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The museum as refuge for film: the case of Kumar Shahani's epic cinema.

 India is an ancient civilization and has a mind of its own on each
 issue. But our views are moving in parallel with the US and
 Anglo-Saxon world. (1)

 Sanjay Baru

 History in India, as the historian D.D.Kosambi liked to show,
 often expresses itself geographically. (2)

 Ashish Rajadhyaksha


Recently I went to a spice shop in Sydney, one of those that rents out videos and DVDs, looking for Lagaan (2001) to be told by the saleswoman, with a decisive South Asian shake of head and hand gesture, "That's an old film, it's finished." Also recently, I was informed that the negative for Kumar Shahani's 1988 film Khyal Gatha had congealed in a lab in Chennai; "... old film, it's finished"? Not quite, a dupe negative can be struck from the remaining good print, I am told, if the Indian Film Archive acts fast before it gets damaged as well. Even as Hindi cinema in its Bollywood avatar enters the main film circuits and the vernacular, becoming a fairly familiar genre here in Australia, the accelerated obsolescence of films as commodities makes the problem of the archiving of Indian films a pressing one.

This essay, essentially an introduction to Shahani's cinema (part of a larger project), (3) will sketch out how he individuates his cinematic vocabulary by developing an epic idiom, the lineaments of which will be fleshed out through a brief analysis of Maya Darpan (Mirror of Illusion, 1972). Shahani received the 1998 Prince Claus award of the Netherlands for the creation of a "new cinematic idiom," an epic idiom. The Rotterdam Film Festival showcased his work along with other innovative independent and avant-garde films. The assuredly emergent epic idiom perceptible in Maya Darpan, may be understood by examining the principles of movement and design governing the compositional features of the block printed design called Ajrakh, indigenous to Gujarat, Rajasthan (the desert regions of Western India) and the province of Sind in Pakistan.

Shahani was born in Larkana, Sind, in 1940 and his family moved to India as refugees with the partition of India after independence from Britain in 1947. The political frontier violently established between India and Pakistan cannot obliterate the cultural practices connecting this region, which according to historians of world trade, such as Fernand Braudel, constituted a major zone of commerce (with links to the silk route) prior to European colonialism, entailing exchange of goods, skills and technologies and the mingling of peoples over a long duration. In addition, Larkana, Sind, is the archaeological site of Mohenjo-daro, the ancient Indus Valley civilization of India circa 2000 B.C. There is a fascinating link between the bronze Dancing-Girl figurine found at this site (now in the National Museum in Delhi), and the "main character" Taran in Maya Darpan, which I will discuss later in terms of Shahani's iconic conception of character.


What India does have in terms of its civilisationallegacy are its epics, myths and legends rather than chronicled history. One of Shahani's mentors, the historian of ancient India, D. D. Kosambi, attuned him to the sedimentations of time and human praxis in myth and the epics as well as in archaeological artefacts, even the most humble and mundane. Shahani's cinematic project entails a modern reformulation of the ancient tradition of epic narration to address the contemporary and he says that his task is made easier by the fact that epic forms are still performed and therefore alive in India, unlike, say, the case of Bertolt Brecht in the 1920s who heroically developed an epic theatrical idiom in the absence of a living epic tradition in Europe. Walter Benjamin who wrote eloquent commentaries supporting Brecht's unfashionable formulation of epic theatre, describes epic duration, albeit in a spatial image, in his essay "The Story Teller":
 One must imagine the transformation of epic forms occurring in
 rhythms comparable to those of the change that has come over the
 earth's surface in the course of thousands of centuries. Hardly any
 other forms of human communications have taken shape more slowly,
 been lost more slowly. (88)

 Memory is the epic faculty par excellence ... It creates the chain
 of tradition which passes a happening on from generation to
 generation (97-98) ...

Here, as elsewhere in his work, one of Benjamin's most pressing concerns was the problem of the transmissibility of experience in modernity where, what he calls, "the chain of tradition" has been brutally severed, lost irretrievably.

For Shahani too, there is no pristine intact tradition after colonialism, nor is retrieval of a pre-colonial tradition an option. Invention on the basis of what remains, in a modern, decolonising context is his problematic. To further this end Shahani researched epic forms cross-culturally on a Homi Bhabha Fellowship. He studied Indian theatrical forms including Kudiyattam, Tamasha and the Indian epics (Mahabharata in particular), and the work of European film directors who worked in an epic mode such as Jancso and Eisenstein, in addition to Brecht. His terms of reference are therefore both national and international, inflected by the great modern European traditions of political cinema and theatre, which were also vital points of reference for Ritwik Ghatak, his other mentor at the Indian film school.

The splendor of the Benjaminian image of epic duration, illuminating like a flash of light, is however insufficient to work out how exactly time is invested with performative power in the epic mode. The Aristotelian typology of literary forms is instructive here. I refer to his distinction between the lyric, the dramatic and the epic, in his Poetics. Traditionally the lyrical mode, accompanied by the lyre, expresses subjective, intimate feelings; the dramatic entailing action involves dialogue and requires at least two persons. The epic as a mode of narration, as story telling, in its temporal expansiveness can incorporate both the dramatic and the lyric and as such has a greater structural flexibility to vary its mode of enunciation and address. This is possible because the epic mode is not wedded to a dramatic, chronological mode, nor is it limited to the sensuous expressivity of the lyrical. It has a demonstrative power beyond an anthropocentric point of view. Hence the image is not limited to an anthropomorphic scale and rhythm. The idea of epic cinema to be formulated here is a technical concept (though it does have other dimensions as well), pertaining to a particular organization of time and narration where time acquires a maximum freedom from chronological unfolding: let's call this freedom time as rhythm. (4)

Most Hollywood films produced, marketed and distributed as epic are in fact technically dramatic in conception (true to the Aristotelian unities of time, place and action), not epic. (5) These films structure time chronologically and subordinate it to the discursive matrix of past, present and future; time enchained--lets call this metrical time. Also the Hollywood conception of epic is a matter of large scale; lots of money, cast of thousands, big themes. While the Hollywood form of the epic film, because of its overall dramatic inflection, has become very nearly a "universal language of cinema", actualising D.W. Griffith's global dream for American cinema, Shahani's avant-garde formulation of a cinematic epic idiom remains "foreign" (6) even within India where the popular epic melodrama of the Hindi cinema does employ certain epic devices. With Shahani, the epic mode is not subjected to an overall dramatic treatment, nor is it a matter of the application of a set of devices deemed epic, such as, for instance, songs and dances in direct address. Dramatic epic films structurally lack temporal freedom because the commodified mode of the dramatic must of necessity connect everything into one causal, central narrative line. In contrast, the epic has the power to create differential rhythms, multiple centres and lines, series, which do not have to converge.

The epic optic has multiple foci, it is not centred, that is to say it is not enamoured of perspectival vision; is neither anthropomorphic, nor anthropocentric. As Benjamin said it is about the cosmos and the earth of which humans and animals and plants and minerals are a part. It is the activation of rhythms, which create the structural ability to pay attention to the seemingly insignificant and acknowledge differential temporalities. When Shahani was studying film in Paris he had the chance of an apprenticeship with Robert Bresson who was at the time making Une Femme Douce (1967). Shahani observed Bresson's working method and asked him why he used a 50mm lens (the so-called "normal lens"), and it is this question which made Bresson decide to permit Shahani to be an apprentice. Shahani in his practice as filmmaker and theorist of capitalist commodity culture addresses the Western perspectival bias built into the optics of lensing and its consequent aesthetic limitations of convergence. In the final section I will demonstrate how in Maya Darpan he redresses the centering and convergence built into the lens through epic strategies of decentering, divergence and disjunction.

Shahani says that within a living epic tradition the shift of registers from the dramatic to the lyric and back again to narration can be done with greater ease and flexibility. Supple articulation and variation in the mode of address are a direct result of the rhythmic power the epic mode can harness. The translation of the living theatrical epic idioms into a technological medium such as film entails drawing out new powers and qualities from the cinematic apparatus. The ensuing rhythmic density of Shahani's epic films is what makes the Museum the ideal refuge for them at this moment of digitally accelerated global audio-visual culture and history.


I am concerned with a mode of cinema that now needs the refuge of the Museum to survive and live again, that is, to be seen and engaged with. In the mid 1990s the Chilean/French director Raul Ruiz said that very soon a certain kind of film--his, those of Chantal Akerman among others--will need the Museum for its continued existence/exhibition as they will have no market in the commercial film circuits driven by the power of Hollywood cinema and its model of "Central Conflict" drama. (8) I think that Shahani's works (and those of several other Indian filmmakers like Ghatak and Mani Kaul) also belong now to the category of films Ruiz is concerned with. These films may be said to have an investment in mnemotechnics, techniques of memory and complex durations.

Shahani's five feature films (Maya Darpan [1972], Tarang [Wave, 1984], Khyal Gatha [1988], Kasba [1990], Char Adhyay [Four Chapters, 1997] and the two short films, Bhavantaran [Immanence, 1991] and Bamboo Flute [2000]), were all funded and produced by the public institutions set up by the Nehruvian Nationalist State to promote Indian cinema and culture after Independence. This public culture, protected from the vicissitudes of the market, much like the New Australian cinema and the New German cinema, gave rise to two major avant-garde directors, Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani. In India, their work has been screened at festivals and on television, but not theatrically released due to the lack of a policy for the exhibition of state-funded films. If the Museum is to be the refuge for such films, then it is pertinent to ask, "What kind of museum?"

The institution of the Natural History Museum may soon find it necessary to preserve the extinct species Film (just as it preserves the remains of extinct organic species or exhibits remains of lost cities like Petra), if the digital revolution renders celluloid and the entire cinematic apparatus as a medium of registration of images with light obsolete. Neuro-scientists with an interest in synaesthesia will no doubt be invited to conduct experiments to determine if and how film (light, colour, movement), stimulates the sensorium differently from the digital signal. Kumar Shahani's passionate, indeed intransigent commitment to working on film as distinct from digital technology (which for him is like a sketch pad and a means of unprecedented graphic manipulation only) might become a useful point of reference. His cinematic preference is linked to his understanding of the evolutionary importance of light and movement to human vision and because he thinks that film as an indexical medium stimulates the sensorium differently from the digital signal. 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 experiential testimony. But I think finally good sense will prevail and the Art Museum will come to the rescue as it will be deemed the ideal location for such films because there, film will have its kin group, the other arts, and will not feel as though it were in an archival morgue. The Art Museum as memory machine will in turn gain mimetic capital, which cannot be bought by hard currency because the terms of such exchange are volatile and unpredictable and do not obey the law of equivalence. Time (and one might add movement, light and colour too), in mimetic exchange eludes the equation, so much time for so much money; measureless time. (9)


It is evident that the different art forms address the sensorium differently through the composed material specific to each practice. They may be viewed as our mentors in sensitising our perceptions and deranging their habitual modes of pragmatic, functional every-day operation. They are our sensory surplus (capital), an archive of percepts and affects pertaining to all of the senses. They are mimetically deployed when given the freedom to mingle and cooperate instead of being subjected to pulsed, stratified and hierarchised control through various classificatory procedures and institutional imperatives. An irregular co-penetration of the senses is what neuroscientists call synaesthesia; mingling of the senses. It is for this reason that I do not use the familiar phrases "cultural heritage" or "cultural capital" to refer to the other arts but have had to formulate the idea of "virtual mimetic capital". "Virtual" is the name of a particular conception of time as duration in the philosophy of Henri Bergson, (10) which Gilles Deleuze explores in Bergsonism. It is a term that should be seen in relation to what Deleuze calls the "Actual," the name for a conception of time as perpetual passing, in fact the very definition of the present moment. Actualisation on the other hand is a process of making the virtual, actual; and this very process can also work in reverse and become a counteractualisation, creating complex series resisting and diverting the image of time as arrow.

The other arts, for these filmmakers, may be conceptualised as belonging to the concept of time as virtual, as "pure memory" or the past. Complex series and circuits drawn between the virtual and the actual may give depth to the image; a depth understood as temporal. The rhythmic complexity of cinematic circuits and series, between the virtual and the actual, can be far more intricate and supple than the discursive, linear temporal categories of past, present and future, which obey laws of syntax and grammar foreign to the movement of time. Dramatic films operate on a stable discursive temporal terrain of past, present, and future whereas epic cinema destabilises the discursive sense of time; a vertigo of time as well as temporal play. Each of Shahani's films engage with prior art/craft forms, in Maya Darapan textiles, sculpture and architecture, in Tarang, the mise en scene of Kudiyattam (a form of Sanskrit theatre), in Khyal Gatha, Mughal miniatures, and in Kasba, the Pahari miniatures. When one adds to these the importance of classical Indian music to Shahani's conception of sequencing and editing (working against a causally driven plot), one can begin to understand the complex aesthetic matrices operative in his work.

Shahani belongs to a group of international auteurs (including among others, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Glauber Rocha, Stanley Kubrick and Jacques Rivette) who create an active relationship with other, pre-cinematic art forms. Robert Bresson also spoke of the vitality of this engagement in his answer to two Dutch students of cinema in their filmed interview with the director. (11) I think that these directors create for themselves an "archive" of aesthetic stuff (percepts and affects), serviceable to their work in film. To put this differently, painting for Pasolini, theatre for Rivette and Rocha, painting and theatre for Kubrick, and painting and textiles, dance/theatre and music, sculpture and architecture for Shahani offer a virtual mimetic sphere to the actuality of their films. Thereby the pre-cinematic arts and film may be intertwined in complex circuits and series creating various unpredictable moves. They are unpredictable because I think what they do is not simply extract a repeatable constant from the prior art (or craft) forms but use them as catalytic forces for continuous variation. These filmmakers are great auteurs who have worked in cinema across major technological changes, for anywhere between 30 to 50 years. And I believe that their ability to do so on their own terms is due partly to their relationship to past art forms of their choice. There is a desire for theatre and painting, dance and music, ... in their work and so these ancient art forms come forth to their beckoning, whispering to them "as you desire me," and they do yield a vital force. Art museums devoted to exhibiting artefacts such as textiles, costumes, objects, decorative arts, as well as painting, sculpture, photography and installations and architecture will provide a milieu more hospitable than the movie theatres and even the independent cinematheques for films of this kind. Imaginative curatorial practices, with an eye, ear and taste for synaesthetic minglings that might nourish our modes of thinking, may create links between these art forms to maximise the virtual lines of connection among them. (12)

The Museum as an institution devoted to both contemporary and historical art work predisposes audience towards a more relaxed relationship to time despite the fact that we usually rush through centuries of art in a few minutes, much like the three characters who hold hands and run through the Louvre in Jean-Luc Godard's film Bande A Part (A Band of Outsiders, 1965). Despite this tendency, there is a lack of anxiety, even an active curiosity about "difficult" unfamiliar work within the museum, in the sense of a tolerance for that which is not immediately accessible and intelligible in contemporary art and work from foreign countries and distant eras.


Shahani's interest in the pre-cinematic arts is not an ethnographic documentary one, showcasing the formidable "Civilisational Heritage of Ancient India;" he is no nativist proposing a neo-traditionalist aesthetic. Nor is he a neoliberalist exploiting the cultural archive for instantly consumable "sensory thrills" as some Hindi films once did and now Bollywood does in accelerated frenzy in the global market. (13) Shahani assumes his right to make films that are universal but in a singular modern cinematic idiom forged with the rich aesthetic resources of his culture. Such ambition is clearly different from the American Griffith's ambition of developing "the universal language of cinema" which despite its seemingly democratic appeal is a totalising vision of cinema in the name of populism. For Shahani the act of engaging with tradition is an act of tightrope walking, always a precarious equilibrium, fraught with danger; to work in a tradition means to renew it; while repetition of a constant is inimical to renewal, continuous variation is not. Shahani's films do not produce a strong authorial signature in the way that the films of his two cinematic gurus (Ghatak and Bresson) do. As I noted earlier, this strange reserve about the signature is linked to Shahani's stated desire to avoid becoming a brand name to himself. We can best understand this by looking at the paradigm of spatial composition integral to the textile design of Ajrakh.


Cloth--cotton, organza, satin, silk ... of many colours, textures and weaves, some a drab white, worn with endless washing and wear by a widowed aunt, hanging on a clothes line, some luxurious, of many blended colours, preserved in an old dusty trunk (a dead mother's trousseau), and saris in the wardrobe of a young daughter/ niece, arranged neatly, starched and pressed, some in primary colours of red and yellow. There is also the widowed father in his elaborate, pastel turbans and pristine white kurtas. An array of woven textiles, both stitched and unstitched (an important distinction this), blouses, skirts, kurtas and saris, turbans, curtains, rugs and sheets, perform vibrantly and silently in Maya Darpan.

It is the lure of the colours, textures, designs, movements and above all the affective force of the woven material in this film, which led me to research the history of textile production in India as a point of entry into this film. Fernand Braudel in the third volume of his Civilization and Capitalism discusses the pre-eminence of Indian textiles in the global market prior to European colonisation:

In fact all India processed silk and cotton, sending an incredible quantity of fabrics, from the most ordinary to the most luxurious, all over the world, since through the Europeans even America received a large share of Indian textiles .... There can be no doubt that until the English industrial revolution, the Indian cotton industry was the foremost in the world, both in the quality and quantity of its output and the scale of its exports. (509)

My researches also lead me to two essential essays on the handblock-printed design, Ajrakh. In her pioneering historical account of its mode of production in Sind, Francoise Cousin says that "the use of Azrak [sic] is widespread throughout the province of Sind, Pakistan" and that it is the Arabic word for deep blue. She goes on to note that "Almost all Azrak are printed against either a blue or a red background." (111) The red cotton sari worn for the longest duration by the central character Taran, in Maya Darpan has an all-over block-printed design in black, which seems to me to allude to Ajrakh motifs and patterning. But I wish to argue that it is not at a literal level of representation but rather at a conceptual level of composition that Ajrakh principles may be though to be operative for Shahani's epic mode of address and enunciation. Lotika Vardarajan makes a brilliant use of Cousin's essay to conceptualise the Sufi metaphysics encoded in its construction of space. These in turn have helped me to conceptualise the main compositional principle of Shahani's elusive first film. However, Ajrakh as such does not physically appear in Maya Darpan and it is I who will use it as a necessary (non-arbitrary), conceptual tool in exploring Shahani's film, this, not only because it was a part of the texture of his life in Sind and well after. Asked if he had Ajrakh in mind when making the film, Shahani replied, "not consciously" and added that the spatio-temporal ideas encoded in its design are part of a paradigm for the making of art and craft as well as sacred architecture, common to several regions of the East, including Persia and India. (14) What then is this paradigm that can be so generative across geographical zones, different religious beliefs, artefacts and technologies?

The matrix of the Ajrakh woodblock, carved by highly skilled craftsmen, is geometric; the rectilinear grid emerging from the regular inter-crossing of horizontal and vertical lines rendered dynamic by diagonal lines. The intersections of these lines create well-defined central nodal points on the grid and the decorative motifs, both figurative, (taken from every-day-life, e.g. seeds, jewel boxes, though highly stylised), and geometric (e.g.circles and squares), are built around it. (Varadarajan 36).

Varadarajan draws out the Sufi metaphysics implicit in the geometry embedded in this craft practice. Stated briefly, the centre is a point, radiating, emanating, energy outward, and the geometry of intersecting lines a precise means of limitless extension in all directions. The grid creates multiple points or centres, ornamented by motifs scaled on lines radiating or emanating from the centre. What is unique to Ajrakh, according to Cousin is the balance between the centripetal and the inexorable centrifugal movement, which is why she eliminates certain motifs as being foreign to Ajrakh. She says that in instances where the central element takes prime importance in regard to the whole, there is a polarisation of these two tendencies rather than a tension or balance. Such motifs that centralise at the expense of the outward movement are said to be foreign to Ajrakh. Cousin implies that the centralising function eliminates the movement of repetition of motifs; repetition is no longer "a decorative necessity imposed by the motif itself" (Cousin 114). The harmony or balance between the centripetal and the centrifugal enabled by the rectilinear grid, according to Varadarajan, creates a sacred geometry; an index of an immanent notion of the sacred. The repetitive decentering on a geometric grid provides a model for creating reticulated movement with no convergence at the vanishing point as in perspectival composition. Multiple centres, incessant divergence and repetition, are ideas that Shahani deploys in his epic mode of construction where there is no centre that draws into itself everything that surrounds it and around which all else revolves. In the final section, I shall use this idea, of the grid with mobile centres (or repetitive decentring of motifs), to demonstrate how Ajrakh principles help create both the epic spatio-temporal composition and also subjectivity in Maya Darpan.


When the idea of a dynamic equilibrium, between a centre and divergent movement outward from it, is thought in relation not to the flat surface of a cloth but the dynamic spatio-temporal movements of Shahani's film in particular, one has a theoretical tool with which to analyse the work of Maya Darpan. The "central character" (I will presently modify this idea or rather the cliche of character "centrality,") of Maya Darpan is a young woman, Taran, who lives in a stately but run-down feudal mansion in a dusty township in Rajasthan (the North West of India), with her father (the Dewan Sahib or prime minister) and aunt who are both widowed. The film, set in the late 50s or early 60s, a time when the utopian moment of Indian nationalism has been clouded, is about the persistence of feudal social and familial relations and their possible dissolution, a story of female emancipation and the slow arrival of modernisation (literacy, industrialisation, housing), into a township. It is a love story across social hierarchies as well. This epochal story is remarkable for the way it is told. Shahani based his film on Nirmal Verma's short story of the same name and set himself the challenge to tell it through movement and colour; a properly cinematic task he set himself. In doing this, Maya Darpan is also a remarkable film about the emancipation of cinema from its servitude to theatrical and novelistic modes of representation and articulation. Ashish Rajadhyaksha says that it is the "sole full-scale experiment with colour" in the New Indian Cinema. ("India: Filming the Nation" 687) I would add that it is an experimentation, with the powers and qualities of film as such, in active mimetic engagement with the specific traditions of Indian art rather than through a mimicry (imitation) of them.

The film opens with the camera scrolling down the credits in Devanagari script on a stained surface accompanied by synthesised train sounds that vary. As the credits end the camera tracks horizontally to the left, up very close across a stone surface and cuts to a vertical movement down a ceiling, tracking under a naked light bulb, a panelled wooden surface plane which is almost flattened to meet the surface of the film screen. A fluid cut on movement again begins a horizontal track, this time to the right, across a line of stone pillars and a clothesline with garments. The camera movements are rectilinear, horizontal (right to left, left to right), vertical (down and up), and diagonal. The pace of the camera its rhythm, and that of the editing, are attuned to the lullaby sung by a female voice, which takes over from the machine sounds of the credits. These three rhythms, together (though not perfectly synchronised), imbue the precise rectilinear movements (reminiscent of Ajrakh), with a sensation of swaying (like a cradle), bringing into focus details of different textures, of stone, wood and cloth; the stuff of material culture. Micro-perceptions abound; closed doors with square, opaque glass panes, square electrical plug points, old walls stained with moss. I would say that it is the regularity of the rhythm of the reticulated (grid-like) movement, which enables micro-perceptual sensitivity. At the end of this opening movement of the film we glimpse Taran through a door, asleep on a bed, wearing a red sari, and as the camera reverses the by-now familiar rectilinear tracking movement we glimpse the crew and camera reflected like a texture, on a transparent glass pane, as well as trees and a brilliant, patch of sparkling deep blue sky. From then on blue is eliminated from the film by "desaturating" the image through the use of special lights. (15) This strategy makes the brown skin of the "central character" a warm copper tone. The importance of this issue of skin tone will be seen presently. The camera thus delineates its own conditions of emergence, visibility and power by drawing a mimetic relationship with the materiality of the building, the walls and doors it brushes past, seems to touch; the birth of film--"dynamic objectivity," mechanical registration of the image (hence without human prejudice and hierarchy), creating micro-perceptions; conferring attention and therefore value on the seemingly insignificant.

For the convenience of guiding the reader to "what the film is about" I have stated above that it's about the "central character" Taran who finds emancipation from being oppressed by her feudal father. It implies that the central focus is on a character called Taran and her story. While this may not be entirely false it is woefully inadequate to the conception of character in Maya Darpan. The centrality of character-driven film narratives is of course a commonplace as is the conception of character as a centred integral organic totality. By briefly analysing the figuration of Taran, I will now detail the key idea formulated in this essay: epic idiom.

The opening sequence described above concludes with a diagonal tracking shot into the room showing in close-up the sleeping Taran who becomes the centre of the shot at which point she turns over in her sleep, which decentres her, bringing into focus her red sari with the block-printed design as well as the white-on-white embroidery of her bed linen with a random fly on the sheet. This seems banal. But repeatedly the camera cuts to a similar configuration, from the face to a fragment of the body or clothing. In doing so the centrality of the central figure is decentred and one begins to pay attention to the cloth, its colour, texture, and movements and this in turn sensitises one's perceptions. One begins to notice that the perception of the story line as a chronological unfolding is undone and the clothing functions as material signs of a quite different experience of duration. This becomes puzzling and the film in its use of saris worn by Taran seems to behave like a certain motif that Cousin singles out in Ajrakh for comment thus: "kakar motif (is) characterised by a geometrical pattern that is not coherent at the level of one motif alone. Repetition brings to light obliques between which lines undulate and twist without any immediately recognisable apparent order" (Cousin 113). The six or so saris that Taran wears, two of them in red and yellow, because of the way Shahani films, frames and edits them, acquire a modulatory force that has the power to defy the arrow of time--chronology. The sari, an unstitched garment with pleats or folds, has greater flexibility than a stitched one, making it ideal material for modulation or continuous variation. Now one might point out that in Indian films the stars do constantly change their costumes, most famously within the same sequence in the song and dance routines. Whether Shahani's use of colour and costume is simply the same practice of providing sensory thrills by showing lots and lots of lovely colourful costumes, or something else altogether, is a question worth posing because the popular Hindi cinema and Shahani both draw from the same cultural "archive" but their methods are radically opposed.


Taran sleeps, goes about her daily desultory routine of dusting the chairs on the patio where her father and his friends have tea and gossip, taking the hookah to her father, walking endlessly down the corridors of the feudal mansion or in the dusty town, over the sand dunes, across the railway line and along the empty factories. What is striking about these sequences, which are best described as units of movement, is that one cannot read them in terms of a clear chronology because their unfolding is rhythmic and not causal. The conception of rhythm operative here is built on intervals that may be described using an idea derived from Indian music as microtonal. (16) If one does not I feel and enter the rhythm then one may judge the units to be poorly edited. Nor can one read some of the sequences (for example the two shots of Taran as the blue Kali seated naked on a desolate earth), as Taran's dream. This is so because the film Maya Darpan is not enunciated from Taran's point of view; a feature of its epic mode of address. The figure Taran is an epic configuration, a living, walking, talking, sleeping sign; an epic actor-one who shows or demonstrates. (17) As she walks down the long corridors of her father's feudal mansion the stone pillars are framed to form two rows of colonnades of a temple. Taran moves as though in a trance, hands held close to her body (not moving them as they normally would when one walks), and as she approaches the camera she looks directly at the viewer taking on the frontality of the gaze proper to a religious icon. (18) Sacred icons are centred and centralising forces. But both these instances of iconisation emit equivocal signs of constrained and trammelled energy, which is however absent in the following example.


Later when she receives a letter from her brother in Assam, heard as his voiceover, the accompanying image is of the lush green hills and rivers of Assam that she yearns to go to from the arid desert of Rajasthan. Once again Taran is shot in an epic iconic mode rather than in a dramatic enactment of an imaginary scene inspired by the letter. She is seated in profile on a motorboat, which slowly travels across a vast expanse of water. A profile of her face, in extreme close-up, is highlighted, by being framed against the hills and sky. The shot is of exceptionally long duration even for this film made up of mostly long takes. As her face moves on the boat, the light sculpts her face and its copper tones are highlighted gradually showing us the strong profile of the Chola bronze statue of the Ardhanarishwara; the god who is half man and half woman. Then in a flash of memory one recalls the repetitive shots of Taran walking down the long corridors of her father's feudal mansion lined with stone pillars. These stone pillars tightly frame her ambulatory image, thus transforming the architecture of the feudal home into a temple and the young girl trapped in it into a sacred icon. There the iconisation of the figure is made possible, among other means, by the straight line of Taran's shoulders, which mirror one of the most striking aspects of the bronzes from the South Indian kingdom of the Cholas between the 8th and 11th centuries, now Tamil Nadu. The marked straight line of Taran's shoulders extends well beyond the width of her hips as in the Chola bronzes. Taran's hips in their slender lack of curves also remind one of the dancing girl figurine from Mohenjo-daro, and her unnatural placing of her arms close to her body recalls the abnormality of one arm of the dancing girl extending well below her knee. It is now evident that Taran is not just a girl who needs to be saved, Maya Darpan no Indian bildungsroman, with a centred realist character. Taran is an epic motif or figure, decentred through numerous iconic repetitions (as with Ajrakh motifs), invested with vestments of complex cultural traditions made to refract the changing lineaments of a pan-Indian cinematic identity that is profoundly syncretic. How else can a girl from Rajasthan become an Ardhanarishwara Chola Bronze and remind one of the Dancing Girl of Mohenjo-daro as well?



The equivocal, therefore complex, process of iconisation of Taran is not an end in itself; it does not play a centralising function. Taran is not deified like the hapless young woman in Satyajit Ray's film Devi, ending in tragedy. The energy generated by the iconisation seems to be followed by iconoclastic actions performed by Taran, though one hesitates to read causality here, as there is no dramatic action but rather epic demonstration leaving an interval between one image and another, one unit and another. What is at odds with the iconising visual process however is the voice-over given to Taran, heard twice in extended sequences. While in a technical sense it is a voice-over, in an aesthetic sense it is an interior monologue or more precisely "inner speech" (20) because there is an "I" and a "you" in its enunciation, though this is not a sign of a constituted ego but rather a tentative effort at its very constitution. The elimination of vernacular inflection from Taran's Hindi creates an equalising base line, played on by her voice whose tone is soft, texture delicate, timbre fragile. Subtle modulations are audible through the power of these qualities, the counterpart to the micro-expressions perceptible on her face just at the very threshold of perceptibility. While Taran's iconic images seem to accumulate pent up force or energy, her inner-speech spins a delicate web in a void seeking to express, that which is difficult to symbolise or actualise. This narcissistic trauma, constructed as a dilemma, is not, I believe, Taran's alone--it is also Shahani's in this his very first film seeking to create a fresh idiom; the lullaby which accompanies the opening camera movements is an autobiographical recall of the filmmaker who must himself wake himself up like the sleeping Taran. And this they do with the interior speech-act as substitute song: "sprechstimme--speech tinged with a singing quality. (21)
 Look! Here was stone and still air and
 shimmering web.

 An ant dragged my limbs across the

 Listen! She is dead for sure. I've seen
 her blood on naked stone.

 Through the bright snare and the air

 It was my breath, so light, so bare.

 Beyond you and away, an eye opens
 in the dark lair, here where all of us
 were slain I am called to birth again.

This inner-speech is not heard as a block of sound but rather, audible intermittently over a sequence of images. The fragility and decentred quality of the voice in itself and in relation to the images are such as that it disperses even as it is uttered, like leaves in the wind. An intermittent call of the flute, accompanying this speech-act, gives a lyrical intimate tone to the epic struggle of self-constitution and there is an implied drama as well in the dialogue between the split sell which moves into the narrative third person, "She is dead for sure". All are ample pointers to the supple powers of epic articulation. Shahani's singular modern epic cinematic idiom is thus faithful to the enlightening pedagogy of the epic mode, at once sensuous and demonstrative; able to admonish us thus--"look;" "listen."


I would like to thank my collegue Dr. Richard Smith for setting me off on the textile trail because of which its unlikely that the world will be the same again for me.

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Glasgow: Fontana, 1977.

Bennett, Tony. Pasts Beyond Memory: Evolution, Museums, Colonialism. London and New York: Routledge, 2004.

Bergson, Henri. Matter and Memory. New York: Zone Books, 1991.

Braudel, Fernand. The Structures of Everyday Life: Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th Century. New York: Harper and Row, 1982.

Cousin, Francoise. "Light and Shade, Blue and Red: The Azrak of Sind." Handwoven Fabrics of India. Jasleen Dhamija and Jyotindra Jain,, eds. Ahmedabad: Mapin Publishing, 1989. 103-114.

Deleuze, Gilles. Bergsonism. New York: Zone Books, 1988.

Hardy, Adam. "Form, Transformation and Meaning in Indian Temple Architecture." Paradigms of Indian Architecture: Space and Time in Representation and Design. G.H.R. Tillotson, ed. Richmond: Curzon Press. 1998. 107-135.

Kapur, Geeta. When Was Modernism: Essays in Contemporary Cultural Practice in India. New Delhi: Tulika, 2000.

Kelly, Paul. The Weekend Australian, newspaper, May 21-22, 2005.

"Kumar Shahani Dossier." Framework 30/ 31, 1986: 67-111.

Lee, E. Sherman. On Understanding Art Museums. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1975.

Lumley, Robert ed. The Museum Time-Machine. London, New York, Routledge, 1988.

Rajadhyaksha, Ashish. "The Bollywoodization of the Indian Cinema: Cultural Nationalism in a Global Arena." Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, 4.1 (2003): 25-39.

--. "India: Filming the Nation." Oxford History of World Cinema. Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, ed. London: Oxford UP, 1996. 678-689.

--. "Indian Cinema: Origins to Independence." Oxford History of World Cinema, 398-407.

Samuel, Claude. Conversations with Olivier Messiaen. London: Stainer & Bell, 1976.

Scholes, G.P., ed. Oxford Companion to Music. London: Oxford UP, 1950.

Spalding, Julian. The Poetic Museum: Reviving Historic Collection. New York: Prestel, 2002.

Varadarajan. Lotika, Ajrakh And Related Techniques. Ahmedabad: The New Order Book Company, 1983.

Willemen, Paul. Looks and Frictions: Essays in Cultural Studies and Film Theory. Bloomington, Indiana UP and London: British Film Institute, 1994.


(1) Sanjaya Baru, Media aide to the Prime Minister of India Manmohan Singh, cited in "Bush's Indian Gambit" by Paul Kelly, Editor-at-Large, The Weekend Australian, newspaper, May 21-22, 2005.

(2) Ashish Rajadhyaksa, "Indian Cinema: Origins to Independence," 398. 1996.

(3) Cinematographic Avatars; Kumar Shahani and Others, Indiana UP, (forthcoming).

(4) The distinction between rhythm and metre is derived from Olivier Messiaen. See Claude Samuel, Conversations with Olivier Messiaen, 33-49.

(5) Among the exceptions are D.W. Griffith's Intolerance, and the oeuvres of John Ford and Terrence Malick.

(6) Shahani belongs to the Ghatak tradition of epic cinema but his films are resolutely non-melodramatic.

The exploration of this strand of Indian cinema would require another research project. The Indian film maker most celebrated by the West, Satayjit Ray, famously said that Shahani's Maya Darpan was too foreign, thus condemning the film and obstructing Shahani's career for nearly a decade.

(7) "Memory Machine" is my formulation developed by drawing from the following: Robert Lumley (1988), Tony Bennett (2004), Julian Spalding (2002), Sherman Lee (1974).

(8) My thanks to Melissa MacMahon for her detailed report on Ruiz's talk on Akerman's installation, "De'Est; Au bord de la fiction," both held at the Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume, Paris, 10 Oct.-26 Nov. 1995.

(9) Bennett, citing Nikolas Rose, notes that "the virtue of Nietzsche's concept of 'mnemotechnics' ... is that, rather than seeing memory as 'something immediate, natural, a universal psychological capacity', it draws attention to the varied technical devices through which the past is 'burned' into the present 'as a warning, a comfort, a bargaining device, a weapon or a wound'" (85).

(10) See Henri Bergson. Matter and Memory.

(11) Road to Bresson (De Weg naar Bresson), Leo De Boer and Jurrien Rood, 1984.

(12) The curatorial team at the Queensland Art Gallery's visionary "Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art" have announced Shahani's participation in that event in 2006 in their publicity booklet. Kathryn Weir, Head of Cinema and Suhanya Raffel, Head of Asian, Pacific and International Art, are in conversation with Shahani in preparation for the inauguration, in 2006, of the Australian Cinematheque in the new Queensland Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, Australia, which is expected to explore "the increasingly important lines of influence between the moving image and other areas of visual culture."

(13) See Ashish Rajadhyaksha's brilliant essay, "The Bollywoodization of the Indian cinema" for the importance of distinguishing between an earlier formation of Hindi cinema and the new globalised formation we now call Bollywood.

(14) Adam Hardy demonstrates how this code is a governing principle in the construction of the Hindu temple as well, in his essay "Form, Transformation and Meaning in Indian Temple Architecture."

(15) Personal interview with the director, July 2005.

(16) See Kumar Shahani's "Notes for an Aesthetic of Cinematic Sound" Framework, 30/31, 1986: 91-94, for an explication of the concept of the microtone in Indian music and its applicability to film.

(17) The material in the "Kumar Shahani Dossier" in Framework, 30/31, compiled and presented by Paul Willemen and Ashish Rajadhyaksha, was my first introduction to the filmmaker's work and is an invaluable resource as it contains Shahani's own writing, an interview with him and an introduction by Rajadhyaksha. Both Willemen and Rajadhyaksha's writing and conversations with them have been crucial in my being able to develop the notion of epic figuration here. Though of course Bertolt Brecht's work on epic theatre and the epic actor is an important point of reference, the Indian resources have been vital for this work.

(18) See Geeta Kapur, "Revelations and Doubt in Sant Tukaram and Devi" in When Was Modernism, for a theorisation of the iconic image in Indian painting and Cinema and the transferences between them. Also see the chapter "Globalization: Navigating the Void" in the same book for her formulation of Shahani as an avant-garde filmmaker in the context of Indian modernism.

(19) "Taran's voice" is not hers! This voice is not that of the actress (Prabha), who embodies her, but that of another person, chosen for the timbre of her voice. It is normative in Indian cinema to post-dub dialogue and sound. Shahani has converted this technical necessity into an aethetics of sound sculpting.

(20) See Paul Willemen, "Cinematic Discourse: The Problem of Inner Speech", in Looks and Frictions: Essays in Cultural Studies and Film Theory, Bloomington, Indiana UP and London, British Film Institute, 27-55.

(21) Oxford Companion to Music, Oxford, Oxford UP, 1950, entry under Sprechstimme.
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Author:Jayamanne, Laleen
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Date:Jun 22, 2006
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