Kumar Shahani, a lingering luminosity - Hindustan Times

Kumar Shahani, a lingering luminosity

Mar 05, 2024 03:39 PM IST

Film scholar, teacher, and director Kumar Shahani, who was a distinct voice of parallel cinema, constantly questioned the conventional ways of seeing and making

Early January this year, when I talked to Kumar Shahani, who recently passed away in Kolkata, he was his cheerful self. To my casual query on the telephone, he said that he was reading Sahaj Pāth, a Bengali primer written by Rabindranath Tagore with Nandalal Bose’s linocut illustrations. He said he was reading its first part (pratham bhāg), which contains Tagore’s preliminary ideas of the Bengali alphabet, its structure and its pronunciation. While explaining, he spoke like a child and said he wanted to make a film out of the four-part Sahaj Pāth. What a beautiful gift it would have been had Kumar been able to turn Sahaj Pāth into a samagra (holistic) film of his vision. Kumar then recalled his childhood spent in Larkana in Sindh (now in Pakistan), where he was born on December 7, 1940. After graduating from Bombay’s Elphinstone College in 1966, he graduated from the Film Institute of India (later Film and Television Institute of India) in Pune, where he stood first class in diploma examinations in advanced direction and screenplay writing. His diploma film The Glass Pane was shown at International Students’ Film Festivals in Prague and Amsterdam. In 1967, his post-diploma film Manmad Passenger was made at this film institute. During 1967-1969, Shahani underwent an intensive study of cinema in Paris. While in France, he worked with Robert Bresson on his first colour film Une femme douce (A Gentle Woman, 1969), an adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Russian novella.

 Kumar Shahani in Kolkata just a couple of months prior to his sad demise, photographed by Basab Mullik(Author)
Kumar Shahani in Kolkata just a couple of months prior to his sad demise, photographed by Basab Mullik(Author)

This brings me to talk about Shahani’s debut feature film Maya Darpan (1972), adapting Nirmal Verma’s Hindi short story of the same name. Financed by the Film Finance Corporation Ltd., Maya Darpan is the only film in the history of Indian cinema that explores colours in a uniquely metrical manner, bestowing cinematography with a refreshing grace. In an interview with me almost four decades ago, he explained the colour structure of Maya Darpan while also referring to his 1984 film Tarang. He said: “You know, Maya Darpan is like a lyric. It needs to counterpoint the flow of life by a rigid axis, a metre to which I remain close throughout the film. Red and green emerged from the story. They are, of course, closely related to fertility in almost a universal manner. Orange and blue represent fire and water. Like red and green, they are complementary.” (The Daily, Sunday, August 26, 1984). During the same conversation, Shahani felt that the use of colour was more abstract in Tarang, especially since the range of tonalities opened up in it. “In Tarang, the colour’s abstraction counterpoints the specificity of objects that the epic structure demands”.

Shahani’s engagement with the phenomenon of colours has a precedence and that rests in poetry. While in college, he would write poems in which the colour white would recur again and again in different shades and significations. After entering the realm of cinematography, this engagement continued but now he became conscious of the problem of how colours could lead to decorativeness, which he wanted to divest. Maya Darpan, in fact, has this quest behind its engagement with the colour. Michelangelo Antonioni’s use of colour in The Red Desert (1964), for instance, remains psychological. Many people asked Shahani about his attaching so much significance to colour. To Shahani’s mind, even that approach would have led to decorativeness. He even questioned the formalist approach: “Any formalist approach will, in the end, become decorative.”

Smita Patail as Janaki in ‘Tarang’, 1984(Author)
Smita Patail as Janaki in ‘Tarang’, 1984(Author)

The Mumbai-based film society Screen Unit (SU) screened Maya Darpan (its 35mm print had not yet gone magenta, fortunately) at Mini Chitra in Dadar on December 28, 1981. I had prepared cyclostyled sheets (four foolscap-size typed pages) on the film which were circulated among the members who attended the screening. Shahani himself was present there. It was the structural study of the film via colour, which begins with off-white. The SU note begins thus: “Overture: The decaying, oppressive house, with ‘lullaby’ in the background”. Navigating through colours and their dialecticism, the note ends with the incomplete resolution of Taran’s struggle – with red, red-white and black-green, which we see in the engineer’s barracks, chhau-dance and the green utopia/the empty boat. (This analysis was made by Satish Bahadur of FTII). We in the Screen Unit, were greatly honoured to have felicitated him at the Films Division auditorium, when most of his students were present. In this programme, I presented nearly 100 diploma films made by the FII/FTII students over the years.

And that takes us further to another of Shahani’s contributions to Indian cinema, his idea of the Epic Cinema. In fact, with Tarang, Shahani returned to his long theoretical and practical engagement with the epic tradition in Indian art. Between Maya Darpan and Tarang, there was a yawning gap of 12 years. As it happened, after the completion of Maya Darpan, Shahani intensified his study of the epic structure in cinema and the allied arts. It had been his concern ever since he met the great Indian polymath teacher DD Kosambi while studying at FTII in Pune, where Ritwik Ghatak was his teacher. During this period, Shahani also received the Homi Bhabha Fellowship for the study and practice of the epic form. “The other significant experience which shaped Tarang was my experience of the Maharashtra drought. It filled me with a great sense of pride, hope and belonging to a people who could overcome both social oppression and natural calamity with such grace,” he told me. This was the stuff the working-class Janaki of Tarang is made of. Shahani made a short film called Fire in the Belly (1973) on this drought, which SU screened in his presence. I had the privilege and the honour of heading it after its founder Manilal Gala started working for Ketan Mehta’s Gujarati film Bhavni Bhavai (1980). Kumar Shahani became my informal but integral mentor and teacher who shaped SU, which, its many young members, treated like a film school.

I can put forward many arguments as to why Screen Unit has turned into practically a film school with free-flowing syllabi. Kumar Shahani would often come and mingle with its members very warmly.

Smita Patil, who essayed the role of Janaki in Tarang, passed away on December 13, 1986. In Screen Unit’s programme note of December 26, 1986, I quoted Urvasi from Rigveda, “What shall I do with those discourses of yours? I have gone over like the first of the Usas. O Pururavas, go back to your destiny; I am as hard to get as the wind.” In Shahani’s Tarang, Janaki (Smita Patil) tells this to Rahul (Amol Palekar) in the last scene which has a conjectural, mythical note. The myth is that of Urvasi and Pururavas. In his book Myth and Reality, DD Kosambi writes about this legend. Shahani’s cinematographic oeuvre composes an extraordinary symphony of the cosmic and the concrete, of poesy and pondering (introspection). That evening, Kumar called to thank me for my profound homage to Janaki, Urvashi and Smita Patil. Those were the times of the big, black landline telephone that filtered human voices into their organic self. Shahani’s sense of sound was extraordinary and he wrote extremely immersive essays on sound in cinema (e.g., Notes for an Aesthetic of Cinema Sound, 1978).

Shahani would sometimes share some of his unpublished manuscripts of his articles, one such was titled "Cinema or Research and Relevance" (a blue carbon-copy, he would type out on his portable typewriter). In this paper, he touched upon his ideas about the national policy on cinema critically. This undated paper (could be from the 1980s) talks about the lack of political will, integrated policy and lumpen consciousness. It is this magnanimity of thinking that we are missing in this country or the world that is dialoguing on the so-called social media?

Towards his quest, Shahani has constantly questioned the conventional ways of seeing and making, he has been questioning our rigid ways of using certain terms such as "documentary" and "representation". In 1992, while screening his film Khayal Gatha (1989), we embraced these problems with the form this film acquires. As the Screen Unit’s programme note mentioned, “Khayal Gatha – the saga or the ballad of Khayal is not a documentary about the history of this form nor is it ‘a stage of the art’ film. It was like one of the gāthas India has inherited over centuries.”

Shahani’s generosity was epical: He would often come to Screen Unit’s programmes and talk to us so deeply with passion and love. In 1990, I had organised (at that time the word "curator" had not yet got into prolific circulation as far as the realm of cinema was concerned) a retrospective of Michelangelo Antonioni’s films, covering nine of them (all on 35mm), which I called it the "Antonioni Navratri". I also edited and published an accompanying booklet titled Antonioni Epistemology. While people played the Navratri garba and dandiya in the city, we celebrated the "Antonioni Navratri" at the erstwhile House of Soviet Culture (HSC) on Mumbai’s Peddar Road, very close to where Kumar Shahani stayed then. He delivered the inaugural lecture in the presence of the Consul General of Italy in Mumbai and on the last day of the Dussehra, Kumar conducted a masterclass on Antonioni on the terrace conference room of the HSC. The morning light on his lustrous skin and smile is still etched on my mind.

Kumar Shahani is a lingering luminosity. Amen.

Amrit Gangar is a Mumbai-based author, historian and curator. The views expressed are personal

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