An Excerpt from "Modernism By Other Means: The Films of Amit Dutta"

From a new book devoted to Indian director Amit Dutta, a chapter exploring his documentary about the Gond tribal artist Jangarh Singh Shyam.
Srikanth Srinivasan

2020 is the year of Indian filmmaker Amit Dutta, who is the subject of an on-going retrospective at MUBI and a new monograph written by Srikanth Srinivasan, Modernism By Other Means: The Films of Amit Dutta. Srinivasan and his publisher Lightcube have generously provided an excerpt of the chapter of the book devoted to the 2008 film Jangarh: Film One to supplement MUBI's series.

On 6 July 2001, The Hindu carried a news story about the suicide of a resident Indian tribal artist, Jangarh Singh Shyam, in the Mithila Museum in Niigata, Japan. Born in the Gond village of Patangarh in Madhya Pradesh, Jangarh was part of the Pardhan subsect. Pardhans are traditionally minstrels and balladeers, but Jangarh could also dance, play instruments, and paint. "Discovered" at the age of 19, he migrated to the city of Bhopal to work at the Bharat Bhavan, a multi-disciplinary arts complex where he learned to handle synthetic paint. Commissions, exhibitions, residencies, and awards followed and, soon enough, Jangarh and his art were travelling worldwide. His meteoric rise had even paved the way for his kinsfolk from Patangarh, with whom he shared his earnings, to take up painting and move to the city.

In 2001, he was invited for a second residency of three months at the Mithila Museum, where he was reportedly under pressure to produce works at a constant rate. In letters written to his wife back home expressing his discontentment at the residency, Jangarh had been asking her to arrange for his return. Depressed and under duress, he hanged himself in his room. The museum refused to pay for the transfer of his body back to India. Detailing the circumstances of his demise at the age of 39, the report in The Hindu said his passport had allegedly been withheld and his stay extended beyond the original agreement. It concluded: "In his tragic death lie several unanswered questions about the feasibility of transporting art that is essentially bound to a certain way of life and sensibility into a culture which exploits it for commercial gratification."

Amit Dutta was a student at the Pune film institute when he heard of Jangarh’s death. "The news," he says, "gripped me with intense paranoia." In 2008, he went to Patangarh with a digital video recorder and captured over a hundred hours of footage. He pruned and condensed this vast material down to a 24-minute documentary without voiceover. Its title, Jangarh: Film One, signals a beginning, but also transmits an idea of continuity. It announces itself as the "first effort," of many that could and should follow, in tracing the life, work, and death of the Gond artist.

The film begins in Patangarh. We are shown the hills and the clouds, grazing fields and the cows that populate them, before we meet the people. Jangarh is punctuated by intertitles often carrying mundane and redundant chapter headings whose frequency increases as the film progresses. Dutta interrogates a resident who volunteers to guide him around the village. The man points to a tree occupying the place that was once the house of Verrier Elwin, the British anthropologist who made Patangarh his home. The Indian painter and founder of Bharat Bhavan, J. Swaminathan had read the writings of Elwin and traveled to Patangarh in the eighties, where he discovered Jangarh’s talent for art. Jangarh, in turn, left with Swaminathan for Bhopal to hone his skill. 

Jangarh weaves itself around this very lineage: Elwin, Swaminathan, and Jangarh, none of whom we see in the film. Like Citizen Kane, the testimonies we hear about these three figures provide sculptural solidity to the void that is their absence. These accounts give as much insight into Jangarh’s private history as his place in the evolution of Indian art through the centuries. Dutta’s research publication, titled Invisible Webs (2018), traces the far-reaching fabric of art-historical connections Jangarh was unwittingly part of. It situates the artist, his practice, the discourse on, and the reception of his oeuvre within a chronicle of Indian art’s reconciliation with modernity.

In Patangarh, Dutta interviews friends and family of Jangarh, whose immense geographical distance from the painter’s final residence renders his death all the more tragic. They talk about Jangarh’s "discovery" by Swaminathan, his move to the city and his unrealized dreams of making something out of his ancestral property. Like in Ramkhind, Dutta places emphasis on the vast open spaces and intimate households of the village. The camera in this segment is handheld, possessing a freedom that it typically does not in Dutta’s cinema, and underlines the presence of a subjective gaze. This is particularly startling given that the films before and after Jangarh, namely Kramasha and Man’s Woman, embody a style antithetical in most ways to it.

Following the artist’s own journey, the film moves to Bhopal around the two-thirds mark. The leisurely pace of the Patangarh segment makes way for a slightly more frenetic rhythm, shorter average shot length, and more frequent intertitles. This increasing fragmentation serves to mirror the tribal experience of the city that Patangarh natives evoke earlier in the film. The flow of time is constantly broken and remade, while a tense ambiance marks the urban spaces. Dutta uses a sinusoidal drone on the soundtrack throughout, bestowing a nervous, foreboding color to the images. In this segment, we are introduced to Jangarh’s life in the city through a host of material traces related to him: paintings and reproductions, a book on the artist’s style, photograph of him and Swaminathan at work, and a toolkit the latter put together to help talent scouts during their visits.

Early on, a local guide in the film asks Dutta whether he should wear a shirt before they begin. Likewise, in Invisible Webs, Dutta narrates an incident involving Jangarh in which the latter asks a gallery photographer if he should pose bare-bodied, instead of in a T-shirt, "like a tribal." Were Jangarh to wear a T-shirt for the photograph, it would have struck a dissonant chord with the primitivist idea the cultural class has of tribal artists: pristine, untouched by the corrupting influence of modernity, eternally in Rousseau’s State of Nature. The guide’s casual question, like Jangarh’s own, inverts this colonizing gaze. It preempts the interlocutor’s power to define the tribal by proposing to define it for him beforehand. "Would you like me to wear (or remove) a T-shirt?" is tantamount to asking "Would you like me to preserve your cultural myopia?" This self-awareness transforms his role from a passive subject to an active performer, like the actor who returns the gaze of an invasive camera.

Dutta’s film offers a series of such exchanges in which the image of the tribal artist Jangarh was boxed into is interrogated and subtly undermined. The menfolk in Patangarh are shown to wear shirts and trousers routinely. They talk about surviving the city experience. Some lament that Elwin has not left anything lasting behind him in the village—a complaint giving the lie to the popular notion that theirs is an oral tradition built on a mythical, cyclic conception of time. Dutta writes:

"And the very people who had been considered to have only an 'a-historical' mythical idea of time are more concerned that something more substantial than memories had not been built and nothing that was built has survived. After all memory is not considered as history; and a song that has outlived its language is like a ghost without a body."

At the same time, Jangarh points out how such stereotyping has influenced the image the Pardhans have of themselves. Many of the village folk have followed Jangarh to Bhopal, working with the "Jangarh style" with minor variations, producing art outside of the context it was once intended to be in. On being asked what kind of painting he makes, Jangarh’s young nephew replies "Tribal Art"—a questionable term appropriated from the language of the art market.

Jangarh is also part of the filmmaker’s longstanding exploration of the state of art education in the country. While he acknowledges the vital, indispensable role of institutions in imparting knowledge on art, especially on cinema, Dutta has written in detail about the narrowness of vision with which art and design academies in India operate today. In Invisible Webs, he explores the motive and impact of institutionalization of art during the British Raj. Colonial pedagogues, he observes, trained local artists in the techniques of European naturalism without at the same time educating them in the philosophical foundations of this system. Similarly, while subcontinental folk craft was popularized in the West and industrialized, the artisans producing these items, often working in different cities, were themselves estranged from the mytho-epistemological source of their craft. He writes:

"Though their distance from aesthetical texts or the scriptures had always been large, these artisans had a knowledge pool derived from the texts built into their conventions. So their grassroots level displacement meant the obsoletion of that pool of knowledges."

Jangarh, too, was obliged by economic necessity to relocate from Patangarh. With dwindling patronage within the tribe, he had to accompany Swaminathan to Bhopal in order to escape poverty back home. As his art gained attention and acclaim around the country, folks from his tribe followed him into the city, settling down and building on his style of painting. Consequently, like the artisans under British direction, they end up working within a "contextually-exiled framework."

It is this spiritual displacement Jangarh and his art were subject to that Dutta’s film investigates. In Patangarh, we are told, Jangarh’s murals adorned the homes of kith and kin and were created on special occasions like weddings or demise. This was an art that was in pace with a way of life, deeply rooted in the history of the region and beliefs of the clan. As the film moves to Bhopal, we witness the same paintings on walls bordering the city’s sidewalks, their visibility obscured by advertisement hoardings and motor traffic. Deracinated, they cease to be in harmony with the knowledge system they originate from.  

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