The Unknown Craftsman

Amit Dutta

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The Films of Amit Dutta: Week #4 The Unknown Craftsman
Amit Dutta

88 Minutes

Artist Cinemas

Repeating April 18–19

The Unknown Craftsman recounts a story taking place towards the end of the eighth century, when an architect journeys across the mountains of the Lower Himalayas in search of the perfect site for constructing a temple, envisioned not merely as a place of worship but also as a monumental record capable of crystallizing the collective accomplishment of a civilization. Is he equal to the task? He faces his own fears while the forces of nature test his learning along the path. When he arrives at the destination, mysterious apprentices assist him; but the work attains perfection midway and remains unfinished.

The Unknown Craftsman is the fourth 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 IV
[Read parts one through six here: I, II, III, IV, V, VI]

Your sources of inspiration seem to be quite varied and coming from different systems of organization. You speak about the rhythm of a poem or a miniature painting and how these can be adopted in your films. You also seem to be looking at and studying a plethora of material spanning different mediums, fields, geographies, and historical periods. Can you point out some of the thinkers, sources, or systems that have been important for you?

While studying at the film institute, I became aware of the various streams of knowledge in India, probably for the very first time. And that this country is made of multiple layers of fascinating history and information. We have various tribes living close to the jungles; they have their own genius; and then there are folk and classical knowledge systems. Most of my work is inspired by these sources. Lately I am interested/passionate about certain so-called “rejected knowledge systems.” It's very well-known that the translation of Arabic books on science and literature played an important role in the European Renaissance and Enlightenment. Similarly, a lot of Sanskrit books from India were translated into Arabic. I remember one such recent publication/translation into English where a mediaeval Arab author proudly states the plethora of sources he’d drawn from for his work. For them it was a matter of pride that they took knowledge from so many sources. Nowadays people may hide it, but this writer had given all the names including a few from India. But when these books were brought to Europe in translation, there were many topics the new readers were not interested in or that did not appeal to their rational minds. They rejected them. And those books and knowledge systems were discouraged even in the colonies which they [the Europeans] occupied. I come from one such country. So my interest in these forgotten books and manuscripts and knowledge systems is immense. I keep collecting them, and by now I have a robust collection of my own: books and old forgotten publications, by small unknown vernacular presses, in forgotten languages/dialects, etc. This underground knowledge system is fascinating. It's full of wonder and playfulness. and I feel enriched studying this material. I wish I was good at languages like many people are. I would like to study Sanskrit, Tamil, Pali, Persian, Arabic languages and decipher their manuscripts. Not for scholarship or to find a job, but to enjoy the rich culture they transmit, and moreover, to understand the land I am living in—it’s essential.

Early on, Hermann Hesse's The Glass Bead Game (1943) had left a deep impression on me. It made clear the connection between the apparently different subjects I was interested in—music, literature, mathematics, chess, cultural studies, cinema, etc. There is a similar story in an ancient Indian text that talks about the interdependence of the arts. So this is a broader concept. But then there is the source itself—it can start dictating the form as well. Suppose I do not think of cinema as a visual novel or as filmed theater: Is there a new way to think about it? Can I take the ideas from somewhere else? Eisenstein wrote about how he took inspiration from Japanese Noh masks and Haiku poetry: “The Japanese have shown us another, extremely interesting form of ensemble—the monistic ensemble. Sound—movement—space—voices here do not accompany (nor even parallel) each other, but function as elements of equal significance.”

Similarly, if we enhance the scope of each element in filmmaking we get amazing results. For example, in my new film Mother, Who Will Weave Now (2022), I wanted to express the process of textile-making in its most essential mode without actually filming it. I could do that by tapping into the system of poetic metrical patterns called Chandas (छन्द), and using that to weave the film, just as a weaver would have used a grid or a jacquard to create motifs, patterns, and textures. I created metric montages in my editing, using the various metrical modes of classical Indian poetry. To give an example, let's take a metrical pattern known as Indravajra where the meter is measured in Laghu and Guru, where Laghu is one short vowel denoted by ।, and Guru is one long vowel shown by ऽ (Avagraha). So for this Indravajra pattern i.e. ऽ ऽऽ। ।। ऽ। ।ऽ। ऽऽ, I took a unit of two frames as Laghu and automatically the Guru is four frames, and with this pattern I edited the film. It might sound silly to some but the resulting editing patterns and rhythms were mesmerizing for me, as well as meaningful.

These montages are then sewn together by the poetry of Kabir (fifteenth century mystic poet), full of symbolism and insight into the process of weaving, decorating, and cloth-making itself. Already in Kabir, there is a sense of tiredness from the weaving of material cloth, a practice which at the time had reached a certain peak in aesthetic as well as economic value in India. The richly embellished motifs of the textiles can be read better in light of this grand weaving tradition, where origin myths, rites, and rituals of nature and human life are expressed in varying degrees of abstraction, ranging from geometric perfection to absolute playfulness of lines, from deep symbolism to lively observation. This way, each project in turn introduces me to new sources of inspiration.

Yes, I think this process you describe with the rhythmic patterns you employ is exactly what gives this sense of rigor to your process, regardless of whether one is able to precisely decipher such a pattern or not. I was wondering if you have affinities with other filmmakers? When I first watched your films I thought of Parajanov, despite the pace and camera movements being quite different, because of the attention to iconography and the ability to estrange even the most familiar of symbols and patterns. I always thought with Parajanov that even if he uses the most familiar icon in the world, as viewers we would not be able to recognize it, or more precisely we would have to rethink its elements from scratch. I have a similar feeling with your work. All the elements you show need to be deciphered, even the image of a painted tree or the sound of a roaring tiger. But also the other mediums you lean on, whether they be poetry, painting, or weaving—I feel one has to also reflect on their structure as they are watching.

Absolutely! An image should not be exhausted as soon as it is seen. It should be alive every time. Therefore even if you work with familiar symbols they should become new in each context. As far as influences are concerned, at the film institute we studied the masters of cinema systematically. Here I would also like to mention the shock I felt when looking at world cinema for the first time. I come from the pre-internet era, before visual culture became so pervasive. So the impact of the image was much stronger. I did not study at an expensive English private school. Initially I studied in the vernacular tradition and only much later shifted to English. It was more or less self-study, I was not educated in a formal sense, and visually, even less so. Now you see visuals everywhere and the newer generations are not in awe of the image as we were. When I encountered cinema at the film school, I was blown away. A whole new world was opening up to me and the visual impact was like looking at abstract painting. Even if the film was straight storytelling, I was so mesmerized by the movement, the sound, the wind, and other elements that even the most linear films came across as abstract to me. The filmmakers who impacted me deeply were Eisenstien, Pudovkin, Dovzhenko (his film Earth, 1930; in an interview Parajanov tells how a lot people accused him of copying Dovzhenko), and then there was Tarkovsky and of course Parajanov. I also liked French filmmakers like Alain Resnais, Agnès Varda, and Robert Bresson, German filmmakers like Fritz Lang, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, and Robert Wiene. My thesis at the film school was on these filmmakers. There was a Georgian filmmaker, Giorgi Shengelaia, whose film Pirosmani (1969) left a deep impact. And then there was the deeply humanistic cinema of Iran. All of it left a deep impact on me while studying at the film institute. These filmmakers achieved such a vision at such a young age, I am still astonished. I have not achieved a fraction of what they have; maybe a good budget has some value after all. Whatever it is, Alain Resnais, Parajanov, and Mani Kaul left the most lasting impact on me. If you look at certain Mani Kaul films you might find a connection with Parajanov as well, though I am not sure if he ever watched his films.

When I watched Parajanov for the first time, I knew that he had achieved whatever cinema could. It will be very difficult for anyone to surpass that. He freed cinema, and somehow I found his work so accessible to Indian culture. The rest of the filmmakers were Europeans and their worldview and philosophy came from their culture, which was fascinating too, but beyond my comprehension at that time. But Parajanov seemed familiar, I could get his symbolism and playfulness easily. It moved me and spoke to me like no filmmaker had ever done. Recently I found an interesting connection. Sayat-Nova (1712-1795), the poet, on whom Paradjanov made his famous film The Color of Pomegranates (1969), had come to India along with the army of Nader Shah. At the time there was a wonderful poet in the Mughal court, Ghananand (1673-1760), who was also the accountant of the King. The story goes that Nader Shah's soldiers tortured him for money, demanding “zar, zar, zar!” (gold, gold, gold!). In reply, as a wordplay, he threw three fistfuls of dust at them saying “raz, raz, raz” (dust, dust, dust). The soldiers cut his hand and with that bleeding hand he wrote his last couplet. And then there was Tek Chand Bahar (c. 1687-1766), who was compiling the most authentic Persian lexicon yet, titled the Bahaar-e-ajam. He was running around inquiring from Nader Shah’s Iranian soldiers about the meanings of idioms and proverbs, unearthing the nuances of the language as Nader Shah’s invasion was shedding blood everywhere. There was also a Kashmiri doctor who had joined Nader Shah's army and wrote a memoir, noting that all this while, Nader Shah had an upset stomach. I wonder what Sayat-Nova was doing at that time. If given the opportunity, I would like to make a film based on this situation, as a dialogue with Parajanov.

You have described my relationship with his work so nicely, I believe that everyone ends up working in the tradition of an older master; whether they acknowledge it or not is their choice. In a narrative cinema, it’s not easy to decipher the school but in a formal/experimental work, it’s easier. When working in a tradition, works seem similar, difference is subtle, and the novelty as the call in chess might come at the twentieth move. Similarly, the new elements might be subtle but can be of extreme importance and enjoyment. There is tale among the miniature painters of Kangra, where I live:

Once a painter had painted the familiar theme of a lady who was so adored for her goodness, that her lover held her feet like a devotee. The painter took the painting to the king, who liked it and offered to buy it. But the painter excused himself and took the painting back. He then showed it to his friend, a goldsmith. The goldsmith was so moved, he bowed down before the painter and praised his innovation. “What an amazing thought you have added to this old theme! You have placed a rose flower in the lover’s hand, as if his hands are too coarse to touch his lady’s feet. And yet she resists, as if even the rose petals are too rough for her feet!” The painter in turn bowed down to the goldsmith and gifted the painting to him saying, “I have found a same-hearted soul in you. Even the king could not see what you have seen. Hence the painting belongs to you by right, please accept it.”

Once you start noticing these subtle differences your appreciation and enjoyment of the artwork is complete.

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

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

Film, Architecture
History, Indian Subcontinent
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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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