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As I’ve made it a point this year to overcome my ignorance of Indian cinema (well, Indian culture in general), I couldn’t be more excited about this event. Not just for the encounters with Ray and Benegal—whose fiction-film debut Ankur (1974) is said to have played a major role in the development of India’s parallel cinema—but for the much-needed introduction to Tagore, about whom I know virtually nothing. The first non-Westerner to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature (in 1913), Tagore was evidently one of the most significant Indian artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and he continues to be a major influence on Indian cinema (in fact, IMDB lists about a half-dozen movies from the past decade that were based on his novels and stories). He was certainly a major influence on Ray, who did more than any other figure to introduce Indian art cinema to a global audience. Both of the Ray features screening in the symposium are Tagore adaptations, and his short 1961 documentary about Tagore will screen on Friday afternoon after Benegal’s talk.
While Tagore was undoubtedly a renaissance man—in addition to writing stories and poems, he was also a painter, philosopher, musician, and world traveler—his direct involvement with filmmaking appears to have been minimal (the symposium will screen his one directorial effort, a 1932 recording of his dance drama Natir Puja, on Friday at 3:30 PM). Yet his influence on Indian society is so far-reaching that his name comes up often in histories of the national cinema. Tagore famously broke away from traditional Indian forms in literature and other arts, taking inspiration from other national cultures and the colloquial speech he heard on the street. This sensitivity to everyday life developed into a great populist spirit, as Tagore became an outspoken critic of the Raj and the caste system alike. His literature remains well-known for its compassionate and artful depictions of poverty—a tradition that carries over into some of Ray’s best-known films.