Epic Ruptures and Resonances: Remembering Kumar Shahani (1940–2024)

A tribute to one of the maestros of Indian cinema, whose films generated new possibilities of experience.
Vedant Srinivas

Kasba (Kumar Shahani, 1972).

The epic may go to the origins: the archetypes of thought, emotion and spiritual desire, and dissolve them in the present. The sensuous, contemporary life, seen from the perspectives of both past and future: film. Like music, the cinema is experienced as a continuous, live process of energies. It is conceived and best remembered in a flash, a composite whole.

—Kumar Shahani, Film as a Contemporary Art

A sequence from Kasba (1990), directed by Kumar Shahani, has remained imprinted in my mind. Adapted from Anton Chekhov’s 1900 novella In The Ravine, Shahani’s melodrama is an exploration of feudal patriarchy in a small township in the mountains of Kangra. The film follows the younger daughter-in-law Tejo’s (Mita Vashisht) brutal power grab, which will finally culminate in the killing of the male heir to the family business. Immediately following this harrowing scene, Tejo stands at the edge of an open window, an inscrutable smile playing on her face. Her pose is strikingly artificial: one arm caresses the railing above, with her body bent at the knees, hips, and shoulders, evoking in a flash the tribhanga pose of the shalabhanjika, an iconographic trope in ancient Indian sculpture symbolizing fertility, beauty, and life-giving force. Meanwhile, the roving camera, accompanied by Vanraj Bhatia’s haunting score, glides across the room and out of a window, wondrously crossing over to the other side. As Tejo languidly changes her posture, the rhythms of her body—each inflection, each movement—are matched by the rhythms of the camera, until there is a sudden cut to falling yellow leaves, to nature resplendent in its autumnal glory. 

This is a sequence brimming with sensuality, charged with an intensity that leaves one almost gasping for breath. Tejo goes beyond the confines of her character, while the sequence itself breaks away from the strictures of plot, awakening resonances across vast swathes of space and time. This crossing of a threshold is emblematic of Shahani’s cinema as a whole, suffused as it is with a deeply primal and archetypal yearning. 

Born in 1940 in the city of Larkana in Sindh (modern-day Pakistan), Shahani later moved with his family to Bombay in India. It is here that a young Shahani first experienced the bitter taste of displacement, a feeling of belonging neither here nor there. Surrounded by a dazzling potpourri of languages, customs, dance forms, and musical systems, all of which he desired to imbibe and inhabit, Shahani experienced a strange stirring, an initial impulse toward what he would later call “the epic idiom.” Shahani would go on to study at the famed Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune, where he would meet two of his three gurus, the iconoclastic filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak and the Marxist historian and polymath Damodar Dharmananda Kosambi. Later, he would travel to France on a fellowship, witness firsthand the paroxysms of the May ’68 civil unrest, and also assist Robert Bresson—his third guru—on A Gentle Woman (1969). These diverse influences—a mythic sensibility, a dialectical-materialist reading of Indian culture and history, and a distinct approach to image-sound relations—would find original expression in his first feature, Maya Darpan (Mirror of Illusion) (1972), considered a seminal film of the Indian Parallel Cinema movement, along with his FTII classmate Mani Kaul’s Uski Roti (Our Daily Bread) (1969). 

Maya Darpan (Kumar Shahani, 1972).

Maya Darpan revolves around Taran—the daughter of a local merchant—and her burgeoning sexuality, set against the backdrop of oppressive feudal norms and capitalist modernization. The largely plotless film finds Shahani embarking on formally dexterous maneuvers: radical disjunctions are opened up between image and sound, while color and movement are used to convey meaning independently, in and of themselves. The reactions in India were largely negative; none other than Satyajit Ray penned a coruscating review (famously accusing Shahani of “threatening film language with extinction”). Shahani was unable to secure funding for his next film for almost twelve years, and he used that time to research the epic tradition in India, studying Indian classical music, Buddhist iconography, the literary epic the Mahābhārata, and the bhakti movement.

Central to Shahani’s epic idiom is a precise manner of spatio-temporal narrative elaboration that replaces cause-effect chronology and convergence with dispersion and decentering. Even Kasba, a relatively plot-heavy film, unfolds in a way that undermines its own seriousness; there are temporal jumps, sudden tonal changes, and an awkward coming together of different acting styles, each strand pulling the film apart in different directions. 

Shahani finds inspiration not just in the literary, iconographic, and epic performative traditions of India, but also in the highly intricate, techno-aesthetic structures of elaboration and improvisation found in raag-based Indian classical music, especially the North Indian khayāl, of which he was a longtime student. The influence can be felt in Tarang (Wages and Profits) (1984), a sweeping three-hour film about industrial unrest and working-class agitations in Bombay featuring more than fifteen key characters. Throughout Tarang, there is an incessant interweaving of narrative threads in which characters repeatedly cross paths and diverge, and movements and actions find echoes across plotlines. The film ends with a startling sequence: two principal characters inscribed into an ancient myth of transgression (replete with expressive costumes and theatrical dialogues), thus cleaving a direct line between the present and an archetypal past. 

Khayal Gatha (Kumar Shahani, 1989).

In Khayal Gatha (The Saga of Khayal) (1989), a film about the development of the khayāl form of classical music, Shahani rapidly dispenses with the actual historical facts in the first fifteen minutes. The rest of the running time is devoted to the elaboration of legends, stories, and myths associated with khayāl, much like traditional gāthas (poetic legends) that have incorporated multiple layers of resonances and meanings over centuries. Shahani also sought out novel ways of arranging image-sound combinations in an attempt to evoke the multi-perspectival nature—the lack of convergence and depth—of the Mughal school of miniature painting (and later Pahari miniatures in Kasba). In practical terms, it meant working against the properties of the cinematic medium, the very lens of which is built according to Renaissance principles of perspective and convergence. Shahani did so with unique modulations of color, focus, sound, spatial volume, distance, and camera movement, often giving rise to sequences of astonishing beauty.

A Kumar Shahani film is a singularly exhilarating viewing experience: sequences unspool from the center and flow outward, and yet the center itself appears to be constantly shifting. In Bhavantarana (1991), a film on Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra, one of the greatest exponents of the classical dance form called Odissi, there is a dizzying criss-cross of art forms—sculpture, architecture, music, poetry, metaphysical rumination—loosely held together by mesmerizing dance sequences, with the swaying, panning, and tilting camera actively participating in the corporeal elaboration of the performance. True to the epic idiom, each thing here is related to everything else, giving rise to unexpected associations and resonances. 

This notion of cinema as belonging to a dynamic spectrum of art forms finds its highest realization in The Bamboo Flute (2000), Shahani’s tribute to the classical Indian bansuri (flute). Here, the cinematographic apparatus itself becomes flute-like, spontaneously elaborating on movement and sound, almost like the unfolding of an alaap (pure melodic improvisation, usually the first section of a classical music performance). Freed from the linear fixity of plot, each shot—whether of the sky scattered with clouds, a diaphanous spider web, or intricate sculptural carvings—is endowed with an irreducible individuality, evoking a vision of the world pulsating with rapture. As in most of Shahani’s films, one encounters here a ludic interplay of sounds, textures, reverberations, and rhythms, generating sensations that resonate in the very depths of one’s being.

The Bamboo Flute (Kumar Shahani, 2000).

Shahani’s cinema challenges the supposedly universalist legacy of European modernity, acknowledging the plurality of ways in which non-Western societies organize space and time. This is not, however, a return to a nativist tendency, or a reification of a geographically determined nationalism (Shahani’s study of epic cinema included such names as Sergei Eisenstein, Straub-Huillet, Miklós Jancśo, and Marguerite Duras). He meant rather to situate himself in a tradition and work within it: a tradition that is continuously evolving and in dialogue with contemporary realities of a postcolonial nation, and not one that is static and unchanging, as India’s current authoritarian regime would have us believe. 

Despite the worldwide acclaim Kumar Shahani has received, his is a story that unfortunately repeats itself all too often: one of institutional neglect, of an increasingly commercialized culture industry, and of that special opprobrium reserved for so-called “difficult” arthouse cinema. A cursory glance at Shahani’s unfinished or discarded projects serves as a reminder of the groundbreaking works we might have received: an adaptation of Anna Karenina, a biopic on the early-20th-century avant-garde painter Amrita Sher-Gil, a screenplay on the history of cotton in the modern world, and a production of Hamlet featuring Michael Jackson. Here was a filmmaker committed to finding new ways of expression, endlessly in pursuit of the wondrous, multifaceted nature of human existence and experience.

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