Darshan, a new Indian documentary is a pluralistic take on the ‘sacred’ art practises of South Asia

Directed by journalist Vikram Zutshi and written by art historian Debashish Banerji, the documentary wishes to show that there is no monolithic culture in the subcontinent. Currently streaming online at moviesaints.

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Excerpts from an interview with the film directors

By Rini Barman

How long did it take to make this documentary and was the genre a conscious decision?

It took over two years to make Darshan, primarily due to financial issues. We raised funds from a group of private donors and did not receive it in a lump sum but over several installments. Also, I had a rather unpleasant experience with a couple of dodgy technicians from Bombay while editing the film. They felt since I was an outsider, I could be easily exploited. I finally got around the obstacles but not before a lot of time had been wasted. Regarding the second part of your question, the subject was addressed in the exhibition but exhibitions are limited in telling the back-stories of the art, particularly introducing the artists and the nuances of their attitudes. So we conceived the idea of making a film.

When was the first time you came across Patachitra art? More importantly, how did you choose the time frames?

The choices corresponded to what was displayed in the exhibition “Puja and Piety”. Each of these art forms has its own history and relative antiquity. We were not specifically concerned with Patachitra, but with how contemporary art making practices have survived into the present.

Pattachitra evolved from Sanskrit. When broken down into its two parts, Patta means cloth, and Chitra means picture. Hence, Pattachitra is a picture painted on a piece of cloth.  This may be the Sanskrit etymology, since pata does mean cloth, but the extant examples of patachitras we have going back to antiquity are mostly on paper or palm leaf.

There was no paper before the 14th century in India so prior to that, the paintings, going back to the 9th c. were done on palm leaf. There are some on cloth and in the film we find that the Newari paintings are done on cloth, but the Odiya ones are traditionally done on specially prepared paper or palm leaf. Only recently they have begun painting on tussar raw silk; while the Bengali ones are done on paper. The Thanjavur ones are also done on specially prepared paper. So, at least in the vernacular imagination, patachitra is a mostly a painting done on paper.

An idol maker. Courtesy: Darshan

For a documentary that’s tracing pluralist traditions vis-à-vis art, why did you go for a more descriptive kind of film?

I started out wanting to do a non-linear, observational documentary with very little conventional exposition in the form of talking heads or voiceover. Halfway through editing, I realized the film needed a more didactic tone because its main function was an academic one: it was to be shown to graduate students in departments of art history and south Asian studies across the United States. In a way this made my job easier because now I had a voiceover guiding the major structural decisions. 

While it is true that the film uses the descriptive narrative form but the message of the film is not a standard ‘unity in diversity’. The nationalist unity in diversity theme tries to say that there are variations in regional history and culture but there is a single Hinduism throughout the subcontinent. Darshan does not aim to do that, it is rather an inquiry into the meaning of art in a religious context in India.

Art is an integral part of religious culture in India, which makes it different from the understanding of art according to modernity. But it is also true that art and religion exist in a tension which is negotiated variously across different cultures in Indian subcontinent.

Could you elaborate on the last crucial bit?

On the one hand, there are cultures like that of the Patachitras of Odisha or the artists of Nathadwara who are strongly religious and caste bound, though here too there are different castes involved and different social understandings. These artists consider themselves to have been born to their caste to serve religion. On the other hand, you have the converted muslims of Bengal who assume a heterodox attitude to religion.

You also have the Newari artists who straddle Hinduism and Buddhism and are willing to teach foreigners seeing art as a meditative discipline rather than a religious one; or the sculptors of Bengal for whom the religious ritual is primarily an aesthetic one in which they are free to interpret the iconography as individuals as against being bound to iconographic standards of the religion. We try to address this against the grain of a standard unity in diversity theme by undercutting it with the ways in which artistic practice both pluralizes this narrative through the pervasive yet religiously heterodox understanding of art.

Filmmakers Vikram Zutshi and Debashish Banerji

I find the title ‘Darshan’ interesting in the sense of the filmakers’ gaze. Who was your target audience?

The main targeted audience for the film is the academic community in the United States along with museums and other cultural venues. The idea was born out of an exhibition at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art curated by Pratapaditya Pal, one of the world’s foremost authorities on south Asian art. The exhibition highlighted the contrast between art as a purely spectatorial activity or for investment purposes (as modern art is perceived), with the making and enjoyment of art in the context of a sacred ritual where the distinction between the object and the subject are blurred, an experience that we call ‘Darshan’. We are happy it got to play at the New York Indian Film festival where it was screened for a non-specialist audience and we will continue to screen it for mixed audiences in India and the west.

Visualities and textualities are two principal ways through which we encounter and engage with a culture. Textualities (ideas) are implicit in visualities, yet it is the latter that is more immediately available for a population. Images convey ideas but they are not they also have their own “language” of the gaze which exists in relation to the world of ideas that are authorized in a culture through power structures.  How does this relation work in our times to strengthen or weaken the authority of authorized ideas? What is the independent authority of images? What is the cultural authority of images that is also pervasive and can act on its own? These are questions addressed by foregrounding the gaze.

How challenging was it to read cross-religious art at a turbulent time in the country?

Quite interesting actually. The Medinapore (Noya village) painters are muslim by ancestral conversion but paint Hindu themes. They also paint cross-religious themes like Satyanarayan, who is called Satyapir by muslims. In Islam, there is a hadith discouraging the painting of living things on the ground that this is an insult to God, who alone can give life and those who depict living things will go to hell. I asked this artist what he thought of this and he said he was never told about it. I also heard that there is a village mosque and the priest was dissuading the artists from painting Hindu themes and living beings. But the artists got together and asked the priest to leave the mosque or let them do what they believe in. It is an example of the cross-religious nature of art making in some communities in India. Therein lies hope.


Rini is an independent writer and researcher from Assam, India. Her areas of interest are art and culture, ethnicity, folklore among others. She tweets @barman_rini.

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