindi and Tamil, with the odd Telugu and Bengali thrown in. You can read the rest here