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The Flowing Cinema of Mani Kaul: Absence as Attention

Nazar (Mani Kaul, 1991)

EssayPart of Issue #14: In Absentia

My only question is how we can rescue experience, because the experience of film is a very intricate and deep-rooted thing.Abhed Aakash (Uncloven Space): Mani Kaul in conversation with Udayan Vajpeyi (2013) trans. Gurvinder Singh

In the first few minutes of Mani Kaul’s Uski Roti (1970), a branch is struck with some force. A hand lies in wait, ready to receive the falling guava. Much later, the fruit falls and slips through the outstretched hand. We see the dusty earth, upon which the fruit protractedly lands. The hand, after a long delay, enters the frame and picks it up. We see two torsos, separated by the chasm of space. The hand with the fruit slowly reaches out in a cupped manner, inviting contact. Another hand cautiously moves towards it and snatches the fruit away. Both hands tremble back to their previous positions.

Here, there is a curious push-pull relation, a combination of pre-empts and delays that creates tension and opens up the image beyond its surface gyrations. Absence here is cognized not only in what lies out of frame (the not-yet-present) but also in the interstices between the cuts, in the virtual potentiality of an event that could later be actualized.

Kaul’s two gurus belonged to vastly different traditions of filmmaking: on the one hand there is Robert Bresson, from whom he borrowed an understanding of the concreteness of image-sound relationships; and on the other is the epic style of Ritwik Ghatak, replete with sensuousness and exuberance. Despite their apparent opposition, both had one thing in common: they played fast and loose with the conventions of dramatic structure, such that the image became prior to the narrative and indeed gave rise to it. To this was added Kaul’s own radical conception of cinema as a temporal medium, in sharp contrast to the sponsored social realism of a post-independent nation state.

For instance, in Duvidha (1973), a ghost story adapted from a Rajasthani folktale, the entire ‘plot’ is read out to us at regular intervals by the narrator. Freed from the imposition of climactic storytelling, the film instead revels in its imagery and in its ability to evoke various moods. Kaul employs a litany of techniques to spread out the action—zoom outs, disunited voiceover, freeze frames, shot repetitions, vivid use of primary colors—such that the narrative itself becomes spectralized. It is in a perpetual state of becoming, always in the process of being formed. Kaul does away with narrative depth and convergence to such an extent that the passage of time appears almost as an intrusion—a burst of folk music, or a sudden inflection of a human voice…

In his famous essay ‘Seen from Nowhere’, Kaul champions classical raag music and Mughal miniature paintings as two examples of non-Western art forms that were able to withstand the effects of the Renaissance discoveries of perspective and convergence. For him, the notion of parallel lines converging in infinity was “nothing more than a defect in the eye that had been appropriated by the waking being,” thus leading to the naturalization of an optical world deduced from a conceptual one. Beyond its extension into the arts—rectilinear framing and linear narrative in terms of cinema—the perspectival view was also ideological par excellence, in that it stipulated the very protocols of apprehending the world. The critique was thus also an acknowledgment of the imperialist conditions of its emergence.

Kaul saw in the juxtaposition of varying planes and proportions of the Mughal miniature painting “methods of generating an experience of individual spaces.” A similar qualitative freedom was to be found in the continuous and rhythmic elaboration of classical raag music, which is self-sustained and nonrepresentational. While the latter resulted in floating auditory perspectives, the Mughal miniatures released floating visual perspectives, thus “resulting in a deeply moving synthesis of the immediate and the ultimate.” Kaul’s interest in miniatures and raag music further enabled him to transpose their structural aspects onto cinema, and to relate them in the spheres of spatiality, technique, and elaboration.

One finds this idea vividly etched out in Dhrupad (1983), the eponymous ‘poetic’ film made on an ancient North-Indian form of classical music. Akin to a miniature painting, there is a constant reorganization of the perceptual field. Space itself is dynamized by the vertical thrust of architectural spaces and a constantly roving camera. The episodic narration, punctuated by sublime renditions by the Dagar family, serves to flesh out a musical ethnography that is alternately speculative and historical. Bereft of linearity, perception—both visual and auditory—becomes liquid, thus affecting what Deleuze calls the out-of-field (hors-champ), “what is neither heard nor seen” but intuitively felt, an incessant creation of the new.

In the same essay, Kaul later turns his attention to classical Indian theories of knowledge, where it is generally held that there are six pramāṇas (means of accurate knowledge): sensuous perception (pratyakṣa), inference (anumāna), word (śabda), comparison (upamāna), postulation (arthapatti), and non-perception (anupalabdhi). However, in sharp contrast to the other schools, the Nyāya school—one of the six orthodox systems of Indian philosophy, and one that specializes in logic and epistemology—maintains that anupalabdhi (the perception of a non-available/absent object) is part of direct perception. Absence for Nyāya is not something to be inferred or alluded to, but rather directly perceived. It is what inheres in the object, a positive attribute to be distinguished.

In the pluralistic realism of the ​​Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika system (two orthodox schools often clubbed together for their doctrinal similarities), non-being (abhāva) is acknowledged as one of the seven categories of the experience of all that is real. In keeping with the highly systematized classificatory schema of Indian thought, abhāva is further divided into four subcategories: antecedent non-existence of a thing before its production (prāgabhāva), subsequent non-existence after its destruction (pradhvamsābhāva), mutual non-existence of a thing as another thing (anyonyābhāva), and absolute non-existence (atyantābhāva).

By way of example, Kaul relates antecedent non-existence to the experience of the (absence of the) sensuous breast while the child is still in the womb, and subsequent non-existence to the intervals of breastfeeding. As he remarks, “that specific space is already a material out of which the future object would be formed: the material is marked by the particular absence.” Rather than belonging in a pre-established space, the object is formed of that space and is thus coterminous with it. In themselves, Kaul’s examples are quite telling, for they enable one to relate the notion of absence in classical philosophy with that of certain schools of modern-day psychoanalysis—centered around a lack—whose insights have become quite commonplace in film theory and cinema.

Kaul finds a similar structure of absence in the Indian classical tradition of raag music. A raag can best be described as a non-notational framework for improvisation and elaboration upon a single scale. The scale of a raag, its ascent and descent, the distinctive notes and phrases, as well as the invariant and variant elements, all combine to ensure that the individual form of the raag is imaginatively built up/evoked while simultaneously being rendered. Kaul was especially interested in the concept of a total musical space, one that included both consonant (included) and dissonant (excluded) notes. The absent notes, though not part of the melody, are nonetheless invoked through those present, such that there is a necessary interplay of presence and absence. Thus, “when the included-excluded space is brought together to actively shape the elaboration, the total space, the unified space or the integral whole seems to emerge from the individual features of a raag…”

As is the case with single perspective, the waking-I appropriates space (and time) in such a way that a common-sensical realism becomes foregrounded as natural. This in turn leads to a superficial privileging of whatever appears to us as present. The object of multiple perspectives and the perspectiveless object thus share a common goal—”to bring in view the integrating absent whole.” This simultaneous Whole—present by its marked absence—comprises not just the jagrat (waking) mode of consciousness but also swapna (dream state) and sushupti (deep sleep).

This Whole forms the crux of his later films, namely Satah Se Uthata Aadmi (1980), Mati Manas (1985), and Siddheshwari (1989), all of which follow a logic of centrifugal elaboration. Here, Kaul employs several temporal and narrative modalities, such that there is a revelation of multiple durations. In Mati Manas (Mind of Clay), the legends and tales associated with the ancient tradition of terracotta sculpture are interwoven with fictional re-enactments of contemporary findings and historical research. Jumping across intersecting timelines and geographical locations, there is a suffusion of myth into reality, and of fiction into documentary, until the binaries collapse into each other. Kaul finds in the life experiences of artisanal potters the possibility of forming a tactile and pre-reflective relationship with an art form. It is these states of mind that the film seeks to explore through dense image-sound combinations, states of mind—both conscious and non-conscious—that directly produce a material object.

In the same vein, Satah Se Uthata Aadmi and Siddheshwari—loose biographical portraits of the Marxist writer Gajanan Muktibodh and the Thumri singer Siddheshwari Devi—reject biographical conventions for a shifting cinematic form that allows for constant interplay between the materiality of text, poetry, music, and image. Based on the elliptical texts and poems of Muktibodh, Satah Se depicts a fragmented world of failed revolutions and modern-day spiritual angst. Eschewing traditional narrative structure, Kaul instead puts to use disjunctive blocks of movement and sound, governed by an internal logic of their own. Space and time, usually treated as a homogenous block in cinema, become open to rhizomatic constructions that now allow for multiple entry and exit points. The fictional sequences are interspersed with Muktibodh’s poems and ruminations, and often find a visual counterpoint in shots of human figures isolated in vast landscapes, until the very end when the viewer is directly confronted with the written word.

In Siddheshwari, the episodic arc – her tragic life story as well as how the film breaks it up—is given to us in the form of rolling credits. Freed from dramatic constraints, the narrative proceeds entirely through metaphorical means, where emotional motifs are presented through shifts in camera movement, music, and changes in light patterns and rhythm. It is direct sensoriality, rather than a representational idea, that leads to the liminal unfolding of a filmic event. Siddheswari Devi herself is portrayed by multiple women employing different acting styles; throughout the film, there is an elusiveness surrounding the figure of Devi, much like the phantasmatic sheen of river Ganga in the city of Benares, where most of the narrative takes place.

In place of a simple biography, what one finds in both examples is the possibility of an acentred cinema, where the charismatic object of art is one that has to be actively co-created by the viewer.

During this period, Kaul further found inspiration in the revolutionary ninth-century work ​​Dhvanyāloka, which states that the essence of poetry lies not in denotation or connotation but in an oblique meaning that is suggested or evoked, in the vein of an epiphany. Kaul saw in the concept of dhvani (sound, resonance, reverberation, suggestion) the possibility of “a narrative elaboration without the perspectival development.” Suggestive meaning for him “concerned the basic part and whole relationship where the whole is always absent.”‘The Rambling Figure’, Lecture given at the Institut Français in London, 1999

Once again, we find Kaul sifting through the history of aesthetics and philosophy and reworking concepts in such a way that absence now takes precedence over presence. The desire for immediate access to a privileged meaning—what Derrida would famously categorize as the “metaphysics of presence”—is replaced here by a heightened sense of ambiguity and dispersion.

The ultimate purpose of such an experience of absence—the simultaneous gradual imagining of a Whole—is to unfold an emergent quality in attention (dhyaan). A form of attention that attends as much to what there is as to what isn’t. It is this highly creative blend of attention and imagination – terms that have a rich conceptual history in the Indian tradition—that gives rise to poetic vision, and indeed wills a world, any world, into being.

Crucial to the discussion here is the concept of shruti, which Kaul defines as “what is heard and what makes you hear through an act of stretching.” Shrutis are the microtonal modulations within the raag system, the infinitesimal shifts that occur between pitches that are themselves approximations and not absolutes. It is this notion of microtonal transpositions and elaborations that informs his highly osmotic cine-musical (shāstriya) form of cinema. A cinema of fluctuations of intensity, rather than dialectical collision.

The notion of cinematic shruti finds its perfect realization in Nazar (1990), a glissando-like adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s The Meek One. In his usual style, the entire dramatic core of the story is expressed through delicate gestures and languorous voiceovers. Here, one has the experience of witnessing a labyrinthine rise and fall of notes, and of undulating shifts that occur between self-contained sequences that are nonetheless interconnected. Each block seems to exist on the same tonal wavelength, with minor modulations—a sudden pan, the cadence of a look or posture—that imbue them with a startling individuality.

Starting from Nazar, Kaul took his theoretical concerns to a practical culmination; he instructed his cameraman to set up shots without looking through the camera pinhole. As he remarks in an interview, “now I believe that I should in fact place myself in time, and into a certain quality of attention, and let the space become whatever it becomes.”Scott MacDonald, “At the Flaherty: Mani Kaul,” A Critical Cinema 3: Interviews with independent filmmakers (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998) The Renaissance split between sacred and profane space (the symbolic apparatus of the frame) was thus subverted by the inclusion of a random happening, an ‘accident’ that managed to capture a rhythmic sensuousness undergirding everyday reality.

This recourse to a cultural heritage, however, is not to be construed in terms of nationalist nostalgia, or as a project of revivalist indigenism. Rather, it springs from a willingness to situate oneself in a continuously evolving tradition, where the specific properties of cinema could be placed on a continuum with other autonomous art forms. Kaul’s active engagement with the effervescent pre-modern traditions of India—both intellectual and artistic—offered up a means to counter the universalist pretensions of Western thought which had bequeathed the adjective ‘modern’ to itself. His cinema then was part of an effort to forge a new and continually expanding conception of an Indian cinematic modernism.

Kaul’s unwavering fixation is of a singular kind: the problem of Being in its immensity. In his various reflections on both the theory and praxis of cinema, he sought to move towards a cinematic ontology wholly grounded in difference. As Madan Gopal Singh eloquently put it, there is a creation of “a new binary where one pitches a sensuous ethics of separation as against the formal idea of unity.”Life Beyond Image: Notes on Mani Kaul, Madan Gopal Singh His is a cinema open to heterogenous possibilities, as opposed to transcendent finalities.

Venturing back to classical philosophy, the notion of anupalabdhi (cognition of an absent object) is subdivided into four types, one of which is called svabhāva-anupalabdhi,Svabhāva—the intrinsic nature/disposition of a thing the non-perception of the presence of itself. This is precisely what a viewing of Mani Kaul’s films gives rise to: an ineffable intuition of felt absence. Absence then would appear to be not only a positive attribute of the filmic event, but a necessary constituent of the discerning viewer as well.

In a pithy aside, we find Kaul himself alluding to the same—”The ultimate absent object is of course the Self.”Seen From Nowhere, Mani Kaul, 1991