Posted by: gdevi | January 5, 2015

Movie review: When the Bird Became a Wave. . . (2014)

When the Bird Became a Wave.  . .  Dir. M. R. Rajan. Cinematograph Kerala. 2014.

I just saw Rajan’s excellent documentary about Kumar Shahani, When the Bird Became a Wave. . .  Rajan is an old family friend. Excellent documentary. Congratulations, Rajan! Here is an appreciation of your film.


Correspondences: When the Bird Became a Wave . . .

Like prolonged echoes mingling in the distance
In a deep and tenebrous unity,
Vast as the dark of night and as the light of day,
Perfumes, sounds, and colors correspond.          (Charles Baudelaire, Correspondences)


In a wave or cloud, these leading lines show the run of the tide and of the wind, and the sort of change which the water or vapor is at any moment enduring in its form, as it meets shore, or counter-wave, or melting sunshine. Now remember, nothing distinguishes great men from inferior men more than their always, whether in life or in art, knowing the way things are going. Your dunce thinks they are standing still, and draws them all fixed; your wise man sees the change or changing in them, and draws them so,—the animal in its motion, the tree in its growth, the cloud in its course, the mountain in its wearing away. Try always, whenever you look at a form, to see the lines in it which have had power over its past fate and will have power over its futurity. Those are its awful lines; see that you seize on those, whatever else you miss.  (John Ruskin, Elements of Drawing, 66*)

When children, unschooled in drawing, draw the archetypal landscape with sky, mountains, land and sea, it is not uncommon to see them use the sine wave* as a symbol to represent both flying birds and flowing water. The energies of the sky and the sea–their invisible content–what makes it possible for things to live in them–are both represented by the wave form. Tribal art uses the sine wave as well to represent birds and waves. Indeed, the simplest wave form in which energy moves is the birdcall. M. R. Rajan’s When the Bird Became a Wave. . . opens with a gorgeous rendition of a hymn to the tribal god of rightful war, Murugan, (we hear this song from a distance in G. Aravindan’s film Chidambaram), not in his form as Kartikeya/Skanda, the god of war, born of Siva’s pure energy, fire and flame, who burst forth from Siva’s third eye, but as an ascetic beggar clad in ashes and saffron robe. The song is human art, but it has its symbolic analog in nature, the birdcall. As soon as the credits wind down over the song, the iconic figure at the center of Rajan’s film, the film maker Kumar Shahani walks out into a misty green forest road, somewhere in Kerala, and asks us to listen to the birdcall. Both the human song as well as the birdcall are part of nature.

This opening confluence–hymn to Murugan, nature, and birdcall–charts the form and pattern of this beautiful film, much like the sine wave itself: a measured exposition into the world of archetypal–Kant would say allegorical–correspondences that speak of an underlying unity amongst forms — Baudelaire’s “deep and tenebrous unity,” where “perfumes, sounds and colors correspond.” In another deeply engaging scene, Shahani speaks of the time he visited the great Surbahar/Sitar virtuoso musician Annapurna Devi, Ustad Allaudin Khan’s daughter, at her home. Annapurna Devi’s flat had a calling bell on which was taped a message: Do not ring the bell. Shahani waited outside Annapurna Devi’s flat until Devi came outside and let him in. Annapurna Devi was quite elderly then, and Shahani speaks of how the musician brought out her instrument and taught him how to play it with her hands, but with never once actually playing the instrument. Shahani says that he told Annapurna Devi that he would like to make a film of just her hands and feet. The anecdote is followed by another brief vignette of a visit to a metal smithy in Calicut, where Shahani and the film crew try out many different types of bells. Bells that do not ring; bells that ring; instruments that do not sound; hands that play and teach–these are the correspondences that only art can see and an artist can articulate. Rajan’s film reveals Shahani’s vision beautifully and accurately. It is an intentional way to look at nature, to look at life, to look at art, and the role of art in life and nature. Once we become aware of this thread of correspondences, transformations, and patterns of mobility and growth, then we also become adept at identifying the dead weight, the nodes that do not grow, the directions that are just not there. The military-industrial complex, in Kumar Shahani’s words.

I have described only two of the many beautiful anecdotes, vignettes or essays that make up this film. I must mention one more: towards the end of the film, Shahani speaks about the “invisible ideology” that permeates the lifeless consumerist culture that cannot create anything. This sequence is bookended by a truly marvelous bit of enigmatic reference to a poem by Kamala Das–we are not shown or told what this poem is; only that it is very beautiful and filled with little things about life–one must leave something for the imagination, eh?–and two beautiful portraits of a young Kamala and an older Kamala. I absolutely loved this moment in the film; in many ways, it is only art that can birth this type of adjacency and nearness–a meaning that is entirely new. This sequence is once again followed by a walk along the beach where Shahani lovingly engages with children at play building sand forts and castles, while narrating the death of his dear friends, and yet another idea to create an artist’s center in Kerala. “Creative Play” is the only antidote to commerce spewed out by corporations of art. These are beautiful moments in the film.

The full title of the film is “When the Bird Became a Wave. . .: A Journey with Kumar Shahani.” So how does one end a film where one is traveling with Kumar Shahani? How does one end a film where it is not the director’s subjectivity that is privileged, but the subject’s, Kumar Shahani’s? When the Bird Became a Wave. . . squarely pins down our attention on Shahani, by beautifully transitioning from Shahani within the diegetic space as he travels in a train, to Shahani’s reflection on the window of the train merging with the “outside world” as the train speeds by. Here the world outside the window is literally the world outside the window, since the diegetic space is the space inside the train, the space holding the subjectivity of Shahani. It is altogether an excellent way to lock our attention on Shahani most perceptibly.

When the Bird Became a Wave . . . is a marvelous tribute to a great director made by an excellent artist who has interpreted Shahani’s work and words with great sensitivity and imagination, and documenting this interpretation for the cinematic medium, enriching it simultaneously with the fluidity and energy of moving images and sounds, and the gravity of an essay or an argument. Rajan’s film impressed me much like reading the potent aphorisms of a Walter Benjamin.  And befitting the ellipsis  in the title after the word “wave,” the film ends with the sight of running water, lot of water, high water flowing out to the right side of the edge of the screen, generating no doubt, the many correspondences to come.

*James Bunn’s Waveforms: A Natural History of Rhythmic Language (Stanford University Press, 2002) discusses the dominance of the sine wave as a symbolic analog of representational arts.


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