When Tagore watched `The Tent`

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By Joshy Joseph

The Symphony No 5 was inside Beethovan’s brain, when he first conceived it. A group of musicians invoke that experience, aurally, from the atmosphere every time they meet to perform. And a sound, non-existent before, suddenly acquires tones of flesh and blood. The cinema, like music, is an art of time, film makers have said. Rabindranath Tagore called it an experience similar to music. But the films as we experience now is a sort of storytelling which has blah as its alpha and omega. Tagore laid bare this trait of cinema when he referred to it as “Chattubrithi kore sahither” (a sycophant to literature).

In 2012, the National Book Trust of India brought out a calendar to mark the 100 years of cinema. It had as theme Indian language movies spawned by literature and was complete with photographs of the writer and the film maker, movie stills and a synopsis. To search for Aravindan’s ‘Thampu’ (The Tent), which I consider as one of the greatest films ever made in Malayalam, in that souvenir would have been futile. Because ‘Thampu’ is a movie wrung straight out of life and does not bear allegiance to literature. What NBT did was no error. A film like ‘Thampu’ will not figure in a list in which literature and cinema are yoked together.  One is not insinuating here that films inspired by literature are second rate. We are celebrating 100 years of cinema and it gave rise to a serious theme – literature and films. A writer seeks his energy and material from life. Malayalam has given birth to films based on literature which went beyond the realms of the written word. Thespian P.J. Antony’s ‘Oru gramathinte aatmavu’ (Soul of a village), a run-of-the-mill novel, turned into a stunning movie called ‘Kolangal’, at the hands of K G George. The movie was in tune with the NBT’s theme, but the text on which it is based could not be counted as serious literature. That means, it’s not just the ‘end product’ that need to be unique, the literary source of that film should also be singular. I am attempting imagine here what Tagore’s response would have been if he had seen ‘Thampu’.

When Tagore released his ‘Natir pujo’ it resulted in several chaotic situations. The film was brutally rejected by the audience and some of them asked for a refund of the ticket money. P K R Pillai, who acted in, produced and exhibited a film called ‘Vepralam’ (Anxiety) too had a similar fate when accosted by red-faced spectators in front of a theatre in Changanassery. Tagore, who needed funds for his Visvabharati canned a play using a camera so that he could send it abroad. The Nobel Prize laureate is also credited with a complete script not bound by technicalities of cinema. ‘The Child’ was written by Tagore in the confines of a Munich hotel room, after accepting an invite by the UFA studio, during a European tour in the year 1920. Written in a style that betrays an affinity to poetry and free from techniques of all established literary forms, ‘The Child’ is yet to be made into a film. The script has been anthologised in a selection of Tagore’s writings in English. I dare to imagine what Tagore’s response would have been, based on the film that he directed, script that he wrote and his thoughts on cinema. To do so, one needs to delve deep into the mind of Tagore and the age of which he was a product. A private conversation I had with Shamik Bandopadhyaya, a Bengali critic equips me to undertake that exercise.

The First World War deeply impacted Tagore. The perspectives of writers and artists who lived during the war were shaped by it. All the wars which preceded it were local and the history often marked them the name of the place in which they were fought: Kurukshetra, Panipat and Plassey. For the first time in the history of mankind a single war was being fought on many fronts. Films and broadcasting were used to document and showcase the war. Prior to the First World War parties in conflict shared a common arena. But here, they could not even see each other. Aerial bombing and long distance shelling were the hallmarks of the new war. Fought machine to machine and weapon to weapon, the war was now dehumanised. That familiar image of bombs being dropped from a fighter plane further alienated people from the doom happening deep below. Trenches acquired a new prominence in war strategy. In the film ‘Great Dictator’ you find Charlie Chaplin in one of these trenches. According to Shamikda, trenches represent a going back of our civilisation. In the history of evolution, man became man when he started walking erect. In one of its phases he became Homo Erectus – the one who could stand erect, with a stooping neck. When the man crawls on all fours in a trench he is traversing a path back to his trajectory of evolution. Kovilan, a Malayalam writer has written a short story called ‘The Trench’. A soldier lying in wait for the enemy in a trench experiences the smell of freshly dug earth – a smell that awakens the farmer in him. The wind starts to ruffle his memories and emotions and he ceases to be a soldier, but continues to await the enemy with a gun. Unlike Kovilan, who joined the army for survival, most writers and artists were thrown into the cauldron of war. Serving the army was mandatory in all the nations which were part of the axis of war, if their health condition was satisfactory. To kill or not to kill was no more a decision of the individual; it became a privilege of the State. The war shattered the belief of writers and artists that democracy is the most humane and just of all systems. One reason was that they were not anymore more sitting on comfy chairs or behind the writer’s desks, but were active on the war front. Several German expressionist artists were killed in action, some of them lost their mind. The writings and works of art of those who survived the war bear these disturbing images. One hoped that such brutalities would not repeat. The First World War ended in 1918, but a year later fascism reared its head in Mussolini’s Italy. After being elected PM in 1922 he declares war on other European countries. In the year 1933 the Nazi’s are voted to power in Germany. In 1936 the world witnessed the Spanish civil war. An elected republican government in that country gets destroyed at the hands of fascist forces. A poet sang about the times, wars are no more declared, they just continue to be staged.

This is the historic background. There is another incident involving poet Wilfred Owen, which personally shattered Tagore. After the end of the world war, in 1920, Tagore visited Britain, where he received a letter from Susan Owen, the mother of Wilfred Owen. She wrote: “It is nearly two years ago, that my dear eldest son went out to the War for the last time and the day he said Goodbye to me – we were looking together across the sun-glorified sea – looking towards France with breaking hearts – when he, my poet son, said these wonderful words of yours . “When I go from here, let this be my parting words, that what I have seen is unsurpassable”.

The lines quoted by Wilfred Owen were written by Tagore in 1912. In 1913 it saw the light of the world through the English version of Gitanjali, which won him the Nobel Prize. Gitanjali is poetry of farewell – a message from someone who is leaving this world. What my eyes have seen in life cannot be compared. In Bengali it read: ‘ja dekhechi, ja peyechi tulona tar nai’. The farewell poem became part of life and later, of death of another poet in another country. Wilfred Owen joined the army in 1915. On the warfront in 1917, when heavy shelling was on for a period of four months, he was posted in forward position. Owen couldn’t return to his tent; the roads were all blown up. Owen who spent four months with body parts of his colleagues, blown to smithereens, lost his mind. He was admitted to a hospital in England and returned to France on September 18, 1918 after a year of home duty. Owen recited the lines from Gitanjali to his mother while saying adieu to her. He lost his life to bullets from a machine gun on November 4, 1918, at the age of 25. Church bells tolled non-stop at Shrewsbury, the hometown of Owen at noon-time on November 11. The bells were proclaiming the end of war and return of peace. A telegram bearing news of Owen’s death reached his home almost at the same time. It was the poet’s mother who posed the question to Tagore: “Would I be asking too much of you, to tell me what book I should find the whole poem in?” When Owen’s pocket book came back to her she had found lines from the poem written in his dear writing – with Tagore’s name beneath.

When those lines written in 1912, rained back on the person who wrote them, in 1920, one could find the sounds of machine gun, shells and church bells sticking on to the contours of ‘ja dekhechi, ja peyechi tulona tar nai’, the lines first written in Bengali. There is poetry in that moment when words once uttered comes back to you and renders you speechless.

But why is it that the lines that I learned by heart fails me, even when I am seeing off my beloved? One can only mouth inanities like ‘Oh! this Indian railway, take care, the paint on window bars has peeled off’,  ‘guard the key, when you are in toilet’ or ‘it might rain today’. A weighty one line from poet Vyloppilly or a shred of film song sung by Yesudas would not reveal itself despite the resolve. I think that poetry lies in the frozen moment of evocative silence. I am not declining to refer as poet anyone who writes breaking their lines. It’s my private pride and joy that the poetry revealed in moments of artistic revelation can be found in mundane abundance in the film ‘Thampu’.

The feeling that a poet, who called cinema a sycophant of literature would have approved Aravindan, a director who explored the medium`s possibilities, lends courage to me. This is uncannily similar to the feeling that Tagore, for a moment was stunned by what Wilfred Owen`s mother had revealed to him. I`m sure Tagore would have dumped the NBT calendar. It had only films which became films by brown nosing literature.

Two years before the Second World War, on a Christmas day in 1937, Tagore wrote another poem. It too was a parting words poem similar to the one copied into the final journal note by Wilfred Owen. Tagore wrote: `Danober sathe jara swagramer, tware prosthuth hotechi khore khore` (I can only call on those who are preparing themselves in their homes for battle with the demon). The Tagore of 1937 was different from the Tagore of 1912. The weight of the Nobel Prize seems to have snared him to the 1912-self and obscured his later transformations. This becomes all the more evident when considering the fact that his output as a visual artist reached its peak in 1937. Tagore writes: `Rise poet from the seat you have had for long in the courtyard of fame with its incessant buzz, bring to a close your adoration of the goddess, the public craving for flattery with your offerings of words.` The poem ends with the words `sun of images`, dropping enough hints about his solstice as an artist. For Tagore, the words have been hollowed out because of commerce and flattery, and this leads him to an abstract and untitled freedom — one of visuals. In the last two years 2065 art works by Tagore made its way out of the dim-lit archives of Viswabharati. Prior to that the world was privy only to 200 odd art works byTagore. The only explorations made into them were about the real life likeness of solitary women in his figurative works or a search illustrations that would suit the body of poems and songs created by him. But the writer-wanderer who strode through continents of words kept his works of art untitled. Tagore always sought an abstraction beyond words and was unwilling to re-enter the concreteness of the world of words by naming his paintings. That none of his collected works have been named by curators, even for the purpose of cataloguing, reflects a Tagorian propriety. A collection of around 2500 untitled paintings – just imagine his storehouse of energy. One should remember that this large body of work created by someone who started to paint only at the age of 67. The poet, in his own words, was trying to rise up from the seat he had in the courtyard of fame. In this new found love the `sun of images` rose at the horizon. Conjuring up a cosmic transit from `sun of images` to `sun of moving images` looks immensely plausible.

In 1929 Tagore wrote to Murari Bhadhuri: `Cinema has not been liberated from the slavery of literature which, though, is a difficult proposition as unlike literature, poetry, songs and painting, the ingredients of cinema come with a high monetary cost. But the main ingredient of cinema is pace and flow of images, the beauty of which should be manufactured such that it needs no words to express its idiom. It should have an independent language of its own, just like music which can enchant in its own idiom without the support of any other language of words and sentences. Cinema doesn`t achieve that because it does not have a suitable creator`. Let me return to the film ‘Thampu’ — the arrack shop scene with the circus muscle man, dwarf, country liquor and plethora of rustic characters. The truck driver, a local, poses questions in a state of drunken stupor: ‘Circuswalah?’ No answer. ‘Kuch help?’ No answer. ‘Mein Shekhar. Ex-service. Driver.’ A gesture and sound follows that one-sided formal response. Another round of arrack is served, gratis by Shekhar. Before every one gulps down their drinks the circuswalah opens his mouth for a toast. He had not offered a toast before while drinking with his sidekick, the dwarf. The key of that scene lies in unravelling of the ex-serviceman identity which doubles up as a signal. Their acquaintance is made in Hindi. The circuswalah who had done with his daily quota toasts Shekhar with the cry ‘Jai Bajrang Bali’. It is something that an ex-serviceman can identify with. The scene has that ‘whatever’ which delineates poetry from other things and an art-experience that transmogrifies the familiar to the unfamiliar. Why show a moving train when you can do with a whistle. Why go for a lording writer’s mountainous script, if you can have that taut little toast ‘Jai Bajrang Bali’. Aravindan’s ‘Thampu’ is full of such frothing images and their mirror reflections.

The organic rhythm of images spreads through our veins like music. This is the idiom of cinema or its language – an art of time ticking with meaning and experience. It’s a space where words are superfluous. The Tagore of 1920 and 1937, I am confident, would have understood that ‘Thampu’ is not another art-farty movie in Malayalam and that it abounds in gestating silences. He would also have identified and approved ‘Thampu’ as a metaphor of culture, time and life, a tent that gets pitched and ‘unpitched’ in a loop. Tagore who stood silent before Susan Owen, the mother of Wilfred Owen, would have communicated to Aravindan in that very language — silence. When the church bells toll, a little history would come handy, to understand whether what is being sounded is a message of peace or death. Single, double or multiple, one needs to tune their ears to the music of bell-ringing, to peel the nuances that are hidden.
(Translated by Binu Karunakaran)   

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