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O.P. Srivastava's tryst with temporality in Mani Kaul's masterpiece Siddheshwari

Mita Vashisht in Siddheshwari(1989).

Mani Kaul’s Siddheshwari (1989) eschews the linear narrative and the quest for static truth. Instead there is the city of Benares, its ghats, gullies, river water, boats on the river, ashes of the dead, old houses, empty walls, narrow staircases and an Indian kitchen with tumbling brass vessels. Weaving facts, mythology and fiction together against the landscape of the city that was the singer Siddheshwari’s home, Kaul creates a unique narrative that resembles poetry more than film. The visuals are slow-moving and rhythmic; more importantly, the sound track – a blend of the sarangi, tanpura and riyaz(the practice sessions) and the sounds surrounding Siddheshwari and the city’s residents – make the film absorbing.

Siddheshwari is a cinematic portrait of Siddheshwari Devi, a Hindustani classical music singer from Varanasi. It is a 92-minute documentary produced and edited by Lalitha Krishan for the Films Division, starring Mita Vashishtha, Muhar Biswas, Ranjana Srivastava and Shravani Mukherjee. Piyush Shah did the cinematography.

Siddheshwari Devi (1902–1977) was a legendary singer from Varanasi, popularly known as maa (mother). Born on 8th August 1902, she lost her parents early and was brought up by her aunt, the noted singer Rajeshwari Devi. She was an expert khayal singer and equally proficient at short classical forms such as dadra, chaiti and kajri (she was conferred the Padma Shri in 1966). However, she was best known for her mastery of thumri, a Hindustani music repertoire that was treated with ambivalence because of its historical association with court singers and dancers. The origins of thumri lie in the folk music of the Gangetic plain. From the 18th century onwards, thumri began to be cultivated as a musical genre in its own right; aside from courtesans, male musicians began to sing it as well. It had its heyday in 19th century Lucknow, under the last king of Awadh, Wajid Ali Shah.

Although Siddheshwari forgoes a linear plot structure, it begins with a bilingual scrolling text in Hindi and English that indicates the film’s dominant theme. The narrative meanders between the retelling of Siddheshwari Devi’s life and her relationship with her guru and benefactor, and the mystic history of thumri and tappa (sung during marriages) as musical forms in Varanasi’s medieval ghats, gullies and mansions. The film can be better described as a poetic documentary. In an interview, Kaul said, ‘In my own way, I have tried to bring poetry, documentary and fiction together. We would call it non-linear narrative’.

The film also tries to blend multiple timelines, realities and geographies to sketch a unique tapestry of the life of a gifted singer, leaving the film wide open to interpretation. For Kaul, cinema was not so much visual as it was temporal. ‘What time reflects is more contemporary than the arrangement of a set of visuals. I do not want to focus on this visual aspect in my films, but want to make the temporal aspect primary’. He added, ‘I am inspired by the form of classical music and have used it in my films. Hindustani music is spontaneous and has highs and lows and climaxes. I like to elaborate on the narrative, just like music’.

Mita Vashisht in Siddheshwari(1989).

People often speak of Kaul’s documentaries and feature films looking similar. However, for Kaul, there was no thematic or non-thematic distinction between these formats. Whether as a short film or a long one, Kaul made cinema. It was no surprise that Siddheshwari opened a documentary festival on one occasion and a feature film festival on another. ‘The dividing line between my films and documentaries is thin. Some of my films like Siddheshwari are like poetic documentaries. Another documentary Arrival is about labour migrating to cities’. Kaul said in an interview.

At the end of the film, the singer’s real face appears on TV, eyes closed, hand on her ear and lips crooning the word saiyyan (beloved). Her modulation and deliberate pauses, showcasing consummate control over her golden voice, take the audience to the zenith of the magical gayaki and the climax of the film. Perusing this magical tapestry of images and sounds is a truly enchanting experience.

Most filmmakers compete with their peers. However, Kaul (who passed away in 2011) competed with art itself. He fought to be recognized as an artist and for his films to be known as ‘works of art’.

In 2014, Mark Cousins, an Irish critic, director and writer best known for his 15-hour 2011 documentary, The Story of Film: An Odyssey, and John Akomfrah, a British writer, filmmaker and director known for his poetic work, The Unfinished Conversation, voted for Siddheshwari to be included on Sight & Sound’s list of the greatest documentaries of all time.

O.P. Srivastava is a Mumbai based writer & filmmaker.

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