‘Jago Hua Savera’: Recalling a Cinematic Manifesto for the Dawn of Hope

First published in The Wire

Night falls on a river. The village around it thickens with darkness. Not the river. On its breast, distant lights flicker like inextinguishable fireflies. The glow comes from the boats of the fishermen sailing on its waves. A majhi (boatman) sings a drawn-out tune and the river’s water folds into its haunting essence with every splash of the oar.

This is how the 1959 Pakistani film, Jago Hua Savera (The Day Shall Dawn) unfolds as does Padma Nadir Majhi (The Boatman of Padma), the novel it’s adapted from. An enthralling flute amplifies the aural impact of Jago Hua Savera’s opening scene even more, holding the viewer in a delicate trance. A synthesis of the work of stalwarts like Faiz Ahmed Faiz who wrote the songs, dialogues and story; music director, Timir Baran and Academy Award winning cinematographer, Walter Lassally – this first scene establishes the tenor of the film’s sensitive and neo-realist aesthetic.

That the night isn’t pitch-black isn’t insignificant. Like the Padma itself, it is mysterious and pregnant with possibility. Of light. Of dawn. It has to be that way. For the Padma is as unforgiving to the fisherfolk edging its banks as it is giving.

When Manik Bandopadhyay wrote Padma Nadir Majhi, his sparkling novel chronicling the lives of East Bengal’s fishermen, India was under British rule and the Second World War was still three years away. When director A.J. Kardar adapted it for the screen, Partition had split India, and Faiz’s reworked story reflected the region’s altered geopolitics. Filmed on location at Saitnol on the banks of the Meghna River in what was then East Pakistan, the film’s story marks a significant, and arguably necessary, departure from the novel.

The biggest change is also the most awkward one – the fisherman’s tongue. Instead of the regional Bangla dialect of the book, the characters in Jago speak in colloquial Hindustani. It’s not an A for B transposition, though. For me, a Bengali married to a Sikh, the ingenious workaround Faiz and Kardar employed to get around the language hurdle struck a personal resonance. Despite speaking fairly respectable Hindi all my unmarried life in Delhi, my hometown, with my husband, I started speaking in a deliberately incorrect tongue, upturning verb conjugations – a pattern absent in Bengali.

The fishing villagers of Jago speak a similar broken Hindustani, their vocabulary sparse and uncluttered. When the viewer is least expecting it, fragments of Bengali float into her ears – a kid begging his father to spare “duto poisa,” another telling his uncle, “Miyan boddi anchhe,” (the miyan has brought a traditional doctor), and then a full exchange in Bangla between two sisters, Tripti Mitra playing the younger of them.

An idiom for celluloid

One would be mistaken, however, in attempting to locate the film’s vocabulary in a particular vernacular. From the first scene to the concluding one, the elements that dominate both the stylistic and utilitarian purposes of Jago are wordless – the music, the ambient sounds, the silence. In the opening scenes, the viewer gets a sense of a sound peculiar to Padma’s boatmen as Bandopadhyay describes it:

“From the heart of the river afar, a call is heard, a faint sound of human voice…This is a language known only to the boatmen of East Bengal. There are no words in this language, only undulating vocalization. Across unbounded horizons spreading over the river, this sound travels long distances, becoming fainter in volume, but unchanged in its ripples.” [From Padma Nadir Majhi, translated by the author.]

The depth and breadth of Timir Baran’s prowess as a composer are on full showcase here, not just in the three songs that a boatman sings, all carrying the resilient poise of Faiz’s poetry, but also in the music director’s unusual choice of the classical veena – to overlay everyday village scenes with a sedate composure.

Then there are atmospheric sounds – the Padma’s waves, of course, but also the chatter of kids playing on its banks, the cawing of crows, the buzz of a bustling fish market and, later in the film, the big city’s honking automobiles, hawking porters and tinkling bicycles – that lend the narrative a compelling immediacy.

Lassally’s mature camerawork makes it even easier for the director to stick to verbal minimalism in the film. From the first frame, the camera moves with eloquence to capture both nature and man. While the Padma’s expanse and excitability are made almost palpable for the viewer, the close-ups of the characters’ faces strike one as archives of an ancient sadness.

In Jago, the majority of the villagers are Muslims as opposed to the Hindus in the novel. The characters and the plot are a lot less complex, too, making this nearly an original story, written for a new audience.

Most noticeable among the revised characters is that of Bandopadhyay’s Hossain Miya, an enigmatic man of wealth who could be caring or ruthless, depending on the situation. In Jago, he becomes the unidimensional Lal Miyan, a moneylender like any other, stripped of complexities.

The other big character swap is that of the protagonist’s sister-in-law’s. The novel’s Kapila is Mala in the film, played with sensual charm by Tripti Mitra. As in the book, she retains her flirtatious ways, but instead of enticing Miya, her brother-in-law, is seen to attract the attention of Kasim, Miya’s brotherly friend. Bangladeshi acting legend, Khan Ataur Rahman not only plays the role of Kasim with self-assurance, but also sings the film’s songs with tender facility. Particularly enduring is his rendition of “Beet chali hai raat/ab chhoro gham ki baat,” (The night is about to end, my friend/Let go of your songs of sorrow), a spirited nazm by Faiz that Baran has set – to an electrifying effect – to a traditional bhatiyali tune.

Of deprivation and the dawn of hope

There is less gossip and innuendo in the film, too, the extent of it being Lal Miya pointing fingers at Kasim and Mala’s open show of affection for each other. Yet, despite all these deviations, the film remains faithful to Bandopadhyay’s work in a fundamental way – in its politics.

At the core of Padma Nadir Majhi is the social discrimination, ostracism and extreme poverty the fishermen suffer. Their destitution is naked, for they have little to cover it with. But it’s still not without dignity. Miya pulls a fragile cover over his newborn son and helps his invalid wife lie down beside him with the gentlest touch. When his daughter’s leg is fractured, Kasim lifts her in his arms and takes her for treatment to the city hospital – a long and arduous journey he undertakes without a blink. Ganju, obsessed with buying a new boat off Lal Miyan, saves every penny for it despite seeing tuberculosis sniffing the life out of him.

Despite its affirmative title, Jago Hua Savera is rooted in reality. Ganju will acquire his boat but not live long enough to enjoy it. Miya will not be able to buy it, not even after collecting all his life’s savings, including the money his wife has been saving for their daughter’s wedding, the pennies in his son’s piggy bank and Kasim’s offered savings. Wistfully, and in his torn vest, he’ll keep his gaze on the treasured boat as it floats on Padma’s bosom.

And still the fisherfolk will wrest their dawn from the night – the Padma will hold them in her sway again, Miya will approve of Kasim’s relationship with Mala, and Kasim and Miya will return to the fishing boat. And the glow of its lantern.

This is a dawn that’s as unremarkable as the fishermen’s’ lives. It is still a savera, nonetheless.

Jago Hua Savera is a landmark film, not only because of its international cast and crew or the way it draws inspiration from the best of world cinema. But because it reinvents a classic in its own, cinematic, idiom.

[The Day Shall Dawn (1959) was selected as the Pakistani entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 32nd Academy Awards, but was not accepted as a nominee. It was also entered into the first Moscow International Film Festival where it won a Golden Medal. Days before the film was to premier, the new government of Pakistan (under Ayub Khan) asked the film’s producer, Nauman Taseer not to release the film. The writer, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, was later imprisoned by the government for his communist beliefs. Anjum Taseer, son of the producer, had the film fully restored in 2010.]

Biryani Tales and Life Lessons From Kerala

First published in The Wire

Kerala has scarcely had a more challenging festival season than the recent Eid and Onam that went by. Festivals, for all their loaded moral and religious bearings, are also occasions for feasting together. Watching the 2017 Malayalam film Oru Visheshapetta Biriyani Kissa (dir. Kiran Narayanan) in the backdrop of the devastating floods in Kerala, I learned, with sobering appreciation, not only how food integrates people but also how it binds Keralites across communities with a peculiar endurance, one that only the tongue’s archived discretion can inspire.

The film begins with the redoubtable Ummi Abdulla, the diva of Malabar cuisine, presenting a radio show. Abdulla shares how biryani arrived in India with the Persians and was refined in the royal kitchens of the Mughals before travelling to Kerala, where it changed its form based on the “land, weather conditions and nature” of the locals. In that summation is a compendium of the history of Malabar cuisine – a confluence of cooking styles including European to Arabian and Persian besides, of course, Indian.

The film’s fantasy trope of angels-helping-humans shifts the scene from the imagined, dreamy heaven to the lush heaven-on-earth, where the main story unfolds. The camera moves with the nonchalance of being in a place – a fictional village about 50 kilometers from Kozhikode – where every shot is bound to hold the eyes captive.

The central attraction of the village is a 200-year-old mosque, famous not so much for its religious services or even the multi-gemstone studded walking stick of its founder preserved as an exhibit in the mosque as for its Sunday biryani program. Cutting across caste, class and religion, biryani lovers throng the mosque every Sunday. When a TV reporter comes to the village to do a story on the weekly feast, the first person he interviews is the elderly Krishnan, who prides his position as the president of the “2,000-year-old” Bhadrakali temple as much as he gloats over the fact that he sat on the front row of the first edition of the biryani program, hosted by Hajiyar, the mosque priest and his (now dead) wife, in 1998.

Dignified egalitarianism

As depicted in the film, the queues formed diligently for the free biryani – one each for men and women – held for me a mirror to the dignity and grace of the people of Kerala. Everyone waits for their turn patiently, and social position accords no special status to anyone. This is the same grace the Malayalees have displayed in the wake of the unimaginable calamity of the recent deluge. From cabinet ministers to district collectors, and police officers to ordinary millennials and seniors alike, Keralites displayed a spirit of cooperation that stood out when the force of water swallowed everything else around them. Images of a young girl carrying her pet dog on her head as she wades through waist-deep water, of poor villagers at the district collector’s office to return their eagerly-awaited meagre pension and of ministers carrying sacks of relief material on their shoulders won’t escape our memory soon. More so because, while stories of human endurance in crises involve ordinary folks are common, it is rare in the Indian context to see officials and legislators stepping in to respond to life-threatening situations.

Even besides the workplace and the biryani queue, the neighbours – Muslims, Christians and Hindus – freely intermingle on a social level, visiting each other’s houses, having tea and food together. God is a common point of reference in their conversations. Communal harmony is not a clichéd, feel-good cinematic flower vase here because it is precisely not that in the social milieu it draws from. This bond is real and sincere, as has been demonstrated by the temples and churches that opened their doors for namaaz in the wake of the recent floods.

The Malabar biryani then becomes a metaphor for this smooth amalgamation, combining as it does, according to the mosque priest, 35 different ingredients. When mixed in the right proportion, these create an aroma that rises “straight to the heaven.” Similar to the harmonizing of the spices in the biryani is the social mixing of the neighbours. Hassan, an aspirational tailor, works in Mariyama Memorial Tailoring Shop owned by a Christian and writes screenplays at work; his current work in progress is a modern-day story of Mahabharata’s king Pandu.

Biryani Tales and Life Lessons From Kerala
A screen grab from the trailer of the Malayalam film Oru Visheshapetta Biriyani Kissa.

But despite the egalitarianism and secularity, the biryani queue is also where strains of tension first become visible. The camera focuses on Miss Tara, a middle-aged widow who quickly becomes the object of ogling and slander from the men’s line. Her crime? Not displaying grief on her husband’s death in the Gulf two years earlier.

The perils of disinformation

The biryani program comes to an abrupt halt with due to certain circumstances. To cope with the drab Sundays, no-good youngsters like Paul, the tailoring shop owner’s adopted son, look forward to such activities as visiting Tara’s house on the pretext of delivering her blouse. At a village meeting chaired by Hajiyar and Krishnan, Tara volunteers to cook the Sunday biryani. But on her first scheduled Sunday, she ends up delivering a premature baby girl instead, sparking a wildfire of scandalous gossip through the village. Speculations on the baby’s father bring everyone into its ambit – from the impotent tailor master to Hajiyar.

The viral acceptance of rumour as truth that follows brings to the mind the vicious disinformation campaign launched with the aim of forestalling aid contributions for the recent flood victims.

Tara is defamed as a fallen woman, publicly called a whore and barred from participating in the biryani program. But Tara, like Kerala, stands her ground in the face of all the aspersions. Like Kerala, too, she does not let herself slide into victimhood, treating herself to a sumptuous home cooked meal instead.

Oru Visheshapetta Biriyani Kissa is a feminist film in several ways. The guest appearance of Ummi Abdulla featuring on an FM channel run entirely by women, the heavenly angel deciding to help Tara, the exposing of patriarchal hypocrisy—all point to that. Contrasting with that clear slant from director Kiran Narayanan is the easy geniality with which the villagers from different religions and social classes intermingle.

The film’s finale emerges from Tara revealing the name of her child’s father to the villagers and stepping forward to cook the Sunday biryani with the help of fellow villagers. After overcoming his initial shame-induced denial, the father of Tara’s illegitimate child finally owns up his responsibility. The village is able to bring the biryani program back without outside help, much like Keralites have done to rebuild their state in the aftermath of the floods.

It would be imprudent to simply draw the parallels without also considering the man-made causes that contributed in large measure to the recent flooding. That said, the soul of Oru Visheshapetta Biriyani Kissa is the wisdom it offers – living in harmony, assuming responsibility in full and a staunch refusal to negotiate with harmful agents – both as a fable and a doctrine to live by.

For, indeed, biryani can be a way of life if not a religion in itself.

A People Ravaged: Peeling off the Many Layers of Partition Trauma

First published in The Wire

Literature, Gender, and the Trauma of Partition: The Paradox of Independence
Debali Mookerjea-Leonard
Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2017

In writing my first novel, whose protagonist is a young refugee woman from East Pakistan, I employed the device of coincidence to achieve a happy ending. Doing so wasn’t a sudden rush on my part to end what had become a protracted writing project but a well thought-out conclusion. It was not to be. When they read it, two of my trusted beta readers quashed it summarily, citing it as lazy and escapist. Even though incredible incidents can happen in real life, one of them advised, in a work of fiction, coincidences are hard to pull off convincingly.

An incident Debali Mookerjea-Leonard mentions in the preface to Literature, Gender and the Trauma of Partition: The Paradox of Independence starkly bears out this paradox.

Shortly after the All India Muslim League’s call for Direct Action in Calcutta in 1946, the author’s grandfather was stranded in Howrah station as public transport had been suspended in the wake of the sectarian clashes. He eventually got a ride from a kind Muslim family who had a private car, but had to climb on the footboard as the vehicle was full. To ensure his safety, he was given a flag of the Muslim League and advised to shout “Pakistan Zindabad” when passing through Muslim neighbourhoods. He did, and reached his home safely.

The insanity that gripped the subcontinent a year later when India was partitioned has been arduously chronicled in historical archives. In the privileging of journalistic reportage and record-keeping, personal histories surrounding the traumatic event haven’t received much attention until recently. The initiatives of Urvashi Butalia, Ritu Menon, Kamla Bhasin, and Jashodhara Bagchi, among others come to mind.

Mookerjea-Leonard’s book is an important intervention in this regard, not only because of its meticulous research and compelling arguments but because it sits in that nebulous middle – a no man’s land if you will – of fact and fiction. The author examines with incisive rigour fictional works on Partition and juxtaposes them against factual information and recent recordings of oral histories. As someone not directly affected by the event, hers is a lens that is both objective and earnest.

The works discussed in Literature, Gender and the Trauma of Partition are mostly from Bengal, which the author calls the “neglected shelves” of Bengali literature, written by writers from both sides of the Radcliffe divide. As she mentions in the Preface, this book is her tribute to her city, Calcutta. It is also a conscious effort to shine a light on the sufferings of those at the eastern end of the divide, as the tragedy of Partition in Bengal has been either underrepresented or misrepresented when compared to Partition in Punjab. This could well be attributed to, as Mookerjea-Leonard is cognisant of, the predominant and recurrent theme ofdisplacement in the east as opposed to that of horrific violence in the west.

Read the rest in The Wire.

Book Review: Love and the Turning Seasons – India’s Poetry of Spiritual & Erotic Longing

I recently had the opportunity tot read “Love and the Turning Seasons,” an exquisite collection of bhakti poetry in translation from Aleph. I wrote about it in Kitaab.

Love and the Turning Seasons

Title: Love and the Turning Seasons – India’s Poetry of Spiritual & Erotic Longing
Edited by Andrew Schelling
Publisher: Aleph
Pages: 294
Price: ₹399

I left shame behind,

took as an ornament
the mockery of local folk.
Unswerving, I lost my cleverness
in the bewilderment of ecstasy.

— Manikkavacakar (9thcentury), Tr. A.K. Ramanujan

In a lover’s enraptured world, love is the breeze that strips one, quite simply, of the garment of shame. In reading Love and the Turning Seasons, the newest offering from Aleph Classics, a series that aims to bring new translations of India’s literary heritage, the reader is swept in that denuding breeze. Edited by Andrew Schelling, the collection of poems bears the slightly beguiling subtitle, India’s Poetry of Spiritual & Erotic Longing. I say beguiling because it would seem like the poems could fall in either category – spiritual or erotic. In reality, as Manikkavacakar, the ninth-century Shiva devotee tells us, the line between the two states is as diaphanous as air itself. For, in the “bewilderment of ecstasy”, who is left to distinguish between the flesh and the spirit? This seamless merging of the body and the soul is at the heart of this anthology of bhakti poetry, translated by various poets and literary translators.

Love and the Turning Seasons alights upon the reader as a songbird to take her across time and space – from the sixth century (barring the Isa Upanishad) right up to the twentieth, on an anticlockwise path beginning in the south of India and ending in the east. Despite the multiplicity of expressions of the bhaktas or poet-minstrels, informed as they were by specific cultural and regional parlance, what unifies them is their rejection of societal norms in their unwavering quest for the divine. These were among the first true radicals in the Indian context, repudiating, with delightful contempt, tradition and convention. Gender-bending, caste-subverting, these individuals lived and (even) died on their own terms and sang of the divine with ariose abandonment. As Lal Ded, another Shiva devotee from Kashmir said,

Who instructed you, O Brahmin,
to cut this sheep’s throat—
to placate a lifeless stone?

— Lal Ded (early 1300s), Tr. Andrew Schelling

 

The Sanskrit word bhakti means devotion and has come to connote intense, even blind idolatry, and in these troublingly skewed times, bhakta (devotee) has become a bad word, an uncomplimentary term for blind followers of certain ideologies, political or otherwise. As the anthology affirms through its diverse voices, the bhakti poets were anything but blind in their devotion.

Read the rest in Kitaab.

 

 

The fabled crop of winter

First published in DNA

For the past two years, from the time of my intercontinental drift to North America, winter hadn’t coiled me in its viper-like grasp. I had thus brushed off warnings of “bitter, brutal Canadian winters” as hoax spun by hyperbolic weaklings. Then, the winter of 2013-14 happened. Like a nightly creature that keeps its movements hushed, it pounced on me — surreptitiously and with a bloodthirsty vengeance.

Curiously enough, while I found myself abjectly underprepared to deal with the onslaught of the season’s icy blows, my imagination experienced an odd and even mystifying boost. A spruce tree coated with the first dust of snow became a young-at-heart old man for me. A pine tree, resolute in its evergreen dignity, seen from the window next to my seat at work, became a trusted companion when all the other trees surrounding it bared their branches. Snow-covered cupped hedges appeared as giant ice-cream cones ready to be licked clean by overgrown kids like me. As my mostly unimaginative mind ran wild with wintry metaphors, I began digging into winter in fiction.

To my delight, I discovered that this bone-numbing, grinding stone of a season has moved many a storyteller’s creative muscles. In The Snow Man, O Henry sets the winter scene up in the countryside amidst a menacing snowstorm. Arguably not in league with his finest short narratives, the story nevertheless resonated with me — because the narrator’s disdain for snow equalled mine.

Of all the curious knickknacks, mysteries, puzzles, Indian gifts, rat-traps, and well-disguised blessings that the gods chuck down to us from the Olympian peaks, the most disquieting and evil-bringing is the snow… [The Snow Man, O Henry]

Interestingly, the story opens with this sentence, “Housed and windowpaned from it, the greatest wonder to little children is the snow.” Going by the number of times schools in our area shut down this winter owing to snow-related danger on the roads, I suspect I know why children love the white stuff as much as they do.

At the same time, the prospect of snow days can prove to be a jolting annoyance in the routine lives of stay-at-home parents. Winters were frustratingly mild in North Carolina, but the year I was in the fifth grade we got lucky. Snow fell, and, for the first time in years, it accumulated. School was cancelled, and two days later we got lucky again. There were eight inches on the ground, and, rather than melting, it froze. [Let it Snow, David Sedaris]

By late November, snow had enveloped every house, building, tree and park in the laidback Ontario town where I live. My city was a white-hooded mischief maker; even street signs hid behind pillows of snow, conning rush-hour traffic. Amnesiac fields of snow quizzed me, “What is the colour of green?” In the eyes of Dominican-American author, Julia Álvarez’s young protagonist, snow resembles something much more sinister. At the Catholic school she goes to after immigrating to the United States, her teacher draws a picture of mushroom cloud on the blackboard to explain the consequences of a nuclear war in the prevailing Cold War environment.

Then comes the girl’s first snowfall. The months grew cold, November, December. It was dark when I got up in the morning, frosty when I followed my breath to school. One morning as I sat at my desk daydreaming out the window, I saw dots in the air like the ones Sister Zoe had drawn random at first, then lots and lots. I shrieked, “Bomb! Bomb!” Sister Zoe jerked around, her full black skirt ballooning as she hurried to my side. But then Sister Zoe’s shocked look faded. “Why, Yolanda dear, that’s snow!” She laughed. “Snow”. [How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, Julia Álvarez]

Between December and February, the winter of 2013-14 unleashed its redoubtable fierceness. A massive ice storm hit parts of Ontario, knocking out electricity and bringing entire cities to a standstill.

Arctic gales blew mercilessly as did blizzards and snow squalls. It was no longer just a matter of battling nature’s forces. Despite being wrapped under layers of clothing, the promise of central heating and the luxury of a fireplace, I recoiled as the cold pulled me into its vortex.

This was a chakravyuh no limping flame, no pale sun could touch. In a visually arresting winter story by Tobias Wolff, three hunting friends brace not just frigid shrapnel but also the frosty chill of mind games and human bitterness.

The wind was blowing into their faces. The snow was a moving white wall in front of their lights; it swirled into the cab through the hole in the windshield and settled on them. Tub clapped his hands and shifted around to stay warm, but it didn’t work. [Hunters in the Snow, Tobias Wolff]

Wolff’s story is a rough territory where the dense vegetation of a forest and the cutting arrows of winter contend against the complex equation between the three hunters. It’s hard to tell what stings the skin more — the slap of blowing snow or the barbed comment of a comrade.

20171110_094037.jpg

This feeling of being left cold at a deeper, psychological level is portrayed superbly by James Baldwin in Sonny’s Blues, the gut-wrenching story of a young musician struggling with addiction, and the “icy dread” his older brother, the narrator, feels at various points during their interactions.

“It’s terrible sometimes, inside,” he said, “that’s what’s the trouble. You walk these streets, black and funky and cold, and there’s not really a living ass to talk to, and there’s nothing shaking, and there’s no way of getting it out — that storm inside…” [Sonny’s Blues, James Baldwin]

As winter continues to exert its inexorable grip where I live, usurping spring, threatening to blot out even summer, I wonder what is it that ticks a writer’s fancy in the wintertime.

Is it the result of forced solitude — months spent cooped-up inside? Or is imagination the only escape, the only coping mechanism, when the daily reality is that of zero-visibility on the roads, a mountain of snow to shovel before work, and watching one’s step all the time to avoid slipping into ice?When hope, optimism and anticipation all fade before the determination of this year’s winter, I take refuge in Oscar Wilde’s words in The Selfish Giant, a story he wrote for children.

One winter morning he looked out of his window as he was dressing. He did not hate the Winter now, for he knew that it was merely the Spring asleep, and that the flowers were resting. [The Selfish Giant, Oscar Wilde]

In search of home and homeland: Seeking Palestine

Seeking Palestine: New Palestinian Writing on Exile and Home
Penny Johnson, Raja Shehadeh, editors
Olive Branch Press

Your mother’s face once sustained you. Now you have to strain your memory to trace its outline. The place you were born in you can’t return to, even if it were so you could die there. Y130225-seeking-palestineou can only be a nomad, an exile, or a refugee–never at home. Seeking Palestine, an anthology of nonfiction narratives gathers all these voices as it tries to make sense of the largely map-less Palestinian identity.

Susan Abulhawa chases this elusive piece in “Memories in an Un-Palestinian Story, in a Can of Tuna”. In her personal essay, the author best known for her novel, ‘Mornings in Jenin’ captures the breadth of a Palestinian’s nomadic condemnation. Her words–funny and shocking and tragic–tell how she was ping-ponged across geographies as a young girl. Thus, despite growing up in the US for most of her life, she says, “…I have come to understand that it (my life) represents the most basic truth about what it means to be Palestinian–dispossessed, disinherited and exiled.”

“Exile” is the permanent address many have been left with since the Israel-Palestine conflict began with the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. And so as poet and translator Sharif L. Elmusa etches in an essay combining his poetry and prose with river-like flow, not only their presence but even the absences of Palestinians are portable. To lug this presence/absence around, a Palestinian pays steep baggage fees. “I can only go inside myself / into the maze of the hippocampus / which is like going inside a pyramid / and finding the robbers had carted away / the belongings.// What will I shed this round / to complete my portable absence?”

Read the rest of the review at Armed with Amor.

Séraphine and the Source of all Sparks

The other night as sleep eluded me, I requested my husband to tell me a story. Though juvenile, the exercise was definitely enjoyable. He started narrating a tale in which the protagonist was a small car. The story took me through this little car’s journey into the big, bad, puzzling world–about its getting lost in the woods, feeling lonely and scared, and finally being brought back to its mother, a truck. A story suitable for all children, including the occasional one like myself. It was a rather well-crafted story with all components fitting well with each other and flowing logically. At the end of it, I wondered where did he, who insisted on being a reader, not a writer, get the brainwave for this story? And that brought me to the bigger question–where do well all get our ideas from? From life around us, some would say. Of course, that’s true, but what plants a particular story seed in one’s brain in the first place? The answer remains one big mystery and has been so for quite a while since humans embarked upon adventures in creative expression.

Rabindranath Tagore, toward the end of his life said something to the effect that he never wrote anything of his colossal body of work. He meant that all his writing had “been written,” that it wasn’t something he could claim as his deed. His refrain is echoed by Mirza Ghalib, one of the greatest and most revered of Urdu poets. Ghalib condenses his creative process in a couplet where he says:

Aate hain ghaib se yeh mazaami khayal mein

Ghalib sareer-e khaamah nawaa-e sarosh hai

Loosely translated, it means

These flourishes of imagination come to me from (nowhere)

These words are the ones uttered by the archangel.

And in the book on the legendary Indian sculptor-painter, Ramkinkar Baij that I translated, the artist says in one place:

“A lot of times, one doesn’t know what form the painting will acquire. You understand? The image comes alive on its own. It inspires awe. Completely stuns you. Then I think intoxicated, where does that man, who quickly drew the picture by keeping me standing like a mute witness, live? “

I like to think the mystery of creative spark is what endows it with so much excitement. When you start off, it’s not a known path you take, it’s not a less-known one either; it simply is one that unfolds in real-time, moment by moment. And nothing brought home this aspect of creativity to me more than a film I watched recently.

Séraphine, a 2008 film, tells the story of a self-taught French painter, Séraphine Louis or Séraphine de Senlis (Séraphine of Senlis) who was born in the late 19th century, and died in 1942. When I read the film’s synopsis, I took it to be fictional. For it is hard to believe the extraordinary life of this artist and the events that punctuated it. Orphaned by the age of seven, Séraphine grew up to a life deficient in comforts of the material kind, but rich in imagination and nature’s marvels. After spending years working as a shepherdess and a maid, she got hired as a servant by the nuns of a convent when she was eighteen. Pious and hardworking, she spent two decades with the convent, before returning to her role of a maid to keep her stomach palette filled. This is the role–of an ageing maid–that the film Séraphine opens with. We see a zaftig and somewhat eccentric spinster in the houses of aristocrats in the French town of Sinlis.

She is like any other maid one might have come across at that time–earnest, diligent, careful with her money. Except, she is not any other maid of her time. Yes, she is earnest in her chores of floor-mopping, cloth-washing, dish-cleaning, but her real sincerity lies elsewhere. She is most diligent in answering the commands of her masters and mistresses; but it’s nothing compared to the command she truly cares for. And the prudence she shows with expending her meagre earnings is not to indulge herself, except for her life’s passion.

Early on, along with portraying the rigours of her job as a maid, the film establishes her love of nature. Next, it is revealed that the pennies she so painstakingly earns and haggles for with her employers are not for buying bread, but art materials–paints and brushes–from a local store. She is even shown to sneak oil from church lamps, except her god knows this is no pilferage. For, in the course of the film we learn that Séraphine‘s foray into the world of painting was prompted by a command she received from her guardian angel. We see her painting furiously, squatting on the floor of her cramped, untidy room, even as she fails to pay rent. Her subjects are typically drawn from the natural world–trees and birds she would claim to “talk to”, fruits and vegetables, animals and the sky.

“Séraphine is a visionary in the powerful sense of the word. She let herself be carried by something that was stronger than she was, that she did not control, at the risk of destroying herself.”

[From an interview with Director, Martin Provost]

It’s not long before the film as well as Seraphine’s life story take a decisive turn–with the entry of Wilhelm Uhde, a German art collector. He rents an apartment in Senlis, where Séraphine does cleaning work. By sheer chance, he comes across one of her paintings at a dinner invitation. Struck by the creative vitality, Uhde immediately takes her under his wings. Even as his encouragement bolsters the artist inside Séraphine, the scimitar of World War I slashes their association–the art collector has to flee Senlis as his house is raided. Thirteen years later he returns to France and, once again, is faced with Séraphine–through a painting of hers he sees at an exhibition of local artists’ works.

One of the most touching parts of the film is when Uhde traces his steps to Seraphine’s creaky room and assures her of supporting her painting career–by this time, the old maid is even older, and weighed down by age and its annoyances, she cuts down on her house assignments, focusing instead on her heart’s calling–painting. Soon, thanks to the provision of art materials and a monthly allowance, set up by Uhde, the self-taught artist begins painting with an intensity greater than before. We see her causing an explosion of colours on huge canvases, even as her lifestyle too improves. This burst of creativity wouldn’t last too long either. This time, her own mind would be at war with Séraphine. Hallucinated and “hearing voices,” she scares her neighbours and is finally taken to a mental asylum. Almost immediately, she gives up painting. Forever. Three years after her death, Uhde would organize an exhibition devoted entirely to Séraphines works in Paris. Ironically, during the last phase of her painting life, this is what Séraphine desperately wished for–a solo exhibition.

 

As exceptional as Séraphine Louis’s life story is, the film achieves in conveying it with outstanding maturity. The strongest element in this is Yolande Moreau, who is Séraphine in the film. She appears so natural–both physically and in her mannerisms–that it’s hard to believe she is acting in a film and not living her actual life. However, what makes the film all the more powerful is the deftness with which the director, Martin Provost, has turned almost every frame into what could be a painted canvas or a brilliant photograph–works of art. Whether it be the fields or streams Séraphine passes through or the night when the terror of war booms through Senlis streets with cannon shots or Séraphine’s imaginations bursting forth on to a canvas–the scenes are rich with eloquent detail. Yet, none of it is loud that would scream for attention.

“Whether it be for the costumes, the sets, or the lighting, we were intent on making sure that everything was a bit “withdrawn.” A general desire for sobriety and discretion; the least amount of effects.”

[From an interview with Director, Martin Provost]

Even as Séraphine‘s story intrigues me, it brings me back to the exciting mystery that spawns creativity, while also stuffing me with bagfuls of inspiration.

“Séraphine was a simple cleaning lady—worse, a handy woman—who painted extraordinary things in secret and who was the butt of all jokes. She represented at the time what was the lowest on the social ladder. But she didn’t care. Nothing stopped her. She was able to preserve her autonomy in spite of everything, her inner life’s abundance in the secret of her little room, even if it meant accepting performing the most thankless jobs.”

[From an interview with Director, Martin Provost]

Do watch this film if you can. You won’t regret it.

Martin Provost interview source: http://www.seraphinemovie.com/