Dance of the Wind: Biography of a Colonised Heart

By Rajan Khosa

dance-of-the-wind-rajan-khosa-1.jpgDance of the Wind, 1997

Having been asked by Vertigo to write on Dance of the Wind (exactly what I had been trying to avoid for long) – I make excuses. But they say, write anything... anything really, and then quickly offer their own ideas on the kinds of things I could write about. No journal is ever devoid of its ideology, and why not?

Well, why not, I tell myself – let me try to write a critique of my own film. Don’t I remember the two months of intense depression after I finished the film? Don’t I remember the inadequacy I felt about its craft and content? Don’t I remember the various intellectual efforts at its construction? Five years of agony, co-production between six countries, thirteen financiers, and my begging bowl.

But the other part of me is screaming. To get into a critical mode is to undermine the power of the irrational. To analyse my own creation is to kill it. It seems at this stage of my growth I wish to criticise ‘irrationally’, to speak only in terms of, I ‘sense’ this, I ‘sense’ that. For this is the time to renounce ideas and theories, the time has come when only the muse must dictate. But enough of that for now, let me first introduce you to the reality of an independent filmmaker in the U.K. who secretly dreams of blockbusters.  

My mind gets forever tired of seeking solutions to support a roof, some equipment and to buy some bread. I go round and round through various angles as to how I can make the most of my meagre resources. It wouldn’t take long to end up on the street. And I wonder - is there any relief from a scheming mind that is constantly securing survival? Is there a ‘giving up’ that doesn’t reduce one to an animal?

So when I think of my creative experiences, I see tunnels, only tunnels. I walk through the passage of these tunnels. After some darkness there is light, but darkness again. I am not allowed to go back or to stop. And what do I hold in my hands? – Two hearts. One is centuries old, a collective yearning of my ancestors where meditation and work were synonymous. The other heart is colonised, first by the Mogul and then by the British. After all, I am an Indian and the various tunnels which led me from the Third World to the First have been full of propaganda. And I have been the choiceless sucker. Miles Davis played through the speakers in the canteen. Like a hungry dog I was lapping it up, while my other heart was screaming and with revenge listening to Indian classical music, almost a sedative for the calm I needed.  

After four years of design, in 1982 I left for the Indian film school in Pune hoping that it would at least bring me back to my roots. But because of the Indian alliance with the former Soviet Union, this tunnel thrust upon me the syllabus from VGIK, Moscow. We hero- worshipped Eisenstein, Pudovkin and Kuleshov, and the European cinema of the sixties. We breathed heavily with the slowness of Tarkovsky’s pace while being drunk with French auteur theory.  

Something wasn’t quite satisfied in me, not because all methodologies were imported, but cinema as an art form seemed inadequate to address the fundamental questions of human life. So with reluctance I said goodbye to cinema, like parting with a lover who hadn’t loved me enough. I steeped myself in Indian philosophy for the next five years. This was probably the most Indian experience I ever had. In this tunnel, magic, meaning, starvation, levitation, all mingled with such ease that I was temporarily satisfied.  

But my old lover was beckoning me again. I was convinced I wanted to return to art, I was convinced there was no ulterior meaning to life, it was only my youthful idealism that searched for certainty, a direct result of my haphazard growing up, an oppression of various tunnels which had landed me in this desperate state of mind. If life was ‘maya’, a dream, a play, then all I could do was to use cinema as a way of bringing self-awareness to the contents of my life. And hopefully understand what the hell was going on.  

In 1990, when I ended up at the Royal College of Art in London for my ‘Post-Experience Programme’, they asked, ‘Did I have a property?’ I said, ‘What property?’ I wasn’t exactly a landowner, rather a Hindu Brahmin whose ideal is to renounce all possessions. Well, what they meant was a screenplay. Because in the other part of the globe, Robert McKee and John Trauby were perfecting languages, tightening the screws so tight so as to make things and life bereft of any juice. What I soon discovered was that this tunnel was too revered and looked to the other side of the Atlantic for confirmation. It had no vision of its own, no self-respect. I took it upon myself to acquire the skills and perfect the craft of screenwriting, and I discovered to my horror, the most difficult thing in cinema is to write a good screenplay. No... to write a screenplay that works.  

I can see, quite clearly, by now I have successfully avoided saying anything about Dance of the Wind. But maybe I have said a lot. I cannot hide the fact that anyone who has travelled through so many tunnels would naturally search for what was truly their own. Pallavi, the protagonist in Dance of the Wind, has a desperate need to find her original voice. Unlike me she is bereft of a multitude of tunnels (because in cinema one has to sculpt out the inessential, build an argument and focus the question in its utter simplicity). Hence, brought up in a strict oral tradition, under a single propaganda, she questions what is truly her own.  

In India, traditions are living, they are not something dead, archaic, to be locked away in a museum. A true tradition is something that constantly changes clothes and renews itself. Traditions that have survived in India for thousands of years have had the capacity and strength to do exactly that. Since Creation, Preservation and Destruction is the Hindu Trinity, Destruction is most essential, it is a moment of transformation. The very moment when the cycle of birth and creation begins. So we have to destroy our teachers to be born again. And in this birth we individuate the tradition, we make it our own, we bring it closer to our times while embracing all the very changes that seemed threatening to our elders.

That is why I respect the experience of the elders, but I question everything – every method, every process, every belief. I feel that is the spirit of a true disciple or learner – to turn inward in a meditative stance while the heart and mind remain open to the external world. For all you know you might find a Tara inside you, the little girl in the film, whose innocence and gift is untouched by the critical judgement of the mind. In whose body pure music resides like the beauty of a fresh mountain brook. And it is that strength we need to deal with the ever-continuing haphazard tunnels of contemporary life.

Vertigo asked two reviewers to write about the film Dance of the Wind

By Magaret Dickinson: Filmmaker

dance-of-the-wind-rajan-khosa-2.jpgDance of the Wind, 1997

Dance of the Wind makes an initial impression of luminous beauty, precision and clarity. On the surface the story is a simple parable. A young classical singer, Pallavi, is just beginning to perform in public, supported and promoted by her husband. She is the daughter, pupil and assumed artistic heir of celebrated singer, Karuna Devi. However, when Karuna dies Pallavi finds she can no longer sing. In her distress she thinks of seeking out the mysterious guru who taught her mother long ago. Pallavi remembers that, just before Karuna’s death, an old man appeared in front of the house accompanied by a little girl dressed in rags who sang with an instinctive beauty - the voice, Pallavi says, that she has longed for. Assuming the man to be her mother’s guru she sets out to find him. When, eventually, she is led to him through the child he does not respond as she hopes and yet the encounter sets her free to find her own voice.

Like a parable, however, this tale invites more than one interpretation and its potential for ambiguity is compounded by the particular hybrid nature of the production: a film shot in Hindi, without major film stars, concerned with classical Indian culture, set among the cosmopolitan elite of today’s India but, judging from the credits, financed largely from European sources. Given the nature of the film trade, such a film, unfortunately, is not destined for mass release either in India or Europe and is unlikely to be seen primarily within one cultural context rather than another. But a more interesting reason for uncertainty is that the director treats all the diverse threads of argument and the characters who supply them with sympathy and respect, whether he agrees with them or not.

At the beginning the intention seems to be clearly signposted. The film opens in an elegant Muslim tomb around which a group of school children are playing. One of them, presumably Pallavi as a young girl, wanders into the tomb alone and sings, entranced to hear her voice echoing back from the ancient dome. The spell is broken as the other children run in noisily and then a long shot shows the building surrounded by modern suburbs while the song is replaced by the roar of a passing jet. The screen goes black and a title reads ‘For 5000 years, taught by parent to child, guru to disciple, songs of wisdom echo through my land.’ There follows an exquisite sequence of the adult Pallavi practicing with her mother which then cuts surprisingly to a long shot of a well appointed room where a man, later identified as Pallavi’s husband , is typing at a computer, completely naked. 

It is tempting to read this opening as a straightforward conservative affirmation of tradition against modernity. The scene in the tomb and the music lesson have a quality of harmony – visual and musical – that are interrupted when modern life intrudes. But the reading is both encouraged and discouraged by extraneous considerations. The scene with the naked husband has an aggressive, shocking quality viewed in relation to experiences of provincial India, a world with an extremely low tolerance of nudity. Without that reference it might evoke instead the innocent eccentricity expected of an artistic household. On the other hand, the use of the tomb, in the light of modern Indian politics, can be seen as having progressive connotations. For the choice of a Muslim building as the source of inspiration for a Hindu artist is a reminder of the long history of creative symbiosis between the two religions and seems to signal a deliberate critique of a ‘traditionalist’ rhetoric used to fuel communal tension.

Even the short title about songs of wisdom is not such a simple statement as it seems. For it couples two, arguably, rather different teaching relationships, parent/child and guru/disciple. Both, admittedly, are distinct from the relatively impersonal methods of modern education but, although in practice the roles are sometimes combined, conceptually they seem distinct. Not only is one relationship given, the other chosen, but they have different purposes. From your parents you learn the skills and duties required in society; from a guru you seek something less tangible; the family perpetuates society while following a guru may mean abandoning it - a sacrifice but also a liberation. This requirement of renunciation is stressed within the film. We learn that Karuna’s guru lives in obscurity because he refused to become a professional performer, declining fame and wealth in favour of teaching a few chosen pupils, and that he disowned Karuna when she failed to follow the same path. Her fault was both to marry and to perform professionally. So, combining the relationship of parent and guru can seem problematic for reasons which are not simply pragmatic. A respected critic says of Pallavi’s singing that it lacks soul. Perhaps this is because she has learnt only as you learn a trade, by copying and practising. What she still needs is not to be found by yet more copying and practising.

Thus the central theme seems to be drawn from within traditional culture, although the pressures or threats posed by modernity are evidently an important preoccupation. Pallavi and her family are situated firmly, almost pointedly, in the present and the critic says of Karuna’s guru that he did not accept that times were changing. The question is raised as to whether the tradition can live on within a progressively materialist and commercial culture or whether it can only survive, like Karuna’s guru, in a situation of complete marginalisation. In this respect the story ends inconclusively. Pallavi finds her voice - or, as the guru describes it, allows music to find her. The crisis associated with her mother’s death, the loss of her voice and search for the guru have cost her much of the prestige and comfort of her earlier situation. She is not performing since she cannot, and we see her being left by her husband at her mother’s old house where she will, presumably stay alone. But it is not clear whether this is a temporary situation or the beginning of a new way of life, whether she will return to her husband and resume the career of a rising star or whether she will become a recluse, perfecting her art in private and teaching potential successors. A tradition is arguably never static, and certainly that of Indian music, the circumstance in which it is learnt and played and particularly the situation of women performers, has been changing very significantly for several generations and by implication, because this story is set in the present, it is still alive. The guru’s advice to Pallavi is enigmatic. He says that he must stay silent if she is to sing which could be read as an encouragement to break free from the past, as Karuna did.

The ambiguity is increased by the use of subtly different cinematic codes. The scenes of Pallavi in her social circle have a naturalistic, documentary quality so that everything seems amenable to literal explanation while those involving the guru and child operate more as metaphor. The differences are a reminder that even for the film-maker working in a medium without the burden of a 5000 year tradition there are, nevertheless, issues to do with negotiating an artistic inheritance and finding an appropriate voice. In the Indian context choices are constrained by a history which has made for a somewhat extreme separation between a stylized, music-led popular cinema, and a more naturalistic art cinema, a situation which may condemn Dance of the Wind to being more praised than seen. The categories operating in Britain, although less rigid, also perpetuate prejudices which are likely to deny most of the potential audience the chance of seeing this film although, if given the chance, it has just those qualities which confound the prejudice that a film cannot be both complex and a pleasure to watch.

By Robert Petit: School pupil

dance-of-the-wind-rajan-khosa-3.jpgDance of the Wind, 1997

This slow moving but touching film is about an Indian singer whose ‘guru’ is her mother. Pallavi’s mother wants to pass on to her daughter the tradition of pure music but Pallavi is unwilling to accept this because she feels she has not yet found her own true voice. The bracelet, which symbolises the tradition, finds its way to a small girl whose guru is the same as Pallavi’s mother’s. At first the small girl and her guru are hazy characters who could even be spirits. After the death of her mother Pallavi forms a stable relationship with the small girl. Pallavi has lost her voice and is unable to sing, because she and her mother performed in public against the rules of the tradition. Pallavi sets out on a quest to look for her voice.

This film makes the viewer think from the heart. Its fairly simple story line is told with emotion and strength. In a film like this, a director can so often be sentimental and manipulative. In this case both of these were avoided. However, as in most films, you find yourself pitying the main character. I am still looking for a film which makes me feel different emotions for the lead protagonist. The only part that did that for me was that of the small girl.

The fact that it is slow moving and lacks action doesn’t bother me at all. The strongest point of this film is its photography, artistic framing and composition. Every shot is perfectly executed with rock-steady camera work. Its style and rule are usually, ‘never start with the subject at the beginning of the subject.’ In other words, the camera will pan or track to reveal the subject mid-way through shot. Laid over these wide angle shots are stirring sound effects. Another ‘camera rule’ I noticed was ‘the subject should never be at the centre of the shot.’

Lots of emotions are felt for the characters, often more than one for each. Although it may sound crazy, I often pictured the relationship between the characters by thinking of it like a drawing.

For this film it is as if there is a small inner circle, with a wider circle around it, then an even wider circle circling that. The small one represents the two people, Pallavi and the small mysterious girl. The next circle represents the people close to Pallavi and the girl (Baba, the girl’s guru, Pallavi’s mother and her husband). Lastly the outer circle - these are the onlookers.

Each of the characters needs to be felt individually. An important thing to remember here is to never judge a character by the amount of lines they have to say, but by the importance of the emotions you feel for them. A perfect example of this are the emotions felt for the small girl: curiosity, mystery, enchantment. Despite her limited time on screen you feel that the girl is the central character.

This film is definitely worth seeing. It has made me realise that some films have been taken beyond the entertainment stage and portray a vision, an important one, which has to be experienced rather than dictated.