From Stone Age...

It is the unacknowledged contribution of countries like India that liberated themselves from colonial rule to create discourse for the postmodern and at the same time reclaim that which is sought to be erased or inundated out of existence.

Published : Oct 02, 2013 12:30 IST

Kumar Shahani with K.K. Mahajan shooting "Kasba".

Kumar Shahani with K.K. Mahajan shooting "Kasba".


FIFTY years after the birth of cinema, the most important of all the 20th century arts, India’s Independence brings with it the partition of the subcontinent.

It fits in with the age of the nuclear bomb, of splintering and parcelling the earth between militarist powers, of setting up puppet regimes, destructing all legitimate aspirations of self-determination into narrower and meaner modes of identification, giving rise to murderous nativisms, infinitely.

Against all this, the resistance put up by Gandhians and socialists and internationalists inspires musicians, artists, poets, dancers, actors and film-makers to seek an integration between different languages and idioms.

I do not know how the languages of Gautama Buddha and Jesus went out of circulation.

I only know that image-making and music have been able to preserve the truth, beauty and purity of their thought as the Quran perhaps records revelation. In my films the iconic dancer and the unrecognised musician have brought that inscription of their own struggle into the perfection of image.

In the making of a cinematic work, people of several different disciplines, origins and artistic and technical predilections come together, breathe together and yet be themselves, through all the violence that film-making entails. So it is with the spectators too. In the dream world of surrounding darkness they can either introspect or give themselves up to cathartic aggression.


Walking with D.D. Kosambi on the hills behind the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune—50 years after the first feature film was made in India—I learnt to distinguish between the marks of erosion on stone and the etched evocations of experience in spirals, the goddesses becoming conscious of their own terrible splendour.

The microliths that Kosambi wedges out from the rubble would carve patterns out of rock surfaces later to become the indestructible aksharas of tradition, resplendent language, history, sangeet , the spectral composite arts of cinema, of installations, of long-distance signals preserved to come alive in another time, another place with dimensionalities yet to be discovered within the curves of ornaments illuminating the sky.

Between nature and culture there is an accord in the spaces and temporalities that lie within emptiness inhabited by light, sound, smell, colour, invisible touch, intangible taste—like jharokha s of knowledge.


Dadasaheb Phalke had with his own hands and eyes, in the look and gesture of his kin, begun to give life to itihas as an interpretation of history. The seemingly real, silent biography of Jesus Christ inspired him to bring legend, myth, icon into the modernist challenge of representation in as profound a way as Raja Ravi Varma before him.

Amrita Sher-Gil was born in faraway Hungary, opening her eyes to the horrors of the First World War.

That was the beginning of the collapse of a universal order that we continue to witness a century later without the montage that Sergei Eisenstein proposed, to help us overcome the numbing violence that surrounds us.

Energy, meaning, rasa emerge only through non-linear juxtaposition of colour, swara , overtone with all its depth and resonance, enunciating the sequence.

For, montage transcended all fetishisms attached to the objects of reality, including human beings. It drew attention instead to the relationships that lie between one and the other. It took off from D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance , which had tried to show civilisational upheavals through a refrain of “the hand that rocks the cradle”.


What rules the world today? Steven Spielberg after Madonna. For the rest, wage slavery and corporate governance. A system where the superstructure is so powerful that even the President of the United States of America says that he can do nothing about the injustices of the system that he has inherited when it comes to defending an individual.


The state is an overblown bubble about to burst at every human breath blown into it.

For every nuance of a rasa , Koodiyattam brings together the gesture in relationship to the eye, to the heartbeat, the heartbeat to the breath. Will the multiplexes find a suitable acoustics for our being? Or the imagination to flower?


I meet Robert Bresson’s wife, Mylene, after 40 years in a small crêperie in L’isle de Cité, Paris.

I ask her about her efforts at preserving and screening Bresson’s work. She tells me of her ennuis.

She also tells me that the subjunctive has almost disappeared from the French language.


I make a film called Khayal Gatha , and when it had to get subtitles in English, I was told that even as I put across a composition by Amir Khusrau I may not use the subjunctive. It is disallowed. I cannot begin to accept that condition. The exhibition of the film gets delayed by 20 years and more.

May we not wish or desire or aspire anymore?


The centenary of cinema is celebrated with great élan in France. I am in Paris with an Indian delegation staying where the Lumiere brothers had the first of their exhibitions of the cinematograph at Salon de l’Inde.

When we saw their “Train Arriving at a Platform”… my guru Ritwik Ghatak nudged me and said, “What exhilaration it brings to us each time we see this short snippet of a film!” But when I walk the streets in Paris again with friends who had received the stinging blows of the baton in May 1968, they tell me that there is no hope in wanting to change the world.


A couple of months before May, a satyagraha takes place at Trocadero, led by Jean-Luc Godard. Amongst those who are walking with us are not only European film-makers but also Krishna Riboud, a patron of art, cinema and the festivals of India, and Dilip Padgaonkar, later to become our outstanding journalist and interlocutor in Kashmir. Godard actually had his spectacles battered by a baton, recalling the “Odessa Step” sequence.


Epic realisations are so palpable and abstract at the same time that one is struck by the wonder and awe of the entire creation as it were. I happened to be in Calcutta (now Kolkata) on the day Ritwik left us. I went to College Street to mourn his death in anonymity. Recalling the scenes from Meghe Dhaka Tara . I had first met him when he had brought his film Subarnarekha to Bombay (now Mumbai) in search of a distributor. I was one of the three persons at this film society to see and “approve” of the film!

After the screening, I walked and walked and felt that this wonderful world of ours and the subcontinental civilisation which contains all the known mainstreams of languages, more than 200 different types of flutes, an infinite number of shrutis and as many colours in the dyes that our minerals and vegetables yield, needs a constant epic renewal.

When I saw Titash Ekti Nadir Nam in 1989 along with Mani Kaul and John Abraham and many younger colleagues at Pesaro, I realised how deeply Ritwik had taken us all along to a realisation well beyond the horizons of contemporary art.


While Rabindranath Tagore looks to establish a cinematic discourse independent of the word, within parameters which are at least pan-Asian, film-makers such as Franz Austin inspire themselves from the architectural splendour of Shah Jahan to create balances of light, free of the grim shadows of Expressionist perversion that preceded the Nazi takeover of a country aspiring to liberty.

If we celebrate the great moments of our culture like Sant Tukaram , we are likely to go beyond the story to the underlying aspirations that govern our lives.

With the expanding frame of exhibition and transmission, it is possible that the suppressed individualities which diverse cultures generate can actively free themselves. To mutate into a compassion that matches the awareness of a Bodhisattva. In international cinema, the performances of Vishnupant Pagnis as Sant Tukaram and Maria Falconetti in the Passion of Joan of Arc almost make a promise that every member of the audience can indeed rise to the same spiritual stature.

We do not think that attention spans of less than four seconds are desirable.

For both action and meditation to be meaningful, to signify, and to transform the signified is what perhaps we can begin to do once again. By embracing the forms of attention in the cinema as in life that exist in our daily world of dhyana .

To make our forms amenable to bring forth the individuated swabhava , we have to pass through the obscenity of our globally capitalised markets. Rather than the creative source which transcends any manual for imaging—be it that of Hollywood or of a manufacturer of a recorder or a camera, or the instruments and logic of digital interface.

It is the unacknowledged contribution of countries like India that liberated themselves from colonial rule, to both create discourse for the postmodern and at the same time reclaim that which is sought to be erased or inundated out of existence.

Kumar Shahani studied Screenplay Writing and Advanced Direction at the Film and Television Institute of India. He was a student of Ritwik Ghatak there. He also studied under the Marxist historian D.D. Kosambi. A French government scholarship took him to the Institut des hautes études cinématographiques (IDHEC) in France. He also assisted French film director Robert Bresson on Une Femme Douce. His first feature film, Maya Darpan , was made in 1972.

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