BY Sean O'Toole in Features | 04 APR 09
Featured in
Issue 122

Fault Lines

Amar Kanwar’s multilayered films and installations prompt ‘revelations, of different kinds, for different individuals’

BY Sean O'Toole in Features | 04 APR 09

‘Imagine the formal presentation of poetry as evidence in a future war crimes tribunal.’
Amar Kanwar, 2008

In the early 1970s Prakash Jadhav, then a baggage handler at Mumbai airport, wrote a poem that startled filmmaker Amar Kanwar when he read it many years later, in 2001. Taking its name from a well-known and congested Mumbai landmark, ‘Under Dadar Bridge’ is a poem of mourning, notionally at least.1 A fatherless son recalls his dead mother, a prostitute. ‘The three bricks of the sacrificial fire she used to light have sooty ornamental marks,’ it begins. ‘She has left the ruined sculpture of her relics under Dadar Bridge.’ Written in the Marathi idiom, spoken by Mumbai’s homeless Dalit underclass, Jadhav’s poem is more than just an elegiac record of absence. Like Kanwar’s films, it is fired by incendiary need to interrogate an impoverished reality.

‘Poison-drunk and restless,’ the son at one point demands of his mother: ‘Hey ma, tell me my religion. Who am I? What am I? Hindu or Muslim?’ It is not an idle question in India. Her response is blunt: ‘You are an abandoned spark of the world’s lusty fires.’ Unsatisfied, the son impetuously pushes for more. ‘Who was he? Who’s my father?’ In a moment of observational grace, Jadhav records in words – much in the way Kanwar does in moving images – the intimate gestures that mark the unsaid: ‘Scraping and scratching at the VD sores that traced the world’s map on her flower-like breasts, shrivelled during the malaria epidemic, she would answer: “He was some swine or other!’’’

A Night of Prophecy, 2002. DVD still. 

‘Under Dadar Bridge’ directly inspired Kanwar to make A Night of Prophecy (2002), an episodic visual compendium of Indian protest poetry that premiered at documenta 11 in 2002. (It also marked his art world debut.) Jadhav himself however only briefly features in Kanwar’s film, which, to borrow from the late, eccentrically brilliant Senegalese filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty, proposes the griot as ‘a messenger of one’s time, a visionary and the creator of the future’.2 In his typically disassociative style Kanwar shows Jadhav seated in his home, hair neatly combed, blue work shirt open to the belly, when the image suddenly cuts to the famous bridge. A young man is walking, his passage marked by the streaking lights of passing cars. Kanwar slows and rewinds the scene, a technique repeated throughout his oeuvre. Back again to Jadhav, who exhibits his handwriting to the camera. It is a cryptic moment. According to Kanwar, Jadhav was promoted to a clerical position after strike placards featuring his verse caught the eye of an alert boss. But you are not expected to know this.

In a film that uses poetry and song to elliptically trace the fault lines of contemporary India, defined by Kanwar as caste, class, religion and nationality, Jadhav’s brief appearance is without fanfare. There is no voiceover to locate his significance within the emerging Dalit literary tradition, no exegesis of a life. Eschewing the didactic literalism so much a part of contemporary documentary filmmaking, Kanwar chooses only to show the poet as he wearily cups his hand around his neck. That’s it, no cant, just an elderly man seated in the quiet half-light of his slum dwelling. The film then cuts to a quotidian scene around the bridge, a translation of Jadhav’s poem scrolling vertically across the screen. This miniscule sequence, in many ways, distils Kanwar’s style; it describes in précis form his approach (which he defines as ‘speaking in multiplicity’), to archiving the intimate moods, complex shades and fragmented gestures underlying the conflicts marring the Indian subcontinent.

Two events in 1984 sharpened the focus of Amar Kanwar's activism: Indira Ghandi was assassinated and a pesticide plant in Bhopal leaked toxic fumes into the atmosphere, killing more than 2000 people.

Seated in Kanwar’s tiny studio, a retrofitted servant’s quarter located up a narrow flight of stairs in a Saket, a residential colony in South Delhi, I ask the heavily bearded filmmaker how he found Jadhav. Kanwar’s answer is uncomplicated: he tells me it took time, three trips to Mumbai, and some legwork with a literature activist. The negotiations that followed were equally complex, involving Jadhav’s wife and sons, Kanwar having to explain who he was, what he did, and why. The why was easy: ‘I told them I can’t get over his poem, that I am a state school kid from another world. I couldn’t explain what the poem did to me, just that it had never left me, which is why I was there.’

An unpretentious and often self-reflexive conversationalist, Kanwar is also a cigarette smoking contrarian, his allusive thinking modulated by an unapologetic laugh. ‘How much detail do you want?’ he asks. Born into a family that carries with it the scar of India’s seismic delineation in 1947, the year his mother and father separately fled Punjab during the Partition, Kanwar grew up in a military home, his father a naval officer. (The uniformed military figure is a distinctive presence throughout his films, although this has less to do with personal biography than the subject matter of his work: social and political conflict.) After finishing school he enrolled in a history degree at Delhi University in the early 1980s; the small-scale conflicts in the politically engaged department energized him. Of this time he observed: ‘I got absolutely and completely socially, publicly, politically aware and involved.’

Two events in 1984 sharpened the focus of Kanwar’s activism, which is ongoing. On 31 October Indian Prime Minister Indira Ghandi was assassinated and Kanwar witnessed firsthand the retaliatory violence. With the history department shut down in protest, he spent most of his time doing relief work with affected families. In a manner that would later inform his filmmaking process, he simply ‘hung out’ with victims, listening. During this brief hiatus, on 3 December, the Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal leaked toxic fumes into the atmosphere, killing over 2000 people. ‘In many ways a lot of things happened for me that turned things around in those two months,’ he says.

I ask Kanwar if he was aligned to any political organizations at the time. His answer is terse and immediate: ‘No. I just kept getting involved in various civil rights, environmental, political, or anti-violence groups – as an individual.’ He describes his ideological position as having been ‘outside established left traditions but politically liberal and left leaning’. It’s a space he continues to occupy, both as a human rights activist and filmmaker.

After completing his studies, Kanwar travelled to central India, to research alcoholism in a coal mining region. ‘It opened up a whole country beyond my existence.’ This is not a frivolous statement. In his subsequent quests to describe the histories of Indian conflict, the prophetic possibilities of poetry, the suffering of woman, even the grotesquery of the Burmese junta, Kanwar has succeeded in retrieving marginal, dispossessed and exiled subjects from a totalizing image oblivion. In the compelling, interwoven narratives that comprise his 19-channel projection ‘The Torn First Pages’ (2004–8), dedicated to Ko Than Htay, a Mandalay book dealer imprisoned for sedition, and shown for the first time in full at Munich’s Haus der Kunst last year, he achieves this by focusing, minutely, on Burma’s forgotten people. The three-part installation introduces the viewer to Sitt Nyein Aye, an exiled Burmese painter, Tin Moe, a dissident Burmese poet, and Ma Win Maw Oo, a Burmese high school student shot dead by soldiers in the 1988 uprising.

Amar Kanwar declares: 'I have a compass which keeps spinning me into zones of conflict.'

But film came later. If nothing else, Kanwar’s stint as a researcher made him realize he had no attraction to becoming ‘a university type of intellectual guy, which I found distasteful and tiresome’. With ironic detachment, he says he decided on film because it offered a study pursuit with ‘peaceful examinations’. Perhaps, but his choice of film school was anything but arbitrary or neutral. Founded by renowned Canadian documentary filmmaker James Beveridge, the Mass Communications Research Centre at Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia University was a hotbed of activist filmmaking. Beveridge, however, was old and nearing retirement when Kanwar entered film school in 1985; Kanwar also had no interest in the becoming a ‘film buff’. After graduating in 1987, he made two documentary films then promptly decided to quit film, partly because of the expense: a one-hour videocassette cost as much as a month’s salary. ‘I found filmmaking to be a very absurd profession,’ he offers. He returned to the research project in the coal-mining region.

‘It is tiresome to talk about myself’, sighs Kanwar, because he knows there is a tacit expectation that this talk will offer insight into the nature of his work and its methodology and that it will flesh out what he sees as irrelevant details – such as his influences. Being asked about the latter, he says, has increasingly become a point of irritation, particularly as his work is now regularly shown around the world in major exhibitions and museums. ‘I find it very difficult to answer, and I also resist categorization.’ He tentatively offers Andrei Tarkovsky’s name, then pulls back. ‘There are several filmmakers that I like, but there is a lot of 15th- and 16th-century Indian poetry that has been totally fascinating and inspiring and an influence.’ 

Kanwar’s biography, however, is not without relevance. During a long and, according to him, ‘demoralizing’ period spent making the sort of documentary films his current practice shuns, Kanwar produced a film for the Tibetan government in exile, Earth as Witness (1994). It was different from anything he had done before; the total control he had negotiated allowed him to experiment with narrative techniques. He describes the film as ‘an important turning point’. Three years later he released A Season Outside (1997).

A Season Outside, 1997. DVD Still.

Episodic and journeying, A Season Outside records his attempt to make sense of Punjab’s violent history, and, by extension, India’s. Kanwar overlays onto his raw images of exaggerated military pageantry, recorded at the Wagah border, a near continuous narration. Early on, he highlights his biographical interest in the story. Seen in the context of his later work, this probing, argumentative film is a remarkable statement of intent: ‘I have a compass which keeps spinning me into zones of conflict,’ he declares at one point.

Narrative construction aside, A Season Outside was important in other ways. Kanwar travelled around India screening the film at schools and in villages, to rich and poor alike, because, he says: ‘It is easy to get appreciated, but it is not easy to extract criticism. I went around pushing and looking for it. For me, that journey was hugely rewarding. I met a lot of audiences who argued, explained, criticized and appreciated, who told me what they felt and why they felt.’ 

Years later, Kanwar’s filmmaking ethic would allow him to broker the trust of a rural community while making The Lightning Testimonies (2007), an exploration of India’s history of sexual violence, exhibited both as a continuous film and eight-channel projected installation. When the community was initially sceptical of his intentions, Kanwar responded by hosting a screening of his work. ‘I ended up showing silent films, abstract films, single shot films, some of my films that I show in parts of installations, as well as old work, in an open field at night, on a television with people sitting on the ground. They saw all of it: my early Burma work, A Season Outside. Nobody said anything. The next morning I was asked, simply, “What do you want to do?”’ The filmmaker’s principled stance stems from his belief that ‘If you are not politically or socially engaged or connected with a community or a process, with some degree of depth and calmness, you cannot produce work.’ A metonymic image-maker, his films are driven by an internal logic that aims to connect with audiences experientially, rather than bludgeon them intellectually, as is so often the case with documentary films. Editing and narrative construction are central to this process.

Particularly in his projected installations, where his narratives are displayed as a constellation of auditory and visual fragments, Kanwar’s aim is to fashion an experiential space that might prompt ‘revelations, of different kinds, for different individuals’. He achieves by acknowledging ‘the need for multiple vocabularies to be able to represent, tell, reflect, understand, communicate or even explore reality’. Further into our long conversation, he rationalizes this need as follows: ‘Life is so full of so many layers and so many concurrent, simultaneously existing trajectories that at times you run into a situation where you want to tell a story that becomes infinitely richer if you are able to reveal its multiplicity.’

Form, despite its centrality to his idiosyncratic visual language, turns out to be another frustrating topic of conversation for Kanwar. ‘My motivation for doing this is the content of the film, not the methodology of its form,’ he says. His contrarian manner and, at times, allusive positions recall Allan Sekula, whose notion of ‘poly-seriality’ is not far off Kanwar’s aesthetic/formalist principle of ‘multiplicity’.3 More fundamentally, both artists share an ideologically engaged vision that pits itself against the ‘indifference, callousness and mendacity’ of the neo-liberal state, to quote Sekula.4 In Kanwar’s short film The Face (2005), later incorporated into ‘The Torn First Pages’, the artist achieves this by contextually capturing the image of General Than Shwe, the secretive head of the Burmese junta. Kanwar secretly filmed ‘this creep’ at Raj Ghat, Mahatma Ghandi’s memorial in Delhi; Than Shwe is shown scattering flowers on the spot where this advocate of non-violence was cremated. Tellingly, the general was on an official visit; Burma is an expedient proxy for political manoeuvring by India as it turns east and faces down China.

The totalizing and often essentialist senses in which we (the West) understand these two emerging superpowers, be it politically, economically and/or culturally, plays right into Kanwar’s hand. ‘The great Indian growth – and the great Chinese growth – has been accompanied by severe destruction within these countries: destruction of natural resources, cultural traditions, music, food, habitat, species, a whole range of things that have had to be destroyed for this boom to ever have existed.’ For any artist to feel flattered in this context, Kanwar declares, is ridiculous, absurd, silly. It is a point sorely missed in most long-distance appraisals of India’s art boom, and highlights why Kanwar’s films are essential viewing.

* All Amar Kanwar quotations from author’s interview with the artist conducted 16 January 2009 at his studio, Saket, South Delhi, India.
1 Prakash Jadhav, ‘Under Dadar Bridge’, excerpted from Poisoned Bread: Translations from Modern Marathi Dalit Literature, edited by Arjun Dangle, Stosius Inc/Advent Books Division, Bombay, 1992, p. 56
2 Quoted in Melissa Thackway, Africa Shoots Back: Alternative Perspectives in Sub-Saharan Francophone African Film, James Currey Ltd, Oxford, 2003, p.58
3 Quoted from a keynote talk at Global Photographies: Histories, Theories and Practices, Institute of Art Design & Technology, Dun Laoghaire, Dublin, Ireland, 29 June 2007
4 Allan Sekula, from interview with Edward Dimendberg, BOMB, Issue 92, Summer 2005

Sean O’Toole is a contributing editor of frieze, based in Cape Town, South Africa.