23 October 2021, 10:00 am
Pen, Ink, Action: Satyajit Ray at 100
Programme Type
Films and Exhibitions
End Date
05 November 2021, 07:00 pm

A King’s Gambit

An exhibition of original period costumes created for the 1977 film by Satyajit Ray, Shatranj Ke Khilari (The Chess Players). Based on research and original sketches by Ray himself, and Shama Zaidi; created by local dressmakers. Apart from costumes, the display also includes footwear, turbans, costume jewelry, stills and working stills, copies of letters and pages from Ray’s kheror khata (script book).

From the collection of Suresh Jindal, producer of Shatranj Ke Khilari

Research and text: Indrani Majumdar, translator of Ray



Inauguration of the exhibition by Dr. Ashis Nandy, Trustee, IIC on Saturday, 23rd October 2021 at 10 am


Chess, Costumes and a Crown

Shatranj Ke Khilari based on Premchand’s 1924 short-story, is only one of two films made by Satyajit Ray in the Hindi language. From the opening sequence, Ray adroitly locates the period setting of the film with a shot of the woven silk sleeves and ornate rings of the chess players. As the camera zooms out to bring the two players, Nawabs Mir Roshan Ali and Mirza Sajjad Ali, into focus, what strikes you first is the grandeur of it all — the rich backdrop, lavish decor, stylish artefacts and the magnificent costumes worn by the indolent royals. This sartorial splendour comes even more alive on screen as each of the 30 characters is introduced. Every individual, including in the crowd scenes, whether the nobility, dancers, retinues or visitors, are defined by their distinct attire. The costumes reflect the detailed and fastidious research that went into the production of Shatranj Ke Khilari. According to Satyajit Ray, ‘I did a lot of cultural and historical research before making this film. I was helped by the publication of the English translation of a famous book in Urdu…entitled Lucknow, the last phase of an Eastern Culture. It is an encyclopedia of the life and times of Wajid Ali Shah’.

The costumes were studied in museums, paintings, engravings and old photographs. Salar Jung Museum, Falaknuma Palace of the Nizams of Hyderabad and City Palace Museum of Jaipur were primary sources for the film’s research. Archival images available at the erstwhile Bourne & Shepherd photographic studio in Calcutta were another significant resource. The Victoria Memorial offered up an oil painting of Wajid Ali Shah, which acted as the primary reference for the king’s physical appearance. The India Office Library and Imperial War Museum in London added other essential layers to the research.

The material for the outfits spanned a variety of velvet, brocade, silk and even wool as the setting was winter. They were procured from Hyderabad, Lucknow and Calcutta.  It was a deliberate decision to opt for muted hues – gold, copper, bronze, pastel shades of green, blue and peach.  According to Ray the Kathak scene in particular was inspired from an engraving of that period.  Bansi Chandragupta, the art director from Bombay, scoured his city for authentic props and finally found them in Calcutta. Quite a few heirlooms were generously loaned by Wajid Ali Shah's great-great grandson, Anjam Qudr, a resident of Metia Burj in Calcutta.

After an elaborate consultation with the National War Museum in London, Andrew Mollo, a British expert on military uniforms, did the sketches for the military costumes, which were arranged sequentially according to scouts, cavalry, horse artillery, general and staff, infantry, heavy artillery and baggage. Red and gold, blue and silver, red and yellow and white uniforms were produced for the Bengal cavalry. In this context Shama Zaidi who was closely associated with the film categorically mentioned that ‘As this was a pre-mutiny sequence, army uniforms before the mutiny were not standardised.’

Ray's biographer Marie Seton writes, ‘For the sake of accuracy, the ADC uniforms were ordered in London. When they arrived they were found to be summer uniforms but the order was for winter! Even the helmet was incorrect. It was Shama Zaidi who improvised a means of making them look nearly right’.

On display are a wide range of achkans, angrakhas, jamas, pyjamas, shararas, ornate cholis, turbans, pagris, silver ornaments, and footwear from Suresh Jindal's personal collection. Also on view are letters exchanged by Ray and Jindal; sketches prepared for the dresses along with their fabric swatches; as well as sketches of the jewellery by Manju Saraogi who fabricated the costumes for the film. Two volumes of kheror khata (clothbound notebook) digitised by the National Digital Library of India are also exhibited. Finally and significantly, the exhibition showcases the crown worn by the king of Awadh.

For the first time ever, A King’s Gambit exhibition showcases the original costumes from Shatranj Ke Khilari and offers a glimpse into the magical world of Wajid Ali Shah.


- Indrani Majumdar