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Mapping cultures

Filmmakers Saba Dewan and Ranjani Mazumdar are looking at two different kinds of artistes from two different times

RECORDING CULTURE is an exciting intellectual enterprise. It helps understand change, continuity, and distortions. The Indian Foundation for the Arts (IFA) has recently sponsored research into two changing areas of cultural expression that are on a decline - the figure of the tawaif by film-maker Saba Dewan and the changing face of the Bombay film poster artists by Ranjani Mazumdar, researcher and film-maker. Saba and Ranjani made presentations on their projects at an IFA meet here recently.

Saba Dewan has directed around 15 documentary films on issues relating to communalism, human rights, gender, and sexuality.

Saba has already filmed 36 hours of footage over the last two years for the yet-to-be-completed film on the tawaif tradition.

Identity as artiste

The film, tentatively titled In Search of Umrao, will look at the tawaif's identity as an "artiste", that Saba says "is critical to her survival". The tawaifs contributed to music, dance, theatre, film, and the Urdu literary tradition.

They contributed particularly to the traditions of Thumri, Kathak, and Ghazal. "I am exploring the relationship between the aesthetics that the tawaif expressed and her sexual identity," says Saba. Tawaifs were not looked upon as artistes because they were seen, primarily, as figures of sensual entertainment.

Saba will attempt to show that while the tawaif was "in the control of patriarchal aesthetics, she did enjoy some degree of autonomy" precisely because of those very aesthetics — because she could sing, play the harmonium, dance, act, and recite the best of Urdu poetry.

Saba's concerns turned towards gender and sexuality somewhere in the middle of her film-making career.

She began with films on communalism and rights. Nasoor, for instance, made at the time of her graduation from Jamia Millia, captured the Meerut riots in 1985-86, Dharam Yudh looked at the organising strategies of the VHP before the Babri demolition, and the second shoot of Nasoor re-examined Meerut "in normal times" to capture underlying tensions in the textile city.

Her latest film, Sita's Family, relates to gender. "This explores three generations of women — myself, my mother, and grandmother. We always analyse the other, but not the self.

So, this is about us and our double burdens," explains Saba. In Search of Umrao, which she is shooting right now, lends perspective to her concerns. "I am moving towards an understanding of the female body, its control and the controls that follow from there... "

Ranjani Mazumdar, the other film-maker IFA is funding, is visiting faculty at the AJK Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia. Ranjani recently completed her doctoral dissertation titled Urban Allegories: The City in Bombay Cinema 1970-2000, from the Tisch School of Arts, New York University.

New value

Ranjani's work on the changing face of the Bombay film poster looks at how the film poster is made, travels, and is received in urban, semi-urban, and rural India. Posters are seen everywhere — on the city walls, in public toilets, pan shop... But the poster has also journeyed from the street to the museum and has acquired cultural and financial value. The hand-painted form that at one time cost Rs. 3 on the pavement is now being purchased for lakhs by art houses in New York and London.

She points out that the design, make-up, colouring, portrayal of the actor/actress, and symbols of action or comedy on the poster is determined by the audience to which it travels. The presence of digital technology and photography may threaten the "poster artist", but it could also prove productive if returns from the high financial and cultural value they have acquired trickle down. This is because the digital era is also an "era of nostalgia", says Ranjani.

The India Foundation for the Arts can be contacted on 23610584/83 for more information on the projects.


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