He had heard of Kumbh, Pushkar and Surajkund — the great fairs of India — but it took an incessant colleague to convince Delhi-based filmmaker Sudesh Unniraman to visit Bihar for the Sonepur Mela in November 2013. Unniraman expected a carnival but found himself, instead, in the biggest annual fair in Asia, with 5,000 stalls that spread all the way to the horizon and displayed small hand-crafted items, large farm equipment and everything in between. There were enclosures for elephants, horses and cattle as well as theatres. “The mela begins with a Ganga snan on Karthik Purnima. Here people came to pray, trade and be entertained. I wanted to document this,” says Unniraman. It took two-and-a-half years and a second visit to the fair to make the film, Sonepur Mela, which will be screened at Public Service Broadcasting Trust’s annual festival called Open Frame (September 15-22) on September 18.
He sets the tone of the story with the first frames, in which a dark screen reveals a hint of an elephant’s silhouette as a voice-over says, “It (the fair) is older than our memory, our ancestors’ memories”. “Growing up in Delhi, I would visit my extended family in Kerala every year, where every second house had an elephant. Still, it is fascinating whenever you see an elephant,” says the filmmaker, about one of the mela’s chief attractions.
Munna, the mahout of Sundar, and Vijay Singh, the elephant’s owner, speak directly to the camera — underlining the regal aura of the fair — as do devotees smeared in tilak who call the mela aastha ka kendre, shopkeepers who boast, “If you have the money, you can buy everything you need here, from a needle to a sword”, and Manoj Kumar Singh, who is attending the fair after 15 years, this time with his wife and young son. Their varied voices bring out the relevance of the mela to different cross-sections of people, and establish its significance in the minds of the audience.
When Singh mentions a type of whistle and top that could be found only at the Sonepur mela, he triggers the memories of an urban audience of pre-liberalisation India when rural artisans would craft the toys that city children played with.
The mela, however, features the signs of modern entertainment — a Well of Death or a dangerous stunt space where bikes and small cars drive along the vertical walls, and theatres that show, not plays, but item numbers performed by girls.
Unniraman, 44, a Jamia Millia Islamia filmmaking graduate who has covered Unusual Indian Business for BBC and the Luxury Trains of India from Discovery, has brought an international aesthetics to Sonepur Mela. His frames have a poetic quality in terms of colour and composition. In most scenes, the surroundings are blurred and only an element — a trishul or a bell, the face of a speaker or sickles on sale, the head of a horse or the trunk of an elephant — is evident. “We didn’t want the footage to be dry and information heavy, we wanted it to be dynamic,” he says.