Journey through cultures

Recording history Stills from the documentary;

Recording history Stills from the documentary;  

S. Krishnaswamy and Mohana Krishnaswamy recount the making of Indian Imprints

For 120 days, they travelled through some of the more remote regions of Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand, carrying around 600 kg of equipment.

Along the way, they narrowly escaped being at the epicentre of a major earthquake, almost ran up against an erupting volcano, had to pick up a new language on the fly when they were stranded without their interpreter, and even did a spot of hitchhiking after their bus broke down in the middle of nowhere. Oh, and they lost all 600 kg of luggage entirely at one point too.

Nine-hour documentary

Intrepid explorers? Intrepid documentary filmmakers, actually. Those were some of the experiences S. Krishnaswamy of Krishnaswamy Associates and his wife (and producer) Mohana Krishnaswamy went through while making Indian Imprints, a nine-hour documentary that traces the impact of ancient Indian culture and civilisation on South East Asia, historically. “When I was a boy, an astrologer said I would face a lot of obstacles in life, but that the greater the obstacles I faced, the greater would be my victory,” says Dr. Krishnaswamy, adding with a laugh, “Well, if that’s so, Indian Imprints is probably my biggest success of all!”

It was always going to be an ambitious undertaking — there was virtually no documentation in English on the subject when he began working on it in 1999; only a few poorly-translated texts by Dutch and French historians talking about the profound Indianisation of these countries, and nothing at all on film.

“Fortunately, Dr. Lokesh Chandra in Delhi became closely involved and proved to be a tremendous resource,” says Dr. Mohana.

And, receiving funding from Prasar Bharati, whom they’d approached, proved to be a long drawn-out process. When it finally did come through in 2005, the 67-year-old Krishnaswamy was in hospital recovering from a coronary bypass. Still, just months later, his wife and he were planning a preliminary research tour of the five countries, only to find that there wasn’t a single travel agent in India who could actually make bookings to all those out-of-the-way places they needed to go.

“Places such as Bromo in Java aren’t on the itinerary of your typical traveller,” says Krishnaswamy, who ended up engaging a separate agent in each of the five countries. Such remote shooting locations also meant that they had to carry their own filming equipment, everything from shooting lights to trolley tracks, which resulted in the aforementioned 600 kg of baggage when they finally set out to film.

The reason for all of this, of course, was the antiquity and relative obscurity of the temples and monuments they were in search of. “We’re not talking about the Mariamman temples built 150 years ago by Chettiars who settled there,” says Krishnaswamy, who has won four National Awards for his short non-fiction films. “The temples and monuments we’ve covered go back all the way to an unspecified pre-Christian era, with authentic documentation from the first century A.D. onwards.”

The monuments offer a fascinating study in cross-cultural pollination such as the Pandava Chandis, temples for the Pandavas and Draupadi dating back to the Eighth century in Java, Angkor Wat, the massive 11th century Vishnu temple in Cambodia, or sculptures dedicated to Karaikal Ammaiyar, a Ninth century saint from Tamil Nadu scattered all over the region.

“Indian tradesmen went in large numbers to these areas, many from the Pallava and Chola dynasties, and spread their faith, mythology, poetry and language — the influence is extraordinary,” says Krishnaswamy.

Cross-cultural pollination

The quest to trace these influences did leave them at the mercy of the 2006 earthquake in Indonesia (which included a near run-in with the erupting Mt. Merapi when they changed course to avoid the epicentre) and had Mohana learning to speak serviceable Bahasa overnight when they were stranded without an interpreter, among other things.

Still, his obsession with the subject, which began 32 years ago while working on ‘Indus Valley to Indira Gandhi’ has kept the filmmaker going, and in fact, there’s still more he wishes he could have done.

“There are so many imprints to be found in places such as Japan, Korea, China, Syria and Palestine,” he says. For now, you can catch Indian Imprints on DD-India (the international satellite channel) at 1:30 p.m. on Sundays and on DD-Bharathi (the national channel) at 9 p.m. on Saturday, where it is being aired as an 18-episode series.


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