Christo­pher Allen

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

Bom­bay Talkies Aus­tralian Cen­tre for the Mov­ing Im­age, Mel­bourne. Un­til July 2.

This fas­ci­nat­ing ex­hi­bi­tion in­tro­duces us not only to the story of the emer­gence of cinema in In­dia, but also to a range of the is­sues that were aired in those early films, from the roots of In­dian tra­di­tion and the chal­lenges of moder­nity to fun­da­men­tal and of­ten highly con­tro­ver­sial so­cial and moral prob­lems such as the struc­ture of the caste sys­tem.

Al­though In­dia has an ex­traor­di­nar­ily long and deep his­tory, the re­la­tion of mod­ern ed­u­cated In­di­ans to that tra­di­tion, a cen­tury ago, was not al­ways an easy one. In the 16th cen­tury, the greater part of In­dia had been con­quered by the Moguls, who brought with them the Is­lamic re­li­gion and, al­though they were them­selves of Turco-Mon­gol ori­gin, the Per­sian lan­guage — both of which had al­ready been es­tab­lished in the Delhi Sul­tanate since the 13th cen­tury.

The Mogul em­pire ruled over the so-called Ra­jput states with their Hindu ma­hara­jas, and gen­er­ally was tol­er­ant of the lo­cal re­li­gion. Nonethe­less it has been sug­gested that the ex­am­ple of Is­lam led Hindu schol­ars of the neoVedanta school to em­pha­sise a the­is­tic in­ter­pre­ta­tion of their own be­liefs, alien­at­ing them­selves to some ex­tent from ear­lier tra­di­tions of In­dian phi­los­o­phy and spir­i­tu­al­ity.

In the 18th cen­tury, Mogul power be­gan to wane af­ter the reign of Au­rangzeb, who dis­tin­guished him­self mainly by his big­otry and at­tempts to en­force the prac­tice of Is­lam, and the Bri­tish be­gan to fill the power vac­uum. Be­cause they be­lieved in gov­ern­ing the In­di­ans ac­cord­ing to their own laws — sharia for the Mus­lims and Hindu law for the Hin­dus — they needed to learn San­skrit, and the ef­forts of re­mark­able lin­guists at the time were the be­gin­nings of mod­ern In­do­log­i­cal stud­ies.

The Bri­tish ter­ri­to­ries in In­dia were taken over from the East In­dia Com­pany and at­tached to the crown in 1858, but the Bri­tish had al­ready abol­ished the use of Per­sian in gov­ern­ment in 1839 and re­placed it with In­dian lan­guages. Even more sig­nif­i­cantly for the fu­ture of the na­tion, they be­gan to in­tro­duce the teach­ing of English, which, to­gether with demo­cratic in­sti­tu­tions and the ethos of an army that does not in­ter­fere in pol­i­tics, has been one of the great­est strengths of mod­ern In­dia.

Over the next cen­tury, how­ever, ed­u­cated In­di­ans de­vel­oped a very am­biva­lent at­ti­tude to­wards their tra­di­tions. They de­spised prac­tices that they as­so­ci­ated with a pre­mod­ern past. It was only to­wards the end of the 19th cen­tury that there was a re­vival of in­ter­est in In­dian tra­di­tions, in­clud­ing yoga, al­though even then it was the med­i­ta­tive as­pect that was first re­ha­bil­i­tated, while the phys­i­cal prac­tice was re­cov­ered only in the years be­tween the wars.

In­dia’s re­dis­cov­ery of its own tra­di­tions was stim­u­lated by the in­ter­est of Euro­peans, and later Amer­i­cans, which be­gan at the end of the 18th cen­tury and ac­cel­er­ated ex­po­nen­tially over the fol­low­ing 100 years, un­til by the late 19th cen­tury a re­mark­able and of­ten ec­cen­tric col­lec­tion of San­skrit schol­ars, theosophists, po­ets and mys­tics of var­i­ous kinds was busy trans­lat­ing and com­ment­ing on every­thing from the Yoga Su­tras to The Ti­betan Book of the Dead.

It is against this back­ground that we have to see the work in this ex­hi­bi­tion. The main pro­tag­o­nist of the story is a young In­dian from a good fam­ily, Hi­mansu Rai (1892-1940), who A Throw of Dice stud­ied law in Cal­cutta (now Kolkata), then went to Lon­don to be­come a bar­ris­ter. But there he was drawn to his love of the theatre, met a young In­dian writer called Ni­ran­jan Pal, and was cast as the lead in a play put on by a com­pany of ac­tors called The In­dian Play­ers.

In 1923 he man­aged to raise money in Bom­bay (now Mum­bai) for a film adap­ta­tion by Pal of Edwin Arnold’s The Light of Asia (1879), a free adap­ta­tion of the Bud­dhist scrip­ture known as the Lal­i­tavis­tara Su­tra, which is also the ba­sis for the life of Bud­dha as il­lus­trated in the re­liefs at Borobudur in Java. Arnold had been prin­ci­pal of the Gov­ern­ment San­skrit Col­lege in Poona and is one of the many non-In­di­ans who helped to rein­tro­duce In­di­ans to their own her­itage at this pe­riod; The Light of Asia was even trans­lated into Hindi.

With funding se­cured, Rai and Pal went to Mu­nich to ne­go­ti­ate a deal with the pro­duc­tion com­pany Emelka Stu­dios. Rai spent many of the fol­low­ing years in Mu­nich and mar­ried a per­former, Mary Hain­lin, with whom he had a daugh­ter, Nil­ima, of whom we will hear more later, but whom he later left to re­turn to In­dia. Mean­while he se­cured two Ger­man part­ners with whom he would work for sev­eral years: Franz Osten (1876-1956) as di­rec­tor and Josef Wirsching as cam­era­man.

In the ex­hi­bi­tion, ex­cerpts of the three out­stand­ing silent films that this team pro­duced in the 1920s are shown in the back room. In the first, The Light of Asia (1925), we first see Rai as Gau­tama watch­ing the sun set from the ter­race of his palace and sud­denly over­whelmed by in­ti­ma­tions of the suf­fer­ings of or­di­nary hu­man­ity. His fa­ther, un­der­stand­ing that he wants to leave the priv­i­leged and pro­tected en­vi­ron­ment of the palace to see the out­side world for him­self, has all its gates locked.

In the fol­low­ing ex­cerpt we find Gau­tama sit­ting on the edge of the bed of his beau­ti­ful young wife. As he con­tem­plates her he seems to see their bed­cham­ber crowded with the poor; then he looks down at his bride and sees her turn into an old woman; fi­nally he has a vi­sion of crowds of starv­ing beg­gars. She wakes and he speaks to her — at other points there is text, but here, as of­ten in silent movies, we are left to imag­ine what is said — then she falls back to sleep and as he looks up into the cloudy night sky he hears the call: he must choose be­tween great­ness and good­ness.

The sec­ond film is ti­tled Shi­raz (1928) and set at the height of the Mogul em­pire, in the time of the great Shah Ja­han, builder of the Taj Ma­hal at Agra. In the first ex­cerpt, Rai plays a hum­ble pot­ter called Shi­raz who has been caught visit-

De­wan Sharar, above, and De­vika Rani, right, in Karma ( Fate; 1933); be­low, Hi­mansu Rai, cen­tre, with Seeta Devi in (1929)

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