On April 30, 2014 by admin


Ritwik Kumar Ghatak


Symbol—what we call prateek in Bangla.  The thing is the fruit of proliferating human thinking and meditation. These days, I feel, its behaviour and movements have also had an enormous impact on the creaturely and animal world.  So, it is natural that in every human art-form it will occupy a major place. One of the main reasons for this is that this thing called art, on its own, desires such a thing called symbol. It gravitates towards it.

Let me explain. How is art born? All art is born from the labour that is generated to cater to all kinds of human wish-fulfilment. The earliest of the art forms about which we have heard are in those well know cave paintings, say, in Altamira, Lacaux orFreyja. At that time the most primitive humans, who lived in Europe during the Palaeolithic Age, would collectively hunt the beast called the Mammoth and with various body-parts would garner food, raiment, source of light and even weaponry.

Now, as these primitive humans developed a sense of the magical, the magus-wizard arrived, divined and decreed that if they drew a mammoth and pierce its heart with a spear, they would be successful in hunting down those beasts in the real world. So, art is hardly for art’s sake. It is for the stomach.

If we try to hunt the source of primitive music, the story would be similar. There was primitive communism in the earliest phase of human existence—a collective, kaumi and goshti way of living. If you work together—if collective muscles work in unison to pull an object or push it or lift or put it down—the whole exercise becomes that much easier. And from that comes rhythm. The plumbers and coolies who open up the manholes and fit pipes and so on, come up with Hneiyyo Ho—it’s totally the same impulse. And the whole thing gradually turns into an energetic, inspirational effort in unison. That is to say, in order to extract more work from this class of people more words and expressions sneak in.  One can trace here the source of our earliest songs and poetry.  The creation and evolution of our musical instruments also owe much to human work. Labour and art have a placental connection.

So, does art mean all expressions and painting equivalent to labour, then? Not at all. There comes a stage when you do give into some idiosyncratic excess—a mad man’s mind plays with this idea. He is vexed that the thing is not shaping well. May be something should be added, something extra? Thus starts the crazy endeavours of the madman. After completing fully the demands of his primary work, he gets a breathing spell to add some deft touch, a hint of colour here, a note there and some preternatural expression at some point by dint of which the whole thing finds illumination, one might say. The primitive man,at this point, with a gaping mouth, looks at his own art-work and exclaims: bah !

This is how art begins its journey, its shubho-jatra. From now on man would begin to take this thing called symbol into his own hands.


So, what is a symbol? So many people over the years have explained it in so many different ways and the whole thing has therefore become so terribly entangled that it is difficult to explain it simply. But let me try and give you an inkling about the initial stages.

The collective fund of human memory, right from prehistoric times, gets accumulated in that section of the brain which we call the collective unconscious. This thing called collective unconscious is no one’s inherited paternal booty! The entire human society is its rightful heir. And why human society! As I have said, even in the creaturely world one notices manifestations of the unconscious. Scientists are at it with their experiments and laboratory work.

The kernel of this unconscious lies in the extraction of the creative impulse through millions of years of human traversing. At certain special moments, during some singular events this kernel flashes upon the mind and then disappears just as fast—trying to measure this phenomenon in terms of causal logic will yield no result whatsoever. For centuries this has sent thoughtful people, scholars, scientists, spiritual leaders, wanderers and poets thinking. Its manifestation is happening all around us, in all places and often unnoticed and unmarked by us.

Let me give an example. Certain artistic paradigms often spring forth and illuminate our brain.Such pictures or paradigms we do not see or sense in our daily encounters and surroundings or have not even encountered in the immediate past. In some form or the other at every location such images take shape and turn real. They will always be part of our existence.

For instance, the trinayanimurti— the three-eyed icon—which appears to us both in benevolent and in destructive manifestations. Like, say, in the European imagination. Scandinavian and Icelandic kids, especially, know and live the three-eyed witch and the three-eyed bloodsucking bat/vampire through their sagas and tales. And that particular line of the Aryans which is known as the Indo-Iranian is replete with three-eyed gods and goddesses, especially benevolent ones. But do we encounter such three-eyed images in our daily life so easily?

It is now, after intense research, that we have come to know that when the enormous reptiles and prehistoric beasts were becoming extinct and when newer species like Pterodactyl and such animals and birds were coming into being, the ones which were really fearsome were endowed with three eyes. In case you are interested in reading a good book onthis subject, you may like to begin with George Thomson’s The Icelandic Saga. Human beings had just come into existence. Now, humans must have had witnessed such creatures as death itself, in their full majesty, and so in order to propitiate such messengers of death, they would worship these creatures and create rituals around them and so on. Those horrific creatures do not straddle the earth any more. They are gone.  Many ice ages have come and gone. And with numerous such changes we have the homo-sapiens getting a more defined state and status, being born in full sense really. And they began to claim their right over the earth. But a secret thing remains, an acknowledgement of that lost world, and that comes back as a flash to humans.


Say, our dreading snakes. Yes, we are aware that snakes are highly poisonous creatures and might kill humans and so on. But it is not true that snakes look and appear horrible per se. It has been tested and experimented that in countries with perennially cold climates, where snakes never existed, if you place a snake in front of kids, they get jolted and are horrified. Scholars feel that the reason humans do not find any sense of beauty in the snake’s slippery, labyrinthine torso and in its mouth and fangs and forked tongue is actually owing to a faint manifestation of how weremember our battles and skirmishes with the snakes during the Age of Reptiles and our emergence thereof.

There are lots of things in this category. During a time when human beings would fashion themselves as social beings and when they got divided and subdivided into classes and when certain classes got more equal and privileged over others—then for the sake of maintaining such class privilege, art had to accommodate and reinvent itself.  Often, as answer to such demands these epiphanies got worked out as specific symbols. A few of these are all pervasive, true of humanity in general and some others are location or culture specific. I am not elaborating further on the cultural connotations of symbols but suffice it to say that art cannot move a single step without symbols. Since art must travel towards its kernel, core. Towards the primal quintessence. All art is dedicated to this singular sadhana: how a whole spectrum of words and ideas can be best expressed in contracted, minimal form. To capture a deluge of words in one alphabet, one akshara— that is art’s dedication. To do that one has to seek the substance, the core. Symbols are nothing else: the quintessence merely gets distributed in paradigms and symbols.

I cannot speak for other art forms here since those are beyond my rights, beyond my ektiar. But about films yes, I may venture; since it works with images. In poetry and songs one has to take recourse to other media in order to express those images. Films have no such constraint. The whole things appear right in front of you. Starkly. And whether I want it or not, it stands with a certain artistic appeal.

Here, those who make films have the responsibility to fuse together the symbolic with their message. But first they have to stay with it for a while and see whether the symbol actually does work or not. What we see these days is the use of symbol for its own sake. All of a sudden you are stunned with a wayward and freak image which is not developing organically from the central point of the film. These are stunts or gimmicks.  Maybe these evoke a fair amount of applause, but these are not genuine symbols. At least not according to me. I consider only those which will innovatively and organically confront me with the message of my film as symbols.

See, there is no other way for me—within a limited time and space I have to express myself through symbols in a film. Only during such desperate, helpless times shall I take recourse to symbols. I have to be very miserly. It is only then that those will be abounding, be weighty and have any worth. Then only will they be considered khandani symbols, right? One must not spend time with the ingenuous enacting of symbols in art all the time. That impulse is plain childish. I have serious reservations about such an impulse.

There is another facet to the whole thing. I have so far talked about symbols associated with a thinking mind. There arise moments when your thinking mind vanishes into thin air and all kinds of symbols just keep appearing in front of your eyes, within you and they won’t let you rest in peace! You are possessed by a particular symbol. One does not realize its trappings, its goings and comings. When people ask you later about the possible meanings of such a symbolic usage, you naturally construct a fictive story but the fact of the matter is that you have actually no clue how and why that particular symbol had such an overwhelming effect on you or why you have ended up incorporating it within the scheme of things.  It has appeared on its own and has haunted you—in your unconscious. So, the last thing about art is that ancient expression—obaangmanoshgochor—that which is beyond the grasp of words and the mind-scape. An ancient flash—an uncanny maal—outside of our mind and language will arrive in front of you 10 or 12 times in your lifetime.

Those 10 moments are sufficient for you to live in this world. People will know you for those moments—all your fame, every single handshake is a gift of those 10 moments of arrival. Each such moment is a bona fide symbol.

Beyond this I have nothing else to say. In case I am able to manage my health concerns, I shall elaborate on these things some other day.


[from Chalachitra, Manush Ebang Aro Kichhu: A Collection of Essays by Ritwik Kumar Ghatak, Kolkata: Dey’s Publishing, 2005. Translation HUG]


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