By Elroy Pinto.
On the first anniversary of his death, the Films Division of India released a DVD set that features all of Mani Kaul’s documentaries. However, it is important to note that Kaul’s visually formidable Mati Manas (1985) never made it to the DVD. Kaul, born in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, joined the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) and studied directing under the great Indian filmmaker, Ritwik Ghatak. After graduating, Kaul released his debut feature film titled Uski Roti, a black and white and an almost dreamlike exploration of rural India. Kaul was heavily influenced by Ghatak and Robert Bresson; he considered them to be his gurus and this is evident in his early works, which employs the removal of dramaturgy abject rejection of classical mise-en-scene, temporal exploration, ellipsis and ultimately his exploration of screen space. In this DVD set, one can find access to Dhrupad (1983), Siddheshwari (1989) and nine other shorts made by the late director.
It is well known that Indian classical music has almost no written teachings, just oral traditions passed on from father to son or guru to shishya (roughly translated: master to student). Dhrupad is based on the austere Indian classical music style, which invites the practitioner to follow a strict regimen while leaving room for experimentation. Kaul’s love for Mughal miniatures is well documented in his essay “Seen from Nowhere”, in which he analyzes the lack of temporo-spatial perspective created by these art works. He was eager to take this forward into cinema, to abolish both linear narrative and structural perspective, instead inviting the viewer to engage with the film the way one would at a music concert or when viewing a painting.
Kaul succeeds in creating an ephemeral experience by placing the camera by the audience, sitting at a performance level. Kaul also visits the physical architecture of the palaces and forts in which the art form flourished, while drawing allegories with the informational voiceover and the complexities of the art form. Kaul’s camera is not one for fancy footwork, so it stares patiently while the artists perform and moves when the music demands it to move. The image does not carry the film ahead; instead, the music dictates the movement of the image.
The sutradhar is someone who is seen in traditional theatre in India. His role is roughly translated to the Narrator but in Kaul’s work he empowers the sutradhar to carry the film forward as he actively participates in the documentary (both in words and in actions). Kaul keeps the soundtrack split into two here; there’s always a piece by the musicians playing on the background, accompanied by explanations from the musicians. Kaul does not at any point simplify the complex traditions in the art form. Watch out for the final four minutes of the film which marked the first time Kaul began exploring the randomness in film, the result of which is a pure cinematic moment.
Based on the life of the Classical singer Siddeshwari Devi, Kaul called this his poetic documentary due to there being almost no clear narrative structure. Kaul displays the entire film plan before the documentary even begins. He emphasizes what he calls a ‘presentational idiom’ (read: a mix of documentary and fictional idioms). Siddheshwari continues Kaul’s explorations into temporality in cinema. Flawlessly flowing between black and white and color images, Kaul explores sound even further as we first hear thoughts before they are worded. The shot of the moon in the night is very similar to the shot of the moon in Bresson’s Mouchette (1967).
Kaul does not always light a space and when he does, there’s a gradual increase of lighting. He lets Siddheshwari’s voice play on the soundtrack all the time (this, I suspect, is also the exploration of her contribution to the thumri, a vocal art form she was known for). By letting her voice live on the soundtrack, Kaul suggests the legacy and the immortality in her voice. Continuing his theories against perspective, Kaul invites the viewer to experience Siddheshwari’s life not just through a viewed experience but also through the spoken and sung word, and through her memories. It’s key to note here that black and white isn’t necessarily used to denote documentation. What we are left with is the immortal legacy of Siddheshwari’s voice on the soundtrack while images merely take the ‘narrative’ forward. Ultimately, even the actress who plays Siddheshwari in the film comes face to face with a TV recording of Siddheshwari.
Mani Kaul’s Short Films
Kaul’s other documentary shorts are available on a third disc, they are Homage to the Teacher (1967), Forms and Designs (1968), During and after Air Raid (1970), The Nomad Pupeteer (1974), The Indian Woman (1975), Chitrakathi (1977), Arrival (1979). Notable in this lineup of shorter documentaries are Arrival and The Nomad Puppeteer. As mentioned earlier, in the latter half of his career, Kaul took his own theories forward as he explored the profane and sacred spaces within a shot. Staying away from the moral implications of these terms, Kaul put his theories to use in his last two films Nazar and The Idiot, in which he refused to let his cameraman look through the viewfinder. He believed the eye would automatically start appropriating space in a sequence once the cinematographer looked through the lens.
One can only hope that there will be a follow up to this DVD with more of Kaul’s feature work. Kaul’s lifelong obsession with time and space in cinema was a byproduct of him believing in cinema being a temporal medium and not much of a visual medium. On the rare occasions that he was invited to speak publicly, he declared the image was left with less meaning—a possible allusion to Hollywood and the rise of 3D. A lot of Kaul’s work lives on in archives in the Films Division of India, Pune receiving little to no distribution.
Elroy Pinto received his MA for Global Cinemas and the Transcultural at SOAS – University of London. He specializes on the cinema of Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani. Currently, he lives and works in London and is working on his first short film.