The Essence of Recognition: An Interview with Kabir Mohanty

Kabir Mohanty, amongst India’s most important and unusual film and video artistes, came to the fore with his debut Riyaaz (1990). As the title suggests, Riyaaz emphasizes the practice of the art form, such that the practice in itself is more important than the intended representation. With this work he established his trademark interests in the mobile camera, the changing patterns of light and the use of scales, in the form of camera distances and light intensities, to create a film form based on improvisation. This improvisation, much like in Hindustani Classical music, starts from known scales to reach unknown feelings that emerge from the act of making the art work.  His other important works include home(1996) and and now i feel i don’t know anything(2001). Aside from these works, in recent years, he has also made three video and sound installations; dwelling(2006), handheld(2009) and In Memory(2009,2012), the last with Vikram Joglekar.



Mohanty’s latest work Song for an ancient land is a unique, category defying work of art, which cannot fit into the museum, art gallery or cinematheque. A four part work, a decade in the making it has been shown as it has been made, Part I, 51 minutes, in 2006 at Gallery SKE, Bangalore, Solo Show, and most recently all the four parts in 2012 at the Guggenheim Museum, New York, Being Singular Plural, curated by Sandhini Poddar. At the Guggenheim the running time was 220 minutes. Since 2012 Kabir has been working further on Part III of the work, he says video can be like poetry, you can go back to poems, and now in its final form Song could run close to 270 minutes.


Song for an ancient land is witness to Kabir’s significant and mature understanding of the medium he works in. Throughout the work Kabir breaks free of the self-imposed scales and influences to create a unique film aesthetic, different from aesthetics created by not only mainstream and art house cinema, but also explorations in Bombay undertaken by artists that have freed themselves from the shackles of narrative both in film and in video. However, in the first two parts of the four part work, one finds that very often the temporality of the shot, its expansive non-denotational volume seems pointless when the shot is held after it is long-dead, its temporal potential exhausted. These seem more like opportunities for the viewer to project his own thoughts onto the image and be mesmerized by the potential of the shot to cause a synchronized, manufactured daze. Perhaps this confirms Abbas Kiarostami’s insight that the same works that put you to sleep, have the potential to keep you wide awake for many nights.


In this interview Devdutt Trivedi attempts at understanding Kabir’s work as an understanding of the nature of conditions of the chosen medium, with additional inputs from his cinematography colleague, Setu. The sources for the interview include an email exchange and a few meetings with the artist.




How did the genesis of Song for an ancient land come about?


KABIR MOHANTY (KM): I had for long thought of a work that would have as its starting point the impressions on an individual consciousness made by the outside, in this case the reality of contemporary India.


This consciousness not only intersected others but in itself was moving, bending and longed to return to the sub-continental soil some of its debt. I believe that the soil and individual selves are listening to each other, while we travel through clay, video and sound, the resonances of our private utterances are unnameable.


I believe the ‘I’ that I call ‘I’, and ‘others’, and soil, are profoundly interpenetrated. That is, the subjective I and the objective matter or soil, can no longer be distinguished, that is one is saying the self is born of outside matter, what this soil experiences, what it has believed, felt and lived, and in its turn, self or I or selves make the soil.


I saw the outside as what was seen and unseen, or lost or recessive. I even had a composition of ten pages around the outside. This was in 1997.


Then in 2002 I was invited as a Visiting Artist to UCLA’s Art Department, one of America’s pre-eminent art departments and I was given complete access to their equipment.


The years before 2002 were very difficult just trying to make things and raise money for what we wanted to do. It happened to a lot of people in my generation. So I’d finished making a short film, something that took very long to make. I finished it and I thought: now, I just want to get up in the morning and take the camera to do a few things.


In UCLA I was told that there was a single DVCAM camera and the tapes were expensive so nobody really wanted to use it and I could have it for long periods of time. I had earlier used video and like many others was conversant with the work of important video artists like Bill Viola. I would travel to see an installation, even though I used to think that I would never make an installation.


This DVCAM camera had an aperture ring at the back, an unusual place for the aperture ring for a more ‘professional’ camera, and I found to my horror that it worked in steps, not continuously. I asked this seems to work in steps, not smoothly, and the young woman technician thought there was nothing unusual about it. I used that fact, that which had gotten me so upset and told myself I am going to start working with this camera and work only the aperture.


While shooting I decided not to switch off the camera so I could capture a longer section of time. I thought of opening and closing the aperture like a gesture.


The time spent in UCLA, where I shot and recorded every weekend for six months, a kind of solo preparedness, which is how I see video, precipitated the shooting of Song. I shot the first part of Song in Bombay almost entirely alone over a period of 6 months in 2003.




Could you talk about how you move the camera movement in part 1 of the film?


KM: Let’s see first there are broadly two kinds of foundations—one a tripod, two handheld.


The tripod watches a little more than the handheld which seems to be more immersive.


The handheld further has kinds of movements, more shot like, the vendors for instance, where there is the act of buying the fruit after which there is a cut. When we see this cut we think in terms of shots and this inheritance from film emerges. The camera is frontal. The fruitseller is someone I know, I do with him what I do ordinarily, no more or no less. If I’m not happy with the sequence I’ll come back and shoot when I come to buy again.


The Diwali sequence is different, I am involved in a bodily gesture, that now with the simple idea of depth from stillness and watching becomes stroke, and flatness, all performed with a kind of pan that over the length of the shot becomes violent almost. I actually differentiate this from a ‘shot’ because here something is born before you and often dies to be born again, our experience of time is very different. The image is there for a little bit of time instead of standing there where it will be for forever. You see that ephemeral gesture or the image has vanished. I have been experimenting by myself on the act of not switching off the camera since the UCLA stint and actually even before, and how despite not switching off the camera for longer lengths of time one could still create attention. I see these two, a ‘shot’ and a ‘section of time’, as it were, as different.


In neither of these am I trying to make the camera mimic something or mimic an event in the act of shooting it. There is no sense of the whole, no map. These things about the approach to the camera make the person shooting to call on why, how and what they shoot.


This whole aspect of the handheld was something exciting to work on.


How do you approach the image?



I don’t know if I can answer that. I can’t reduce what I’m doing or cannot even say it. I don’t shoot much, but am with the camera a lot and very often shots are taken only once. Scale means everything to me. The act of making an image in the Diwali sequence is like a stroke, which comes from my body, and maybe termed as violent. It is actually being built live without the camera being switched off. You can see the improvisation in the utterance capturing as many ideas as possible across time. In the repetition, the gestures become more and more violent: I let the ideas before me die and let them be born, emerge again. The simple effect of depth being made flat and then being restored to depth lived with me for a long period of time. I lived with the Diwali footage for months because I could cut it into shots but it would just be effects, and I realize that it is a bit difficult to watch but there is a reward if you bear with me.





How is 35mm different from video?


KM: It seems that a disjunction in 35mm is much easier to achieve. A cut doesn’t mean the same thing in video. The act of taking the shot in film is capturing everything required in the shot, a kind of ‘sacral’ time, whereas with video it is much more like ‘profane’ time. I feel more alone with video, perhaps because I feel I have matured in the last ten years. It is an existential aloneness with nowhere to hide. A watercolour like image that gets created with an immediacy that is terrifying, yet speakingit live is exhilarating.


I made a film in 1990 and showed it around. What struck me was the response of my teacher, Leighton Pierce and a close friend, Ramon Rivera, both of whom asked me whether I had shot the film myself. This questioning of my image making process struck me and stayed with me for a long period of time. My moving image education came from the great directors, watching their work in Calcutta, and my exposure to the American experimental tradition in Iowa. The great directors always used another cameraman and the shot was taken as if through some alchemical process of give and take whereas video was more like a solo effort, with the artist being all there with really something to say through the image he or she produces. In that sense video has a sense of aloneness, the solitude of the artist.


I often oscillated between these two extremes of the solo and the ensemble, and was traumatized, dissatisfied with myself.


Film works with many lines of composition, camera, sound and the actor, every line means everything to me. I used to think the problem with video or the solo was that it was a bit like 24 karat gold, a bit too pure thus brittle, tending to create an ideal, something that has been very difficult to avoid for me. I thought film when approached by the great directors, enmeshed with its difficulties, how Tarkovsky says cinema born in the marketplace of sin, often became sublime but there is an element of impurity in it.


I don’t know anymore, but with Song I have made my peace.


I once spent a long time trying to raise money for a project, maybe 3 years, and I got exhausted and said that instead of that, I’d much rather take the most ordinary camera, the ones used for marriage videos, rent it out for 2 days in a month, and create. That no one could stop me from creating something, no person, not money, and film people were stupid to spend their life looking for money, artists from other mediums would laugh at us. Anyway, I swore I would never do that again in my life, look for funding like that. At the same time film artists I admire are those who come from that grime and dirt of the cinema and then produce something sublime.



What are your scales used in the sort of system, improvisation and basis of improvisation?


KM: Well let’s see, to begin with let me say that film in its gauge, its scale, its tones, its beautiful instruments, its cameras, are moving for me; I am formed by them, and even though in the last fifteen years I have not worked with 35mm, it is not something that is over for me. Both film and video are mediums that are of great meaning for me however blurred the area between them today, they leave behind a trail and I am often going backwards on it.


Depth—imagined, suffused with video, lends itself to working with planes, drawing attention to the surface of the image, its texture.


Tones—fewer range of greys in video lends itself to working with this imagined depth.


Scale—the limitation in greys, that comes with most of the equipment and formats video artists have used, means the image projected large somehow goes against its fundamental nature and loses grace, and brings to notice a very important question, why should a moving image be projected to theatrical size necessarily.


When seen in its own appropriate scale the different formats produce some profound effects. For me the 5-7 foot size of image with Song has meant video as drawing too, the movement of the camera is intrinsically related to this size, and seen thus I have no longing for the image being projected very large and hundreds of people watching at the same time.


Video has not a settled scale and I want to say what I have to say while that is the case.



How exactly would you want your work to be shown: in the art gallery or the cinema hall?


KM: I want the image to be 5 to 7 feet wide; maybe 20 people watch it at the same time or maybe only 1. Is it to be shown where films are being shown? Is it an installation? I don’t know where my work fits, few things are necessary it has to be dark for 20 people it needs a noise floor or a certain level of silence to observe the sound properly and its not a loop. Call it what you want. I believe it can also be watched on a smaller LCD monitor, say 17 inches, with stereo speakers in darkness by oneself. Again you would need quiet.


Why do you use English in your work?


KM: It’s the language I primarily think in. It is also the language in which I can express my deepest desires. Those texts were original writings. If I could get them translated it into Hindi it wouldn’t be right. Like talking to the fruit seller in Hindi or Masterji, the tailor in Bengali is right.



What made you use voice over?


KM: I detest the words voice over, an imposition, an unwelcome guest.

I think of it more as sound. If it opens something up in what is being explored I like it. As if it deepens our viewing.


However, I like it concise, like a knot, though its spread far, unseen. The voice pieces have to work on three levels, as prose texts, often written and rewritten 30 or 40 times, where single words are moved around till they have found their rightful place. Second as recordings, rendered into sound, for the ear, as a piece. Finally: the placement against video material, what does that sound piece do to the image. If the sound piece succeeds at all these three levels, then it stays.


If it were voice over it wouldn’t come so easily. That written piece has to make sense only after 30 or 40 re writes where single words are moved around like working on a short prose paragraph.

If you could talk about your approach to the sections where the Babri Masjid and Mumbai riots are at the forefront?


KM:I didn’t want images of the mosque being demolished, but being able to approach it through what happened in Bombay and what has happened since then has not been acknowledged; pushed under the carpet, and not seen, healed, shared, felt.



Could you talk about how you worked with Setu in the sections he shot in parts 1,2 and 3?


SETU: Kabir knew me from before as he had assisted Rafey Mahmood Kabir would show me what he was shooting. You feel like an outsider because these are very intimate things that he is talking about and his pans and titls made me understand. I was trying to figure out how the image comes out and the preparation and rigorous even if you shoot for 1 minute it creates and effect like something within you being wrung dry.



How do you decide on the conditions of the shot, the lens, the camera distance and the framing?



We place the camera and decide the lens once we have locked on the image and have an idea what the image is meant to say. We do not experiment on the location, we already have a definite idea of what we are going to shoot, there is no improvisation on location, no figuring out. The elements in the composition over a period of duration have a meaning which we are interested in, instead of its presence as a cinematographic object. For example, if we are trying to shoot a tree, we must know why we are shooting the tree, what we are trying to say, instead of just the spatio-temporal presence of the tree in the moving image.

We place the camera and lens once we have some idea of what goes with the shot. On location we are not going to experiment. The imagined image is in the mind; we are not trying to figure things out on location. If you are going to shoot a tree it is more about the function of the tree, what we are trying to say instead of it being a cinematography exercise of shooting a tree.


KM: There are 4 or 5 things we may be interested and trying at the very least to put some of them in place. Knowing is related to these 4 or 5 things without knowing the effect that it will result in.



What about creating the image and the perception consciousness of the viewer, instead of the temporal rhythm of the film?


I am producing the image or the shot and am also the first one to view it. Therefore it is more about how I see it. Producing the image and viewing it creates a form of recognition that I am immersed in. I am not in raptures, I am like a mistri and I know what is being made, ban raha hai, very down to earth, like doing brain surgery.



What are your thoughts on cinematographic talent as a quality in and of itself?


In my view there are two kinds of people who make films: those who are very gifted and talented and others who have no talent or gift but they have an incredible belonging in the world of the arts, though everything for them is struggle. I feel I belong to the second type. The artistic production process cannot be spoken in and of itself. You have to see the artistic process of putting things together. To generate feeling is a supremely difficult task.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s