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India's Chess Players: The Colonization of Nationalist Memory

Published on 6th November 2019

When Indian director Satyajit Ray adapted Shatranj Ke Khilari (The Chess Players), a short story by Munshi Premchand, into a film in 1977, he produced a story almost diametrically opposed to the original in both form and intent. At the heart of Ray’s adaptation lies a curious contradiction: it is an anti-nationalist film based on a nationalist text. Through the pointed use of dialogue, text, and imagery, Ray repeatedly subverts and questions the basic premises of Premchand’s story. Ultimately, Premchand and Ray present competing interpretations of Lucknow in 1856 as it exists in India's cultural memory. These interpretations illuminate much about their respective nationalist and anti-nationalist contexts.

In the original short story, Mir and Mirza are two Lucknowi nawabs (Mughal viceroys) obsessed with chess. Their idle indulgence symbolizes the decadence of Lucknow as a whole, which Premchand condemns as a site of sensuous pleasures and political apathy. It’s that political apathy which allows the British to invade it without shedding a drop of blood. Mir and Mirza, ironically, are busy playing chess—a make-believe battle between generals and soldiers—while the real British generals and soldiers annex Lucknow.[1] The story, written in 1924, came shortly after the collapse of Gandhi’s nationalist non-cooperation movement in 1922. Premchand, a vocal Gandhian nationalist at the time[2], likely intended the story as a cautionary tale about the costs of political non-participation in order to motivate his discouraged contemporaries to fully devote themselves to the nationalist cause. It was the Lucknowi pursuit of frivolous arts like chess, Premchand argues, which kept them from developing the patriotic backbone and national consciousness that would have enabled them to resist the British.

And yet it is here that the essential difference between Premchand’s and Ray’s visions arises. To be sure, both uncritically adopt and reproduce the image of Lucknow that reigns in the popular Indian imagination: a bastion of rich culture mired in the sensuous pleasures of harems, dance, music, food, and art.[3] But they could not differ more on that image’s meaning. Whereas Premchand identifies Lucknow’s cultural wealth as the root of the nawab’s rot, Ray locates within it their redemption. For example, while Ray at first thought King Wajid Ali Shah unbearably “stupid,” he eventually found a sympathetic angle to his character by conceptualizing him as “as an artist, a composer who made some contributions to the form of singing that developed in Lucknow.” To Premchand, the king’s “one redeeming feature” was being “a great patron of music.”[4]

And indeed, Ray’s film laboriously establishes Wajid as a great poet: the British soldier Weston has memorized his poetry by heart, while Wajid himself is shown reciting poems throughout. Whereas Premchand describes Lucknow’s voluptuous indulgences in abstract terms and thus distances them from the reader (thereby imposing his disdain for the arts upon the reader), Ray assaults the viewer with an overwhelming audiovisual depiction of the city’s vibrant culture, from elaborately detailed film sets to uninterrupted seven-minute dance sequences.

Clearly, then, though both Premchand and Ray portray Lucknow as a bastion of pleasurable excess, they disagree on said portrayal’s significance. Their conflicting assessments of Lucknow’s glamorous culture determine their moral judgments of its inhabitants. Premchand justifies his condemnation of Lucknow’s inhabitants, particularly Mir and Mirza, on the basis of their participation in this supposedly licentious social scene. But Ray, by casting Lucknow’s culture as a good rather than an evil, adopts a more sympathetic outlook on the Lucknowi elite and implicitly rejects Pramchand’s simplistic association of pleasure with immorality. 

It is because Ray can distinguish between Lucknow’s cultural scene and its (indeed often corrupt) participants that he can characterize Wajid Ali Shah in the manner that he does: not just as an incompetent king given to hedonistic frivolities, as he is often remembered, but as a religiously devout man (note the shots of him in prayer) who is conscious of and struggles with his own inadequacies. Wajid did not appear as a character in Premchand’s original tale, so his presence in the film allows Ray to move beyond Mir and Mirza as the sole representatives of the Lucknowi elite and thus nuance his exploration of Lucknow in the days before its fall.

More importantly, Ray's complicated portrayal of the King enables him to reject the derisive colonialist characterization of Wajid as “effeminate,” as outlined in W. H. Sleeman’s A Journey Through the Kingdom of Oudh in 1849–50: “He is entirely taken up in the pursuit of his personal gratifications...He lives, exclusively, in the society of fiddlers, eunuchs, and women. His understanding has become so emasculated, that he is altogether unfit for the conduct of his domestic much less his public affairs.”[5] Ray thus dismisses the critique that Lucknow rotted because it indulged in the so-called effeminate and trivial patronage of the arts.[6]

But in refusing to characterize Wajid as epicene simply for basking in music and dance, Ray rejects not just colonial narratives but nationalist ones as well. Premchand’s story, it turns out, adopts the same premises and unfolds according to the same logic as colonial accounts of Lucknow’s collapse (excessive pleasure-seeking left the city’s elite too emasculated to govern or resist). Premchand uncritically accepts as fact British portrayals of Lucknow as culturally decadent, and ironically deploys this narrative to extol political and nationalist consciousness as key to resisting colonial rule. Thus, Ray’s film adaptation, by tentatively praising Lucknow’s cultural scene rather than inflexibly condemning it, interrogates Premchand’s nationalist assumptions and suggests that far from subverting colonial authority, early Indian nationalists like himself unwittingly entrenched it.

Perhaps what is most revealing of Ray’s anti-nationalist consciousness vis-à-vis Premchad’s nationalist consciousness is how the two choose to conclude, or not conclude, the story of the chess players. The original short story ends with Mir and Mirza killing each other, definitively announcing the end of the nawab. Ray deliberately omits this sense of closure in his iteration of the story. While Mir does fire at Mirza, the bullet merely grazes him, and the two simply resume playing chest after the British invade. Ray has confirmed he modified the original’s ending because he “felt it might be taken to symbolise the end of decadence,” implying a finality that Ray sought to avoid.

Captured in Ray’s words is another crucial difference between his vision and Premchand’s: he seeks continuity, while Premchand seeks discontinuity. The finality of the original text’s ending relegates feudal Lucknow to an ancient past disconnected from contemporary India. This is convenient for a Gandhian nationalist like Premchand: once Lucknow has been consigned to the annals of bygone history, and therefore distant memory, it can be absorbed into an overarching nationalist narrative of a glorified Indian past interrupted by British occupation. The rigid boundary between pre-colonial India and British India must be maintained, because only then does the notion of restoring a discrete past cohere. 

It’s for the sake of such discontinuity that Premchand outright erases the 1857 Sepoy Rebellion, which takes place in Lucknow a mere year after the British annexation. That such a rebellion occurred undermines Premchand’s portrayal of an effeminate, politically ignorant Lucknow totally defeated by its foreign occupation. 

Ray, meanwhile, alludes to the 1857 uprising through the invented character of Kallou, the peasant who watches the British army march into Lucknow. The boy’s delight that the chess players are carrying a gun that they (supposedly) intend to use to fight the British, and his lament that no guns went off as the British invaded Lucknow, hints at his future role as ‘freedom fighter’ in the 1857 rebellion. Thus, without showing or even mentioning it, Ray is able to recall the rebellion in the mind of the viewer. He does this for the same reason that he doesn’t kill the chess players: to omit a sense of closure from the story. 

With his pointed last shot of Mir and Mirza resolving to play ‘British’ chess, Ray totally renounces Pramchand’s pretensions of discontinuity. Far from ending, ‘decadent’ feudalism will simply continue under the British, just in British form, while ordinary Indians will continue resisting colonial rule. By refusing to conclude the story of Lucknow’s feudal era with the British invasion, Ray implies the continuation of corrupt British-Indian politics past the ‘memory’ of Lucknow, leaving open the possibility that such corruption still informs, and manifests in, contemporary Indian politics. This is an unthinkable suggestion in postcolonial India, where the essential greatness of secular nationalism, evidenced by its ostensibly rich political fruit, is gospel. Ray's radicalism likely reflects his disillusionment with Nehruvian nationalism in the face of continuing civil unrest in the 1960s and 1970s—indeed, Ray describes this part of his career as outlining ‘the moral and spiritual collapse of the new urban India . . . and the death of a whole cultural ethos’.[7] Ultimately, Ray refuses to allow the story of Lucknow to end; to do so would cede it to the annals of malleable memory, to a realm of nationalistic romanticism and removal from the contemporary.

Ray’s radically different take on Premchand’s story thus reflects both his postcolonial and Premchand’s colonial-nationalist contexts. But while Ray does critique many of the assumptions that undergird Premchand’s nationalist vision, he still unquestioningly accepts some of the original text's more dubious elements. Since he drains Lucknow’s culture of the intrinsically corrupting qualities it possesses in Premchand’s story, Ray must resort to other means of demonstrating the chess-playing nawabs’ decadence. He primarily does this by showcasing their mutual sexual buffoonery and broken marriages, but in doing so adopts the same narrow British definitions of masculinity and femininity that nationalists like Premchand (and to an extent Gandhi himself) internalized. But ironically, that very misstep demonstrates the difficulty of expunging colonial narratives from national memory, a reality that Ray seeks to showcase in his portrayal of Lucknow at the eve of its annexation.

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[1] Tcghai. "Prem Chand's story 'Shatranj Ke Khiladi' in English." INTERACTIONS. January 01, 1970. http://ghai-tc.blogspot.com/2013/07/prem-chands-shatranj-ke-khiladi-in.html.

[2] Dube, Reena. Satyajit Ray. The chess players and postcolonial theory: postcolonialism and film theory. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

[3] Pritchett, Frances. “"THE CHESS PLAYERS": FROM PREMCHAND TO SATYAJIT RAY.” txt_chess_players, www.columbia.edu/itc/mealac/pritchett/00fwp/published/txt_chess_players.html.

[4] "Satyajit Ray's The Chess Players." Satyajit Ray's The Chess Players | History Today.. http://www.historytoday.com/andrew-robinson/satyajit-rays-chess-players.

[5] Sleeman, W. H., and Peter Reeves. Sleeman in Oudh: an abridgement of W.H. Sleemans A journey through the kingdom of Oude in 1849-50.

[6] Satyajit Ray, "My Wajid Ali Is Not Effete And Effeminate," The Illustrated Weekly of India, 31 December 1978, pp. 49-51.

[7] Chandak Sengoopta (2011) ‘The fruits of independence’: Satyajit Ray, Indian nationhood and the spectre of empire, South Asian History and Culture, 2:3, 374-396, DOI:



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