Joshy Joseph’s “Laparoscopic Cinemascapes” featuring the veteran Aribam Syam Sharma – now in his 80’s – is actually a kind of a full encounter with the rich and complex dimensions of an oral culture, Manipuri to be specific, and a wise, enlightened soul nourished and nurtured by it emotionally, intellectually and spiritually. The mellow wisdom of an entire culture spreads gently and softly as the venerable Aribam Syam Sharma talks to Joshy, opening up the subtle layers of a culture that holds myriad ways of life in an endearing and expansive way. There is nothing laparoscopic, a surgical metaphor, in this visual text, about Aribam’s whispering discourse throughout the conversation, which is more of a meditatively structured narration that deeply delves into the labyrinths of a society and its culture and, in an introspective manner, one’s relationship with them that is, metaphorically speaking, visceral as much as it is abstract in a philosophical sense.
Aribam’s ruminations on Manipur enable even outsiders to see the continuities between the past and the present, the symbolic relationship between mythologies and history, and the nuanced manner in which the celebration of divinity erases oppressive hierarchies of gender and caste created by a social order. Music, dance burst forth from the landscape of Manipur filling one’s being with a sense of harmony and colour, but in a calm, tranquil and subdued manner devoid of rhetorical flourish and highly charged emotions that excite the senses. Manipuri dance and drama elevate the spirit to sublime heights and do not vanish as certain forms of artistic expressions that merely offer sensual gratification do. In the first part of the cinematic text entitled “A Cultural Vortex” Aribam Syam Sharma dwells on these aspects of Manipuri art. The range and depth of performative traditions of Manipur demand a very different kind of theorisation. It is impossible to capture the essence of Manipuri culture through overarching theories and loose universal categorisations. Moreover, linear narratives miss the subtleties of the tradition. It is only through vignettes, kaleidoscopic images, that the plurality of Manipuri culture can be unfolded with equal emphasis placed on each significant form that carries certain unique qualities.
As a musician, filmmaker and an evolved thinker Aribam Syam Sharma takes us through the cultural terrain of Manipuri culture in a balanced, unobtrusive manner that upholds the grace and elegance of the man and the culture that has shaped him. The crucial point is that in Aribam history, spirituality and aesthetics come together to erase all vague and amorphous notions of culture. Aribam mentions the ballad “Khongjom Parba” that enacts the defeat of the Manipuri army at the hands of the British in 1891. The sense of history flows out through beautiful music and takes several hours to be completed. It is here that patriotism and aesthetics combine and, in a crucial way, draw our attention to the richness of the folk tradition. It is significant that patriotism of the folk is far removed from the hollow jingoism of Pan Indian nationalism.
Aribam’s inward looking, detached and composed narrative spreads out to touch the inner core of Manipuri culture. When Aribam turns to “Lai Haraoba” it becomes evident that the beauty and fragrance of Manipuri culture, like all other folk cultures of India, has an origin independent of the dominant Vaishnava culture that has assumed a pan Indian dimension. Indigenous cultures have evolved in several ways and are important as they resist all attempts to centralise Indian culture. The tendency to homogenise the culture of the land, a great need during our times for some hegemonic groups, is part of a fascist political design to impose one religion on the diverse cultural and religious communities which have their own beliefs, rituals and spiritual practices. The pre Vaishnavite “Lai Haraoba” is a great metaphysical revelation that dramatizes the genesis of the universe, the mysteries of nature through dance and music. The wondrous secrets of “prakriti” emerge through this art form. But the beauty of Manipuri culture is that it also fully embraces the Vaishnava tradition without creating any antagonism between the folk/the local, and the mainstream tradition. The performance of “Nata Sankirtan” exemplifies this. The performative text raises existential questions through its aesthetics. “Nata Sankirtan” is an enquiry into the nature and meaning of life. Aribam is softly persuasive in clearly emphasising the holistic spirit of Manipuri consciousness, the lovely inclusive quality that underlines it.
The great egalitarian spirit of the culture manifests itself during the “Maha Raas”, which is about the great union of Radha and Krishna. There is something incredibly wonderful about the “Maha Raas”. It is all about the mystical oneness of everybody — the performers and the audience. Barriers between gender and obstacles constructed by the caste system fade away during the “Maha Raas”. Patriarchal constructs and gender distinctions seem to suddenly dissolve as the performers genuinely embody Radha and Krishna and the audience, the gopis in spirit, transcend their social identities and become one with Radha and Krishna, and, further, can actually touch the figures of Radha and Krishna. In an intimate way Aribam constructs the reality of an emancipated cultural politics through the “Maha Raas”. The mystical oneness also has its experience of “Nothingness” when Krishna vanishes and the whole area is plunged into darkness. The idea of “Shoonya”, “Nothingness” and “Darkness” is played out here. It is out of this cultural cosmos that Aribam, especially as an evolved film maker, turns to the craft of cinema, especially when it attempts to reflect the essence of local cultural traditions. An important point is raised by Aribam when he deals with the element of “Close – Up” in cinema. The master film maker offers an insight into what constitutes Indianness when it concerns dealing with indigenous cultures. Joshy’s film displays fine sensitivity in terms of imaging the speaker and in recording his almost sagely discourse on the cultural inwardness and rootedness of film making. The sections “A Close-up Conundrum” and “Images from dust” display these in full measure.
An intrinsic part of Manipuri performance, especially in the “Maha Raas” is that the face of the performer is not revealed – there is a veil over the face. Enactment through facial expressions called “Abhinaya” is absent in the performance. The spiritual oneness with Radha and Krishna take away the personal identity of the performer, and of whoever from the audience who melts into the being of the divine figures. To capture these in a film is to avoid the close- up, for the close – up, as a technique, magnifies facial expression isolating it from the cosmos around. Aribam quite emphatically states that there should be a great search for an Indian way of cinematography that completely avoids the “American Spectacle”. What Aribam says of the Manipuri tradition, could, in diverse ways, be extended to other Indian traditions too. The profound point is that the cinematic images must lead to a “Vision” beyond words and physical form. The search ought to be for humane things – humanism – beyond the grammar of cinema and above constructed symbols. Aribam’s profound universal humanism, carrying an exalted maternal vision, blossoms when he attacks the grotesque, distorted images of Irom Sharmila ,(who, for Aribam, is a lovely mother figure blooming as the lotus does) with the tubes showing on her face as she was force-fed by the ruling State in its dastardly attempts to crush her democratic spirit. Aribam constructs images of the umbilical cord to project Irom Sharmila as a mother and declares that he is ashamed of himself for what was forced on her. Joshy’s film in fact attacks the laparoscopic nature of the ruling State and a feudal social order. The title of the film ought to be regarded as a veiled ironic attack against all oppressive social and political systems that have engulfed us, especially during the last decade. The surgical touch it appears to seriously carry should not mislead us.
The sections “Turbulent Times” and “Winged Roots” juxtapose the trauma of war, the triumph over the fear of death with the artistic quest for transcendental expression. The horrors of war give birth to a philosophical attitude where even death does not horrify one to the extent of numbing the senses. It is out of these turbulent phases of human existence that one moves towards shaping artistic images that fully embody the complex realities of existence and, more importantly, create eternal feelings of love and humanity. Joshy’s cinematic effort celebrates Aribam as a “rishi” of our times who through his artistic medium engenders deep empathy for humankind in our hearts.
N. Manu Chakravarthy is an author and national award-winning film critic