Of Gods, Ghosts and India’s Disappearing History
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because there’s a lot more to India on film than Slumdog Millionaire.
By Sanjena Sathian
In the span of a year, Ashish Avikunthak went from living in one of India’s most famous slums, Dharavi, as part of a “voluntary act of poverty,” to studying fat books and dropping highfalutin vocab as an anthropology Ph.D. student at Stanford. Those are just two of his many lives. Also among them? A trained archaeologist and now professor of film and media at the University of Rhode Island, Avikunthak is one of India’s most experimental filmmakers, creating avant-garde films that are so “difficult” and “vernacular,” as he puts it, that he screens them in India at high-end art galleries rather than theaters. Outside the subcontinent, he’s shown at the Tate Modern, the Berlin Film Festival and the Shanghai Biennale, among others.
I’ve known Avikunthak for six years, and in fact studied Bollywood cinema with him. We sat down to discuss his upcoming work — which will include a science-fiction short shot at one of India’s oldest archaeological sites and a piece on Gandhi’s late-life experiments with tantric sexual practices. We discussed, too, what he sees as India’s rapidly deteriorating cultural history, his artistic mission to save as much of it as possible and his affinity for the supernatural. One method: He hunts through Indian bazaars for old film footage of strangers. It all adds up to the sense of something divine and spectral. After all, he tells us: “Gods and ghosts — they’re not much different, right?”
This interview has been edited and condensed.
You’re a trained archaeologist, anthropologist and social worker — and you’re a filmmaker who thinks about the past. So what is your relationship to Indian history and to what is being lost in India? You shared with me once a very stunning image: that the past is like an old, crumbling house, and your parents’ generation could rush in and grab a whole chest full of artifacts, and you can rush in and grab a handful. But that I and my peers will only be able to extract a syringe’s worth of the past.
It’s almost like one of those sci-fi horror films — the doorway is slowly, slowly closing and you have to run before you die. The door to the past is very, very fast closing down, and it will become virtually impossible for your generation or the next generation to even engage with it.
And that has a lot to do with the Indian understanding of past and heritage, and two big chunks of modernity that we see: Scholars talk about it as colonial modernity — the British transforming India in a very powerful way — and now we’re at 60 years of postcolonial modernity, and postcolonial modernity has become extraordinarily oppressive. Cities have become really large; there’s monumental increases in population; the past, the materiality of the past, is getting slowly encroached.
Talk about a city like Bombay: If you go to Andheri East, a few years ago you could visit second- and fourth-century caves. But today if you go, it’s completely encroached by people, middle- and lower-middle-class apartment complexes, slums. And that’s happening in a city like Delhi. On a daily basis, archaeological sites are being encroached upon.
OK, so we’re all familiar with this story of rising Asia and its quickly expanding cities. What else?
It’s not just material disappearance: It’s what I would call a more ontological disappearance. There’s an epistemic transformation with what’s called [British historian] Lord Macaulay’s report, which argues that in the 1830s there was a big debate between colonial rulers in England and Calcutta: Do we teach the natives their own languages, Sanskrit, Bengali, Hindi, or do we teach them in English? And Lord Macaulay argues very powerfully that no, we have to teach the natives English, because it’s an advanced language.
And this begins an epistemic transformation. The very fact that I, at this age in my life, at 40, teach in an American university, I speak more articulately in English than in any other language, is a product of that form, that intrusion that began. A lot has been written about it. Colonial modernity changes your epistemic framework — the language, the way you think. However, it’s not able to change your ontological framework, your affect. You still feel in Hindi, Bengali or Marathi, still sing in Hindi, Bengali, Marathi … whereas our bureaucratic and scientific and career-oriented language is English.
So what does remain outside of English?
This religious and spiritual understanding is still vernacular. If you want to go to a temple, you don’t do English songs. You go to a temple, you wear a dhoti, you wear a sari. If you want to understand the past in India, if you really want to experience what India was, say, 100 years ago, 200 years ago, the only way, the only syringe hole, is spiritual, is religious.
This is a country where people are talking about Hindu history all the time, though. Books that talk about it a certain way get banned, and politically, India is trying to figure out how its own past, way before the British, should shape modern national pride. So I wouldn’t initially think history is disappearing.
What you’re talking about are narratives of the past. Narratives of the past never disappear, but the past disappears. Linguistically, hundreds of languages in India are disappearing fast.
I’m not talking about narratives of the past but actual material, epistemic and ontological forms of the past which are slowly disappearing. For example, there are fewer and fewer people singing Thumri, a specific form of Hindustani semiclassical music. In Benaras, as late as the 1940s, there would be as many as 20 or 30 Thumri singers. Today, none exist. This is just an example. We are losing, very, very fast, a certain form of hearing, not just a certain form of speaking.
Somebody like me is in the process of searching for those small pockets of, well, I won’t call it uncorrupted moments or experiences, because that doesn’t exist, but those moments, even though those are corrupted, again, to use a kind of ghostly metaphor: I can still feel a fragrance of a moment that is lost or the embers of an event that has died. I’m talking very much in ephemeral terms: The past has become ephemeral, and I see myself as a filmmaker, as an artist, as somebody in search of that ephemera. And I use that to concoct, construct, my own universe.
Avikunthak’s film Kalkimanthankatha: The Churning of Kalki, is influenced by Samuel Beckett and is about the slow wait for the final incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu.