Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khilari’: Where clothes maketh the story

In Ray’s centenary year, a new exhibition showcasing original costumes from ‘Shatranj Ke Khilari’ celebrates the filmmaker’s eye for detail

In her introduction to ‘A King’s Gambit’, a one-of-a-kind exhibition showcasing the original costumes of Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khilari, curator Indrani Majumdar fondly describes the opening sequence of the film where a hand reaches across the chessboard and makes a move. A second later, another hand from the opposite end appears to counter it. “The woven silk sleeves and ornate rings of the players are the only indication that the scene is set in a bygone era,” says Indrani.

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As the camera zooms out to bring the two players, nawabs Mir Roshan Ali and Mirza Sajjad Ali, into focus, what strikes you first is the grandeur of it all — the lavish decor and the magnificent costumes worn by the indolent royals.

Faithful representation

After Mughal-e-Azam, this was perhaps the only period film where costumes and architecture played a central role and like K. Asif, Ray too indulged in painstaking research. However, unlike Asif’s magnum opus, Ray’s film was a historical, based on a Premchand story, that captured the last days of Wajid Ali Shah on the throne of Awadh. Apart from the beleaguered poet-king, Lt. General Sir James Outram, Captain Weston, and Doctor Fayrer also find faithful representation in the clothes they don.

Satyajit Ray’s notes and sketches for the film.
 

The costumes reflect the fastidious research that Ray put into the life and times of the characters. On display at the exhibition are a wide range of achkans, angrakhas, jamas, pyjamas, shararas, cholis, turbans, pagris, silver ornaments, and footwear from producer Suresh Jindal’s personal collection, preserved over the years in steel boxes with camphor squares. Suresh says that when it came to research and learning anything new, Ray had the “curiosity and inquisitiveness of a child”.

Indrani points out that Ray drew from the English translation of Abdul Halim Sharar’s Lucknow, The Last Phase of an Eastern Culture. “It took a Agra-based master craftsman three months to do the embroidery on Wajid Ali Shah’s green robe. The shararas that Shabana Azmi wore were stitched by poet Ali Sardar Jafri’s sisters. A whole collection of priceless heirloom shawls was loaned to us by Thakur families of Calcutta,” says Suresh.

Wajid Ali Shah’s green robe.

Wajid Ali Shah’s green robe.
 

A lot of credit for rendering the authentic feel goes to Shama Zaidi, who not only transliterated Ray’s English script with Javed Siddiqui but also took care of the costumes. “Apart from her grooming in theatre, Shama, of course, hails from the milieu. She had the first-hand experience of seeing and handling the costumes that was required,” says Suresh, who knew her from her theatre days. A lot of information, he says, came from the paintings of the era. According to Ray, the Kathak scene, in particular, was inspired by an engraving of that period.

Significant resources

Salar Jung Museum, Falaknuma Palace of the Nizams in Hyderabad and the City Palace Museum in Jaipur were primary sources for the film’s research. Archival images available at the erstwhile Bourne & Shepherd photographic studio in Calcutta were another significant resource. The Victoria Memorial offered an oil painting of Wajid Ali Shah, which acted as the primary reference for the king’s physical appearance.

“All British costumes were hired from Nathan and Berman in London, the largest costume hirers for film and stage in Europe,” says Suresh. After an elaborate consultation with the National War Museum, London, Andrew Mollo, a British expert, did the sketches for the military costumes. “Richard Attenborough (who played James Outram) brought them with him as personal baggage and carried them back with him. He found out that Outram smoked cheroots and purchased them himself from a famous tobacconist in London,” recalls Suresh.

However, there were blips. Indrani quotes Ray’s biographer Marie Seton, who wrote, “For the sake of accuracy, the ADC uniforms were ordered in London. When they arrived they were found to be summer uniforms but the order was for winter! Even the helmet was incorrect. It was Shama Zaidi who made them look nearly right.”

Also on view are letters exchanged by Ray and Suresh; sketches prepared for the dresses along with their fabric swatches; as well as sketches of the jewellery made by Manju Saraogi. Two volumes of kheror khata (clothbound notebook) digitised by the National Digital Library of India are also exhibited. “The letters show that Ray was a great correspondent. He had many pen friends and used to reply to his fans, I don’t know how he got so much time,” says Indrani. Finally, the exhibition showcases the shining crown worn by the king of Awadh, which is central to the story.

Many casually label Shatranj Ke Khilari as a Hindi film, but it is in Urdu and Awadhi dialect and that is reflected in the censor certificate. It also means that Ray, for the first time, was working with a language and culture that was not 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 the diction and mannerisms. Ray was a giant of a man in all possible terms, but he was equally humble and open to suggestions.” Suresh, who co-produced Gandhi, says Attenborough also had a team to guide him on diction and mannerisms.

Saeed Jaffery and Sanjeev Kumar in Shatranj Ke Khiladi.

Saeed Jaffery and Sanjeev Kumar in Shatranj Ke Khiladi.
 

Saeed Jaffery was Ray’s choice, while Suresh suggested Sanjeev Kumar and Amjad Khan for their star value and theatre background. “It was not that Ray was not aware of their strengths. He watched all kinds of cinema and was a regular at the International Film Festival of India in Delhi.” It is reflected in his choice of casting veteran actor Veena as Wajid Ali Shah’s mother. The film set could have become a wrestling ring between competent actors, but Suresh says “Saeed and Sanjeev were too secure in their craft to get into a wrestling match.”

The film manages to bring out the conflicting layers in Wajid Ali Shah’s personality, which English historians often fail to appreciate. When the Company was berating him as incompetent, Wajid’s poetry was being sung on the streets of Awadh. “During his time, Awadh was the biggest contributor to the Company’s coffers. Lucknow and Muslims, in general, loved the film, as Wajid is a very loved figure in their history,” says Suresh, who also produced the two landmark films, Rajnigandha and Katha.

Suresh says such exhibitions are rare in India. “I hope more can be held to inspire pride in our incomparable heritage in fabric design and related crafts.”

(A King’s Gambit: Chess, Costumes and a Crown is on display at India International Centre, New Delhiuntil November 5)

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