What Indians Mustn’t Study

Originally published in Tehelka: link


dalit window

Filmmaker PRASHANT KADAM relates his encounters with academic prejudice

View finder Waghmare in a
still from The Bioscopewallah

My family has been in love with photography for three generations now — my father learnt it from his father and in turn taught it to me. Even today, there are huge portraits in our ancestral home that were photographed, developed and printed there around the 1950s.

After I graduated from Fergusson College in Pune, majoring in history, I did a Masters in Social-Cultural Anthropology at the University of Pune. In the first year, we had to visit a “tribal” community and study various aspects of “their culture”. The department zeroed in on Bothe village in Pandharkavda in Maharashtra’s Yavatmal district. We were all to select subjects of our choice — I decided to do a photo-essay and maybe even a short video. I discussed my project extensively with my guide before I left for the trip.

I had been in Bothe three days when the professor in charge of the trip told me I should not be doing a photo essay and should take up a “conventional” ethnographic subject instead. This made me very uncomfortable. I had nobody to consult with for my new topic. I was merely told not to continue with my photo/video essay. The nearest telephone was some eight km away, but I managed to access it anyway and called up my guide in Pune to tell him about what had happened. He told me it would be unwise to go against the field professor, and it was therefore decided that I should study dropout rates in the area, collecting data from local ashram schools.

The field professor simply failed to understand the difference between ethnography (a textual account of an anthropologist’s observation of cultures) and visual ethnography (which uses photography/video to portray the anthropologist’s cultural experience). It has been a decade now since the incident, but I do not think conditions in Indian academia have changed much.

I moved to Canada few years ago. To pursue my interest in visual communications, I enrolled in a course in independent filmmaking, during which I studied the history of film and even made my own digital movie. In 2005, while on a visit to Pune, I read an article in a local newspaper that made me nostalgic about the bioscope, a precursor to the film projector, hardly seen today even in small towns. I thought it important to document it before it faded utterly from memory. Tracking Rau Waghmare, the bioscopewallah featured in the article, took some doing, but when I finally managed to meet him, I was amazed by his zest for life, his struggle for survival and his pride in his work. He lived a hand-to-mouth existence — his cheerful demeanour, his energetic singing and his pride in his bioscope were in complete contrast to the poverty and ill health that dogged his life. Born to a Dalit family in Dev Dhanora, a remote village in Osmanabad district, he had been a tamasha artiste until 1971, when drought forced his troupe to disband. The skills of the tamasha continued, however, to be integral to his repertoire.

Rau is someone I consider a genuine performing artist, quite as much of a one as Pandit Birju Maharaj. This, as I discovered, was not an opinion that would go down well with Indian academia. While I was researching the history of the bioscope, I met an “expert” in the field who taught at the Film and Television Institute of India. He brushed me aside saying, “Whom are you calling a performing artist? I don’t think you know what you are doing. Tomorrow you may call a beggar a performing artist.”

I realised that even a decade after I was told to change my field research topic in 1996, questions of hegemony and ideology persisted in our society, however subtly and covertly. Questions like why I was the only student among 18 others who was discouraged from pursuing the research of my choice remained unanswered. Why, 10 years later, would a media studies expert belittle my efforts to document an unexplored but significant aspect of film history? Why have certain issues historically remained unaddressed? Why do we have this academic gate-keeping and with what intentions?

Nevertheless, I completed The Bioscopewallah, which will have its world premiere on October 5 at the Independent South Asian Film Festival in Seattle. I am now working on my thesis in the faculty of Cinema and Media studies at York University, Canada. My research looks at the representation of Dalits in popular Hindi cinema. It will put to scrutiny select films to understand larger cultural debates about questions of Dalit identity and collectivity. Quantitatively speaking, the Indian film industry is a world leader, producing the maximum number of films annually.

However, Dalits, comprising a huge mass of the population, are either under-represented or simply rendered invisible in these films, although their behind-the-scenes labour towards film production cannot be denied.

writer’s email: explore@prashant.ca

Oct 13, 2007