Published on October 10, 2013
Embodied Constructions: Banaras through Satyajit Ray’s Aparajito
Rohit Raj Mehndiratta
This paper re-works the imagination of Banaras, a sacred Hindu city located in the north-eastern part of India through the film, Aparajito (1957) by Satyajit Ray (1921-1992). Aparajito is re-edited and narratively mapped through the re-edited film stills to define a city as an embodied structure of human experiences and urban memories. The emphasis is to establish a process that uses media, urban representation and urban history as a base to re-look at a city.
Banaras is popularly regarded among Hindu’s as one of the most important sacred sites with a mythic aura that is hard to penetrate. These mythological narratives tend to re-organize historic perception of Banaras away from its Mogul and colonial past to form a coherent image of Hindu ideals through time. Banaras as the urban ‘other’ defined and validated by its spiritual underpinning consolidates a popular collective memory based on myths and assumed sacredness. Satyajit Ray goes against this trend seeing Banaras both as an urban site and a cliché. Ray engages with the city, so to speak, and brings sacredness back to the realm of the individual and everyday life in Banaras. As the different characters of the film interact with the city, different events across different spaces unfold a series of cultural practices and embedded histories that are important aspects of Banaras. I use Ray’s neo-realist effort to capture Banaras as experienced by a traditional priest, a domestic wife/ mother and a young novice whose explorations unconsciously question and tug at the boundaries of tradition and modernity.
Banaras is thus viewed and re-presented in terms of the three individual narratives that embody the urban space of Aparajito’s Banaras. Positioning the city back on the drawing board the embodied urban sites of Banaras reveal very different and varied local spatial systems and urban histories. The representational technique adopted is the medium of film, film stills and analytical narration. A re-edited Aparajito (5 mins) re-situates Banaras as a system of spatial structures embodied by individuated rituals of everyday life. The film and the film stills explore and analyze their individuated spaces questioning the idea of collective histories, identities that render cities with singular meta- interpretations and the urban spaces with a sense of false neutrality. In doing so, a new representational process is revealed that allows the deconstruction of meta-narratives that reify urban history.
 This movie is the second in a sequel of three films, the first being, Pather Panchali/ Song of the Little Road-1954 and the third being Apu Sansar –1960. Popularly seen as a national allegory, these three movies visualize the journey of growth of a boy (Apu) from a priestly family in feudal Bengal, India, to the city and hence to the realm of modernity.