In celebration of Ray’s centenary, a new exhibition featuring Shatranj Ke Khilari’s original costumes celebrates the master’s eye for detail
In its introduction to “A King’s Gambit”, a one-of-a-kind exhibition featuring the original costumes of Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khilari, curator Indrani Majumdar fondly describes the opening sequence of the film where a hand crosses the chessboard and makes a movement. Another hand, this time from the opposite end, appears a second later to counter it. “The silk-woven sleeves and ornate player rings are the only indication that the scene is set in a bygone era,” says Majumdar.
As the camera zooms out to bring the two players – Nawabs Mir Roshan Ali and Mirza Sajjad Ali – in focus, what strikes you first is the grandeur of it all – the rich backdrop, the setting. sumptuous, elegant artifacts and magnificent costumes worn by indolent royalty.
After Mughal-e-Azam, it was perhaps the only period film where costume and architecture played a central role and like K. Asif, Ray engaged in meticulous research. However, unlike Asif’s magnum opus, Ray’s film was a storyline based on a Premchand story that captured the last days of Wajid Ali Shah on the throne of Awadh. Besides the besieged Poet King, Lieutenant General Sir James Outram, Captain Weston and Doctor Fayrer also find a true representation in the clothes they wear.
The costumes reflect the detailed and time-consuming research that went into production. A wide range of achkans, angrakhas, jamas, pajamas, shararas, ornate cholis, turbans, pagris, silver ornaments and shoes from the personal collection of producer Suresh Jindal, kept in the wire years in steel boxes with squares of camphor, is on display.
Describing Ray as a “phenomenal seeker”, Jindal says that when it comes to researching and learning something new, Ray had the “curiosity and curiosity of a child.”
Majumdar says Ray was inspired by English translation of Abdul Halim Sharar’s book Lucknow, the last phase of an oriental culture. “It took three months for a great craftsman from Agra to embroider Wajid Ali Shah’s green dress. The shararas worn by Shabana (Azmi) were sewn by the sisters of the poet Ali Sardar Jafri. A whole collection of priceless antique shawls has been loaned to us by the Thakur families of Calcutta, ”Jindal shares.
Shama Zaidi not only transcribed Ray’s English script with Javed Siddiqui, but also took care of the costumes. “Apart from her theater training, Shama, of course, comes from the background and understands the ecosystem. She had the direct experience of seeing and handling the necessary costumes, ”says Jindal, who had known her from her theater years. Much information, Jindal says, came from paintings of the time. The Kathak scene, in particular, is inspired by an engraving from this period.
The Salar Jung Museum, the Falaknuma Palace of the Nizams of Hyderabad, and the Jaipur City Palace Museum were the main sources of research for the film. Another important resource was the archival footage available at the former Bourne & Shepherd photographic studio in Calcutta. The Victoria Memorial donated an oil painting of Wajid Ali Shah, which served as the main reference for the king’s physical appearance.
“All of the British costumes were rented from Nathan and Berman in London, the largest theater and stage costume rental companies in Europe,” Jindal explains. After extensive consultation with the National War Museum in London, Andrew Mollo, a British expert in military uniforms, made the sketches of the military costumes. “Richard Attenborough (who played James Outram) brought them with him as personal baggage and brought them back with him. He researched the fact that Outram smoked cigars and bought them himself from a famous tobacconist in London, ”Jindal recalls.
However, there were hiccups. Indrani quotes Ray’s biographer, Marie Seton, who wrote: “For the sake of clarity, the ADC uniforms were ordered from London. When they arrived they were summer uniforms, but the order was for winter! Even the helmet was incorrect. It was Shama Zaidi who improvised a way to make them seem almost right. “
We can also see letters exchanged between Ray and Jindal; sketches prepared for the dresses with their fabric samples; as well as jewelry sketches by Manju Saraogi who made the costumes for the film. Two volumes of kheror khata (cloth bound notebook) digitized by the National Digital Library of India are also on display. “The letters show that Ray was a great pen pal. He had a lot of penpals and used to reply to his fans. I don’t know how he got so much time, ”remarks Majumdar. Finally, the exhibition features the shining crown worn by the king of Awadh, which is at the heart of the story.
Many casually label Shatranj Ke Khilari like a Hindi movie but it is in Urdu and Awadhi dialect and this is reflected in the censorship certificate. It also means that Ray, for the first time, was working with a language and culture that weren’t exactly his own. “Of course he was concerned about making his first non-Bengali film. But in Shama and Javed he had the right support to guide him on diction and manners. Ray was a giant of a man in every possible way, but he was equally humble and open to suggestions. Jindal, who co-produced Gandhi, says Attenborough wore the same trait on the sets. He also had a team to guide him on “diction and manners”.
Saeed Jaffery was Ray’s choice, while Jindal suggested Sanjeev Kumar and Amjad Khan for their star value and theater experience. “It wasn’t that Ray was unaware of their strengths. He watched all kinds of movies and was a regular at the Indian International Film Festival in Delhi. This is also reflected in his choice to pick veteran actor Veena. in the role of Wajid Ali Shah’s mother. At that time, film sets often became a wrestling ring between skilled actors, but Jindal says that “Saeed and Sanjeev were too sure of their profession to get into a match. wrestling ”.
The film manages to bring out the conflicting layers of Wajid Ali Shah’s personality, which English historians often fail to appreciate. When the Company berated him as incompetent, Wajid’s poetry was sung in the streets of Awadh. “In his day, Awadh was the biggest contributor to the company’s coffers. Lucknow and Muslims in general loved the film because Wajid is such a beloved figure in their history, ”said Jindal, who has also produced landmark films, Rajnigandha and Katha.
Appreciate the details of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s costumes Bajirao Mastani and Padmavat, Jindal says the role of costumes has evolved a lot since then, but such exhibitions are rare in India. “I hope that more such exhibitions can be held across our vast and rich country to inspire the pride of our people for their unparalleled heritage in fabric design and related crafts.”
(A king’s bet: chess, costumes and a crown is on display at the India International Center, New Delhi, until November 5)