The Wire

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In Writing

Portal: Indian music on film

July 2014

The writer of the Sarkari shorts blog (featured in The Wire 366) Alexander Keefe takes us on a trip through Indian music documentaries.

Raga 1 India (1974)
Of the mid-1960s maverick auteurs who emerged under the visionary leadership of the Films Division Of India’s Jean Bhownagary, the director SNS Sastry was perhaps the most stubbornly idiosyncratic. This ultra-stylish short from 1974 is built around a profound performance of "Raga Megh Malhar" by Ustad Amir Khan, who makes it rain in glorious black and white while a shadow tabalchi keeps time and the ustad’s wife reads the (bad) news from the evening paper.

In Between The Notes: A Portrait Of Pandit Pran Nath (1986)
William Farley’s In Between The Notes: A Portrait Of Pandit Pran Nath was shot in 1985, long after the master’s health had been in steep decline – it nevertheless remains essential viewing for anyone interested in the powerful influence he exerted over the direction of American music. La Monte Young, Marian Zazeela and Terry Riley all pay tribute to their teacher: Riley reflects on his 15 years of study with Pandit Pran Nath while stroking the strings of a tambura on a rooftop overlooking Humayun’s tomb in Delhi. “It’s like trying to copy smoke. It’s no shape and it’s every shape, ” he says.

Siddheshwari (1989)
Film maker Mani Kaul, who made a number of excellent Hindi feature films, beginning with the Parallel Cinema masterpiece Uski Roti in 1969, also directed some of the Films Division's finest documentaries, including this unusual portrait of the sublime Hindustani vocalist Siddeshwari Devi, from 1989. As frequent Sarkari Shorts contributor Phong Tran puts it: “for Kaul, a film is not a visual document, rather it’s a temporal process. His is a cinema of fragments beyond conventional logic, meaning or chronology.” A stunning, confounding experience of vision and sound.

Yamini Krishnamurthy (1971)
Watching the strangely distorted YouTube transfer of Balwant Gargi’s 1971 Films Division documentary on Kuchipudi and Bharatanatyam dancer Yamini Krishnamurthy is a bit like being on acid – in the best, most blinging sense. The music direction belongs to chameleonic Films Divison stalwart Vijay Raghav Rao.

Maa Ki Pukar (1975)
Benjamin Gilani plays an angry young man turned mama’s boy in this groovy and very au courant 1975 anti-hooliganism short by another of the Films Division’s great enfants terribles, director S Sukhdev, with music by none other than Pancham-da himself, RD Burman.

Claxplosion - Pramod Pati (1968)
A stop-motion, pixillated tripper’s delight directed in 1968 by one of Films Division’s great experimentalists, Pramod Pati. Claxplosion is, in part, an oblique and avant-garde contribution to (and comment on) India’s family planning campaign. Vijay Raghav Rao’s mind-melting electronic soundtrack, on the other hand, is only there to blow your mind.

Tana Bana
A 15 minute segment from the early 90s Indian weekly video magazine Tana Bana on the rebellious dancer, choreographer and artist Chandralekha, with commentary by Chandra’s longtime collaborator Sadanand Menon. The segment opens with Chandra performing her deeply yogic Suryanamaskar to a kriti by Muthuswami Dikshitar, sung by B Krishnamurthi – recreating a sequence from her otherwise undocumented Navagraha – a radical piece of post-Bharatanatyam choreography that first shocked and divided India’s dance world in 1972.

Amjad Ali Khan Documentary (1971)
New Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia Mass Communication Research Centre presents this terrific, if slightly square, 1971 documentary on the life and music of Amjad Ali Khan, still just 26 years old at the time. Produced and directed by longtime Indophile and National Film Board Of Canada co-founder James Beveridge, Amjad Ali Khan: Music Of North India features footage of the sarodist teaching, worshipping, performing, and paying tribute to the legendary 16th century musician Mian Tansen at his tomb in Gwalior.

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