On their visit to Kutch in 2008, Anjali Monteiro and KP Jayasankar were introduced to the poetry of Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai through the music of the Meghwals, a Dalit pastoral community living on the edge of the Rann. Intrigued and enamoured, the documentary filmmakers and academicians made a documentary in 2009, titled Do Din Ka Mela (A Two Day Fair) that captured the oral tradition of music and poetry running through the community, passed down the generations.
However, the duo admits that back then, they could not have imagined Bhitai’s poetry would become the thread that would also bind their next two documentaries, compelling them to return to the challenging and fascinating terrain of the Kutch. The second film of the trilogy, So Heddan So Hoddan (Like Here Like There), was made in 2011. The most recent, A Delicate Weave, shot in 2016-17, will be screened at Prithvi Theatre in Mumbai on Friday evening.
A Delicate Weave follows the musical journeys of four different communities in Kutch. Far apart geographically, the communities, however, have in common the poetry of Shah Bhitai and Sant Kabir, and the syncretism and religious diversity that one imbibes with the oral Sufi texts. However, Jayasankar says, Sufism alone doesn’t make them more syncretical.
“Most of these communities are nomadic and now settled close to the border. Many of them speak of their fathers and grandfathers walking across to what is now Pakistan. This also perhaps makes their culture more porous and open. For instance, Lakahpat, one of the villages where we shot, has 24 temples, 24 dargahs and 24 mosques even though all of 10 Hindu families live there. When they want to sing, they all head to the closest temple or gurudwara, even the Muslims,” he adds.
Although utopic in a way, most of these musical traditions and philosophising, function within the patriarchal set-up. They are chiefly a male domain — the men of Bhujodi who sing Kabir bhajans, Noor Mohammad Sodha who teaches and plays flute, and Jiant Khan’s passionate love for Bhitai’s poetry. However, Monteiro and Jayasankar also discovered an aberration in the Muslim women of Lakhpat, who have been taught Bhitai’s poetry — largely transgressive love stories — by a progressive, Haji Ramzan Bhai, and now will sing all night at weddings. Monteiro points out that like in any society, even urban, it’s a negotiation. “The acceptance comes, albeit with some rough edges. Endorsement by Haji Ramzan Bhai, who is a family elder to some of these women, also helps,” she says.
While their first film takes a languid gaze at the traditions and culture of the Meghwals, the pace of the second film changes, in order to capture the relationship that musicians from the Fakirani and Maldhari Jatt communities share with Bhitai’s poetry and their efforts to preserve the oral texts and musical traditions. Their most recent film, however, focusses more on the impact that the music has had on the practitioners’ lives. Monteiro explains that A Delicate Weave attempts to capture the anxiety of the changing times and how people choose to speak about identity.
“Kutch is very much a part of Gujarat, a state where the discourse around nationalism is getting louder. Yet, these communities, with their Sufi traditions, are a wellspring of harmony and the idea of living together. In today’s times, when hard lines are being drawn across, they act as a bulwark with their music,” Jayasankar adds.
During the making of these films, both Monteiro and Jayasankar, who teach at Tata Institute of Social Sciences’ School of Media and Cultural Studies in Mumbai, at no point forget that documentary filmmaking can come from a position of power. For instance, chroniclers who may photograph or videograph the marginalised without consent.
In order to subvert as well as question the power equation, they also have included in the films the concerns of their subjects. In one scene, for instance, the wife of a musician is heard asking her husband if he is sure “they” will present the material correctly and not be exploitative. Jayasankar says, “We decided they will be the first viewers of our works, and each of the three films has been viewed by the subjects before we took it to the audience.”