In Such a Morning, Amar Kanwar addresses violence, oppression through a study of light and darkness
Amar Kanwar's film Such a Morning, which concludes in an exhibition installation, talks about resisting violence by identifying darkness | #FirstCulture
French feminist and writer Helene Cixous began her essay, 'Writing Blind', part of her 1998 collection, Stigmata, with an observation about how solar daylight blinds her to the visionary day. It is only when she is “behind” her eyelids that she can be elsewhere, “no longer of this political world.” It is in that other light that she writes. “When I close my eyes the passage opens, the dark gorge, I descend. Or rather there is descent: I entrust myself to the primitive space, I do not resist the forces that carry me off. There is no more genre. I become a thing with pricked-up ears. Night becomes a verb. I night.”
Cixous’ insights about the potency of willful darkness are echoed in artist Amar Kanwar’s latest film, Such a Morning. The 85-minute long film produced for documenta14 is an allegory of the times we live in, where darkness is systemic and endemic. The protagonist, an ageing mathematics professor, decides to leave his university position to inhabit an abandoned railway carriage in anticipation of the onset of blindness, much to his colleagues’ suspicion. The cinematically delicious film seduces the viewer with its arresting visuals and its easily accessible narrative arc, encouraging you to stay riveted despite the strategic absence of dialogue. How does one transcend the darkness of the times we live in is the central premise of Kanwar’s film, the consequence, he believes, of his own decision to temporarily withdraw from the political scenarios unraveling both at home and in the world, thus an embodiment of the literal and symbolic closing of his own eyes, so to speak.
Kanwar was invited by Khoj International Artists’ Association, New Delhi, to speak about the impulses that led him to make his film that was shown at Kassel and Athens as part of documenta14. He shared with Firstpost the transcripts of his talk at the session titled 'Who Sings the Nation State?' on day two of Khoj’s Asia Assemble seminar at Max Mueller Bhavan, New Delhi, from 17 to 19 November, 2017.
I begin, with some of the impulses that lead me to make the film, Such a Morning, my most recent film. I will also try and weave in a few responses to the previous discussions about imagining a new Asia, the Chinese One Road One Belt scheme and understanding the nation state.
I’m grateful to Yawnghwe Office in Exile, for reminding us about the civil war; the democracy movement in Burma that has inspired generations of people. Almost four generations in the student movements. What does it mean to fight such a brutal state, year after year, continuously for five-six decades? It is very hard to understand from the outside.
If I look at Gaza, for the last several years, stuck between a maze of walls and the sea, under occupation, under Israel, under Hamas, a prison inside a prison inside a prison... how does one analyse such a condition anymore?
Looking at the cycle of horror in Syria in the last two years and in Yemen now, and again it’s hard to find a satisfactory analysis and move on. Of course it is quite obvious that the list of brutalities by the State is a long one and everyone can keep adding to it. Not only in the past 30 to 40 years, but also just in the last five years. This list continues to grow, and gets more and more gruesome.
Looking back at India as a nation state, its birth in 1947, and the execution of its imagination subsequently, again it’s hard not to see that it has been accompanied by large-scale violence at every stage.
The scale and the spectrum of violence has been so widespread that it’s difficult to get a sense of it. When you live in such a situation where you cannot see all the parts of the violence, some of it becomes continuously invisible and the rest of the violence becomes normal, you come to terms with it, you accept it, you forget, you adjust, you live with it.
And then sometimes you suddenly get an insight.
I remember one instance in rural South Orissa while filming, it was in the late 1990s. I came across a tarmac road that began from nowhere and went nowhere. Nobody could figure out why this road was made. Some said it was to connect rural tribal markets with the city, but the road made no practical sense. People eventually stopped wondering and talking about it, but 10 years later, the rationale for the road became clear, as it perfectly connected two parts of an industrial mining complex.
What kind of a modern State was this that could conceive of a deception 10 to 15 years in advance? This was not about acquiring a small plot of land. This was about taking over entire hill ranges, rivers, and agricultural lands, based on geological surveys of the mineral seams. No one was pre-informed, the permission of affected communities was not taken and a bewildered local population slowly understood the meaning and scale of the violence only over several years. This is supposed to be a state of the people, for the people. It is stunning to imagine the scale and impact of this violence. And even tougher to understand it, accept it. Uprooting communities, lands, forests, rivers continuously. If you go to that region, you can see the devastation and the impact on the farmers even today.
What kind of a State does this to its own people? You can join the dots yourself. There is even insurance to protect financial investments from local resistance by the affected communities. If, of course, there is resistance.
Another instance that I recall was in the mid-Nineties, in Kohima, Nagaland. A convoy of Indian Army trucks drove into Kohima town, into the main market. It was the month of March I think, 1995. The tyre of an army truck suddenly burst, by chance, and soldiers jumped out in panic and indiscriminately opened fire. Subsequently, they even pulled out people from shops and homes. People were killed and several were injured. It’s hard to imagine this even really happened. What kind of a state of mind is this where a tyre-burst could devastate so many homes, families?
We can now see a re-invention of this national identity with greater and greater intensity. We are also familiar with increasing disaffection towards the Indian state. And, obviously, even with sedition. Alongside this process in the last decade have been series of remarkable non-violent civil society initiatives and resistances that have been inspiring and keep us all optimistic. However often one still feels indifferent, helpless, as the scale and complexity of the violence is too large, one looks away and lets the madness continue.
For me, it’s been hard to understand that in the last decade, we have had roughly 2,00,000 suicides by farmers. Unofficial figures are perhaps a lot more. But still, two lakh or more farmers have killed themselves in India. The scale and meaning of this is hard to comprehend. What’s also hard to accept is that there has been no political force of any kind, no civil society initiative, no group of us good people who have brought this State or great nation to a grinding halt because of these suicides. Nations have gone to war with each other for a tenth of this number killed, but we haven’t managed to stop this helpless voluntary mass murder.
Quite obviously, us, the so-called good people, have failed at many levels. We haven’t been able to offer a viable alternative political, cultural and economic vision. Or resistance.
Even though the State often comes across as a brutal, amorphous system, it is also quite obvious that this system doesn’t just act on its own. There are individuals within it taking decisions. Real people take several small decisions everyday within the system to make it work the way it does. It is also clear that there is a large public on the outside that supports the violence of the state, is proud of it and they are speaking in an even louder voice now.
Increasingly I found it difficult to make sense of this silent desire for violence, this unshakeable prejudice and our bewildering selective indifference. I found it difficult to argue anymore, to attempt to convince and to keep listing the evidence of the crimes. I felt the need to step back a bit, to reconceive and reconfigure another response. I wondered what would I see if I were to enter into the heart of this darkness? What could be the vision from within a zone of non-vision? This, therefore, is the context of the new film, Such a Morning.
The film Such a Morning is about a mathematics professor, who withdraws from his work, life, and disappears. There is considerable confusion, discomfort and speculation about the reasons for his disappearance. Several theories are suggested by his colleagues, but the speculations persist. Some finally believe that he is living in an abandoned train carriage in a little forest on the outskirts of the city. It seems he has covered up the insides of the train compartment and is living there, in complete darkness. So as to prepare, to acclimatise to darkness before full darkness arrives.
As the story proceeds, you realise it’s not possible to see darkness unless there is light. So, the professor’s journey inside the carriage becomes about observing the multiplicity of light and within that the multiplicity of darkness as well. As time passes, the professor experiences a series of hallucinations and epiphanies that he documents as his Almanac of the Dark. Eventually, a new character emerges. A middle-aged woman, armed with a rifle inside her house, as if almost eternally on guard. Days, months pass and perhaps it seems, even years go by, until one day a group of men, workers, appear suddenly and begin to dismantle her house brick by brick, window by window.
The story of the woman contains an intense potency that is confusing and demands an explanation. Why didn’t she stop them? Why didn’t she fire when they dismantled her house? What was she reading when they took it apart? Did the destruction occur in real time, or was it in the past or the future? Did she get destroyed or did she get freed? Is the house a construct in her mind? A series of questions silently explode requesting different viewers to respond in varying ways. The experience of this hallucination is compelling, disturbing and in many ways triggers a series of reflections.
Following this, the professor emerges and writes a series of letters to his university students and colleagues. The subtext of each letter identifies different religious, spiritual and poetical traditions and methods to resist violence. The professor identifies 49 forms of darkness. He decides that for him to teach anymore, base studies are needed to develop curriculums for each of the 49 forms of darkness.
At this point, the film ends but in a way begins again. The Professor keeps writing, outside the film now, in the installation, in the exhibition that accompanies the film. In his seventh letter he begins to identify the darknesses and gives a call for multidisciplinary collaborations, for a coming together, for a reconfiguration, for new beginnings.
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