As a filmmaker, Shashwati Talukdar is deeply interested in pictures and how they “express and portray the milieu of their times”. This interest led her to the murals of Dehradun, which form the subject of her new documentary, “Wall Stories”.
Being from Dehradun, Shashwati was familiar with some of the murals, and how “woefully understudied” they are. “Wall Stories” unfolds as a series of journeys to the sites of the murals. From the Laxmi Narayan temple, built by a wealthy landlord to appease the gods, we are taken to the Guru Ram Rai Durbar, a 17th Century Udasin shrine named after the guru whose miraculous powers earned him the respect of Aurangzeb but the fury of his father Guru Har Rai, the seventh Sikh Guru, who disowned him. From these and other journeys, what emerges is a fascinating history of the region and its syncretic culture.
The murals are an expression of this uniqueness. “They are rather significant in telling us the story of this area in ways that have escaped most historians and social scientists. A good example being the depiction of Emperor Aurangzeb in these paintings. He is portrayed as a friend of Guru Ram Rai in discourse with him as an equal, and not as the grimacing villain of Amar Chitra Katha comics we have all grown up with. It really gives you a very different sense of him, quite contrary to what is currently popular,” Shashwati writes.
Moreover, one can see a profusion of styles in these paintings — from the Mughal court painting to styles from Punjab, Kangra and Pahari — all of which are inflected with a unique Garhwal flavour. Towards the latter half of the 19th Century, the Company School of painting and photography makes its appearance in the paintings in the area.
The director, to relay her curiosity about the murals, stages an animated conversation between herself and the subjects of the murals. “So many of the paintings are so full of narrative, I would often catch myself inventing dialogue for them. So I just gave in and put in speech bubbles,” she writes. The inspiration for this device came from Tulsiram Mistri, one of the painters of the Durbar Sahib and other sites in Hardwar and Rishikesh. “He has a fabulous self portrait on the Durbar Sahib gate that says in Devnagari and Urdu, ‘Tulsiram Mistri, Tasveer banane wale’...He exemplified the multiple styles and influences on the art of the area and also its history and society.”
For Shashwati, who has previously made “Please Don’t Beat Me, Sir!” with P. Kerim Friedman, these murals, around whom people conduct their daily lives, are a living thing. But she also documents the neglect and disrepair some of them have fallen into, and how in the name of ‘preservation’, some of them are being erased. To protect them, it is important for there to be a degree of awareness about what they are and how they improve civic life. Also needed is “support for people who want to preserve these murals. A lot of the private citizens who have these paintings in their homes cannot afford to take care of them. If society deems this is something important, it needs to step in to take care of this legacy.”
Shashwati is continuing to work on stories and ideas that come from Garhwal. She has just finished a “Himalayan Gothic tale of childhood fears and bravery” and is working on another.