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)