16 February 2017

Forms Lost and Found

My Mirror column:

Ashim Ahluwalia's film on the artist Akbar Padamsee provokes one to think about half-remembered histories of experimental art and film.

In 1969, Akbar Padamsee was awarded a Nehru Fellowship for a project which he entitled The Vision Exchange Workshop. After some disillusioning experience in Delhi art circles, he moved to Bombay and started work in a five-room apartment on Napeansea Road [sic].” So wrote the poet Nissim Ezekiel in an article entitled 'Padamsee and his workshop: Academic or Avantgarde', published in October 1973 in Z magazine.

The “work” that Ezekiel was talking about was really the setting up of a rare sort of collaborative artistic milieu. The 1928-born Padamsee, who was already well-known as an experimental painter, was keen to establish a space in which conversations might be made possible across boundaries of medium and disciplinary training. “Equipment was provided for experiments in painting, etching and film making. The available space was redesigned to suit a wide variety of technical and human requirements. In a number of tangible as well as intangible ways, the place developed a serious artistic atmosphere. Formalities were kept at a minimum, sociability and companionship were stressed but the focus was on creative endeavour,” Ezekiel wrote.

Formally VIEW, as the Vision Exchange Workshop was called, only lasted about two years, until the Nehru Fellowship’s funds ran out. The artistic and personal camaraderie it created among its invited participants – a group that included sculptors like Pochkanwalla and Davierwalla, painters like Nalini Malani and Gieve Patel, photographers like Navroze Contractor and filmmakers like Kumar Shahani and Mani Kaul – lasted longer. The VIEW space had three 16mm cameras and a projector, enabling artists to experiment with the film form and vice versa. Mani Kaul's Duvidha (1973), an atmospheric adaptation of Vijay Dan Detha's Rajasthani folktale, starring Padamsee’s daughter Raisa, was edited at VIEW. Padamsee himself made two forays into filmmaking, making a film called Syzygy, and another called Events in a Cloud Chamber.

That original Events in a Cloud Chamber, which was first shown at Pundole Art Gallery at the opening of Padamsee's show 'Metascapes', on February 1, 1974, has since been lost. In fact, the whole experience of VIEW was practically erased from public memory until last year, when the filmmaker Ashim Ahluwalia (John and Jane, Miss Lovely) made a 20-minute film -- re-using the title Events in a Cloud Chamber, and like Padamsee, showing it in a gallery space (Jhaveri Contemporary).

Ahluwalia's film, which was shown last week as part of a curated package of films about art and artists at the India Art Fair in Delhi, is a strange, haunting mood piece. It splices together a variety of things: a present-day conversation with the 88-year-old Akbar Padamsee, home movies shot by Ahluwalia's grandfather, and black and white footage from the Third International Film Festival of India. The “found” footage is a somehow apposite way of recovering the memory of a “lost” film.

Padamsee in Ahluwalia's film is an old and frail presence in baggy shirt and shorts, largely confined to a wheelchair, except for a grainy slow-motion sequence in which he is throwing and catching a large ball with a caretaker of sorts. The woman standing with her back to us is a figment in green, the curtains create waves of dark and light: the shadows help create an expressionist mood that is quite painterly.

Using words and images, Ahluwalia offers us a sense of Padamsee's film, but not to actually recreate it. He also gives us a glimpse into Padamsee's other film Syzygy, which was a formal experiment: an animated film with an infinity of patterns, created using straight lines to connect dots that had been placed at regular intervals based on a mathematical code using four numbers. The process was, he says to Ahluwalia, utterly “free, but completely logical”. Speaking to the poet and lecturer at the time, Eunice D'Souza, Padamsee had tried to explain this in another way: “An infinity of possibilities is chaos and the limitation of this infinity through a programme, is ‘order’.”

This sounded almost mystical to me until I remembered an utterance I heard recently from a very different sort of creative person, working in a very different context: the poet Javed Akhtar, being asked at a Delhi seminar about whether the cinematic and musical context – the writing of lyrics 
– placed restrictions on the writing of poetry. “Zabaan paabandi mein jab jaati hai, tabhi toh shaayari hoti hai,” he said. “When the language is forced to work within certain limits, it is only then that it becomes poetry.” It is a remarkable thought about what creativity really is: one must create a form first, before one can find ways to produce newness within the form.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 12 Feb 2017

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