January 1, 2024

Application of Folk Music as portrayed in Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy and Sonar Kella

Indigenous Art & Culture

Dr. Sukanya Sarker, Ph.D. , Rabindra Bharati University, Senior Fellow of CCRT, Former Junior Fellow of CCRT (2014-2015)


 In India, folk music plays a very important role in theatre, drama and films. Folk music and culture are the soul of rural India as well as of Indian culture. Cinema is a universal medium which can convey messages to all walks of life. The music of Pather Panchali (based on a famous Bengali novel by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay) by Ravi Shankar has an everlasting effect on viewers across boundaries. The music appears to be very simple. But beneath the simple application, there is a deep mystic quality in folk music.   In   Sonar Kella folk music portrayed beautifully Rajasthan’s colourful social life.  Shankar used different types of folk music and surrounding sounds to portray Bengal’s rural life. The struggle of an octogenarian widow has been depicted through the lyrics of a folksong in her voice.   Different folk tunes give an idea of the cultural life of Rajasthan. The aesthetic beauty of folk music is always appealing in both Apu Trilogy and Sonar Kella. The source of information is YouTube and some books

Keywords:- Bhatiyali, Baul, Bhajan, Gorband, Mysticism,


The new era of Indian Cinema came into being with “Pather Panchali” by Satyajit Ray who introduced a new style of filmmaking through his debut film. Here Ravi Shankar brought about a noticeable change in the history of background music. The beautiful combination of Sitar and Flute was ideal for portraying Folk music of India.  Keeping intact the spirit of the story Ray introduced a new style which inspired viewers to understand the cinematic language.  After receiving an Award in the Cannes Film Festival, in 1956 Ravi Shankar and Ray came into prominence in World Cinema.[i]

Globally Pather Panchali has made a mark and Shankar’s music gave the idea of both folk and Instrumental music of India. The entire Apu Trilogy highlighted the music of Bengal. The appeal of the Apu Trilogy is enormous as it tells a story of the human condition in India and the structure of music with the elements and emotions of folklore. Shankar’s touching music was acclaimed in the film world. The beauty of music lies in the fact that it goes beyond the confines of the connoisseurs. The folklore in this film was a harbinger of a new era. The approaches of the cinematic language and presentation of Instrumental music along with other sound effects and folk music were different and realistic which so far had been unknown in Indian film circles. The essence of folk music behind the title card has become the signature tune of the film.

Indian folk music has always some mysticism in its presentation. These mystics think that through their sincere prayers, they can have a communion with God. In “Pather Panchali”, a particular song in the voice of Indir Thakrun is a clear example of this mysticism. An English translation of the prayer of the song is like this, “I have almost completed my earthly stay and now it is time for you (God) to take me away from this world. She is appealing fervently to liberate her from the shackles of this world. This octogenarian lady’s prayer to the Almighty is to rescue her from her miserable life. So she appeals to God to release her from the misery she experienced in this world”. She humbly requests a short piece of Bengali folk song which is full of mysticism. She conveys to God that she is a pauper. She endured a lot of hardship and torture in the society. So she desperately requests for shelter at Almighty’s feet. According to Hindu belief, she wants to leave this world as she has completed her earthly stay.

Eminent music composer  Bhaskar Chandravarkar told in a documentary, Pather Panchali:  A Living Resonance”   that the film’s music has a quality of mysticism[1]. [ii]

He thought that the music succeeded and worked beautifully throughout the film. The simplicity of the music is an outwardly characteristic of the film. It has a deep meaning and the structure of the music is very helpful for the film to communicate to the people across the lines and boundaries of culture. In his view, the music expresses the emotions of rural India exquisitely. The music, we hear, sounds very simple but it gives an in-depth emotion of rural India especially Bengal. [iii]

                  Pather Panchali revolves around Harihar, his wife Sarbajaya, daughter Durga, son Apu and an octogenarian distant relative Indir Thakuran. Some important scenes of the Apu Trilogy and its musical pieces give a vivid picture of rural Bengal.

First sequel of Apu Trilogy: Pather Panchali (1955)

The scene of the birth of Apu from Pather Panchali :

In Apu’s birth scene, we find some Kaleidoscopic[2] movement and a  happy Bhatiyali[3] tune by  Shankar on  Sitar comes out with a rhythm but no percussion is added as accompaniment.  Indeed, the happiness prevailing all around was beautifully portrayed with just a solo Sitar producing the entire happy scene is indeed marvelous. As a  composer Shankar was unparalleled.[iv]

Little Durga – a clip from Pather Panchali :

 In another scene, a typical rural life of Bengal has been presented where a little girl Durga is roaming around from one corner to another in the open field. The chirping of birds,  natural sound,  the little girl playing with kittens and the musical score made the scene a mesmerizing one. Here a solo Sitar by Ravi Shankar in the background demonstrated a typical Bhatiyali composition with simple melodic phrases. He effortlessly played in the three octaves without deviating from the basic structure of the Bhatiyali tune.  The mastery of Shankar’s instant improvisation of a folk tune comes alive in this scene. This marvellous musical piece is an absolute display of imagination, creativity and rhythmic pattern without any support of Percussion. The thematic development of a folk tune is executed wonderfully through Sitar.[v]

Death Scene of Indir:

The scene starts with the realistic sound of a bell tied around the neck of the cow. The constant ringing sound of the bell was either coming out from some religious ceremony in a house or tied in the neck of a moving cow. The sound is also produced by a sweet seller who used to sell sweets in the village. In this scene the sound is non-diegetic as the source is not known exactly.

After that, the rolling of too many aluminium utensils over the water is a very distinct symbol that somebody is leaving this earthly world. The total silence marks the startling scene of  Indir’s death. Indeed no other sound effect could have been more appropriate. This is followed by a solo folk song of the rural area commonly known as “Baul[4]which talks about the Almighty who is helping even the poorest of the poor to cross over to the next world. [vi]

Second Sequel of Apu Trilogy: Aparajito (1956)

The second sequel of Apu Trilogy is Aparajito. The film starts  with the life of Harihar along with his family in Varanasi. But after a brief period due to Harihar’s sudden demise Sarbajaya and Apu were in a dire straits. The film revolves around the relationship between mother and son. Aparajito focuses the growing up of  Apu and deserves a special mention for its appropriate background score by Ravi Shankar. Ray added other ambient sounds and sound effects very artistically. The film also marks the beginning of Ray’s fascination for recording ambient sounds and using them to highlight the mood of a scene. Ambient sound often enriches folk tunes.

Shankar incorporated the sound of a bowing instrument in Aparajito based on a Folk tune at a significant juncture. After coming back from Varanasi to the village of Mansapota both mother and son felt nostalgic about their native village  Nischindipur. The atmosphere of the village Mansapota reminds Apu of the sweet memories of childhood with Durga.  At the end of a particular scene sound of Esraj creates a  sad mood. Here Shankar used a pure folk tune in solo   Flute which is a perfect symbol of rural life. Once again a Bhatiyali tune (Based on all the Shuddh notes) appears. [vii]

In another important juncture, Ravi Shankar created an atmosphere of melancholy through Esraj in the same tune. In this scene, Sarbajaya is showing   Apu the money she saved for her future. The expression of happiness in both of them is designed beautifully by the soundtrack. The  Bhatiyali tune expresses beautifully the extreme poverty and the impending loneliness of a lady who struggled throughout her life and had to roam around from one place to another for livelihood. This particular musical sound was an echo of distress all over.[viii]

 In another scene, Apu gets approval from his mother to go to Calcutta for higher studies, and fast phrases of Shuddh notes in  Bhatiyali by Ravi Shankar are heard. Throughout the film, Ravi Shankar’s understanding of the progression of the entire narrative is worth mentioning. It helped to bring an atmosphere of happiness for them.[ix]

Third Sequel of Apu Trilogy: Apur Sansar (1959)

In the  third sequel of Apu Trilogy i.e.  Apur Sansar ,the central characters  are Apu and his wife Aparna. The entire musical score of Ravi Shankar is full of life and freshness. . He used simple folk tunes in composing background music and even in the structure of Instrumental orchestration.

A short description of Apu’s marriage is needed to understand The World of Apu. Apu’s marriage ceremony started with a Shehnai based on an evening raga  Sohini. His marriage was different from other conventional marriages in Hindu society. He was just an invitee to the wedding ceremony of his friend Pulu’s sister. As the original bridegroom turned out to be insane Apu was requested to marry the unfortunate girl by his friend and some other relatives. To the bride’s family, he was the only choice. Apu was caught unaware and initially, he was reluctant to agree to their proposal. But on his second thought, he understood the situation and agreed to marry. The only problem for Apu was that he had no house of his own and he had no permanent job. So the ceremony in the bridegroom’s residence was arranged in bride’s residence. It should be mentioned here that Apu was a resident of Calcutta.

Apur Sansar First Night|First Talk with Aparna|:

In Aparna’s house at the night of “Phool Sajya” (a part of the wedding ritual in Bengal, it is common all over India in different names) we listen to a  “Bhatiyali[5]” rendition which is performed by the sailor (Majhi) of a boat in the nearby river. The song continues in a medium volume, the voice of a boatman coming from a distance during the conversation of the newly married couple. It has a mystic essence. The lyrics of the composition of this Bhatiyali are sublime and the philosophy of the composition is complicated underneath. The song dealt with the life and death cycle of human beings. This rendition is used twice in Apur Sansar.[x]

After that, a beautiful Sarangi is played in the background of the dialogue between Apu and his wife Aparna where Apu very frankly informs that he has nothing in this world. He is telling his newly wedded wife that he doesn’t even have a house of his own. The musician used the Shuddh notes of the beautiful  “NatAng but primarily made those notes into a phrase of a tune of a  composition with an emphasis on Rekhab, the important note in Nat. The piece lasts for a minute only to establish a raga. Indeed it is a beautiful and touching piece of the film.  Through this piece, Ravi Shankar brought out the pathos of the life of Apu. The simplicity of a sort of confession is underlined by this mesmerizing musical track. The simplicity of the village life is expressed through the tune of Sarangi.[xi]

Sonar Kella (1974):-


       Satyajit Ray made this wonderful suspense thriller film in the middle of the 1970s  which is based on his own novel “Sonar Kella”.  The story was inspired by research into reincarnation conducted by  Dr. Banerjee, a parapsychologist at Rajasthan University in Jodhpur. In Andrew Robinson’s words “Ray does not know whether he believes in reincarnation, but he says ‘There are so many examples of cases I think one should keep on open mind’.”[xii]

Ray articulated wonderful visuals of the desert land of Rajasthan. He portrayed a vivid picture of the forts of Rajasthan. Through this film, he wonderfully designed the musical tracks with the rich cultural heritage of Rajasthan. In two very important scenes, we find wonderful and authentic Folk songs of Rajasthan with the accompaniment of Folk instruments which make the songs vibrant and give the real essence of  Rajasthan’s rural life.

Mon Mera Ram Ram Rache:-

Satyajit Ray believed that music in a film should always play a supportive role and only enrich the soundtrack. The composition “Man Mera Ram Ram Rache” is a well-known and traditional Bhajan[6] of Meera Bai who also belonged to Rajasthan.  It isa popularcomposition based on raga Mand and performed with the accompaniment of Chautara[7]. Ray picked up a traditional Bhajan and the scene is based on the narrative. It is rendered by a renowned Folk singer Soni Devi of Rajasthan. The accompanying folk instrument Chautara not only gives the Tonic but also works as a Percussion support to maintain the rhythmic beats. With complete authenticity, Ray picked up an original and professional Folk singer of the 20th century and made all the possible efforts to record it as clearly as possible. It is indeed a beautiful piece despite the strong storyline and suspense created in that scene. This rendition took over these few minutes and the viewers will be engrossed by the essence of the song. [xiii]

Folk song of night sequence:-

This folk musical piece is known as Gorband[8] which is a traditional folklore sung for decorating the Camels before their ride. In Gorband Percussion plays a very important role. The words of this traditional folk song are based on the ornaments ( things) that Rajasthani people are putting up on to the Camel for decoration. This  style of folk songs are generally performed on the roadside. Here also it is performed outside the platform of a small railway station in the film during a night scene. The unbelievable use of the Folk  Percussion instrument Khartaal[9]in Gorband is unique and creates a wonderful rhythmic pattern. In this song mainly folk instrument, Khamaicha[10] is used for accompaniment. In the film, a group of folk singers performed  Gorband with authenticity. Ray articulated this pure folk piece so beautifully in this entire scene that the viewers are attracted towards this song. Through this Gorband presentation, one can understand the musical understanding of Ray. Both of the Rajasthani folk music are presented so authentically that the viewers can feel the ambience of the colourful Rajasthani folk culture.[xiv]

[1] Mysticism is a belief that union with or absorption into the Almighty or the spiritual apprehension of knowledge inaccessible to the intellect. It can be attained through self-surrender and contemplation.

[2] A large number of different movements with complexities are happening but keeping the beauty intact.

[3] Bhatiyali is a form of Folk Music in both West Bengal and Bangladesh. Generally, it is known as a River song and is mostly sung by boatmen while going down streams of the river. But in this film, it is performed on Sitar.

[4] Baul is a group of mystic minstrels of mixed elements of Sufism, Tantra and Vaishnavism from West Bengal, Assam, Tripura and Bangladesh. They are a religious and cultural group of India that is known for their songs and poems to the Almighty who dwells within. They constitute both a syncretic religious and a musical tradition. The term Baul usually means madman or religious ecstatic. Lalon Shah is regarded as the most celebrated Baul Saint.

[5] Bhatiyali is a form of folk music in both West Bengal and Bangladesh. It is a song of river and generally sung by boatmen. The word Bhatiyali comes from “Bhata” meaning ebb or downstream. It is mostly sung in several parts of Gangetic West Bengal and greater riparian Bengal.

[6] Bhajan refers to devotional songs with a religious theme or spiritual ideas in Indian religions. The term Bhajan means reverence. It originates from the root word Bhaj. Bhajans are performed by a group of singers or a person. Bhajans are accompanied by Tabla and Dholak. It can be rendered in a temple, near a river bank or a place of historical significance.

[7] Chautara has two parts made of wood and it is very decorative. It is a four-stringed instrument made of wood and steel. Generally, it is found in Rajasthan. It is mostly used by the Kamad community for rhythmic accompaniment of folk songs.

[8] Gorband is a famous folk song which describes the process of preparing a decorative string for a camel. It’s a knotted ornament worn around the neck to adorn a camel

[9] Khartaal is an ancient instrument mainly used in folk songs. This wooden clapper is a Ghana Vadya which has discs or plates that produce clinking sound when clapped together.

[10] Kamaicha is a stringed instrument made of parchment, steel, metal, gut, shisha and horsehair. It is a community instrument found in Rajasthan and mainly used by Manganiar as an accompanying instrument of folk song.

[i]  https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pather_Panchali

[ii] Pather Panchali: A living Resonance (Full Movie) Published on 7 Aug 2012, https://youtu.be/arzpoAOFIfQ

[iii] Pather Panchali: A living Resonance, Published on 9 Aug 2010, https://youtu.be/R6XxhJvNQcQ

[iv] Birth of Apu scene from Pather Panchali, Published on 29 Mar 2018, https://youtu.be/5_SSJB0zB_k

[v] Little Durga -a clip from Pather Panchali (1955), Published on 15 Aug  2017, https://youtu.be/eh4D_M_vZXQ

[vi] Death of Indir scene from Pather Panchali (1955), Published on 18 Jun 2017, https://youtu.be/KsE1O1VzqQ8

[vii] Aparajito (1956)Part -VIII, Published on 30 Aug, 2021, https://youtu.be/42p8m4YZfS8

[viii] Aparajito (1956) Part -X, Published on 30 Aug 2021, https://youtu.be/Ktx4UDg_AtY

[ix]  ibid

[x]  Apur Sansar First Night, Published on 7 Sep 2017, https://youtu.be/ehKm0W9qs1l

[xi]  ibid

[xii] Andrew Robinson, 1989, Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye, Andre Deutsch,105-106 Great Russell Street, London, WC1B 3LJ , Page-235

[xiii] Sonar Kella mon mera ram ram rache, Published on 3 Dec 2016, https://youtu.beDHhXHsL3Lbw

[xiv] Beautiful Rajasthani Song| Sonar Kella (1974)| Satyajit Ray| Published on 19 Nov 2020, https://youtu.be/WYFW72Qh8mg