A new documentary on the sacred art of South Asia provides a message of hope in divisive times.
“Art is life and life is art,” says Lok Chitrakar, a Nepali folk artist and teacher whose smile lights up his face as he talks to the camera. What Chitrakar is trying to put into words, I imagine, is the unconscious act of ‘losing oneself’ in creative and spiritual joy, the mystical state of ‘bhakti’ or selfless devotion through which all ritualistic art is expressed and experienced.
This notion lies at the heart of Darshan, a new film from journalist Vikram Zutshi and art historian Debashish Banerji that pulsates with a robust tribe of artists like Lok, painters, stone carvers, woodworkers, conjurors, acrobats and musicians, all of whom congregate at sacred sites to proffer their art to the fiery spirit Gods and multi-limbed Goddesses in residence.
Production took the filmmakers on a three-month long quasi-pilgrimage across the Indian subcontinent from the Hindu temples of southern Tamil Nadu, western Rajasthan and eastern Orissa all the way up north to the Buddhist monasteries of Himalayan Kathmandu. The effort and attention to detail is evident; Darshan is an enthralling cinematic experience, a vortex of vivid colours, operatic spectacle and vaudeville performance.
Ironically, I watch the film on my laptop at home in far-away Mumbai, a once-thriving metropolis now paralyzed by pandemic-induced lockdown. Here, the nation’s two most familiar sounds – the music of Bollywood movies and the chant of mass prayer – have fallen silent (cinemas and places of worship have been shut since March). A scene in Darshan of a sea of sun-kissed people dancing feverishly outside Puri’s famous Jagannath temple, offers a glowing contrast to the gloom around me.
The term darshan literally means ‘to behold,’ but ‘seeing,’ in this case, goes far beyond the act of mere observation. Darshan alludes to a state where the creator or spectator of an art becomes so entranced by it that they merge into one entity. This feeling is also referred to as moksha (blissful enlightenment) by ancient vedic texts and in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, compiled over 5,000 years ago.
Yoga, one of the six schools of Indian philosophical thought, describes moksha as the realization of the self, or the birth of the non-dualistic pure self – a dimension where the human ego surrenders itself to the unknown, wholly and without worldly attachment, expectation or judgment. It is akin to what the act of darshan is meant to induce: transcendental enchantment.
Most forms of modern and post-modern art demand intellectual debate and critical awareness of their audience. At the other end of the spectrum, far removed from Darshan’s immersive, mystical quality, lies playwright Bertolt Brecht’s ‘estrangement effect.’ Brecht experimented with a technique known as ‘Breaking The Fourth Wall’, which involved actors on stage ‘breaking’ character by suddenly addressing the audience directly.
The purpose was to snap the magic spell of passivity and absorption that art creates, and jolt the audience back to reality and rationality. This separateness between art and spectator in Brecht’s model is the antithesis of what darshan symbolizes: the fluid merging of subject and object in a space that is beyond reason, a realm that is limitless, contextless, indescribable.
And yet the state of darshan can’t be defined by esoteric theory. Its appeal lies in its populist, rustic and accessible nature, and in the fact that its raw power can only be experienced live. Indeed this was the inspiration behind the making of the film, with the idea taking concrete shape after an exhibition of Indian traditional art and artefacts at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art in 2016. The film’s writer and producer Debashish Banerji, who teaches Asian art at the California Institute of Integral Studies, says:
“The two art worlds – that in which art objects are displayed, bought and sold as items of collection, investment and enjoyment and that in which objects of beauty are part of a lived community relationship with spirituality, have been segregated as modern and premodern, the modern being the norm of our time, and the premodern seen as inferior ‘folk art’ or ‘çraft’ or ‘religion’ belonging to illiterate populations and fated to subordination or obsolescence.”
Yet even as Darshan unfurls as a mix of holy mythology, cabaret-style fantasy and epic imagery, it is also inherently subversive, as most authentic art tends to be. Its simple, earthy roots extend outwards as branches of tolerance, inclusivity and pluralism. The collective ethos of the film points to a divinity that is secular and all-encompassing, and to a rejection of the divisive politics that has come to define modern institutional religion.
An example of communal harmony is evident in Noya, a tiny hamlet in West Bengal. Here, Muslim artisans produce patachitra, which are paintings inspired from the puranas or Hindu scriptures. These artists travel from village to village like wandering bards, unscrolling the paintings and enacting their stories to rapt onlookers. One of the community’s senior actors, a Muslim who has been practicing his art for generations, says cheerfully, “We are all children of the same Mother.”
Director Vikram Zutshi adds to this perspective and describes filming in Noya as a moving experience. As he told me in a recent phone conversation:
“There is a beautiful syncretism – a kind of grassroots, multi-religious syncretism – that we observed in many places, and which is now sadly fading away.”
Zutshi’s comment is an astute observation of rising religious fundamentalism all over India. Ruled since 2014 by a right-wing, nationalistic party, India has been slowly and steadily witnessing the appropriation of secular, multi-cultural Hinduism into the narrow monolithic ideology that is Hindutva.
In the winter of 2019, the Indian Parliament passed the controversial ‘Citizen Amendment Act’ which offered a path to Indian citizenship to all of the country’s illegal minorities except Muslims. It is the first time in modern Indian history that a law can discriminate against its people on the basis of religion, and it has been widely challenged by citizen protests all over the nation.
Since then, and with India in the grip of a global pandemic and a stringent lockdown, the government has further leveraged its brute power to persecute and silence voices of dissent.
With dogmatism and regressive nationalism on the rise globally – a situation now fueled all the more by economic crisis and stretched infrastructure – the call for institutional and social reform has become all the more pressing the world over, as the recent Black Lives Matter protests attest.
India’s struggle is no less complex, and lies amid the ever-widening gaps between wealth and poverty, privilege and powerlessness. Less than two per cent of the national budget is spent on public healthcare. Meanwhile, ignorant prejudices surrounding caste and faith persist, and sexual violence against women and children is at an all-time high. The country has never been riper for what many believe it needs – a homegrown, active and evolutionary movement for economic reform, social justice and ideological transformation.
Darshan cannot offer solutions to these dilemmas, but in its own small way it tells a layered, timely story of the revolutionary potential of art and spirit; of human unity and conscious dignity; of veneration for the female earth power or shakti; of the inherent, pragmatic wisdom of land and ancestry; and ultimately, of progress and fulfillment arising from a love for all humanity.
In the act of darshan lies at least, that hope.
Darshan: The Living Art of India streams on the NYIFF digital platformfrom July 24 to August 2
This story was first published in Open Democracy