New Delhi Who isn’t aware of the master craftsman that was auteur Satyajit Ray. Talk of one of his classic films, Shatranj Ke Khilari (The Chess Players; 1977), and the visuals from the period of colonial India come rushing to the mind. Based on a story by Premchand, the film set in 1856 Awadh ruled by Wajid Ali Shah depicted the obsession of two men with the game of chess. Alongside, it captured the popular fashion of that time, including flared trousers. Bringing back all the nostalgia from the film is an exhibition titled A King’s Gambit, which is on display in the Capital.
Organised as part of the birth centenary celebrations of Ray, this show has original period costumes created for the film’s illustrious cast comprising actors Sanjeev Kumar, Amjad Khan, Saeed Jaffrey, Victor Banerjee, Shabana Azmi, Farida Jalal and Richard Attenborough. “It was one of the most expensive films of that time with a budget of ₹40 lakh,” recalls Suresh Jindal, the film’s producer, who is exhibiting the memorabilia for the first time since film’s premier on the big screen. “These are from my personal collection and were all this while at my Delhi home,” adds Jindal, referring to the lavish costumes and decor that will transport a viewer to the era of nawabi opulence.
The collection also has silver ornaments and other jewellery, stills and working stills, copies of letters and archival sketch pages from Ray’s kheror khata (cloth-bound script book). And among costumes there’s achkans, angrakhas, jamas, pyjamas, shararas, ornate cholis, turbans, pagris, and even footwear. “The costumes are also historical now. The crown was designed by Mr Ray himself from the paintings that we saw in Lucknow. He had a very strong eye for detail. These exhibits were made for the film and I saved these very carefully. Now the karigars are gone. Ab toh mere khyal se inhe koi bana hi nahi sakta,” adds Jindal.
Shama Zaidi, 83, was the costume designer for this films, and recalls how “Under Mr Ray’s guidance, we tried to be as authentic as possible. We tried not to make it too loud, because the colours in Awadh were very subdued. We bought a lot of old clothes from kabadiwallahs in Lucknow, those were taken apart to see how exactly the cuts were done and sewn. Some cloth was especially woven in Banaras for the film.”
In a way, the making of costumes for each character reflected the genius behind the film’s making in itself. This was researched in museums, paintings, engravings and old photographs. Some of the heirlooms were also loaned by Wajid Ali Shah’s great-great grandson, Anjam Qudr. Zaidi informs, “The jewellery was borrowed from various people. There is a famous jeweller in Jaipur, who lent us some of it. He sent his man with a gun, who used to open his box, then during the shot the jewellery would be used, and then he would take it back, and shut the box again. He was armed (laughs)!”
Actor Shabana Azmi, who played Mirza Sajjad Ali’s begum in the film, says, “The costumes were totally authentic. In fact, Shama lent me some of her mother’s jewellery. I’m delighted to learn that the costumes have been preserved in exhibition condition!”
Ask Azmi about her memories of shooting this film, and she narrates an incident: “When I arrived at the Indrapuri Studio in Tollygunge for the first day’s shoot of Shatranj Ke Khilari, I saw Satyajit Ray standing outside the set with a few people. I shook his hand and he said, ‘We will do the longer scene first… get into costume and I will come and see you’. I found that a bit odd but followed his instruction. When I put on my heavy costume, I felt my posture changing and unconsciously I sat up upright. When he came into the make-up room, Manik-da said, ‘Ah, now you will be able to absorb better the anguish of a begum. In the pair of jeans you traipsed in, your casual posture would have been that of an urban teenager’.”
Reflecting on that time today, Kathak exponent Saswati Sen, who performed a solo in the film, says: “I had a very traditional, expensive outfit in the film. The jewellery was in lakhnavi-andaz, and it was all real! Before the Kathak scene was to be shot, a spot boy was struggling to hang a curtain at some height. Satyajit spotted him and took the curtain from him, and said, ‘Meri height kab kaam aayegi, yeh mera kaam hai’, and hammered the curtain in place himself. Such was he!”
Catch It Live
What: A King’s Gambit
Where: India International Centre, Lodhi Road
On till: November 5
Timing: 11am to 7pm
Nearest Metro Station: JLN Stadium on the Violet Line
Author tweets @siddhijainn
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