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Cinema of Prayoga: Indian Avant-Garde Cinema

by Laali
Cinema of Prayoga: Indian Avant-Garde Cinema by Laali
A Monkey’s Raincoat (Mani Kaul, 2005) DEFINITION: 1) ‘Prayoga’ (प्रयोग) is a Sanskrit word, which loosely translates as ‘experiment’ but can also mean ‘representation’ and ‘practice’. 2) Coined by film historian Amrit Gangar, the term ‘cinema of prayoga’ defines “the eternal quest, [the] continuing process in time and space” central to artists’ film and video. (Source: no.w.here) 3) ‘Cinema of Prayoga: Indian Experimental Film & Video 1913-2006’ was also the name of a touring exhibition of artists’ film and video work from India moving from the birth of Indian cinema with the films of D.G. Phalke, to the works produced under the Films… Read more


A Monkey’s Raincoat (Mani Kaul, 2005)

DEFINITION:

1) ‘Prayoga’ (प्रयोग) is a Sanskrit word, which loosely translates as ‘experiment’ but can also mean ‘representation’ and ‘practice’.

2) Coined by film historian Amrit Gangar, the term ‘cinema of prayoga’ defines “the eternal quest, [the] continuing process in time and space” central to artists’ film and video. (Source: no.w.here)

3) ‘Cinema of Prayoga: Indian Experimental Film & Video 1913-2006’ was also the name of a touring exhibition of artists’ film and video work from India moving from the birth of Indian cinema with the films of D.G. Phalke, to the works produced under the Films Division in the 1960’s and films made until 2006. Launched at Tate Modern, this exhibition was the fruit of the collaboration between no.w.here (London) and its partner Filter (Mumbai) in providing a platform for innovative film makers in India reflecting “the little known and diverse worlds of historic and contemporary India”. The Mumbai and Bangalore based Experimenta Film Festival was established with the joint collaboration of these organisations. According to Shai Heredia, the Director of Experimenta, “since its inception in 2003, Experimenta proudly showcases Indian Films that delight in eccentric form and abstract narrative. These are exciting films that display an independence from the constraints of the generic western avant-garde. Experimenta ultimately seeks to explore a new visual world and is an invitation to explore and support a movement to break the boundaries of what constitutes film art in India".
(Source: Experimenta 2005 catalogue)

4) Cinema of Prayoga was also a book edited by Brad Butler and Karen Mirza from the UK artist film and video lab no.w.here. This publication is an illustrated anthology of interviews and essays by curators, filmmakers, video artists and pioneers of ‘Prayoga’ in both Indian cinema and contemporary Indian art practice including Amit Dutta, Amrit Gangar, Ashish Avikunthak, Elena Bernardini, Amitabh Chakraborty, Anuradha Chandra, Shumona Goel, Shai Heredia, Mani Kaul, Kabir Mohanty, Navjot Altaf, Johan Pijnappel, Raqs Media Collective, Sanjiv Shah, Ashok Sukumaran, and Kamal Swaroop.


Kalighat Fetish (Ashish Avikunthak, 1999)

I present here 5 lists that draw from different sources:
1) The films included in “Cinema of Prayoga: Indian Experimental Film & Video 1913-2006”.
2) Films mentioned by Amrit Gangar in his seminal article Cinema of Prayoga, where he discusses the accuracy of the terms ‘avant-garde’ or ‘experimental’ regarding Indian experimental cinema. He also draws a history of experimental film making in India.
3) Films included in some editions of the Experimenta Film Festival (Mumbai/Bangalore).
4) Films I’ve watched and though not included in any of the former ones I consider they merit the label of cinema of prayog.
5) Some of the films on The Auteurs’ database.


Raja Harishchandra (G.D. Phalke, 1913)

FILMS AT THE ‘CINEMA OF PRAYOGA’ TOUR:

Raja Harishchandra AKA King Harishchandra (D.G. Phalke, 1913)
Premiered on April 21, 1913, in Mumbai, Phalke’s first full length feature stars a man named Salunke as the “Leading Lady“, since women didn’t get to act in movies at the time. Only one reel survives of the king who suffers to prove his commitment to truth.

Lanka Dahan AKA Lanka Aflame (D.G. Phlake, 1917)
A mythological retelling of the familiar Ramayana story in which Rama’s wife Sita is abducted by Ravana, the demon king of Lanka, and then rescued by Rama and his army of men, monkeys and bears. The climax sees the brave monkey god Hanuman set the island of Lanka afire with his burning tail.

Shree Krishna Janma AKA Birth of Shree Krishna (D.G. Phalke, 1918)
This short has spectacular trick effects for the time. It depicts an infant Krishna (played by Phalke’s daughter Mandakini), rising out of the water balanced on the head of the demon snake Kaliya, and also Krishna’s uncle Kamsa, dreaming that his head, magically severed, rises and descends from his shoulders.

Setu Bandhan AKA Bridging the Ocean (D.G. Phalke, 1932)
Lord Rama and his army of apes and other creatures attempt to cross the sea to reach Lanka – the domain of Ravana – to rescue the abducted Sita. To do so a bridge of pebbles and stones is built by squirrels, and Sita is rescued. Made at the end of the silent period this film is a bridge between the silent and the talkie era.

And I Make Short Films (S.N.S. Sastry, 1968)
An impressionistic portrayal of a short filmmaker by a short filmmaker. The views expressed in the film are sometimes bitter, often humorous, at times satirical but seldom complimentary.

Trip (Pramod Prati, 1970)
A film on Bombay, using pixilation and an abstract soundtrack to depict the evanescence of urban daily life. The quintessential Indian experimental ‘city film’.

Child on a Chess Board (Vijay B. Chandra, 1979)
This abstract narrative, dealing with the parallel themes of “Man with all knowledge” and “Child the father of man”, is a psycho-social exploration of nationhood, industrial progress and scientific development, as seen through the eyes of a child.

Explorer (Pramod Prati, 1979)
A psychedelic trip through ‘60’s youth culture in India. An analysis of science, technology and modernity with abstract references to symbols, faces and moods.

18 (+2) Blinks of an Eye (Anuradha Chandra, 2004)
“I was fascinated by Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams’ which explores different possibilities of understanding time. He creates a series of vignettes that describe some of the dreams that Einstein could have had while trying to understand the mysteries of space and time. Each vignette contains a world based on a particular perception of time and space. People inhabiting these worlds have behaviours and philosophies appropriate to these models of perception. The vignettes are cinematically evocative as possibilities – in one world, time is circular, and its people repeat triumph and trial over and over and over again… In another, men and women try to live as high as possible – the higher the altitude the slower the time moves and the longer they remain young … In yet another, there is no time, only frozen moments. These are evocative metaphors for time – although when we try to articulate an exact definition of time it falls into circular language. We take time for granted, mostly as the linear clock time by which we divide our days. But what is it really? The film starts from this point and then evolves into an experiential journey to discover the essence of time, and trying to represent it ‘directly’”.
– Text from Interview between Anuradha Chandra and Shai Heredia from publication Cinema of Prayoga: Indian experimental Film and video 1913 -2006

Atreyee (Shumona Goel, 2004)
“When I moved to Bombay I shared a room with my friend Atreyee, a young Bengali woman who was doing fieldwork in Bombay for her PhD. She had inexpensive basic equipment to document her research – an automatic still camera, disposable cameras, a tape recorder, and a computer. I started playing around with these amateur gauges, taking random snapshots of Atreyee sleeping, eating, and reading. There was something revealing and cinematic about these personal snapshots. I followed Atreyee around for two years while she developed a routine in Bombay. She found a flat, she did her research, she made friends, she fell in love, and she got married. I guess I ended up using her as a subject to build on my own story of moving to a new city”.
– Text from Interview between Shumona Goel and Shai Heredia from publication Cinema of Prayoga: Indian experimental Film and video 1913 -2006

I’m Bobby (Xav Leplae, 2003)
I’m Bobby serves up an unbidden détournement of the classic Bollywood blockbuster Bobby (Raj Kapur, 1973), considered scandalous in its day for its eroticism. Xav leplae casts street children, child laborers and drawn puppet figures in place of Rishi, the grown up superstars of the 1970s original. While Kapoor’s Bobby was loosely based on ‘Romeo and Juliet’, set in modern India ’I’m Bobby’ newly relays it own messages about society and culture.

Memory; Record/Erase (Nalini Malani, 1996)
Malani’s first animation is an interpretation of ‘The Job’ by Bertold Brecht. It tells of an impoverished worker who spent four years disguised as a man before it was discovered that she was a woman. Using a tactile technique, Malani painted directly onto glass drawing over or erasing the previous images. The work captures the ephemeral and unreliable nature of memory and identity.

Chingari Chumma AKA Stinging Kiss (Tejal Shah, 2000)
“Stinging Kiss is a ‘fairytale’ exploring the spaces of queer desire that remain unaddressed by Bollywood. Conventionally, a heroine would be abducted by a bandit, taken to his den and tied up only for the hero to come and save her just in time. But here an unexpected twist subverts this typical Hindi film climax…”

Phantoms (Tushar Joag, 2002)
A documentary on the politics of hate, made soon after and in response to the bloody Gujurat riots of 2002.

Scrolls (Valay Shende, 2002)
Scrolls juxtaposes footage from a popular TV serialisation of the epic Indian tale Mahabharata, with scrolling news text. The artist weaves together a commentary on contemporary India polarized on religious lines, with an uneasy mix of myth, violence and entertainment.

Unity in Diversity (Naalini Malani, 2003)
Unity in Diversity is based on Raja Ravi Varma’s C19th allegorical painting ‘Galaxy of Musicians’, showing 11 female musicians dressed in the different costumes of India: signifying unity in diversity. The video contrasts this with later histories of the rise of fascism and the genocide in Gujarat in 2002. What starts off as a visual fairytale, where all parts of the nation play in harmony together, ends up in a bloodbath.

Kissa-e-Noor Mohammed (Garam Hawa) (Anita Dube, 2004)
Originally a video installation, this piece seeks to portray the nine ‘rasas’ (‘essences’ or ‘sentiments’ in Indian aesthetics, the characteristic qualities of literature, drama and music) through a character called Noor Mohammed, who transforms from an amiable and affable man into an aggressive fundamentalist.

Jataka Trilogy (Tushar Joag, 2004)
Amidst media saturated memories assembled from “conflated celluloid images of butchery, war footage and animated cartoons,” Tushar Joag attempts to rediscover values and create a meaning in life through art. The title refers to the Jataka tales, Indian folk stories passed down and reinterpreted by each new generation.

Rashtriy Kheer & Desi Salad (Pushpmala, 2004)
Based entirely on material found in family recipe books dating from the 1950s and ‘60s, the film presents the modern Indian family as exemplifying the ideals of the newly formed Indian nation. With scribbled domestic lists, personal memos, poems and classroom notes, recent history is distanced and treated as excavated past.

Kaal Abhirati AKA Addiction to Time (Amitabh Chakravorty, 1989)
Kaal Abhirati in Bengali would literally mean Time Addiction / Obsession. Sounds very pretentious. But at that time I saw it this way – someone sitting and watching a film, a real actual act – real time – ninety-five minutes, one twenty minutes, thirty minutes, whatever. Could I factor this real time of the viewer into my image making on screen? Would it be fiction? How would it be vis-à-vis the time sweep of a novel or an astrological chart of an individual? The past, future, present moving from one to the other in the blink of an eye. What a high! I kept the length of the shots where they fulfilled a plot and then began to exist on their own, in the real time which a viewer also experiences while watching a film. This gave me a high too. It can get addictive…

Kalighat Fetish (Ashish Avikuntak, 1999)
Kalighat Fetish is contemplation on two ideas – transgression and morbidity. They are connected by the act of transformation, leading to death. Both the violence of sacrifice and the performance of transformation for me are transgressive acts performed as an engagement with morbidity. They are part of the same act of reverence and anguish. For me, Kalighat Fetish is an outcome of my own interaction with the memory of death and dying. The ‘brutality’ of the sacrifice is for me a meditation on the morbidity of death.
– Text from Cinema of Prayoga: Indian experimental Film and video 1913 -2006

BOMgAY (Riyad Wadia, 1996)
Referred to as “India’s first gay film”, BOMgAY brings to life the acerbic poetry of the late R. Raj Rao, and challenges the oppressive and archaic posture of section 377 of the Indian Penal Code that criminalises homosexuality.

(Source: n.o.w.here)

FILMS MENTIONED BY AMRIT GANGAR IN HIS ARTICLE CINEMA OF PRAYOGA:

Uski Roti AKA Our Daily Bread (Mani Kaul, 1969)
Bhuvan Shome AKA Mr. Shome (Mrinal Sen, 1969)
Maya Darpan AKA Mirror of Illusion (Kumar Shahani, 1972)
Ghasiram Kotwal (1976, Mani Kaul, K. Hariharan, Saeed Akhtar Mirza, Kamal Swaroop)
Explorer (Pramod Pati, 1968) (watch it here)
And I Make Short Films (S.N.S. Sastry, 1968)
Trip (Pramod Pati, 1970) (watch it here)
Child on a Chess Board (Vijay B. Chandra, 1979) (watch it here)
Growth of a Pea Plant (D.G. Phalke, 1913)
Raja Harishchandra (D.G. Phalke, 1913) (watch it here)
Setu Bandhan AKA Bridging the Ocean (D.G. Phalke, 1932)
Naukar ki Kameez AKA The Servant’s Shirt (Mani Kaul, 1999)


Vakratunda Swaha (Ashish Avikunthak, 2010)

FILMS AT EXPERIMENTA:

Trip (Pramod Pati, 1970)
A film, which uses pixilation to depict the transitoriness of daily life in an urban context.

And I make Short Films (S.N.S. Sastry, 1968)
An impressionistic portrayal of short film making by a short film maker. The views expressed in the film are sometimes bitter, often humorous, at times satirical but seldom complimentary.

Expression (Biren Das, 1969)
Set in Bombay in 1969, this is an experimental film about city life the activities occurring around a busy city square. Narrated through abstract images, this film is created from the perspective of the statue at the centre of the square.

Child on Chess Board (Vijay B. Chandra, 1979)
An experimental film that explores nationhood, industrial progress and scientific development through the eyes of a child.

18 (+2) Blinks of an Eye (Anuradha Chandra, 2004)
Measurement is a symptom of humanity’s attempt to tame the chaotic universe and subjugate it to our control. 12 months in a year, 365 days in a year, 24 hours in a day. In film the smallest unit is the frame, in time it is the second or even a blink of an eye. This film questions what happens when it is not possible to observe or measure reality without changing it and we are unable to eliminate ourselves from the picture. The film takes images and sounds from the filmmaker’s immediate environment (at the time- Chicago) and tempered by process and chance, weaves them together to create a perceptual world of the filmmaker. The interiority of the film resonates with the space inside the cave. Working in the tradition of the direct film, it records in its own physical nature the traces of its process of evolution as a fragment of meaning. The film’s content and process are intricately connected.

Atreyee (Shumona Goel, 2004)
Atreyee, a young Bengali woman leaves Calcutta in search of a new life in Bombay. She finds paying guest accommodation in the suburbs. In a series of still photographs, the film records her establishing daily routines. Eventually, she travels home to Calcutta. Marriage is an option to lonely and disinterested modern life.

Kalighat Fetish (1999, Ashish Avikunthak, 1999)
The film attempts to negotiate with the duality that is associated with the ceremonial veneration of the Mother Goddess Kali. It ruminates on the nuanced trans-sexuality that is prevalent in the ceremonial performance of male devotees cross dressing as Kali. This is interwoven with grotesque elements of a sacrificial ceremony, which forms a vital part of the worship of the Goddess.

I’m Bobby (Xav Leplae, 2003)
Shot directly to the sound track of ‘Bobby’, Raj Kapoor’s 1973 Bollywood classic, ’I’m Bobby’ casts street children, child laborers and drawn puppet figures in place of Rishi, the grown up superstars of the 1970s original. While Kapoor’s Bobby was loosely based on ‘Romeo and Juliet’, set in modern India ’I’m Bobby’ newly relays it own messages about society and culture.

Om Dar-Ba-Dar (Kamal Swaroop, 1988)
Om-Dar-Ba-Dar is a fantastical portrait of life in a mythical small town. The film tells the story of a young boy called Om in the period of his carefree adolescence and its harsh disillusionments. Om has a rather strange family. His father quits his government job to dedicate himself to astrology, and his older sister is dating a good-for-nothing. Om is involved in science, but is also attracted to magic and religion. Above all it seems as if his only outstanding skill is his ability to hold his breath underwater for a long time. ‘Om-Dar-Ba-Dar’ has been referred to as an anomaly or accident by the few who have seen it from within the mainstream Indian film history because of its progressive cinematic nature.

Source for these synopses: theotherfestival


Child on a Chess Board (Vijay B. Chandra, 1979)

OTHER FILMS I’VE WATCHED THAT I’D CALL EXPERIMENTAL (not in the database):
A Flowering Tree (Vipin Vijay, 2007) (watch it here)
Arrival (Mani Kaul, 1979) (watch it here)
Life (Sankar Gangooli, 1969) (watch it here)
Meenakshi, Tale of Three Cities (M.F. Hussein, 2004). Being a painter, he doesn’t belong to the Indian New Wave aka Parallel Cinema and I think that his films haven’t received yet enough attention.

FURTHER READING:
Cinema of Prayoga by Amrit Gangar.
Interview with Amit Dutta by Marita Loosen.
Interview with Kamal Swaroop in Indian Auteur.
Interview with Ashish Avikunthak by Amrit Gangar.
Om Dar-Ba-Dar film review in The Seventh Art Magazine


Om Dar-Ba-Dar (Kamal Swaroop, 1988)

NOTE: Since not all the films listed above are in The Auteurs’ database, I’ve felt free to add a few films from the directors mentioned by Gangar or from those whose other works where included either at Experimenta or at the Cinema of Prayog exhibition tour.

Unfortunately, from the films listed above I’ve only been able to watch several of them including some of Phalke, Pati, Swaroop, Kaul, Dutta, Avikunthak, Shahani, Sen, Vijay… I’ve watched all the films listed below. I hope this list will help those of you wanting to explore Indian experimental cinema.

As always, suggestions are most welcome :)

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