The Museum of Imagination: A Portrait in Absentia

Amit Dutta

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The Films of Amit Dutta: Week #5 The Museum of Imagination: A Portrait in Absentia
Amit Dutta

20 Minutes

Artist Cinemas

Repeating April 18–19

The Museum of Imagination: A Portrait in Absentia came into being as a result of several conversations the filmmaker recorded with Prof. B.N. Goswamy, an important art historian of India, covering his entire body of work. Interspersed with his speech were also some silences. This film draws upon some of those moments of silence and weaves them into a web of ideas and images that fill the art historian’s mindscape.

The Museum of Imagination is the fifth installment of The Films of Amit Dutta, a selection of films programmed by Iman Issa as the tenth cycle of Artist Cinemas, a long-term, online series of film programs curated by artists for e-flux Video & Film.

The Films of Amit Dutta runs in six weekly episodes from March 7 through April 18, 2022, and features six films by Amit Dutta accompanied by a conversation in six parts between Amit Dutta and Iman Issa, published in text form. A new film and part of the conversation are released every Monday. Each film streams for the duration of one week.

Amit Dutta in Conversation with Iman Issa
Part V
[Read parts one through six here: I, II, III, IV, V, VI]

I want to ask you about some of your film portraits if I may call them so, such as Museum of Imagination: A Portrait in Absentia (2012) on the art historian B. N. Goswamy, If I go, where do I go? (2021) on the writer Krishna Baldev Vaid (1927-2020), Even Red Can be Sad (2015) on the painter Ram Kumar (1924-2018). Do you think of them as portraits of the figures they depict (or in the case of Museum of Imagination, barely depict)? Stylistically they are all different yet I sense a continuity of what it means to base a film on a figure. What is captured is not centered exclusively on what the figure says or shows. And even in the most documentary-like of them such as If I go, where do I go?, it seems that stylistic decisions such the angle through which the figure is filmed, the monochrome cuts in between, the heightened use of sound, among other elements, shift the focus from a representation of a figure to a film creating a relationship to an elusive entity that one can barely grasp except through the subtlest of fragments. I would argue that in all of these films a sense may end up being formed, yet it doesn’t seem to be a sense of a single figure but of an entity that is much more elusive yet also extends outwards into other equally blurry figures and narratives. Might you speak a bit about your attraction to making films about these figures, and how you decide on the manner with which to proceed with each film?

Your ideas and observations are so compelling that I am afraid I will spoil them by saying anything more. Nevertheless, I will try.

One reason I made portraits was that these figures had impacted me in some fundamental way at some point in my life. Krishna Baldev Vaid’s experimental prose and his formal explorations influenced my filmmaking techniques to a certain extent; you can say that I was also introduced to Sameul Beckett and James Joyce through his works in Hindi. Ram Kumar was a short-story writer as well, and I used to read his stories before I had seen his paintings. Professor B.N. Goswamy is special to me because his books introduced the miniature paintings and art of my region to me.

Whenever I start with portraiture, it’s mostly for an emotional reason, but inevitably it turns into a formal exploration. Why does it happen? Maybe it’s my nature; maybe because I try to make a sensitive portrait, not a sentimental one. Every person inherits a special cosmos. They are the sun of their own universe. I am fascinated by that universe which tells more about the person than what they might themselves be aware of. Cinema has that magic. If you free it, it might bring you something that your conscious mind could never find. Whenever you make a formal inquiry the chances of this happening increase. When I say formal or experimental, I mean giving more freedom to the medium, acknowledging my limited understanding of the world, letting it surprise me, educate me.

How would you qualify a sensitive as opposed to a sentimental portrait?

I had come across this idea in a Nabokov essay. I think these were the notes/essays he had prepared for his students, to teach in the class. He says that we must distinguish between “sentimental” and “sensitive.” “A sentimentalist may be a perfect brute in his free time. A sensitive person is never a cruel person.” Then he gives examples: “Sentimental Rousseau, who could weep over a progressive idea, distributed his many natural children through various poorhouses and workhouses and never gave a hoot for them. A sentimental old maid may pamper her parrot and poison her niece. The sentimental politician may remember Mother’s Day and ruthlessly destroy a rival.” Criticizing Dostoevsky he had said that he “never really got over the influence which the European mystery novel and the sentimental novel made upon him. The sentimental influence implied that kind of conflict he liked—placing virtuous people in pathetic situations and then extracting from these situations the last ounce of pathos.” I had read this essay at a young age and these provocative statements of his made me think deeply about my practice, because one can easily do this in cinema, as this medium is naturally prone to sentimentality.

You had also mentioned the notion of freeing cinema; I’m curious as to what that might entail?

By being free, I mean when cinema is not being burdened by meeting pre-decided goals and we are free to improvise as we go along, reacting to and assimilating the inspirations along the way. One of our teachers used to distinguish between two kinds of cinema: the cinema of destination and the cinema of meandering. The cinema of meandering is free cinema.

That is interesting. I actually do feel a sense of burden in your films, but one I imagine to be dictated not by a final destination but by demands being imposed by the material itself that is being handled. And in a strange way that sense of burden, or maybe better said commitment to this material, feels incredibly emancipatory to watch. But maybe you are speaking of a different kind of freedom? Perhaps of a space beyond the conscious intentions of a maker?

You are absolutely right when you say “space beyond the conscious intentions of a maker.” For example, when I was talking to you on a video call or through email, sometimes your one line will stimulate a thought in my mind and I will forget the rest of the question, following the trail of that one thought. I might lose the bigger picture or precise meaning or intention of the question. Frankly, I am absolutely fine with this meandering conversation. I think such kinds of conversations bring us closer to the truth. Though seen from far, it might seem that two mad persons are conversing. There is a book by Gurdjieff called Meetings with Remarkable Men (1963). Peter Brook has made a film based on this book. I would like to quote a wonderful passage from that book. I think it explains this phenomenon beautifully:

“This procedure, as was evident when I later understood it, was an extremely original means for development of the mind and for self-perfecting. They called it kastousilia, a term derived, it seems to me, from the ancient Assyrian, and which my father evidently took from some legend. This procedure was as follows: One of them would unexpectedly ask the other a question, apparently quite out of place, and the other, without haste, would calmly and seriously reply with logical plausibility. …

These questions and answers were carried on in a serious and quiet tone—as though one of them were asking the price of potatoes today and the other replying that the potato crop was very poor this year. Only later did I understand what rich thoughts were concealed beneath such questions and answers. They very often carried on conversations in this same spirit, so that to a stranger it would have seemed that here were two old men out of their senses, who were at large only by mistake instead of being in a mad-house. Many of these conversations which then seemed to me meaningless grew to have a deep meaning for me later when I came across questions of the same kind, and it was only then that I understood what a tremendous significance these questions and answers had for these two old men.”

[Read parts one through six here: I, II, III, IV, V, VI]

For more information, contact program@e-flux.com

Film, Painting, Sculpture, Architecture
Documentary, Indian Subcontinent, History, Artistic Research
Return to The Films of Amit Dutta
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Amit Dutta is a filmmaker and writer. He graduated from the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in 2004. Till now, he has made over forty films and published six books. His films range from literary adaptations to fiction, documentation, video-diary, animation, video essays, etc. He also writes regularly for children and a collection of his children’s stories was published in 2021. He has taught at the National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad and at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune. He lives and works from the Kangra valley in Himachal Pradesh.


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