The apparition of these faces in the crowd
Petals on a wet, black bough


চারুলতা Charulata, The Lonely Wife (1964)

Ray’s film opens up with a close-up of embroidery: Charulata (Madhabi Mukherjee) sits in her bedroom, sewing the letter “B”, partly framed by a leafage motif, on a handkerchief for Bhupen (Sailen Mukherjee). Embroidery, a stereotypically feminine, domestic act, works as a subversive metaphor in Ray’s film. Stitched onto the main surface and often near that surface’s margins, embroidery disturbs the appearance of the primary surface or material, as it appears, in a sense “over” or “above” the primary material. Embroidery not only augments, but also contrasts the main body of the text—as such, it is an ancillary and a privileged form.

Winfried Menninghaus has observed that the “ornament combines a movement of ‘idealization’ with an ironic moment that puts art at a distance from itself”. The movement of “idealization” suggests an approach toward perfect harmony between the ornament and the main surface; but the ironic moment (the ornamental disturbance of the main surface that ironically augments or further “beautifies” it) simultaneously disallows that ideal concord, calling attention to the difference of surface and ornament. The irony and the idealization combined in the ornament lack the harmony an “ideal” form presumes in its very structure—embroidery is melodic because it is a sign of improvisation, it disrupts the uninterrupted appearance of the surface, and so it breaks a textile plane. If the smooth material surface is a sign of consistency, ornament is a sign of fancy, caprice, and indulgence.

The film is marked by the unseen and by sounds embroidered onto its surfaces, drifting in and out of the domestic space: we hear, but don’t see the producers of the crow’s caws, a vendor’s voice, a storm’s rumble, and a cat’s mewling. In a further act of embroidery, the camera manifestly breaks the unities of various planes (and, by extension, it breaks the “plain”): It follows Charu from a distance, across various frames (banisters, windows, and pillars supporting a balcony) while she looks out. It presents views though and into private spaces: Bhupati’s cousin, Amal, is seen in the background through a door that is ajar as Charulata and Bhupati embrace and at another moment, Charulata’s face is reflected in a glass door as Amal and Bhupati converse. A subsequent scene reveals Amal’s reflection in a clockface as he contemplates his departure from Bhupati’s mansion.

Gaurav Majumdar, Migrant Form: Anti-Colonial Aesthetics in Joyce, Rushdie and Ray.