Anita Kanwar in Mani Kaul's Mati Manas
In 1984, the Handicraft Development Commission of India commissioned Mani Kaul to make a film about the art of clay pottery in India. Kaul accepted the offer, lined up his crew of nearly twenty and shuttled them up and down North India in a tourist bus, visiting communities of potters, exploring their lives, memories and history. Museum curators complained that Kaul was not filming their exquisite collections, but the director was more interested in capturing the lives, stories, legends and history of the people who have been, for ages, the creators of these mundane items called ‘pottery’. He wanted to delve into the myths and minds of these creators and create exquisite imagery through his craft of filmmaking. Kaul says, ‘I wanted to know the anguish of the potter through my own anguish as a filmmaker’. Mati Manas, thus, is a deep dive into the body and soul of maati, the clay.
Venu did the cinematography of Mati Manas, and it was edited by Reena Mohan. It is a 91-minute film produced by the Handicraft Development Commission and the NFDC. The film was conceptualized and written by Kamal Swaroop (the writer-director of Om Dar-B-Dar, The Battle of Banaras, Puskar Puran and Rangabhoomi) and directed by Kaul.
‘Now, terracotta and pottery can be a dry subject. There was the fear that it would end up like any other numbing Films Division documentary. I offered to help with the research, which I began by reading books on archaeology. Afterwards, with a Sony tape recorder, I travelled to Gujarat, Udaipur, Bikaner, Mathura, Kosambi, West Bengal and Benares. I visited Bengali temples made from baked terracotta. I recorded stories of potters, their folk tales, legends and lore. These stories were extracted to form the script of Mati Manas’, recalls the scriptwriter, Kamal Swaroop.
Mati Manas (The Mind of Clay) is a multi-linear narrative that surpasses the conventional difference between a documentary and fiction feature, thus creating what Kaul calls ‘a non-fictional reality’. The film traces our entire cultural superstructure and the myths, fables and rituals connected with pottery making, one of mankind’s earliest occupations. The film starts with a museum exhibit of ancient terracotta and moves out to the vast central Indian plains, which witnessed the rise of one of the most ancient creations, and the far south with its ritualistic pottery linking the pot-a symbol of creation with the rhythm of life.
The film is constructed as a series of episodes about the ancient Indian tradition of terracotta sculptures and pottery and the legends associated with this tradition. The artefacts involved are some of the oldest items of Indian civilization (from the Indus Valley c. 2500 BC), an intrinsic part of the legends associated with terracotta techniques, like the origins of patriarchy, the shift from pastoral to agrarian systems and so on.
The film enacts a series of such legends. The first is of Saiya Mata or ‘Cat Mother’, whose kittens were kept safe in the interior of a baked pot, a legend associated with Harappan archaeological sites where human skeletons buried in womb-like pots were unearthed. The second legend revolves around the Kala Gora (black-white) icon found in the village of Molella, Rajasthan and features the witch Gangli, who transforms Gora into a bull by day, making him work in her oil-press until Kala finally beheads her. The third and best-known legend features Parashuram, who beheads his own mother Renuka with his axes. Interwoven with these legends are stories narrated by the potters themselves as well as fictional sequences featuring contemporary historians who recall these legends. Shot throughout central, south and eastern India, the film deliberately neglects to name its variety of locations to present the idea of an integrated civilization endowed with a sense of evolution through cultural (pro) creativity. At the same time, the techno-cultural process of filmmaking is presented as a partial extension of similar craft traditions.
In a poetic 91-minute long non-fictional reality, Kaul observes the ancient art of pottery making from a wide variety of perspectives. Pots are shown in many settings, including a museum where a young child is mesmerized by the ceramics that ancient ancestors created. The tradition continues and so does its magic, as potters are shown deftly working on a lump of wet clay and slowly giving it shape. Kaul blends myths, fables and the beauty of the art itself to create inspiring imagery out of a mundane, every day object.
Kaul’s films were revelations even when the themes were well-known and had ancient roots, like dhrupad and pottery. He avidly hunted for those cycles of time and traces of experience that these histories would reveal. It was the patience of an ‘artist of fire’, to borrow from French poet Paul Vallery, that enabled Kaul to combine these elements and wait for an invisible fire to blend them, like a perfect pot of clay.
Reflecting on Kaul’s film, Swaroop (a frequent collaborator of Kaul’s on films like Mati Manas and Siddheshwari), says ‘Today reflecting on Uski Roti, Duvidha, Ashad Ka Ek Din or Mati Manas, I feel his movies have transcended time. In an age when streaming has rendered linearity redundant and made abstraction attractive – open any platform and you can switch between the past, present and future simultaneously – Mani Kaul’s boundary-breaking films have proved to be both relevant and rewarding’.
O.P. Srivastava is a Mumbai based filmmaker & writer