1 October 2016

Tripping the Light Fantastic

My Mirror column:

An evocative new non-fiction film immerses us in the enchanting world of Chandannagar's light artists.

Almost all religious festivals in India, when being celebrated in the public domain, now rely on technology to amplify the experience. The bhajans or kirtans once actually sung live in the sanctum sanctorum have been replaced, or at least supplemented, by recorded T-series versions playable on loop. And in a bald metaphor for the public religiosity that new India foists on and increasingly demands of its citizens, that technologically amplified sound is now blasted from the inner religious precinct into the street, and often into your bedroom.

If that sound technology — the booming loudspeakers, the tinny microphones, the expectant crackling of static — now feels as familiar and integral to the Durga Puja experience as Dhunuchi Naach, so does another technological addition that's only a few decades old: decorative street lighting.

There is, it turns out, a whole industry devoted to decorative lighting, and it is the subject of Supriyo Sen's lovely documentary Let There Be Light. Recently screened in Delhi at Open Frame, the Public Service Broadcasting Trust's yearly film festival, Sen's film is set entirely in Chandannagar in West Bengal.

Indigenous technology and local cultural innovation have made Chandannagar a lighting industry hub. The town's annual Jagaddhatri Puja celebration is a time when new lighting creations are displayed — both for the pleasure of the locals and as a real-life marketplace for buyers who want to replicate these designs in melas or festivals across India.

And what designs they are! From a rotating Manipuri dancer to a forest of gently swaying giraffes, a glittering Taj Mahal on water to an excruciatingly slow ball-game between two children, Chandannagar's alok shilpis, as these light artists are locally referred to, can seemingly marshal their combination of "motion, circuitry and artistry" into creating just about anything.

Among the attractions of the Durga Puja lighting I remember from my '80s Calcutta childhood was the light artist's ability to zero in on the political event of the moment. I'm pretty sure, for instance, that I once saw Indira Gandhi's assassination enshrined in a pujo display of moving light: a shocking but hypnotic loop of her walking down a path, a man aiming a gun at her, the bullet hitting her, and her body crumpling to the ground, only to rise and be felled again.

Chandannagar's alok shilpis do partake of this characteristically Bengali tendency for contemporary comment incorporated into popular culture. We hear, for instance, of the year 1999, when Kargil was the most prominent theme for lighting displays. But we hear of this from Kashinath Neogy, a wiry man with floppy salt-and-pepper hair who is one of Chandannagar's lighting pioneers. He decided to buck that Kargil trend by creating a giant moving frog the same year. The frog apparently did service for the 12 years that followed. It was such a huge hit that younger men in the business can still recount the exact things that it did. Among them was sticking out a long tongue and then flicking it back to ingest a passing fly.

Animation, in fact, has been at the centre of Chandannagar's innovations with lighting. But that animation technology could be put in the service of either laughter, or a sense of wonder, or what someone in the film calls "a message to the nation".

What Sen's rich conversations also manage to elicit, though, is a more philosophical core that underlies efforts in these various registers. At one level, this is about how these spectacular lighting displays — by their fantastic scale and creativity — straddle the boundary between science and magic. The same lighting technicians who work laboriously to produce these circuits clearly remember the enchantment the lights had for them when they were young. And their efforts seem consciously or unconsciously directed at recreating that magic for children now.

The leap from the magical to the divine is easily taken. When Kashi Da of 'Kargil versus Giant Frog' fame describes his lighting circuitry as a way of controlling danger (electricity) to create beauty, he adds a serene comment: "Eta onaari roop [This is a form of Her]," implying the goddess in whose honour the lighting displays are created.

But even without Kashi Da's smiling perception of what his work means in some larger scheme of things, Sen's film is remarkable for the stunning convergence it reveals between religion, popular culture and science.

Looking closely at these self-taught Bengali men doing what they do offers us a glimpse of a milieu that somehow encouraged curiosity and scientific application and persistent innovation on a third-world budget, while also being thoroughly immersed in a deeply felt popular religiosity. It's powerful stuff and yet, wonderfully fun, a little like the lights it's about.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 25 Sep 2016.

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