In Kumar Shahani’s brilliantly cerebral portfolio lies a cultural paradigm, fit for flexible understanding of the classical legacy of our creatively glorious nation. I have written about his corpus for the past many weeks so I will let readers go back again to those articles, to imbibe the essence of what I have conveyed.
Keeping up with my explorations of his multidisciplinary, intertextual and fluid approach, I am happy to tell you all that this Sunday was dedicated to watching two of his one hour documentaries. The first is 1990’s BHAVANTARANA that brings to our spotlight the extraordinary sensual agility of Odissi dancing legend KELUCHARAN MOHAPATRA. Pithy enactments of his childhood and youth are merely interludes to the vast and dynamic body of work that Shahani honours with his approach here.
Textual prologues with written quotes or extracts from Rigveda, Mahabharata, Upanishads and even from one of the modern world’s great preserver of Indian cultural aesthetics Anand Coomaraswamy are juxtaposed with the visuals. They help us in stringing together the various strands of ancient wisdom that our legacy entails through generations. This extends to the very philosophies required to master any art form, in this case it being dance.
It goes without mentioning that the chiselled body and movements of a male artisan, shown working on a stone sculpture, exemplifies the acme of the physical Self in all its pulsating rhythms and beauty that this work lets us experience. This image opens the film. It’s symbolic of not only these dance forms directly taking inspiration from sculpture and architecture but also the way human endeavours chisel the very act of creation/ creativity.
BHAVANTARANA puts the great dancer and his divine moves in communion with nature, with water bodies acting as a predominant background to the recitals. Symbolically, the wave-like fluidity of Mohapatra’s dancing mirrors the elements. The film’s visual power is also its point of emphasis. Like all of Shahani’s films, the dynamism of the human body and its sensual force is elevated without overwhelming narrative or framing devices. His camera is placed at just the right medium distance from the performer to let his freedom of self-expression play itself out in a sublime manner.
Even the lighting is in a rhythmic confluence with the ethereal nature of classical dance. In a way, nature that envelops artists ultimately is the canvas from which they draw from. This is in the supple textures, the silences and unobtrusive flow of the presentation here.
We become not just viewers hence but are receptacles, alive to the sensations that sensual rhythm produces in us in return even though we are unaware of the nuances and intricacies of this particular form. But each one of us has that artistic inclination and that is duly recognised by the staging of these recitals.
It is also a movement not just of the human body but one through history. The Odissi dance form’s legacy is channelled through the maestro. One has to behold the contours of that movement in every core of his physicality. His mudras( gestures), refined expressions, ribs contracting and releasing with each new inflection as well as his facial mobility are all in the service of an evolutionary artistic integrity. Through this graceful delineation, we arrive at a point where the threshold of gender binaries are crossed. The hybridity of both sexes in one individual is showcased in Mohapatra’s art. To discerning viewers then an aesthetic sense or ‘ras’ emerges from the natural gift bestowed on him.
His embodiment of Shiva and the navrasas(nine aesthetics) close the film and we are utterly enthralled by this timeless tribute to the man. BHAVANTARANA is thus a must watch, not just for aficionados and practitioners of art but for anyone with an abiding interest in our cultural bounties.
Nearly a decade after BHAVANTARANA, Mr. Shahani made the enthralling BAMBOO FLUTE. As its title goes, it’s about the ubiquitous musical instrument which is essential to the Indian canon. Now at first one would expect a presentation on its creation by hand and requisite materials, the aesthetics of the process of creating it for use. But that’s not the way this auteur operates.
The documentary style brings in the same metaphysical, transcendental value that KHAYAL GATHA brought to a feature length format. The musical strains of the melodious flute that punctuate scenes of love, courtship, affinity to nature, even melancholy given the permutations of circumstance in our cinematic representations, pervade here. It’s in a nuanced, sublime invocation to the spirit and sensory awakening. Hence, the subliminal beauty of music and dance, art in general, embedded in our conscience, is given its power to emerge with delicate cadences.
Rhythm and fluidity of movements, in general, are central here as on BHAVANTARANA which is why classical dance recitals set to the flute and ethnic communities using it to celebrate in a collective showcase of joy are incorporated.
Kelucharan Mahapatra’s own dance recital occupies the climactic portions. These performances further add a referential embodiment of its dynamic properties as a generator of aesthetic/artistic value. The human mind and body is an aperture for reception and transmission of rhythm. The rhythms occassioned by notes of the flute become bedrocks of a conscious life, as portrayed here. It’s a reflection of our own experiences. The fact that its greatest practitioner and exponent Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia not only appears in the film but also has created the soundtrack for it speaks volumes.
Shahani is in correspondence with the larger theme intersecting with architecture, sculpture and so he utilises those resources, observing them with a natural eye for their eternal influence. Nature, after all, is the icon, the ultimate anchor in his repertoire. Behold the female danseuse performing amid ancient rocks on a hill. It’s such a striking visual.
Then there are lower shots of feet, fabrics and churning of milk. We realize they are connective visual-aural references to the legend of Lord Krishna, the most celebrated symbol of flute playing. A young girl is captured from the back profile and mid shot, cropping away her face, in the sensual act of bathing in a river. That act of ablution and the effect of water drops on her bare shoulders create a sensually charged celebration of the body. All of it harking to the image of Radha in the river and Krishna in a little distance. The notes of the flute too produce a similar register of sensual awakening, whether with nature, one’s own self or when with a lover. The presence of seaside boats made from wood or bamboo, tapestry, paintings, khayal singing all get subsumed in this interdisciplinary approach.
BAMBOO FLUTE is, in the end, a work that benefits immensely from K. K. Mahajan’s cinematography. Shots of water bodies from a moving train and the profusion of the life giving liquid in meditative moments are akin to the fluidity of the flute itself, as an entity creating divine music. I loved every bit of it.
It’s how we rescue our legacy from the matrix of overarching myth and bring it to fruition. These documentaries should be a stepping stone for those invested in learning the art of unconventional and arresting storytelling.