Longing, emanation, breath
Some notes on Indian media and aesthetics
I have recently had two pieces published elsewhere: an essay reflecting on Hanif Kureishi’s ‘The Buddha of Suburbia’ up on the Verso blog, and a correspondence I held with Lotte LS for Spamzine.
Longing. Yearning. Spending time further east, in a land that waxes lyrical upon its ancient autochthony, its ab-original constitutionality amidst the hybridised mutations of everyday chaos, I cannot help but deign to imagine the desh, the Indic world, its spirit increasingly close. Perhaps it is part of seeing a bustling disorderly lumpen-ness that I see amongst the Kartvelian populace, something I recognise as familiar. In contrast to the sort of strident conformity that is rife in so much of British diasporic life. A tawdriness that assimilates to the scolding alienation of Britishness, however you may dare spin it.
In lieu of setting foot ‘back home’, I have turned to various media to satiate my desire. Thankfully the big streaming sites have tapped into the Indian market, increasing accessibility and, probably, quality. ‘Little Thing’ is a rom-com type set-up following a Mumbai live-in couple. The show gets inexplicably deep in its third and fourth seasons, thinking through insecurity, prospects, pressure, adventure and love (thanks mum for the rec). I also watched ‘Trial by Fire’, a dramatisation of the legal battles that followed the Uphaar Cinema fire - a Grenfell-like catastrophe in Delhi. It was careful and immersive, giving depth to normal life. I have also dabbled in the noir-crime series, with varying degrees of quality. In any case they are stimulating enough, and make a nice alternative to US-dominated de rigueur in its placeless sterility. In fact these Indian dramas are pointed in their specificity, allowing space for identification and disidentification through genre trope.
The Modi documentary on the BBC was interesting, and seemed to piss off all the right people. It reminded me of Anand Patwardhan’s ‘Ram ke Naam’ (1992). Trying to track and make sense of this great dark upheaval taking place. My friend R. spoke glowingly of his visit to New York recently – the feeling of vitality it had in contrast to Europe – almost like you could experience an arbitrary death such was the energy on the street, amongst the populace. We both inherited this resonance from our difficulty with India, I would venture to say. There’s a darkness, a violence, visible and plain, yet it draws you in as you take rough with smooth.
‘All That Breathes’ provided a beautiful insight into the life of survival, of the poetics in the air, of care and stillness, as two brothers nurse black kite birds back to health in the context of debilitating Delhi smog. These improvised duties invigorate something in you, beyond the rational rhetoric of climate science. Life lies in-situ, meeting us where we are. So, too, in ‘The Elephant Whisperers’, a look into the life of an adivasi couple in a southern Indian conservation park as they rear two elephant calves as their own, building bonds with the land. This close relationship with nature is dependent on human survival being understood as the same process, denying supremacy and the destructive tendency of industrialisation. This is blurred with religious practices, particularly in reverence of Ganesh, tying belief with practicality: the reiteration of human ontology as unalienated from the natural world we inhabit.
The burning of aesthetic imagination, set alight by physical sensation, literary experience and musical echoes, crackles away...
I lay in the MRI, ill-prepared, part floating in its cloister as my residual dizziness kept me uneasy company. I had been having severe headaches and the neurologist was concerned, following on from my vertigo episode. Thirty minutes in that vacuum extended infinitely as my mind raced to speed time up, pressing fast-forward to escape the torturous ordeal. Beeps, whirrs, icy rhythms, acoustic disruptions nauseated my body, reminiscent of those moments of flight in a club once the claustrophobia hits; time to retreat back to your settlement, the battle is done. Closing the eyes was worse as the spacey unsteadiness increased, so I lay staring directly up at a peeling grey strip, or down towards my body where a warm glow emanated – the literal light at the end of the tunnel, my feet located over the threshold. Breath was the key, counting, regulating – breath as the start and end; magnetic rays pounding away in mechanised assault. The futility of it.
My mind an emanation of breath, of sound: the origin of the universe itself. I saw this unravelling structure of breath, sound, meaning, gesture, liberation in Kumar Shahani’s ‘Khayal Gatha’ (1989), an epic art film, billed experimental documentary, it portrays the layers of khayal formation in Hindustani musical culture, one set within a fictional faux-historical setting. The princes, the darbar, the dances, pavilions, where the Perso-Arabic Sufi meets folk-Sanskritic Bhakti, through romance and intensity, conflict and wisdom, a textilic arrangement of aesthetic mood par excellence – a document to the greats, where folk, mythic, epic and cosmic coalesce; the only place worth being.
Kumar Gandharva reared his visage again, the utterance of the nirgun (abstract), a balm of introspective totality – set out in the bazaar of Kabir’s vernacularisation, his poetics aiming for the jugular at every turn. And so testing our restraints, limits, the ability to inspect as worldly activity – not out in the wilderness – but here in the machine with its nerve-wracking wavelengths; our impulses held hostage to fate and foulness of forced interest. Searching for Kumarji in the sounds of the universe, the great gharana of life, where possibility and respite toil with unyielding intensities – a reproduction of illusory passion, the drive for speed occluding colour and form.