The connecting rhythm

Laxmi Baug in Girgaon where sangeet mehfils used to take place  

The camera stays focussed on two old-world windows and a door. Soft rays of the sun make patterns on the floor. There is complete silence. This is the opening shot of documentary filmmaker Surabhi Sharma’s Phir Se Sam Pe Aana (Returning to the first beat), screened at the Mumbai Film Festival this year. The window seems to be the protagonist of Sharma’s film; it appears often, has a well-defined role, and provides a clear view of the past.

Sharma takes you around Girgaon, part of the native town in colonial Bombay and now a bustling commercial hub. She revisits buildings in this neighbourhood where Hindustani music put its roots and thrived. Though decrepit, these spaces are filled with memories. They resonate with stories of stalwarts, passionate listeners and committed patrons.

And like the music of the time, the film moves at an unhurried pace. The stillness in the shots seems to signify the focus, depth and emotion in the singing. If there are enough frames that give you the larger picture of tradition, Surabhi never misses an opportunity to juxtapose them with the present. So even as you hear swaras echo through these nooks and crannies, you also hear the honking of cars and scooters passing by. It shows the continuity of the art and its inherent power to take in changes. The subtle shifts between the bygone era and the present also underlines the director’s understanding of the reality even as she traces the history of the art.

An FTII alumnus, Surabhi has produced and directed nine documentaries on gender, globalisation and music. Some of her feature-length films such as Bidesia in Bambai, Can We See The Baby Bump?, Jahaji Music and The Turtle People, have bagged awards at international festivals.

In an interview, she talks about how she came up with the project in collaboration with Dr. Tejaswini Niranjana.



Was music the connect or mutual interest in exploring the social history vis a vis music?

Phir Se Sam Pe Aana is an outcome of a project that researched the historical antecedents and contemporary practise of Hindustani classical music in Mumbai. The film emerged from the project’s efforts towards documenting this intangible urban heritage of the metropolis.

Dr. Niranjana and I have collaborated in the past. Her academic project on gender, music and migration in the Caribbean resulted in journeys to Jamaica and Trinidad, along with musician Remo Fernandes and a film crew led by me. The outcome of that journey was a film, Jahaji Music: India in the Caribbean. Mumbai is the city that is central to three of my films, so here was an opportunity to explore both the city and music through this film.

What prompted you to focus on Girgaon?

The density of the social history of Hindustani music in a tiny neighbourhood was fascinating. Every second building seemed to house a story. In the early days of our research, a music aficionado, also a resident of this neighbourhood since his childhood, walked us through Girgaon. He told us about chawls that transformed into concert spaces and lodging space for travelling musicians. He also pointed to schools that became concert halls, homes of patrons of music, homes of struggling and prominent musicians, homes to an entire gharana, and so forth.

It was cultural history through a lens, to understand the social context — how did the music that belonged to courts and aristocratic homes move into common spaces? Who brought Hindustani music to the city and who carried the practise forward? And how cultural histories of communities were replaced with individual engagement with the aesthetics of music.

Why did you think a documentary would be the right medium to focus on a musical legacy?

I worked on a series of video installations with the research material that we generated — first for an exhibition that Dr. Niranjana curated titled, ‘Making Music Making Space’ in Mumbai in 2015. Then for the 11th Shanghai Biennale curated by Delhi-based artists, The Raqs Collective. Working on video installations, a form I am not that comfortable with, made me think about other aspects of my research material, beyond its inherent documentary value. As we began reviewing the filmed research interviews, I began to re-imagine the documentary mode and its expressive qualities.

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Printable version | Jun 11, 2021 1:56:30 AM |

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