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The idea shift behind ‘Kitte Mil Ve Mahi’

A TRAVELOGUE IN HISTORY, MEMORY AND OBLIVION: Revisiting little traditions of the Punjab

In the beginning…the IDEA

That memory is also a great binding force, conserving the most humane of values of a given society doesn’t come naturally to mind in times of its rampant abuse. Perhaps each epoch renders certain memories invisible. Yet, they carry on, by turning into personal memories of individuals, collective memories of a village, a sacred tradition among the bards and musicians, and preserve themselves in a thousand different ways. That is what we would call the little traditions.

In the contemporary Punjab I would like to look at the memories kept alive without the patronage of state, market and religious or political parties. It is also about the traditions that are universal in the values they cherish. However, as their name itself suggests, these do not figure in the dominant cultural discourse of the time. From textbooks to television, popular culture to academics, they are conspicuous by their absence.

Lurking behind the beginning, the EXPERIENCE

In the past half a century of its history Indian Punjab has suffered the pain of the brutal violence inflicted against the ‘other’ many times over: The partition of 1947, the terrorism in the eighties, the Operation Blur Star and the genocides of Sikhs in 1984. In the political discourse these are things of the past with normalcy ‘returning’ to the state. In the realm of culture however, the process of the Othering does not end, perhaps it lies dormant. Here, the biases, prejudices, myths, hatred and stereotypes prevalent in society keeps on perpetuating a psyche that would go on rediscovering and identifying the other.

Who knows what lies ahead? May be, it is the persecution of an awakened Dalit, or the ‘Bahiyas’, the migrant workers from Eastern UP and Bihar. Murmurs are being heard against their huge numbers; fears, real or imaginary, of demographic changes that they may have caused and so on. It is essential, therefore, that the Othering in the sphere of culture is contested, consistently and creatively, by presenting alternative organic visions and to me that means, celebrating what we call as the little traditions of Punjab.

Searching for the answers, I Knew

I have so many memories of Punjab that I could easily write a book on the experiences of my family, or even make a documentary like, Memoirs of a family; A style much in vogue now a days. However, rather than moving inwards to ‘discover’, I would want to move outwards and search for other responses to the same predicaments as mine-division, exclusion, discrimination and the resultant destruction, dehumanisation and violence. My memories are a take off point, in the quest to get connected…with the little magazine movement like Preetlari,, the Sahit sabha movement of the progressives, celebrating Sahir in Ludhiana, a village remembering Mohammed Rafi, memorializing the Gadri revolutionaries of Jullandhar, and the writings of Lal Singh ‘Dil’.

Leaving nostalgia behind: discovering the organic responses

If we compare my present report to the one I had submitted while applying for the grant, we find that a lot of episodes/events are missing while many new discoveries have been added during the research period. Significant among the new discoveries is the Mazars, the Dalit Deras and their relationship with the Dalits’ quest for emancipation.

Over the past few months I witnessed an amazing phenomenon of the resurfacing of Mazars. A beautiful green ‘chaddar’ with embroidered borders is spread across Punjab. In the midst of agricultural fields, in village streets, along the highways, in the city squares it seems like an unending chain present everywhere. At one place I noticed a ceramic tile with Baba Sahib Ambedkar’s picture embedded on the outer gate of the Mazars.

Moving on to Dera Sach Khand, Ballan of the Ravidasis community takes this journey deep into the microcosm of Punjabi society. What strikes me most is their quest for knowledge. Deras have well equipped libraries. The first conversation with the Sevadar revealed it. He handed me a list of books by a Delhi Publisher, now out of print, that they would like to have. The conversation then shifted to writers and he seemed quite well informed – on Kancha Ilahia and others. The Dera was an excellent site for observation. In its open courtyard things were happening all the time. Some people were coming to take Ayurvedic medicines, others were seeking advice for various problems. After the conversation, the Sevadar gave them a poster of Guru Ravidas Janamsthan temple in Varanasi. Then, he cautioned them, “Laminate it first and then put it up on the wall of your house”. And the visitor would accept the poster with great reverence. A clear sign of Dalits creating their fresh identities. Then, I saw a father and a son walking in with a brand new motorcycle right into the courtyard. The Sevadar got up, congratulated them and performed a sort of puja. Then he pasted a sticker on the windshield, in front of the motorcycle. The sticker had the symbol of Ravidasia sect with Har embossed on it. A friend jokingly warns me, “wherever these posters and stickers reach, there will be no place for your Ram Janambhoomi Mandir or Garva se kaho variety of Hindutva stuff for all times to come.” What could have gladdened my heart more!

I thought I found my answer. It was the beginning in the making of this film. However, the film in itself is an altogether different journey.

Excerpts from field notes on the making of Kitte Mil Ve Mahi

On reaching Dil’s home in Samrala

When we reached his house. Dil was in a bad shape, in really down spirits. We took him out to the restaurant at Neelo, next to Canal. It was flowing full to the brim. Later on Dil told me just like the Canal, he too was full to the brim. That evening I didn’t take my camera out of the bag. I dreaded to touch the camera. I very much doubted my ability as a filmmaker to capture Dil with the pain he was living through, esp. the mood I saw him in that day. However those moments of Dil’s suffering and sadness were as much his reality as his ‘normal being”. Take it or leave it. There was no other way. That night I didn’t go to the restaurant for dinner. Sleep eluded me for a long time.

The next morning

The next day it was decided that my assistant and I would go to Dil’s place early in the morning and make an effort to start a dialogue as well as to set up the camera. Dil’s room was the most difficult locations to shoot. It is extremely poorly lit. Even during the daytime the room is dark except from a small patch of light that comes through the open door. There is hardly any space to place the camera. All this makes changing the angles of camera almost impossible. Grain on my viewfinder (low light) was killing me. And then three to four people, all his neighbours would stand behind the camera and talk with each other, and with Dil. The room is extremely hot for there is no ventilation and all the smoke of firewood from the ground floor (where his brother’s family lives) as well as from his next door neighbour Shiv’s house fills into his room. (I have shot that too from the outside and it is on the tape). And then Dil is not someone who would remain in one place for long. One moment on his cot, inside his room and another moment outside, on terrace, dragging my lapel mike along (refer footage). And then his stubborn reluctance to respond to any query, or to draw into a conversation. That day all attempts at conversation turned futile. Dil would just not talk. Many of his friends asked him questions; he would dismiss them in just a few words and then turn his back to camera. Or he would blankly smoke his beedi staring into nothingness.

…and in the night

That night Dil stayed with us. Infact I and Dil slept on the same bed. My assistant spread a bed sheet on the makeshift sofa and our driver was provided with a folding cot. At night while all of us were drinking I quietly played back to Dil what I had shot during the daytime. Three hours of footage of Dil. When he saw it he burst into laughters. He was overwhelmed. Looking at the footage I said “Dil saab, your face is like Van Gogh’s” His face was beaming. He saw his face in close-ups; his fingers, his feet, his hands, his eyes, and in all moods. He held my hand twice and twice he told me in Punjabi ” chote bira tain minu amar kar ditta”. (Younger brother, you have immortalised me). All of us were moved. That night Dil fell asleep watching his footage. But before that he told me two things. He said Ajayji ” today you have passed while others failed, do you know why? Because today, when I did not feel like answering anything you did not ask me a single question. Not even once did you urge me to talk.” And then he thought for a while and added, “I will also complete your chapter of my talking one of these days.”

The second day and night

Next day when we went to Dil he was quite drunk. But he had already made up his mind where he is going to be shot and how he wants to be shot. The sequence was to be shot in the Mango Orchid a few kilometers away from his home and it was Shiv, his neighbour, a daily wage labourer who was to converse with him. But it was not achieved so smoothly. When Dil expressed his desire to be in conversation with Shiv for the shoot, I did what we usually do. I made shiv sit next to the camera and told him to start conversing. But the conversation would just not take off. Dil would either give answers in monosyllables or would simply go off tangent. We spent atleast an hour and a half attempting a recording. Finally in exasperation I told Dil,’’ Dil sahib, if you don’t want to talk with Shiv, let us go back.” Dil replied,’’ But that is not how Shiv and I would talk. He has to sit next to me. It was then I realised what Dil was trying to tell me all along. It was to be a conversation in a two shot, both of them in the same frame, facing the camera. Dil wanted Shiv to be ‘inside’ the film too! Thereafter, they had some brilliant pieces of conversation. There is lot one could write on this conscious choice of Dil but that the film should speak. And, in the night, Dil completed the chapter of his talking too. Infact, Dil also sang a few of his nazams that night which was rare for him to do.

It was the next day while I was shooting Dil’s room that he called his nephew and told him to fetch a neighbour, a women whose husband gave Dil shelter at one time.. I had no idea what was going on, and why this person is being called here, least of all that Dil wanted me to experience something first hand as well as to have it recorded. As soon as the old lady arrived, Dil introduced her to me on camera. It was a wonderful sequence that was captured as an unstructured, spontaneous encounter. That is how the entire film was shot.

Dr. BRIGITTE SCHULZE’S Questions and my answers

Q. How did you got in touch with Dil, and what were your feelings while meeting him, listening to him, being in dialogue with him?

A. I wanted to work on ‘little traditions’ of Punjab for a very long time. The reason being- my personal search for an answer to the process of exclusion and the othering in Punjabi society. I began with my hope in sahit sabha movement; annual events to celebrate the memory of poets like Pash; theatre movement by Gurusharan Singh ji and so on. But I gave it up after a while as I realised the ‘present’ of these practices offered me no hope, reduced as they were to a mere ritualistic presence. Infact it was my own obsession with a nostalgia, my own insistence to see hope where, in reality, there was none that was motivating me. I realized I had to step out of it to explore afresh if at all my search was to have any meaning. That is how the shift took place- from a romance with the past to the resurgence of the present; from the political to the cultural; from ‘modern’ to the ‘tradition’ and its transformation; from visible to invisible. In short, it was a driftt from the known to the unknown. And once the shift started, it gradually led me to, besides many other things, the Sufi shrines in Doaba and its deep bonding with the Dalits. And the emerging tradition of Dalit writing across Punjab ( Infact this shift was to be responsible for not one but next three films I was to make on Punjab-(1) Kitte Mil Ve Mahi, (2) Rabba Hun Kee Kariye and the (3) that’s about to be completed soon).

I was aware of the works of Lal Singh Dil and, Sant Ram Udasi (who is no more), the two icons of radical cultural tradition in Punjab, both Dalits. But I had never met Dil, who incidentally lived just a few Kilometers from the village of my maternal grandparents on Khanna –Samrala link road where I used to spend my annual summer vacations during my school days. Those days I used to talk about my dream project to anyone I came across who had a connect with rural Punjab. Manmohan Sharma from Chandigarh would often meet in Delhi around that time. So he introduced me to his friend Nirupama Dutt (who worked with me on the film for a while). She had personally known Dil for a long time. That is how I met Dil for the first time while researching the theme of the film. I met him second time when I went to Samarala to shoot the film.

(Rest is there is the field note)

Q. Were you particularly emotional while being together with him, which were the features in his face, body, in his gestures which touched you in particular?

A. One cannot remain unaffected by Dil’s sheer presence. In his space, his home, it haunts you even more…the bareness and the transparent; the resolute and the fragile; the intensity of passion and its apparent meaninglessness; the anarchy of being and the order of his creations; the desire and the renunciation; the annihilation and the conservation …all in the same time and space…a life lived like poems he wrote…no contradiction between the two…philosophically as well as physically speaking…

Q. Were you fascinated by the content of his philosophy of life, of the words he spoke and how he spoke them? Which were the facets of your fascination?

A. Dil’s philosophy has a dignity, a humility that is intact in the most dehumanised of circumstances and a lack of vengeance/ aggression even for the worst of the tormentors of humanity. It makes you believe in the possibility of the creation of another universe.

Q Since you were also camera man: in which way did you consciously translate the ‘Dil persona’ and what you felt and thought about him into fotography? And, now that you see your film: do you understand whether there were also unconscious mechanisms at work when you filmed Dil and the way you filmed him?

A. With patience …and a faith in Dil. No questions to ask , no answers to seek…just be with him…with patience. Yes I think there were unconscious mechanism at work…my camera was always shooting him from a low angle..I don’t remember consciously making that decision at the location.

Q. Do you think Dil is right when, at the end of the film, he speaks about the film camera as the sun which brings deeper truths in life to light?

A. Yes. Camera can be deployed to make the cameraman/ director invisible while positioning the subject upfront. It can mediate and still be invisible as a mediator. It can bring out our realities without an ‘interpreter’ or an expert, with an intimacy and emotion that are experienced by the viewers directly. It restores the agency back to the people…provided those wielding the camera are keen to practice their art in this manner!

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