Ramsundar Deo to Satyajit Ray – A Brief History of Ray Family
Source - Andrew Robinson's the inner eye
The story begins with Ramsundar Deo, the earliest-known ancestor of Ray family, a Hindu by religion, a youth by age, moved from a village in West Bengal to East Bengal (now Bangladesh), wondering there, he reached a village called ‘Serpur’ where at the local zamindar’s house he met the ruler of a nearby place called ‘Yasodal’. He likes Ramsundar for his quick intelligence and invited him to Yasodal. There Ramsundar was given a piece of land, a house and a daughter in marriage. Ramsundar spent his life administrating the property of his in law’s.
Subsequently, the generations of his family live there in Yasodal, and later moved further deep into the east, a place called ‘Masua’. It was located on the other side of the Brahmaputra river. The family across time gathered wealth and education and also acquired the title of ‘Majundar’, a common Bengali surname which means ‘revenue accountant’. The actual surname which the family uses today was another honorific title ‘Ray’. The word was derived from another Bengali word ‘Raja’ (means king). Then in the latter half of the eighteen century the family was further divided into two branches. The reason was a flood that destroyed the Masua. As a result the family, one of which became noted for its learning, the other for its wealth and piety got separated in course of time and situation.
Among the two families, one was lead by Ramkanta Majundar. A man of talent, he was very fluent in several languages, an expert singer and musician. Not only that, he was a man of great physical strength and courage. It is said that he would eat a full basket of parched rice and a whole jackfruit for breakfast. In another incident it is said that once Ramkanta was sitting in his verandah, when a wild boar attacked him. He grabbed its snout and held it in his vice-like grip before shouting for help.
It was this particular generation that developed the verse in the family, as Ramkanta’s eldest son has this habit of replying to a question in verse. Ramkanta had three sons. Among them the youngest one became a famous scholar in Persian. But the second son, Loknath, was so fluent in Sanskrit, Arabic & Persian that he was able to read aloud in one language from a book written in another so fluently that his listeners would not know that he was actually translating. But unfortunately, Loknath started taking interest in Tantric yoga in his twenties, which on the other hand was a matter of concern for his father, who thought that his son may go into sannyasi. As a result Ramkanta secretly gathered his books and other sacred objects one day and dropped them in to the river. Loknath was so shattered that he took to a fast and died within three days. As he lay on his death bed he told his weeping wife, who held their only child, ‘Now you have only, but from him will come a hundred!’ - A famous family story often repeated in Satyajit Ray’s childhood a century later.
Loknath’s son was Kalinath, father of Upendrakisore, great grandfather of Satyajit Ray, was probably born in 1830s. He too was a scholar in Sanskrit, Arabic and Persian, but not a sannyasi. Kalinath Ray was better known as ‘Munshi (Professor) Syamsundar’ in his time, which was quite an unusual distinction for a Hindu in a period when Islam was in retreat all over the India.
India at that time was under the British rule, and Brahmos were the most energetic group of Bengalis who evolved and reacted strongly both to Christianity, western literature and ideas such as sati in that particular period of time (around 1820s). Founded & lead by Raja Rammohan Roy, the greatest Indian intellectual of nineteenth century. Later after his death, Devendranath Tagore, father of Rabindranath Tagore led the Brahmos. The Ray family became associated with the Brahmos in 1880s.
Upendrakisore, Sukumar Ray’s father & Satyajit’s grandfather was born in 1869. Although he was born in ‘Masua’, a rural area in Bangladesh, but soon made a long journey to Calcutta, where he too got attracted towards Brahmoism. Upendrakisore was the fifth son of Kalinath Ray. And he was been adopted at the age of five by a childless relative belonging to the orthodox, wealthy branch of Ray family. This relative, a zamindar and lawyer by profession chose Upendrakisore among his brothers due to his skin color, which was indeed really very fair. Not only that, the relative who adopted him also changed his name to Upendrakisore from Kamadaranjan, after the style of his own name, Harikisore, to which he added the honorific surname of ‘Ray Chaudhuri’.
From a very young age Upendrakisore, was quite fond of music and drawing. One when the Governor visited his school he saw a boy was drawing intensely in the class. With curiosity, he picked up the book to discover an amazing drawing/sketch. The Governor was a British man, and in reference to that the school teachers were quite worried as to how the ‘sahib’ would react. But, instead, the ‘sahib’ patted little Upendrakisore, and said – ‘You must not let this skill disappear’.
Upendrakisore stayed in Calcutta, and kept his practice of drawing and singing. He later stated practicing the Indian classical style under the best teachers and also developed his love for Brahmo songs and hymns. His singing was so good that once at a performance at Jorasanko, the Tagore family mansion in North Calcutta, led him to the lifelong friendship with Rabindranath Tagore.
In the year 1884, Upendrakisore got married to the daughter of Dwarkanath Ganguli, and moved to the large family house at 13 Cornwallis Street in central Calcutta, just opposite to the main temple of the Brahmo. Upendrakisore’s wife was a remarkable woman in her own right. She bore him three sons and three daughters. Among them, Sukumar, Satyajit’s father, was their second child, born in 1887. On the other hand, Upendrakisore continued his practice of drawing and music. He often used to play his Violin and sing. He was so good in it, that often listeners gathered in the street outside, just like as they did when he took his family outside to an exhibition or festival and explained things to the children.
Sukumar Ray took after his father in many ways. He was serious, lively and intensely curious and also a natural story teller. From a very young age, he would show pictures of wired and wonderful animals to his brothers and sisters from their father’s storybook, and invent his own story about them. He also used to create his own creatures, with untranslatable names. When Sukumar was about eight, a new element appeared in his life, which later also influenced Satyajit Ray greatly. It was the printing press.
Calcutta by 1890s was well equipped with printing press technologies, but good quality printing & its illustration was seriously lacking. As a result of this, Upendrakisore’s illustrations of Ramayana for children’s book were totally ruined. With merely a handful of technical books published in West, Upendrakisore decided to start first Calcutta based high quality printing process. Soon his effort brought him international prizes for best quality printing reproduction. Soon he started to order cameras and various pieces of half tone equipments from British. The money for such investment came from selling most of his share in the zamindari to his foster brother Narendrakisore, who was in charge of it, following his father, Harikisore’s death.
The printing firm of U.Ray was founded in 1895. And the experimentations began instantly. On the other side, Rabindranath was an enthusiastic advocate of Upendrakisore’s writings, and encouraged him a lot to translate and adopt stories from abroad, and from the Bengal as well as from the Indian legends. It is said that Tagore was a regular visitor at Upendrakisore’s house, and in that course of time Sukumar became one of Tagore’s favorite young friends.
Sukumar Ray, father of Satyajit Ray, was a bright student from his very early age. At school both teachers and his class mates were highly influenced of him. They all liked him very much, especially because of his independent spirit without being rebellious. In 1906, Sukumar Ray left Presidency College, with double honours in Physics and Chemistry. The famous ‘Non sense club’ also began around this time. ‘Sare Batris Bhaja’ (thirty two and a half delicacies) – was the name of the first play that Sukumar wrote for this club. The play was about the street cry of the Calcutta hawkers who used to sell those thirty two varieties of savoury and a half chilli. Among the other plays, ‘Jhalapala’, ‘Laksmaner Saktisel’ and Ramayana were some of them.
Sukumar Ray was also a good photographer, his first piece, ‘Photography as an art’ was based on considerable practical experience. He took many photographs in his early teen age, developed and printed them all by himself. Very few people know that Sukumar Ray was the second Indian who got the Fellowship of the Royal Photographic Society in 1922.
Upendrakisore never went abroad, but he made sure that his son dose so. As a result Sukumar Ray took up a scholarship in 1950 and went to London to study printing and photography techniques. Later Satyajit Ray in 1950 also went at the same, for graphics design. While his stay at London, Sukumar inhabited two distinctive worlds of specialized crafts. One was the photo-engraving and Lithography and the other was his social and artistic life.