By Prithvijeet Sinha
In India, every year around the month of October and a little before that period, Durga idols gain a renewed primacy. Only this time, they are not just looked at as polished surfaces, gleaming finished pieces decked up in finery and embroidered saris for marking the annual ten-day occasion of Durga Puja. Lying around in nondescript studios, they are seen as sculptures made of clay and mud, with each part of the bare anatomy given shape by master craftsmen and women. It is an experience to behold because the grandiosity of the Mother Goddess is likened in those moments to physical human attributes, bringing her closer to the images we identify with. The divine hence conflates with the everyday.
That spiritual intertwining is at the core of how I react to the idea of clay and mud as envisioned in Mani Kaul’s brilliant documentary Maati Maanas (Mind of Clay, 1985). Mud is the raw material, the element that shapes our perception. It bestows on the artistic temperament, especially, a karmic tone.
Being privy to the non-fiction form of cinematic interpretation, exposed to milestones by the likes of Kumar Shahani and Mr. Kaul this year as I’ve written about them with each successive viewing, this one was as absorbing an experience as any other.
Karma is God. God is Karma. In a national and larger global consciousness shaped by idol worship where we imbue created images with holy powers of manifestation and treat them as symbols of cultural ethos, the focus here is on the artisans who make them with their own bare hands. Painstakingly giving them shape, texture, filigree and in a way a character of their own. Maati Maanas actually integrates the art of pottery and sculpture to make it a collective act, an iconography, a visual representation.
If we can make it more specific then it’s nothing short of a visual anthropology, even an archive of the form and its profusion through select locations. Be it animal figures, Buddha busts, the ubiquity of the ancient Indus Valley Civilization and its riches of sculptures and pottery, the underlying idea is on the act of creation as the ultimate life-giving force, as a paradigm through the reflexivity of time. Mud and clay have a direct relationship then not only with the various layers of creation but its sanctity, preservation and sustainability down to the present age. They are neither solely ethnic nor regional. They are our personal artifacts. Belongings. Aesthetic inheritances.
In Mr. Kaul’s usual elegant, non-diegetic language that draws from patient observation, we receive a treasure trove, a miniature encyclopedia on handicrafts and their significance in our larger understanding. True to his sensual style, there is a primacy of hands. They are purveyors of all human actions and endeavours, from spinning the raw, wet pottery to moulding them, painting every detailed aspect to handing them out for sale. I loved how his observational, commonplace lucidity is structured in such a way that it treats these extraordinarily content and generational clans of people as true artisans because our cultural currency otherwise has a habit of eschewing their humble craftsmanship in service of glamour in other mainstream forms. What they make, to me, is a part of our cultural and socio-economic mainstream, unfortunately relegated to often being hailed as ‘collectors’ items’, a sure-footed, elitist way to bracket the arts. Maati Maanas rights that wrong by showing us the raw, unadorned joy of the process, in terms of the physical labour but also in the joy of the people who commit to it. It’s in the body language, the stance and the undivided attention to the pursuit. Calling this a spiritual aesthetic or work ethic wouldn’t be amiss.
To this writer, the spinning of the potter’s wheel, the act of creation put on display is akin to a spinning of the cosmos, the karmic tones of it all sustaining the order of the universe. Without the arts, there will be a total void comprising of capital and bullish tempers. With them at the centrestage, there will be order. Karma will be the very idea of God without other overt associations.
I also appreciate the presence of the underrated Anita Kanwar, a consummate acting professional, who acts as narrator, binding thread and observer all rolled into one. She contemplates on the myths, legends and folklores that arise out of this intriguing premise – living proof of a legacy as old and sentient as the living world itself. She also visits museums to look at pivotal art pieces. The poses and fluid movements are all rooted in the everyday act of observation.
I will, however, not forget her one particular conversation with an artisan, a young woman who relays innocently her vision of God. She makes idols for a living but has transcended the conventions of her occupation with an innate belief in its spiritual ethos. In a similar fashion, this documentary breaks with the factual dryness of the form to lend it dignity. This further allows Maati Maanas to revel in the beauty of the crafts. I loved how in one shot, a museum exhibit of perhaps an ancient Indus Valley site is made to look as if the camera is capturing the actual location. After a few seconds do we realize that it is ensconced in a glass case. The distance or intimacy of the camera and lighting gives us that impression. Similarly, in the range of artworks captured, the anthropomorphic, the divine and the grotesque all find ample space, giving us a picture of fluid representation.
Mud is the element that can be made anew and render itself pure, though we scoff if we are caked with it. In hindsight, we all remember how mud and clay are the foundations for all children whether it’s through playtime or making clay toys, letting the gift of imagination soar. I mean I grew up toying with and even creating clay art.
Mud is the essence of life. The Earth abounds with its ubiquity.
The calligraphy of life begins with it. Dust to dust, as we say.
A true meaning of Romanticism, reliant on the interrelation of nature and imagination, is to be found here in Maati Maanas. It is to be found in the cinematography by Venu, editing by Reena Mohan and Lalita Krishna, score by Mangesh Desai and especially in the prominent flute instrumental by T.R. Mahalingam. Mani Kaul’s excellent output thus makes it essential for all cinephiles. In our current era where the disruptive process of sensationalism and half-researched subjects have brought the artistic era down by notches, this one proves why there is a premium to the word CLASSIC.
Prithvijeet Sinha is from Lucknow. After completing his MPhil, he launched his writing career by self-publishing on the worldwide community Wattpad in 2015 and on his blog ‘An Awadh Boy’s Panorama’. He has published in several journals such as Gnosis Journal, Reader’s Digest, Café Dissensus Everyday, Café Dissensus Magazine, Confluence, The Medley, Thumbprint Magazine, Wilda Morris’ Poetry Blog, Screen Queens, Borderless Journal, encompassing various genres of writing, ranging from poetry to film reviews, travel pieces, photo essay, and culture.
Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, born in New York City and currently based in India. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.
Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Poetry and the City”, Sayan Aich Bhowmik, University of Calcutta, India.