In a little-known Haryana village called Mughalwali, farmer Sahiram Kashyap has been waiting for a miracle. For many months now, his emaciated face has harboured an unusually potent belief — that the mythical Saraswati river will soon burst through the dusty veins of his farmland.
Every morning, he prostrates himself next to a roughly dug well, and assures the “mother” that he’ll pray until she appears. At the bottom, some groundwater reveals itself, blissfully unaware of the fame, and the attendant responsibility, that has been thrust upon it. To most residents of Mughalwali and the neighbouring village of Adi Badri, this will most certainly be the source of India’s revival.
Thrillingly for them, the State and Centre share this belief. A multi-crore Saraswati Revival Project has been officially sanctioned — for a river that might never have existed at all, and most certainly doesn’t at the currently proclaimed spot. In Searching for Saraswati , an Op-Docs documentary commissioned by The New York Times ( NYT ), filmmakers Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya (who previously directed The Cinema Travellers that premiered in the Cannes Classics section in 2016) paint a terrifying picture of two villages hypnotised by blind faith, and the opportunistic politicians and religious figureheads keen to milk it for profit and propaganda. In 20 crisp minutes, we meet various aam aadmis and their experience of the story as it unfolds.
Web of deceit
Established in 2011, Op-Docs is a flagship strand of NYT that draws from the spirit of the Op Ed (“opinion editorial”) and seeks documentary films with a point of view. Commissioned as one of five films supported by an exclusive Sundance Institute-MacArthur Foundation Short Film Fellowship, to explore “contemporary issues by distinctive new voices” around the world, Searching for Saraswati is the first Indian op-doc for NYT .
Shooting for three weeks in the dug-up farmlands across two villages, Abraham and Madheshiya illuminate a web of deceit and propaganda that threatens not just livelihoods, but the very basis of progressive, scientific thought.
The documentary houses a motley group of interested parties: the farmer who believes the appearance of the “mother” is imminent and that the water has healing properties; the lone voice of reason who believes it is all hogwash and is instead an attempt by the government to seize their lands for religious tourism; the high-caste priest who finds himself in the right place to cultivate his business; the RTI activist who cannot get a straight response from the government. The larger question remains: why does the government care so deeply about the Saraswati? After all, when challenged, the government officially denies having any scientific evidence of the river’s existence. Yet, the propaganda, financial support, and the Saraswati Mahotsavs continue.
Both Abraham and Madheshiya are unequivocal about the government’s motives. The propagation of ancient, unverified mythology to undermine science appears endemic in the current dispensation. When we speak, Abraham recalls how various figureheads in the BJP, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, have variously espoused beliefs about the glory of ancient India, including chest-thumping declarations about our success at developing various modern technologies thousands of years ago. (In 2014, the Prime Minister claimed that Hindu god Ganesha had undergone plastic surgery; according to Rajnath Singh, Heisenberg’s renowned Uncertainty Principle has its provenance in the Vedas). The Saraswati project is an extension of the same propaganda disguised as historical fact.
“There is complete disregard for the whole enterprise of scientific pursuit,” says Madeshiya. “Claiming that everything existed in the past denies the logical progress of science through various stages and discoveries. Can an airplane be invented if we’ve just discovered fire?” For Abraham, the current malaise points to a simple conclusion: “It’s about consciously cultivating unthinking obedience to a single vision. That India’s glories stemmed from its Hindu past. And that it was always and will always be, first and foremost, a Hindu nation.”
Abraham thinks it’s dangerous because it propagates a single, narrow version of history as the only true version. “It leaves no scope for debate, or a thinking populace. Both of these are critical in a democracy,” she says. Madheshiya agrees, “It is an active political choice. It might seem like it’s born out of ignorance, but it’s not. They know what they’re doing.”
The documentary’s position is clear, but the lens is always sympathetic. At all times, it poses questions and offers few judgements. There is no river, of course, but who are the people who believe it exists? How are they affected? Abraham says that in choosing to tell this story, Madheshiya and she decided it needs to be told from the ground up. “We were searching for the one true moment that would define the story for us. We found it in the farmer waiting for a mythical river to appear,” she says.
According to Abraham, the documentary needs to be about the people at the centre of the story, and affected by it. She insists that even though many people in the two villages demonstrate unquestioning belief in the existence of Saraswati, it isn’t necessarily a case of foolish villagers being taken for a ride. Most know the roles they are playing in the story, and how they stand to benefit from the appearance of the mythical river.
I ask Abraham if the filmmakers ever felt depressed or overwhelmed by the blind belief they observed. “You know how when people started climbing, they gave it the dignity of danger to make it seem like a worthwhile pursuit? I think our work needs to adopt some of that. Not recklessness, but moral, courageous pursuit of the truth.”
There can perhaps be no better (or more ironical) testimony to this age of unreason than the government-sanctioned search for a mythical river named after the Hindu goddess of knowledge. Searching for Saraswati releases this week.
The writer is photographer and founder of The Indiestani Project, a poetography collaboration.