Logline A poetic documentary in Kolkata, India, featuring the Mother Goddess and those who love her.
Synopsis Mother Goddesses is a documentary video project in four parts. Each part presents parts of a Hindu festival, Durga Puja, and the creation of thousands of human-size clay idols that are used in the festival in Kolkata/Calcutta. The project does not explain itself. The visual fabric of the film is valued over illustration of an idea or spoken information. The filmmaker does not assert authority, but instead, questions the authorial voice. The project is composed of poetic observations and self-reflexive commentary. The filmmaker’s voice is interwoven and it does not attempt to know the other — thereby rejecting the power of knowing the other. The outsider, upon viewing the film, will see and think, but they will not know.
Interview with Bangla Binodon
1. As we understand the film is about the image-makers from Kumartuli. Would like to know what inspired you to work on such a project? How did you hear about them and about India?
I spent the 2012 spring semester in Delhi, studying Indian national identity and the arts. We made a two-day visit to Kolkata in March. A walking tour included the Tagore home, Marble Palace, St. Johns church, the Writer’s Building, and the potter’s quarters, Kumortuli.
Kumortuli was calm, quiet, not crowded during this off-season visit. After studying so much art history in stone - architecture and statues particularly, I was very drawn to this sculpting-in-straw, clay baking-in-the-sun. The aliveness, the creation stood out against study of history and images made hundreds, thousands of years back. I knew that one day, I had to return to Kolkata - a feeling I did not experience anywhere else, before or after. After the group trip in March, I returned on my own, in April. I walked around for a week this time, with my camera over my shoulder, and took exactly zero photos.
Months later, I started researching Kumortuli and wanted to find about more about the artists. (I love/d that they are called image-makers - an incredible name.) However, I was dismayed to find almost no information about the artists themselves. Kumortuli was all about the art and nothing about the artists. So, I wanted to make a film about the artists, the image-makers.
When applying for a grant to make Maa-ti, I proposed to focus exclusively on image-making, considering how the physicality of the process engenders communal cohesion. Our contemporary fascination with the disposable, the digital, the easily reproducible, makes it easy to forget the role that images can play in building community. The clay images of Durga Puja can never be digital, as the ritual relies completely upon the material nature of the image. As a temporal medium, the film proposed to convey the long-term efforts of the image-makers, showing also how the images’ tangibility offers a contrasting mode of image-making to our contemporary fascination with all things digital and urging greater awareness of our shared humanity. The film was to allow international audiences to connect with an Indian culture, learn about Hinduism, and view the city of Kolkata from a unique angle, one that invites introspection about our own. As such, the film would discourage us/them binary thinking, provoke viewers to consider the role of image-making in communal bonding, and invite them to reconnect with those around them as well as those across the globe.
That is not quite the film that I ended up making. See below for more on what the film became.
2. Would love to hear from your mouth about your project, the purpose and intention of the documentary, the aspects that you wanted to highlight.
For me, Maa-ti is about the making of images and the use of images - creation and visual practice. How do images function socially and spiritually? How do we take in images and how does this experience shape our construction of reality? How do images order space and time?
The film raises a number of specific questions, posing them vaguely. Like, how are the images of the mother goddess and asura shaping and shaped by popular conceptions of gender and masculinity? To what extent has the camera-machine entered our lives and how does it affect our feelings, experiences, behavior? Maa-ti does not offer definitive answers to these questions - the film does not digest the information and feed the viewer. Instead, the work gives the viewer/listener, an hour to be mindful and engaged freely. Depending on what one finds interesting in the work, one must go on to have conversations, read books, think critically.
When I first experienced the puja, I was struck by the fact that a single image of Durga can be used in worship or in an advertisement for biscuits; the image of Durga can be lifted onto a truck and pushed into the river or digitally archived into a Facebook album. And in fact, all of these happen at the same time. Durga’s image is used for worship and procession, storytelling and selling - in both embodied and virtual spaces.
For decades, the festival has been a time of excess - food, clothes, pandal-hopping all night. In the last few years, the popularity of digital cameras, social media, and cheap billboard printing has reoriented the space-time of the puja season. Maa-ti looks at all this and it looks back at itself - the film is self-reflexive in its structure and references to the maker. You can see this in the film’s clumsy camera; its subjective use of subtitles and glances, camera movements and sound design. The images in the film reveal certain events and processes in the city during puja — the transformation of public spaces; the construction of massive art installations; the creation of clay idols; bari pujo and transgender pandal; Kumari and photography; staged mythology; liquor consumption; fighting; immersion. At the same time, the images foreground the processes of recording video in real time and the forming of a film — a choppy zoom in; an awkward change in focus; exposure adjustment mid-shot; cuts between shots and scene construction correspond to shifting rules and logic; a poetic voiceover addresses the filmmaker in third person.
Maa-ti shows the creation of both places, things and the creation of the film itself. Beyond a simple distancing device, the reflexivity aims to act as a tool of acknowledgement that this documentary is a construction, and this construction, indeed all constructions, must be challenged. Maa-ti’s reflexivity maintains that the documentary status quo is ideologically dominating. Here, the making/consuming subject (the filmmaker) does not assert authority, but instead, questions the authorial voice. The documentation has a clear owner/creator who does not attempt to know the other — thereby rejecting the power of knowing the other. The outsider, upon viewing the film, will see and think, but they will not know.
From the beginning, I tried to let things happen - rather than plan ahead. The only thing I knew I really wanted, was the presence and voice of mothers. However, those voices did not make it to the film. Instead, we get a lot of images of the mother - in the form of clay, billboards, a little girl, a female impersonator, a stage performer. I realized that a film which centers the mother is not a film for me to make in Kolkata, as a white, male, outsider. I will make a film like that with my mother one day. Maa-ti does not reach anywhere near that depth.
In the first act, you hear about the film’s many intentions - the desire to combat the image of India as just poor and dirty; to tell the history of Kumortuli; to show the lives of individual image-makers. In the end, none of that came to fruition in the film. With all my time and resources, I could have planned that film and executed it precisely. But that is not how I wanted to engage with the space or the people. I felt this type of orientation would render my interactions selfish and artificial. I prioritized the process over the product.
With the footage I shot over 15 months, many informational films could be made, and all of them could move along very quickly. However, I chose to make a slow film that did not explain itself. The visual fabric of the film is valued over illustration of an idea or spoken information.
Maa-ti includes the slowness we experience in life, in nature, outside of the assembly lines of production. I see a lot of value in slowness and openness. Industrial capitalism then global financialization, new technologies and new media - these revolutionary developments prefer speed and classification. So our movies zoom from start to finish - we just sit there at the top of a tall waterslide; when the movie starts we are pushed forward gently and the story, the editing, the dialogue, moves us effortless down the slide - no friction, no time to think, no intermittence - just faster faster, climax, done. A drama, a comedy, a documentary - films are classified and the viewer knows exactly what to expect. Maa-ti, I hope, offers another possibility for engaging with the world through film.
3. Your experiences staying in Kolkata and filming. Would love to hear anything special that you must have experiences staying here and working among bengalees. Would also love to know the hardships that you encountered in the process and how you managed to tackle all of them.
I arrived in August 2014 to find a very different Kumortuli than the one of my memory. Bishbhokarma and Durga everywhere and thousands of photographers - DSLRs and smartphones as common as eyes. Many new questions and concerns arose, which I had had no way of anticipating. It was all new to me.
I studied Bangla in the mornings and headed to Kumortuli in afternoon - stayed until dark, then headed back to my flat to study for the next day’s Bangla classes. I started meeting image-makers, slowly slowly, first not knowing how to speak at all, then offering a “Amar naam Di-lan. America the-ke e-she-chhi.” The first few weeks I was still unable to process their responses: “Bangla bujhte paro?” When I was unable to respond, the message was clear: “Na.” (No, I cannot understand Bangla.)
Through another Fulbrighter, I met Sandip Samaddar. Who quickly became my good friend. We had hundreds of great conversations, and I learned a lot about Bengali culture and how the city has changed during his lifetime. We talked about the film, my ideas around the film and documentary filmmaking. Sandip was so supportive and encouraging and challenging. Sandip is a musician, and we started collaborating - I was recording his performances and he was producing Maa-ti, helping to carry equipment, having long conversations with image-makers, translating.
I also met a purohit through YouTube, and I started visiting him at his home in Gopalnagar, near Jatin Das Park. Halley Goswami was trained as a lawyer, but impassioned by Bengali history, art, and Hindu rituals. Halley gave me a lot of religious and historical context for the worship during puja. He has his own Durga Puja each year, and he creates the idol himself. I spent almost the entire Durga Puja at his family’s home - observing all the preparations and rituals, the more intimate, familial aspects of the festival. There was an eclectic mix of middle-upper class Hindus and they were all very welcoming to me.
My biggest challenge during this project was my own mental health. I went into a crippling depression for a few months. It was very difficult to leave my flat or interact with anyone. I forced myself to visit Kumortuli as often as I could, but when I am depressed I cannot see or hear or imagine much at all. I finally went to see a psychiatrist and went back on the medication that I had previously been taking. Suddenly, these massive barriers were lifted and I was able to get back to work. I regained motivation to study Bangla, inspiration to record sounds and images, and ability to connect with others.
4. The holiness and mysticm of Kumartuli has always been an inspiration to photographers, writers and creators of all aspects. Amongst all odds and commercialisation, same old rituals and practises are being observed there till today. How do you see the place, its mysticism, the practises amongst the people and their faith and belief?
It is difficult for me accept the notion that the photographers that flock to Kumortuli because they find a holiness and mysticism there. If that were the case, I think the majority of photographers would show much more respect to both the artists and the art. When clicking their pics for Facebook, many impertinent camera wielders enter workshops without asking, without removing their shoes, they occupy entirely too much space. Their behavior makes the labor more difficult for the workers there. It seems to me that many visitors are struck by the beauty of creation and divinity surrounded by conditions that are cramped and poorly/dramatically lit; where brightly painted gods and goddesses stand out against the grays and red-browns of rusted metal, wood, concrete, dirt. I did not get the chance to speak with any writers or artists of other media who were inspired by Kumortuli. Some photographers did show respect and surely some of them did consider Kumortuli holy and mystical.
I would say the place is commercialized, but not mechanized, and this commercial activity takes place within a residential space - Kumortuli is a neighborhood where hundreds of families live. As such, the place is very dynamic. This dynamism, linked with the rich visuality of the narrow lanes, has led to much romanticization. Many visitors I spoke with had an idea that the artists proactively preserve the conditions Kumortuli in an effort to maintain its cultural heritage. However, no image-makers confirmed this. For example, all the image-makers want better doors for their shops - to protect the idols during all seasons.
Some of the rituals of image creation are still practiced in some of the workshops. However, the artists I spoke to said that there is way too much work to be done in a short amount of time and, therefore, most rituals simply cannot be observed. I have read articles and books by academics who have said the complete opposite - that for these artists, the work is deeply devotional and spiritual; all rituals are strictly observed; a Brahmin must come and consecrate the image through the ‘opening of the eye’; this painting of the eyes will happen on one particular day only. I think you will find both situations within Kumortuli. You will find good people and bad people, open-minded and close-minded, exploiting and exploited and everybody in-between.
5. India is a secular nation with lots of versatility. And it is the den of innumerable religious observations. How do you find Durga Puja among them? You must have heard about Ganesh Charturthi which is equally popular in Maharashtra and also Jagadatri Puja which is also very popular in Bengal?
Many fantastic festivals happen in many different cultures. What unites them all is the focus on community. When studying Buddhism about 10 years ago, my worldview shifted to center the concept of interconnectedness. Everything is connected, including our individual and collective happiness. I posit community as our fundamental striving. Community is commonly defined as a group of people with a focus on homogeneity or communality, be it spatial, ideological, goal-oriented, or otherwise. In today’s world, however, this sense of community tends to rely more on exclusion than communion. In contrast, my conception of community relies on belief in interconnectivity and celebrates diversity as an essential ingredient for creating real harmony. Just as ecosystems depend on diversification and integration for survival and prosperity, so does the human global community depend on heterogeneity and mutual effort. The nowness of global connectivity, facilitated by developments in technology, has offered immense opportunities for connection at the same time that it creates a greater need to understand and embrace our global diversity in an international community. We must expand “community” to accommodate these changes. I’d like to help spread this transnational-community orientation, and I hope Maa-ti can contribute to improved global awareness and respectful worldwide conversations.
I chose Kolkata as the site of this particular project for its historical significance in re-shaping our world. The social-economic-political system of colonialism allowed Europeans to dominate people and extract valuable resources across what is now commonly called the Third World or the Global South. Many cultures that founded human civilization (art, economics, political systems, etc.) in Africa and Asia were forced into an altered existence that privileged white people above all others. I wanted to spend some time in the British Empire’s colonial capital of the East [of Europe] and participate in a festival that purports to celebrate community and inclusion. I was also drawn to the city where the [reputation of the] dominate culture is one of political consciousness, art appreciation, and apathy towards a work ethic that values productivity over livelihood.
Maa-ti starts with idols of Jagadhatri, then Saraswati, Bishbhokarma, Durga, Kali, and back to Durga. These are the biggest festivals of the year, as far as idol production within Kumortuli, so I wanted to include all of them in some way. However, since the scale and significance of Durga Puja is unmatched, the film focuses primarily on Durga.
6. What all references did help you in your documentary?
Image-makers Sisir Pal and Ghosh Babu shared a lot of information about how the economy and space of Kumortuli has changed over the last 60 years. They told me about physical and social changes, governmental development efforts and errors, the operation of the union in Kumortuli, and their personal life trajectories. Sandip Samaddar, a multi-instrumentalist folk musician, provided insight into all things related to Bengali culture, Kolkata, puja, ways of being - which helped guide the film. We met with image-makers and had many long conversations. Sandip also conducted interviews with artists, street vendors, festival celebrants, dhaakis, and others - in Bangla, Hindi, and English. Sandip provided practical, intellectual, and emotional support throughout the production. Sophia Terazawa, a writer who happens to be my partner, provided poetic voice-over in Maa-ti. Sophia also watched earlier versions of and provided helpful feedback. Kayla Reopelle, a film producer I studied with at Ithaca College, also watched earlier versions of Maa-ti. Kayla provided in-depth analysis and key critiques of the work. Rachel Wagner, a scholar of religion, helped shape my grant statement through conversation and written commentary. I am extremely grateful for all of their help in making Maa-ti.
7. There are lot of myths and sayings on different rituals surround the making of idol. How did you manage to know about them?
I asked many people about various myths and ancient rituals connected to idol creation. I received a myriad of interpretations in response to my questions. For example, there is one saying that in order to properly create the image of the mother goddess, the image-maker must go to the doorstep of a sex-worker and take some of the dust/dirt. This dust/dirt is then with the river clay that is used to sculpt the image. One person told me this ritual gives honor to the sex-worker, acknowledging her feminine power. Another person told me that when a man enters the sex-worker’s place, he must leave his honor at the doorstep. This honor would be destroyed by the sex-worker, so instead, the customer leaves it just outside. This honor accumulates there, and the dirt/dust is endowed with the honor.
8. I have read that you have learnt hindi as well as bengali so that it became easy for you to communicate for your project with the common masses out here. So what was your experience on learning Bengali? Do you love the language?
I studied Bangla at the American Institute for Indian Studies in Ballygunge. Learning a new language was a rewarding and difficult experience. I received a Critical Language Enhancement Award (CLEA) from the International Institute of Education, which funded three months of intensive language study and an additional two months of non-intensive study. The script is beautiful, though my handwriting is not! I enjoyed learning some of the very helpful grammatical structures and shortcuts - so that I could say many things more succinctly than in English.
9. As a documentary film maker who all are your inspirations? Do you watch Bengali films?
I am inspired by Trinh T. Minha Ha - a Vietnamese American woman, who has made theoretically rich documentaries in Senegal, Japan, Vietnam. She has also written incredible books and given amazing interviews within academia. Nathaniel Dorsky is an American experimental filmmaker, whose silent films are ineffably beautiful. I am moved by his writing about film as a devotional form. Some other experimental documentary filmmakers I greatly admire include Bo Wang, Naomi Uman, Peter Hutton. My first exposure to Durga Puja was Satyajit Ray’s Devi. I have seen a number of Ray’s films. I have also seen and loved works by Ritwik Ghatak. There are many more films to be seen!
10. What other things in Kolkata might be subject to your future documentaries? Have anything else in Kolkata attracted you?
I love being in this city. The architecture, the climate, the yellow Ambassador cabs render the visual space a work of incredible art. The surface of the city is awe-inspiring. The outsider sees confounding contradictions, a new reality of plurality. The mold and mildew, the crumbling concrete, trees and roots enveloping balconies, the decay comes from aliveness; the power of life is so apparent to me in Kolkata. At the same time, I see the historicity of colonialism and white supremacy, of which Kolkata is partly comprised. There are concrete buildings of multiple stories in a tropical environment. There are walls that do not breathe and A/C units compensating for architecture-nature incongruities. Rooms become so hot, people often opt for A/C when they can afford, which necessitates more energy production — mining and burning of coal, poisoning the air, or the production of toxic nuclear waste, poisoning the land and endangering millions of lives. I’m told that government-funded construction is plagued by an infestation of corruption and shoddy materials. Tax money that could have benefited everyday people, instead goes into the pockets of a few, and Kolkata continues to feature facades in ruins. The artwork that is Kolkata is stunningly beautiful and horrifically ugly at the same time. At least that is how I see it.