The struggle of memory over forgetting

Works of Ray, Ghatak and Aravindan have evaporated. Even Mani Ratnam has lost his early films

October 14, 2017 06:15 pm | Updated October 16, 2017 01:39 pm IST

The struggle of memory over forgetting is a political thought. It is often used in circumstances of conflict and traumatic events where hegemonic forces actively connive in the erasure of memory to construct a brand new triumphal narrative. The kind of palpable erasures of the past that are so evident, say, in the new narratives around Palestine or Jaffna or Kashmir. For the ‘victim’ communities, holding on to their memory through devices like song, gesture, word and the photographic image (or film), becomes a mnemonics of resistance. The act of archiving here becomes integral to the politics of survival and defying a dominant discourse.

The possibility of referring to our cultural pasts in an unbiased way, without the baggage of prejudice or the weight of a master-narrative, is possible only when we have access to material from our past that has survived the vagaries of both time as well as deliberate doctoring and tweaking. In our times, this has become highly dependent on ‘ethical’ archives, which honestly retain, store and preserve all elements of cultural memory without ascribing undue weightage to this or that aspect. To take a recent example from Uttar Pradesh, the trick they have invented of producing tourism brochures or textbooks invisibilising the Taj Mahal.

Fragments of film

One of the potent ‘memory banks’ of the past hundred years has been cinema. India has been fully a part of that experience and is, at present, a country that annually produces the most number of films. We also boast of millions of film-crazy audiences in multiple languages who swear by the medium and support the roughly Rs. 15,000 crore industry. Yet, Indian cinema has tragically been unable to preserve its recent past in any meaningful way for the present or the future.

Yesterday, a hugely important week-long workshop on film conservation and preservation concluded in Chennai. Organised at the initiative of the Film Heritage Foundation, Mumbai, and with collaboration from the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF), this workshop for 50 participants and involving over 20 international experts in the field, is part of a chain of such events triggered by a looming sense of crisis. Of the 1,700 Indian films of the silent era — from Phalke’s Raja Harishchandra in 1913 to Alam Ara in 1931 – only five or six are available today, and that too in fragments. Even Ardeshir Irani’s Alam Ara with the great Zubeida barely has a trace left, with almost the entire film in cellulose nitrate melted for its silver. But that’s too far back to travel. Works of contemporary masters, from Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak to Kumar Shahani, Mani Kaul, Aravindan and John Abraham have evaporated. Why, even Mani Ratnam is in search of his early iconic films.

It is in this context that I’ve recently been discussing the story of the only truly ‘dance film’ in India – the 1948 Kalpana , by legendary dancer Uday Shankar. It is the film that triggered the ‘group dance’ and ‘choreographed dance’ of Indian cinema. But neither the film nor its creator is remembered in our film or dance world today. The story of Kalpana needs to be told, once again, as the struggle of memory against forgetting.

A story retold

In 1938, Uday Shankar returned to India from Europe and set up the Uday Shankar India Cultural Centre in Almora. At the Almora Centre, he gathered together an inspiring bunch of gurus/teachers of Indian dance and musical forms as well as over a hundred students. The idea was to create a pan-Indian form melding classical/folk/tribal dances within the parameters of European stage techniques and presentation. From the beginning, the experiment was beset with issues of finances and manpower. The pressure of handling such a big troupe began to take its toll. In 1942, a friend advised him that it might be more productive to convert his idea into the new language of cinema, rather than the unwieldy proposition it was going to be on stage. Shankar saw the wisdom in this, shut down his centre and, in 1944, moved to Madras to take up camp in the now defunct Gemini Studios.

Over the next four years, Shankar and his dancers, musicians and gurus worked, rehearsed and shot. In early 1948 was released his magnum opus Kalpana . The dancers included his wife Amala, Padmini, Usha Kiron, Zohra Sahgal, Guru Dutt and many rising Kathakali stars. The film had a segment called ‘Labour and Machinery’, which was a tribute to Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times . However, Shankar was no filmmaker. His choreography skills and naïve script could not save the film. It bombed. He lost all his money and returned to Calcutta, a disappointed man.

Interestingly, the almost daily exposure to making a dance film had trained and inspired S.S. Vasan and his crew at Gemini Studios. By the end of the same year, they came up with the spectacular blockbuster Chandralekha , with its climactic scene of a massive group choreography with over 400 dancers atop 50 drums. Cinematographer K. Ramnoth (along with Kamal Ghosh) had also wielded the camera for Kalpana . The vocabulary was akin to Kandyan dance, glimpses of which they had seen in Shankar’s work. The film, in many languages, broke all records and established a permanent place for dance on celluloid. Tamil cinema exported this ‘item’ to the Bombay film industry and has never looked back since, dance becoming integral to its DNA.

But what happened to Kalpana ? It was almost forgotten until, in 1967, Ritwik Ghatak persuaded Shankar to contact the recently set-up National Film Archive of India under the legendary leadership of P.K. Nair. Shankar donated a dupe negative copy of Kalpana for ‘loan and preservation’. Nair acknowledges this as a ‘great gesture’ on the part of Shankar at a time when there was little consciousness about preserving or archiving film. The interesting thing is that Kalpana itself is a unique filmed archive of Indian dance forms of that time.

However, time took its toll and the NFAI copy deteriorated. That was when, according to Cecilia Cenciarelli of Cineteca de Bologna (eventually responsible for restoring the film under Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project), Uday Shankar’s younger brother, sitarist Ravi Shankar, met Scorsese in 2008, who saw the film and called it a “creative peak in the history of independent Indian filmmaking”. After many hurdles, finally in 2009, research on restoring the film began. As Cecilia narrates, in her essay ‘From Darkness into Light’, “In 2012, the combined dupe negative of Kalpana was shipped to Cineteca in Italy. The laboratory staff performed over 4,000 hours of manual digital restoration, removing more than half a decade’s worth of dirt, scratches and splice marks; correcting flickering, jittering and tilting; and fixing a generally unstable image”. A new 35 mm internegative was produced for long-time preservation. In 2012, the restored Kalpana premiered at Cannes Classics in the presence of Amala Shankar.

Several minutes have been lost from the original three-and-half hour film. But a piece of historic memory has been restored. It is another matter that the Indian dance community prefers forgetting over remembering.

The writer is currently involved in setting up an archive in Chennai of the works of dancer/ choreographer Chandralekha and artist/ designer Dashrath Patel

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