In Ray’s centenary year, a new exhibition showcasing the original costumes of Shatranj Ke Khilari celebrates the master’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. Another hand, this time from the opposite end, appears a second later 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 Majumdar.
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 rich backdrop, lavish decor, stylish artefacts, and the magnificent costumes worn by the indolent royals.
After Mughal-e-Azam, it was perhaps the only period film where costumes and architecture played a central role and like K. Asif, Ray 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 that they don.
The costumes reflect the detailed and fastidious research that went into the production. On display are a wide range of achkans, angrakhas, jamas, pyjamas, shararas, ornate cholis, turbans, pagris, silver ornaments, and footwear from producer Suresh Jindal’s personal collection, preserved over the years in steel boxes with camphor squares.
Describing Ray as a “phenomenal researcher”, Jindal says when it came to research and learning anything new, Ray had the “curiosity and inquisitiveness of a child”.
Majumdar says that Ray drew from the English translation of Abdul Halim Sharar’s Lucknow, The Last Phase of an Eastern Culture. “It took a top craftsman of Agra three months to do the embroidery on the green robe of Wajid Ali Shah. 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,” shares Jindal.
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 and understands the ecosystem. She had the first-hand experience of seeing and handling the costumes that were required,” says Jindal, who knew her from her theatre days. A lot of information, Jindal says, came from the paintings of the era. The Kathak scene, in particular, was inspired by an engraving of that period.
The Salar Jung Museum, the Falaknuma Palace of the Nizams of Hyderabad and the City Palace Museum of Jaipur were the 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, London, the largest costume hirers for film and stage in Europe,” says Jindal. After an elaborate consultation with the National War Museum in London, Andrew Mollo, a British expert on military uniforms, 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 researched that Outram smoked cheroots and purchased them himself from a famous tobacconist in London,” recalls Jindal.
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 improvised a means of making them look nearly right.”
Also on view are letters exchanged between Ray and Jindal; sketches prepared for the dresses along with their fabric swatches; as well as sketches of the jewellery by Manju Saraogi who fabricated the costumes for the film. 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,” remarks Majumdar. 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 it reflects in the Censor Certificate. It also means 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.” Jindal, who co-produced Gandhi, says Attenborough carried the same trait on the sets. He also had a team to guide him on “diction and mannerisms”.
Saeed Jaffery was Ray’s choice, while Jindal 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 also reflects in his choice of casting veteran actor Veena as Wajid Ali Shah’s mother. In those days, film sets often became a wrestling ring between competent actors, but Jindal 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 Jindal, who also produced landmark films, Rajnigandha and Katha.
Appreciating the detailing of costumes in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Bajirao Mastani and Padmavat, Jindal says the role of costumes has moved a lot since then but such exhibitions are rare in India. “I hope more such exhibitions can be held all over our vast and rich land to inspire pride in our people for their incomparable heritage in fabric design and related crafts.”
(A King’s Gambit: Chess, Costumes and a Crown is on display at the India International Centre, New Delhi, till November 5)