The epic in a pixel

Print edition : December 12, 2014

Director Rajan and Kumar Shahani in 'When the Bird became a Wave'. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Kumar Shahani in "When the Bird became a Wave". Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

WE live in times of the flattened epic—flattened by religious zealotry of the kind that denies and disallows the fascinating variety of the Three Hundred Ramayanas of A.K. Ramanujan and may, who knows, even bear down upon the mirthfully spun Ramayana of R.K. Narayan. Retelling the epic, in short, has become risky business unless you tell it like a haloed liturgical tale. This motivated and forced homogenisation of the epic, reducing a multidimensional, polyvalent, dynamic, protean imaginary to a cribbed narrative of blind faith, almost to a fundamentalist religious text, is an affront to the intelligence, ingenuity and creativity of a people engaged with it at multiple levels over generations. The endangered epic sullenly stares us in the face. From this low point, the prolific creative responses it triggered in better times and circumstances appear almost unreal. The epic form that informs Kumar Shahani’s cinema is one such fine and delectable memory. Already memory, not because Kumar’s cinematic journey is over, but because, as Laleen Jayamanne observes in her just published The Epic Cinema of Kumar Shahani (Indiana Press University), his is the kind of cinema “that now needs the refuge of the museum to survive and live again”.

Jayamanne is, in fact, admittedly reflecting the Chilean filmmaker Raul Ruiz’s opinion that works like his or of the Belgian director Chantal Akerman have literally no place in a market weaned on the Hollywood idiom and will need to be seen in a museum that will preserve and exhibit them. Ruiz perhaps also had in mind the related point (about why his work was suited to the museum) he made in an interview (not cited in Jayamanen’s book) that his films “would have to be seen many times, like objects in the house, like a painting. They have to have a minimum of complexity”. The works of Mani Kaul and Ritwik Ghatak, too, Jayamanne thinks, share this quality of belonging to the museum rather than the given marketplace. She then proceeds to push the appositeness of the museum metaphor in terms of the obsolescing medium and technology of celluloid film and makes the rather emphatic point that Kumar’s “passionate commitment to working on celluloid film as distinct from digital technology (which for him is like a sketch pad and a means of unprecedented graphic manipulation)… is linked to his understanding of the evolutionary importance of light and movement to human vision. The ethnographic museum in its search for that which is irretrievably lost to life will also no doubt compete to preserve ‘lost time’—complex human and non human durations and rhythms (rendered obsolete by digital acceleration and speed), of which certain films will be the only experimental testimony or sensory-affective archive.”

While this may have some validity in terms of Kumar’s eye for light and the deliberate pace or rhythm derived by the controlled arrangement of the temporal-spatial in his creative work, it seems at odds with an artistic sensibility which comes across also as ambitiously digital, in fact more than most other filmmakers of his and successive generations. His nonlinear rather than linear, dispersive and lateral rather than conflative, ken, his privileging breadth without being sucked into the centrality or focus of depth, his simultaneous multiple referencing, are cognitively and creatively digital traits. Indeed, it is this that keeps Kumar’s mind excitedly alive to the possibilities of the digital age without abandoning his flair for the epic form.

Jayamanne herself notes the digital nature—although she does not recognise it as, or call it, that—of the epical. “The epic optic,” she notes, “is not anthropomorphic. It has multiple foci, it is not centred; that is to say, it is not enamoured of linear perspectival vision and is neither anthropomorphic nor anthropocentric.”

She goes on to point out that for Kumar the “epic perception is not centripetal but rather centrifugal”, and that he compares his epic vision with that of Yudhishtira in his archery contest with Arjuna in the Mahabharata. While Arjuna hits the target bang on, Yudhishtira, a consummate archer himself, is unable to unleash his arrow because he sees not just the target but everything else.

“He sees,” writes Jayamanne, “everything in equal focus. Shahani uses this epic tale as a parable of his own perception of the cinematic apparatus as one with the potential to confer value on all things equally. It follows, then, that targeted perception is a reduction of this virtuality, as all else must be obliterated to hit the dead centre.” Kumar, here, makes a conscious choice of an equalised digital sense perception in which everything is nodal; where there is not a centre-margin relationship or hierarchy, but multiple centres. It is a radically different equation and valorisation.

For a better sense of Kumar’s digitally proliferating, epic, imagination, it may be pertinent to liberally sample from the aphoristic vision statement he drafted (unpublished, but to which this writer is privy) for a project essentially conceived by him (and of which, by way of disclosure, this writer is a part) to set up an international aesthetics institute in Kerala with government support—no sooner was the project floated than it was caught in the alternation of Communist- and Congress-led ministries in the State and will, hopefully, come unstuck from the indecision soon. “At first”, goes an early part of the statement, “the creation of myths provided the clues and the paradoxes, embedded in experiences and formalised into ritual. Glimpses of causality were structured into narratives that were intended to be unified and complete. The great awe with which we still look at the universe continues to yield systems that claim autonomously transformative processes of understanding.”

“One imagines”, the statement continues shortly after, “that Alexandria, Taxila and other great, possibly yet undiscovered linked centres of learning that went beyond syllogisms and linear numerical functions addressed the universe. Strangely , the very religions and the rationalities that had a stake in governing the imagination with a common code of ethics in accordance with the laws of nature (science?), further exacerbated the differences between the purusharthas and inevitably in the methodologies and disciplines that constitute the ambience of thought.”

At another point the statement alludes to the digitisation effect of the numerous expanding galaxies made known to us through the Hubble telescope: “The inclusiveness of a constantly individuating and an infinitely expanding universe will lead to a far more compassionate form of intellection where each event is like a redshift, or Doppler’s effect, the stretching of wavelengths treating both the self and the objective ambience as creating a myriad forms which are not locked into a kaleidoscope.” In the same vein it speaks of “a mode of existence [that] has no location of any dimension or ideology as it can spread radically from any point that it chooses to take off to unknown destinations”. At another point the statement takes “the development of the idea of fluxion— the rate of change [derivative] of a continuously varying quantity for which ‘Western’ thinkers credit Newton”—and claims that “by a method of the calculus, quite different from Newton’s and many years before him, it was developed in Kerala. It was the mathematical articulation of great consequence not only in physics, but also in the arts and literature. ‘ Kshane kshane yatnavatamupaiti tadeva rupam ramaniyataya-h’”, which would translate as, “the newness of every moment engenders the jouissiant play of forms”.

The statement suggests that “to act upon the near-divine continuum with evolution’s gift of nimble alertness, we have to heighten our enunciation and overcome the uni-dimensionality of the signal. The multi-valence of signs can go beyond classical resonances if the experiences of each and every community are observed through ‘universals’ proposed by their own histories as well as those that have had a momentum from a different vortex of development”.

M.R. Rajan’s video amble (yes, that describes it better than a documentary) with Kumar titled When the bird became a wave, and also, like Laleen Jayamanne’s book, just released, reinforces the horizontally flitting, without being fleeting, liveliness of this virtuoso’s thought process. Culled out from some 20 hours of casual recording done with user-friendly handheld digtal cameras by Rajan and his friend Sasikumar over five years (2010 to 2014) and in the course of random travel and chats with Kumar whenever he visited Kerala in this period, this 72-minute work (there is also a longer two-hour-plus version) seems to erase any difference in mood or consciousness between the camera being on and off. A natural unselfconsciousness draws us in and carries us along, too, eliding the distinction or distance between those present on the screen and those present to view it.

Serendipitous encounters and interactions are interspersed with recapitulations (like about when Kumar brought the choreographer Pina Bausch to Kerala and to see the Koodiyattam maestro Ammanur Madhava Chakyar perform), uplifting moments with nature which make him break into song, impromptu enchanting musical sessions, memories of Bresson and Ghatak, and ruminations on the human body and the consumerist society. Among the situations that cling to our mind, apart from a brief tremulous vignette of Ammanur himself in resplendent subtle form (which Rajan has inserted from another work of his on the legendary artiste), is a musical to and fro between Kumar and the popular Malayalam playback singer, P. Jayachandran, and a sustained train sequence towards the end where a sense of sombreness and finality slowly descends on Kumar as he sits by a window whose glass is broken in a corner and bandaged with brown tape. The train ride is in its own way a rite of passage from the realm of the imaginary to that of the real, where profound time-neutral thoughts give way to practical considerations like getting the travel agent to book his flight back into the present.