NASREEN MOHAMEDI-A RETROSPECTIVE

First Impressions

 

                  I read once that you can know anything there is to know about a person by looking at their work.  After all, all work is an act of philosophy. Maybe that’s why we, as people, are so reluctant to show pieces of work to people-even those closest to us; we shy away, murmuring, “It’s not complete”.  Our work represents our deepest selves; our influences, and when we shy away, talking about how our work is incomplete, we just might be talking about our own inadequacy as people; or our belief that we are inadequate. As we get more comfortable with who we are, consequently, we become more comfortable with showing our work around, though of course, there is still that hesitancy , because essentially we’re opening our hearts and souls to people and giving them a free licence to criticise what makes us ,us. That’s one way of looking at art, another way to look at it is that the work in question isn’t deep enough; there is nothing to see beyond the layers;  it’s just a potpourri of paint and paper and splashes and smudges.

                  On a recommendation, I went to observe the works of Nasreen Mohamedi- a retrospective on her was being hosted in the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in Saket. I had been given a number of interesting insights into her; I was advised by one to carry boxfuls of tissues to the exhibition. “Deeply spiritual”, she said, and it could bring a tear to one’s eye. Naturally it aroused my curiosity (as well as my scepticism about the spirituality aspect) as to what this lady was really about. So the very next day, I decided to visit Kiran Nadar Museum of Art and evaluate her work with a conscious mind. The lady in question, on whose recommendation I was going on, was one I respected very much, and although I wasn’t too keen on the work of this “Nasreen Mohamedi”, she was quite insistent that I simply must go and see her work. And, so I did, out of respect.

                 As I walked into the aforementioned gallery, the first thing that struck me was that Nasreen Mohamedi was heavily into lines, In fact, Lines among Lines is the name of a series of works by her.  There was a lot of precision; my first impression was that Mohamedi was an architect. Actually, she was inspired a lot by Islamic Art and Turkish Architecture-which showed quite strongly in her work; those pieces in particular were exquisite. Her oeuvre was fascinating because it was so different; I liked the ruthless efficiency of her lines, and the glaring simplicity of the work. There was lot photography as well-line based, which, I could appreciate, because it linked to her work in general-the dashed lines on the road; a solitary geometry of the ground at Fatehpur Sikri. I think one of the reasons I didn’t like her photography was possibly because of the concept notes next to it- it seemed to me a little pretentious, and stated, through words like “solitary”, and “loneliness” what one was supposed to feel when they looked at a specific piece. The feelings that her photographs evoked in me were not what the concept notes described – and so, I wasn’t able to relate to it, although I could relate them with her work. But it was her art really drew me in; despite its lack of layers – of paint, that is.

                 Usually, when I visit exhibitions, I don’t generally stand in front of a painting and try to decipher it. I let my eyes run over it, but they don’t draw me in, despite the many layers of paint. Possibly because I don’t understand them, and therefore I am unable to like them, but Nasreen Mohamedi’s works were those in front of which I stood for ten, fifteen minutes at a stretch, just admiring the lines, and the intricate, fine patterns formed by them. Her work characterises a sort of loyalty to the minimum, loyalty to only what is needed. She has taken the line, the most basic feature of drawing, and used it to recreate life as she sees it. Her work is considered to be abstract, but there were quite a few recognizable images and patterns I saw; solar panels, erratic lines that resembled a heart beat monitor; there was even a piece created by intersection of parallel lines and converging lines that gave an illusion of depression; and it reminded me of the depression in the fabric of space-time. 

                 I came across a piece which I was particularly fascinated by-it looked like framed woven fabric. It had quite an interesting texture as well, and colour was a relatively large occupant in it, contrary to her favoured ink, pen and pencil.  Naturally, it caught my eye, and on closer inspection, I realised that it was not woven fabric, but a piece of work inspired by it; a masterpiece of gridded lines and patterned texture, that made it seem to be quite a complex weave. It was her method of paying homage to her interest in the subject.  The application of colour was subtle, and provided a three dimensional, cloth-like effect. Additionally, there was also a series of her works on graph paper-it was like a documentation of a final project, as each piece was slightly different, and had features that the preceding piece didn’t. “Etching” as an art technique took on a whole new meaning through her work, especially in the department of precision; there were pieces that even from a close view looked as if they were shaded, but when I leaned until my nose was almost pressed to the glass, I realised that the effect was created by cobweb thin lines placed less than a millimetre apart from each other.

                 I don’t think it’s possible to like something unless you understand it. It has two interpretations; the appreciation based on understanding. The former is the obvious meaning; that one relates to the art, and the latter is that there must be a certain depth in the work, so that some amount of understanding is a requisite. There must be an umbrella philosophy; some kind of concept that the artist is trying to explore from whence this work sprung. It took me some time to understand the philosophy behind Mohamedi’s work-the efficiency and the simplicity, and the restraint in form. She is linked to American Minimalism, a movement that explores the essence of a concept through only the most essential features. But her work is not just a tribute to minimalism, but also to her incredible will power. Late in life, she was diagnosed with a neurological condition that affected her motor functions; similar to Parkinson’s disease. It was  significant because her work demanded extreme precision from her-an incredibly steady hand.  She would steel herself, retain control of her drawing hand, complete her work, and then, allow her body to fall into spasms. I finally understood what the people meant when they talked about the tissues; it’s not a sense of pity or sadness that you feel, but awe. There was a tiny recreation of her working studio as well in a corner of the gallery; it had a low and wide table with a sheet of paper, some pencils, and a T-Scale. A light hung directly overhead the table, illuminating the area in a circular spot.  Documentation of Nasreen Mohamedi’s work had proven to be quite a difficult task as she left much of her work untitled and undated-and I half expected an incomplete piece to be lying there.  

                 The irony of the experience is that I have always had a problem finding deeper meanings in works; I appreciate the technique, but I am not always sure of what exactly it is I should be looking for. I don’t think that a puzzle should be there. I found meaning in one of the most simple works I have seen; simple, not in terms of the task, but in terms of the objective of the work. The work of Nasreen Mohamedi looks so effortless that one knows that she was a master. She also happens to be one of India’s most prominent modern artists-a detail I was unaware of when I embarked to see her work. It removed the looming shadow of her renown, and I was able to evaluate her work without any biases- and I actually really liked it, nay, loved it.  Beyond her work, it was the glacier from where her works trickled down; the attempt to simplify the world. I’ve always liked lines and perspective and simplicity. The Fountainhead is one of my favourite books.  And because of that, I felt that I could only really be happy if I was an architect. Then I saw Nasreen Mohamedi’s work. I realized then, that it’s alright to show that love for what it really is, rather than trying to find a bigger picture to fit it in. Love is, after all, inexplicable.

                 So, from her work, I deduce she was determined and loved simplicity. She was also a sort of a rebel because she produced such works in an era when there was a lot of emphasis on form and shape. She produced practical work as a tangible form of her ideas- all her inspiration, her influences and interests culminated in her art. So, is her work spiritual then?

You decide.

 

The story that unfolds is about the life of an impoverished bhadralok family, in the backdrop of the aftermath of the Partition of Bengal. There is a self sacrificing protagonist, Neeta, -known as “Khuki “to her family- who lives in the suburbs of Kolkata in a refugee village with her parents and siblings. She is exploited by her family as she is one half of the earning members, and when her father is injured, she becomes the sole financial pillar whom everyone relies on. Her elder brother, Shankar, whom she lovingly calls “Dada”, is a good for nothing,-in context that he does not contribute anything for the welfare of the family- and loves her deeply, but is myopic in the sense that he does not see her unhappiness until it is very late. Neeta, originally a young woman, caught in her dreams and lust for life, turns into an empty husk of the woman she once was and eventually, wastes away, contracts tuberculosis and dies.

I think that the film explores tangled and inexplicable human relationships in life through constraints of society, and what suffering and living for other people can do to a person. The characters that best illustrate this theme are Neeta and her mother. I suppose, Neeta’s mother, in times long gone, could have been a happy, exuberant person, with other thoughts on her mind, besides the food on the table. Evidence of this is given through statements-through her complaints, one can pick out a few lines which indicate that years back she was quite a different person- “How different I’ve become in the past ten years. “ Although the backdrop is not obvious, the Partition in 1947, and the Bengal Famine of 1943 probably played a part in her transition to her current self. Care is something which deserted her a long time ago, as depicted by her callous treatment of her daughter’s lives. Neeta loves Sanat Babu, a prior student of her fathers, who is quite a capable young man, and harbours dreams of marrying him. Sanat seems to reciprocate her affections, however, seems uncommonly taken in by Geeta, who, as he remarks, “has become indeed lovely. “ Since Neeta earns, and earns well, (“She has brought forty rupees this month”), naturally, her mother cannot let her go and live a happy life in marital bliss. Rather, it is Geeta she can afford to let go, and she does so, by cleverly arranging her marriage with Sanat instead. Her actions have a ripple effect, as all of them are condemned to a life of unreciprocated affections and unhappiness, though it is Neeta who is struck the hardest. She never really recovers from this blow, and it marks her downward spiral.

I was confused when I was watching the film. For a “maverick”, who was known for his “rejection of prevailing cinematic conventions” –as he founded, with three others, a genre of film known as Parallel Cinema, which is opposed to mainstream cinema, and Meghe Dhaka Tara falls under this category- I thought, being a sort of rebel, his protagonist might have a quality of the “breaking-out” character. There was a discrepancy between the two thoughts, and it led me to reflect on what Ritwik Ghatak was really trying to explore through Neeta.

Neeta, initially, rather than stirring up my sympathies, only succeeded in irritating me. Here was a young woman, with the ability to go far, however, she relinquished it for her family. Her self- sacrificing nature is established within the first few minutes of the film; where she uses the meagre forty rupees she earns through tuitions on her siblings, while giving up necessities of her own-her sandals, which are torn. It indicated that her life was not her own, she lives for others. She embodies the kind of character I love to hate, primarily because she let herself be the victim; she let burdens be heaped on her which she did not deserve. When her father is caught in an accident, and she becomes the sole breadwinner of the family, her mother latches on to her, like a limpet to a rock, determined never to let go, not because of any misguided affections, but because of her ability to earn. Neeta is damned to unhappiness because of said ability. On the other hand, Geeta, the typical frivolous female, with no goals or ambitions of her own, save the solah shringar, gets some sort of a happy ending.

Geeta was a character who baffled me. On our first introduction, she is sitting in front of a mirror, admiring her appearance, singing to herself. The lyrics are along the lines of “Into the room came the bumblebee humming.” I think that the song was deliberately inserted there so that the audience, even on a subconscious level, understands her frivolity of nature. The scene of our introduction struck me, as the soundtrack; the defining music to Geeta, came from her own self. I began to think that if the film was made in today’s day and age, Geeta, as the “sensuous woman” of the story, (as described by Kumar Shahani) would have been introduced with a typical hatke song, to throw light upon the supposed “man stealer” that she is. The fact that the introducing soundtrack came from her own self is like a self admission; on a subconscious level, she knows who she is, what she is, and is not disturbed by her flaws or warped morality. She is clearly aware of the blossoming romance between her sister and Sanat; on many occasions, she has even acted as a messenger between them; delivering Sanat’s love letters to Neeta. Yet, she encourages his stares, and flirts back with him. When Neeta questions her decision to marry her fiancée, she tells her that not everyone can afford to wait. Neeta knows this better than others, as just a few days back, she had walked in on Sanat with another woman in his room. Additionally, Geeta is unfazed and bold, and unrelenting in her stance and the decision she has taken; she is the typical bull headed woman who takes pleasure out of the sufferings of others. Quite ironic, as she is the one living in a refugee village, and the only justification that I can offer for her behaviour is that her own situation becomes bearable once she torments others; it becomes easier for her when she realises that there are people worse off than her. She too, is never really happy, because, “Can an old flame ever really be forgotten?”

Sanat, also, is a hypocrite. He loves Neeta; and at many a time offers to shoulder her burden. When she tells him that of the circumstances of her father getting injured, and the family depending on her as the only source of money flowing into the house; he tells her that he shall work, and she should continue to study. However, he jilts her, despite all his supposed love. It also seems to be a method of getting back at her-because he is hurt that she has put their marriage on hold, his angry “Why not?” when she first proposes it , speaks volumes. He decides to walk with Geeta with a decisive “Chalo”, and throughout their stroll, although complimenting her with a certain amount of light heartedness-his eyes are cool and appraising. Perhaps he jilted Neeta because of the societal conditions at that time, which put pressure on a man to marry and have a family, but I don’t think that it excuses his behaviour. He too, is never really happy; when Geeta nags him about Neeta, there is a paroxysm of emotion that says it all; his regret, his shame. He wishes to reunite with Neeta later on, but she refuses him then.

The characters led me to contemplate Social Realism, which draws attention to everyday conditions of the working class and the poor, and is, at the same time, critical of the societal structure that creates these conditions. Research compelled me to discover that the subjects encapsulated by Social Realism are an important component of Ritwik Ghatak’s ideology as well. As a filmmaker, his primary focus was on themes of man and life; the day to day struggles of the common individual. The backdrop of the film-the Partition, makes it a personal journey for him as well; his own family moved to Kolkata just before the debacle of the refugee crisis -when a massive number of refugees from East Bengal began to flood into the city, fleeing both the Partition and the catastrophic Famine of 1943. Naturally, there is a lot of identification with this tide of refugees, and it defines a lot of Ghatak’s cinematic work; through themes of cultural dismemberment and exile. Also, he could also never really accept this Partition-and this is supplemented through many scenes in the film; the repeated imagery of a passing train bisecting the horizon alludes to the physical division of the family’s ancestral homeland. Meghe Dhaka Tara forms one third of a trilogy devoted to dealing with the aftermath of the Partition; Subarnarekha and Komal Gandhar complete it. So, I think, to say that Meghe Dhaka Tara falls under Social Realism would be incorrect, what should be said instead is that Meghe Dhaka Tara is Social Realism.

So, to answer the aforementioned question, I think, that apart from the suffering that the Partition inflicted, Ghatak is trying to explore another theme through Neeta: that ability is the justification for the suffering that a person undergoes – and the film mocks the social conditions that enable this situation. The situation is contemptible because Neeta’s own blood demand her soul, her dreams; essentially herself, not as a benevolent gesture towards them, which is horrible enough, but as something which they consider to be her moral duty- “We know you’re happiest to see us harmed! “. They demand that she immolate herself on the sacrificial altar of their need, and she does so; the more she gives, the more is demanded of her. She is damned to unhappiness, not because of her sins, but because of her virtues. It seems as if she is being punished for giving in, for allowing herself to be exploited in the first place. I think that this internalizing of emotions led to her contraction of tuberculosis as well-there are hints throughout the film that she is physically not well; one example is when she visits Montu in the hospital, and tells the nurse not to worry about her, as she is afflicted by a fever quite often.

Shankar, on the other hand, recognizes this farce, and stays out of this vicious circle entirely. He is an example of a soul who doesn’t knuckle down under familial pressure, despite the threats of disownment that his mother makes-ironic in a man so old-or ultimatums, that to eat, he will have to earn. He has the utmost confidence in himself- “If only they’d understand what a genius I am!”-and, getting tired of the constant bickering, leaves home to make his own way in the world. Shankar ultimately achieves substantial commercial success as a singer in Mumbai, making his earlier statements prophetic- “In just two years, money will come raining through the roof!”

There is a conflict within Neeta as well; a conflict which does seem to suggest the aforementioned “breaking out”. There is an objective part of her which takes control of her body, as seen by the scene where she tells her mother that “When there was time, you didn’t listen!” , as Neeta has nothing more that the mother would want anymore; she was drained a long time ago. However, this part of her never really takes full control, until her dying moments; the penultimate scene of the film, where, on a hilltop in Shillong, she throws herself at Shankar, with an agonising cry, “Brother, I want to survive!” The camera then moves over stills of the landscape-the hills and the mountains, giving us a deep sense of silence, and the impression that no one is really listening.

I think that this line is one of the most poignant uttered in the film. It is significant because it symbolizes Neeta’s realization of what she allowed to be done to her, her own mistake and her desire to live-although she dies soon after experiencing this epiphany. This line, according to me, also mitigates the tragic quotient of the film; Meghe Dhaka Tara would have been truly sad if Neeta died with no clue as to why agony was interspersed in her life. The cry at the end-of both the film and her life-implies some sort of enlightenment. It’s fitting that this enlightenment happens in Shillong, as it is an item on her bucket list; since a child, she had always wanted to visit the hills. Shillong is also the ancestral place of Ritwik Ghatak’s wife; she returned there after they separated.

“Won’t I exist till then?” -This was a line which struck me particularly in the film, not only because of what it conveys, but also because of its contrast with her last lines in the film. Its context in the film, is a conversation between Neeta and Shankar, when he despondently tells her that he is an imposition on her, and asks her about her life and her marriage. To that, she responds with a beatific smile, that she shall marry when Shankar becomes a star, and if Sanat truly loves her, he will wait for her; bursting out with the aforementioned quote. It presents a great deal of significance, because the deliberate choice of the word “exist” reveals that she knows the sort of half-life that she would be living; and she says it with a smile, signifying acceptance. The second contrast presented is that although, the essence of both statements is the same, they are phrased differently, again implying a realization. She substitutes “exist” with “survive”, and then, she is no longer questioning her ability to endure-she knows that she wants to live.

According to Srikanth Srinivasan-“ Ghatak’s vividly realised, strikingly shot and uniquely scored film is both a paean to women’s boundless courage and strength, and an indictment of an opportunistic and oppressive social structure”. I agree with this statement on all counts, but one. Apart from exploring the humane perspective of the Partition, I think that the film is saying that strength isn’t just about knuckling under, or dealing with a particular situation, even if it causes unhappiness and discontent. It also talks about strength being the ability to break out and realize when enough is enough. I do not believe suffering in silence to be a testimony to the courage that people possess. It takes a lot of strength just to take life by the horns. The film talks about living for yourself and not giving up your dreams, because your dreams make you who you are. It states a point that altruism in the aforementioned context cannot make anyone happy. Once Neeta gives up her dreams in life, she becomes a mere shadow of her past self; a ghost of a human being. Her mother is resorted to being a pretentious, complaining human being, who resorts to cheap tricks, and plays around with the lives of her own. Her constant referrals to the lack of food –speaking metaphorically of their economic hardships are a clue to their escape from the Famine as well.

Melodrama, especially in the modern context, is known by its overly virtuous victims, a failed romance, tragedy and illness. Film critics have often used it as a pejorative term to denote unrealistic, campy tales, used to appeal mostly to a feminine audience. However, Ghatak has taken this genre, and in the backdrop of the Partition, brought about a duality between the personal and the socio-historical aspect, which, according to P.G.R Nair, “is a key component of the films accomplishments. “. In terms of cinematography, I thought the film was beautiful: Neeta, illuminated in front of a latticed window as she reads Sanat’s letter, and later, concealed behind it on Shankar’s return. There was a long shot of Neeta descending the stair case after she leaves her studies to work and support the family, which completely summed up her situation, without any dialogues. There is constant interplay between light and shadows, and “evocative, aggressive sounds to underscore emotional impact” (P.G.R. Nair); such as the whipping sounds when Neeta leaves Sanat for the last time and looks up in grief, the train that goes past when Neeta and Sanat sit at the riverbank, and its piercing whistle which causes the conversation between both of them to die out, the overemphasised sounds of cooking when the mother attempts to spy on Neeta and Sanat. She attempts to get Neeta to give her word that she would stay and earn for the family; trying to elicit her sympathy by telling her that she cannot take the load of the household anymore. It is clearly exaggerated; the slight lift and drop of the eyelids, as the mother-intentionally, in a lower voice-mumbles about how Neeta must have wishes of her own, trying to imply that she feels that that is no life for a girl. Through Neeta’s straightforward look into the camera, I felt that she knew what her mother was actually asking, but let herself fall into the trap anyway. Also, the cinematography defines what Neeta is feeling without any need dialogues, for example, when there is a close up of her face staring into the distance, with the background is visible behind her; one can tell that she is upset-this is seen in quite a few scenes, one of which is when she is returning home after giving a tuition, and she observes Geeta and Sanat together. She looks into a distance, clearly disturbed, but nevertheless proceeds forward. She stops at a tree, and inclines her head-giving the viewers a feeling that perhaps she is going to speak up. However, she decides against it, and hurries away instead.

However, although melodramatic in terms of the cinematography, I felt that the story that unfolds is very authentic. It is real in the sense that it focuses on the people and the impact of the Partition, rather than just conveying a sequence of events. Meghe Dhaka Tara does not play with your emotions, with keys on when to experience a particular feeling; in many soap operas these days, we are compelled to empathise with the anti-hero or heroine; such feelings are inauthentic, and scenes are put there deliberately to evoke a fake emotion; manipulating the audience to experience a counterfeit sense of pathos. Meghe Dhaka Tara lets you come to your own conclusion, without any external prodding, and hence, the pathos that one eventually feels for Neeta is real.

On researching more on the background, I learnt that quite a number of refugees, even the upper class ones, who were educated, in search for employment, took up work that was far beneath what they were capable of; many became labourers. Similarly, in this film, Montu , a college going lad, takes up a job in a factory, and despite the decent pay, the father is so appalled at this that he refuses to speak to him. Part of this reaction is brought about by the reality of the situation as well- “Just see where middle class life descends.” The dialogues of the film; the reference to Yeats and Wordsworth, whom the father quotes from time to time, speak volumes about the progressive society of Bengal, and emphasises their bhadralok status. The younger son as a labourer completes this tragic juxtaposition; of people’s capabilities and what they are reduced to. Additionally, it also makes a mockery of the word “progressive” itself; as it depicts that society, although progressive, is at the same time limiting, as the whole setting, the time period, and the events that take place make it very hard for people to follow their dreams.

True happiness, according to me, is following your own heart, being in control of your own life. I think that happiness in life is relatively simple; knowing what you want, and achieving it. Neeta had an idea of what she wanted, but she never really stepped forward to claim it as her own, choosing martyrdom instead. She is a symbol of endurance in futility. One is not meant to live for others-not if it doesn’t provide them with content. Society, too, is secondary to one’s own happiness. In context of the film, Neeta should have been selfish. She is an Atlas who should have shrugged.

“I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”

I truly believe that if Neeta had lived by this oath, her story would have had a different ending.