Season, a four screen video installation has grown out of Biswas’ exploration of the South West Film and Television Archive and his interest in the visionary poet Rabindranath Tagore. It was developed during a residency at Dartington during which Biswas was exploring the multiple paths connecting Bengal and Devon. Tagore clearly recognized the mutual indebtedness of poet and the peasant. His appreciation of the roots of culture in agriculture led to the founding of Santiniketan in Bengal and Dartington Hall in Devon where soil and soul where equally tended, and where education, creativity and industry were consciously tied to rural rhythms. In the midst of this study came the death of Biswas’ grandmother in Calcutta.
Season is structured as a set of balanced dualities. The four screens portray birth, death, music and dance. They also show images of East and West, of present and past, of science and superstition, of bodily labour and the industrious machine, of saturated colour and grainy black and white, and of earth, air, fire and water. Aural and visual echoes reverberate and reflect between these opposites, and holding them all together are the recurrent motifs of food and work.
Colourful scenes from a Hindu funeral, during which members of the Biswas family engage in ritualized food preparation and feasting, are juxtaposed with grainy archive footage from Devon of sweet factories and cheese making. Modern day rice threshers in Biswas’ ancestral village, working in a way that has remained unchanged for millennia, provide a rhythmic soundtrack for silage makers in pre-war Devon whose tamping down of a tower of hay becomes a whirling country dance which has long since been overtaken by modern farm machinery. The raucous folk songs of Devon scrumpy drinkers in a cider factory, mingle with the Sanskrit chants of Brahmins pouring ghee on a sacred fire. The complex, ceremonial actions around the dead body of Biswas’ grandmother are held up next to the equally outlandish costumes and paraphernalia of a birth in 70’s Watford.
Season is commissioned by Picture This, Dartington Arts and The South West Film and Television Archive. Funded by South West Screen.
My first questions about the South West Film & TV archive, were about histories and old hopes. About libraries and dreams. About the nature and function of memory and the loss of memory. And the creation of new memories. I was thinking at that time about the many criss-crossing paths that had been traveled between Devon and Calcutta. The migrations not only of goods and ideas but also fears and desires.
Plymouth was the slipway of Imperial Naval might, launching global conquests. Calcutta was the gateway to India’s opulence, created out of nothing as a landing stage. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Rabindranath Tagore’s revolutionary ideas seeded Santiniketan in the countryside around the village of Bolpur,West Bengal and the spore traveled all the way to Dartington Hall just outside Totnes in Devon.
Lost and confused about my place in Middle England, having dropped out of University disillusioned with education, this little Bengali boy found Dartington a few years ago to be the only place in Europe to study Indian music at a high level.
And now I was being asked back to respond as an Indian artist to the legacy of Tagore and to this archive of moving images. And here’s where this whole swarthy, warty issue of cultural diversity rears it ugly head. It is ugly I think. The fact is that the work of an artist is to a greater or lesser degree affected by the obsessions of his or her patrons. It’s nice to think that we operate in a world of image and intellect unsullied by economics. But that’s not the case. I really don’t know how long I would have followed along this line of thought if there hadn’t been money for it. Originally this was for something called ImaginAsia, a managerial, curatorial label for new moving image work relating to ‘South Asian-ness’.
It’s funny being construed by society at large as ‘an artist’. My name is used as a brand. I’m the hero or the villain. Either way, I’m visible. But in fact we are all the artists -manager,s curators, audiences. Not in some wooly New Age way but because all our concerns contribute to nudging and shaping the work. When bureaucrats get excited about the latest buzzwords – like cultural diversity – they find the work to fit the label. You can’t see what you can’t imagine.
So my journey to the archive was jostled and nudged by these fellow travellers. I had various questions about migration and ethnicity and how they might be figured in the archive, partly because of where the funding was coming from.
But then I had a much more fundamental layer of questions which are more personally interesting to me. Questions about how we imagine ourselves. How and where our imaginations are stored of ourselves. Who ‘we’ are? Who is the ‘South West’ in the South West film and TV archive.
A public archive is the concretized memory of a society. But what kind of truth status do such memories have at the margins of that society? I’m used to my story being left out in the sagas of Middle Earth. I wondered if perhaps my story was buried in here somewhere. I wondered about how ‘I’ was brought about through the writing of history. And about how I know about me and how I have been created. I’ve always loved libraries and bookshops. For just stumbling about and continuously falling upon unfolding layers of information. I had no idea what I would find in this new store.
These pictures are my first attempts to grapple with the questions, to reify the thoughts. I just went to the archive and started to collect impressions.
My first glimpses of the archive were more concealing than revealing. The building is hard and forbidding. It’s part of an old Navy victualling yard. The central store from which the Imperial forces were fed clothed and supplied. Its function has subsided in the last hundred years and now it’s a storage space for hours and hours of dreams. People’s old home movies donated from dusty attics, corporate training films from long defunct businesses, TV broadcasts of old news, scraps of stock of all kinds that everyone’s forgotten about.
And the space in which these racks and racks of cans and boxes are stacked, Royal William Yard, used to be the central supply depot for the navy. In particular this area was the old bedding store. Blankets, pillows, mattresses and sheets passed through here. Things to ease the dreams of soldiers. The place has always been a panderer of dreams. Now the bedsheets are ghosts. They still send pillows out to aircraft carriers. Now they fluff us up with millions of flickering mirages, They soften our fatigue at the real world with the shadows of the mundane and the extraordinary.
I keep imagining these shadows filling the submerged heads of sailors. Locked in a sunken ship. A couple of months ago I was in the Red Sea diving on the wreck of the SS Thistlegorm which was sunk in the second World War by Japanese pilots. I swam through underwater caverns full of rows of Enfield motorbikes, armoured jeeps, Wellington boots and porcelain toilet bowls. This archive has a similar feel.
It is the sediment on the floor of an ocean of information. Silt packed into stone.
Stone is our oldest memory. It’s our bones, our exo-skeleton and endo skeleton. It’s evidence of the billions of years that weigh down on us. It’s the ancestors on whom we stand. It’s the most stubborn intractable foundation of what we know. The invisible assumption.
It surrounds us day and night. We breathe and swim in it, sustained by ignorance. Soaked in it as we are soaked in gravity.
Unable to see what we cannot imagine.
We are surrounded by it. It holds us up and walls us in. It is our deepest conviction and the line of the horizon beyond which nothing can be known.
We are at the epicenter of a crater, caught in the middle, surrounded by our own view.
But when the certainty of stone dissolves possibilities can seep over the lip of the crate into new landscapes.
Until then the facts are evident, strident as jutting bones, jointed and articulate. As brittle as eggs. As strong as ships. As long as the bridge from certainty to sure.
This building is a huge folly. Like one of those 18th century ornamental towers or pavilions, Melville Yard is a monumental conceit. An edifice built on whimsy. But of course, all history is a creative act. My sense of myself is entirely a collection of stories. I am the folly. I am the archive.
I am a monument to a mood, a remembrance of a graceful moment.
The twisting rope of a Hornbeam, knotting mountain and cloud in a fast embrace is no more binding than I am. I crumble the mortar between my cells in order to shelter the mice and lice who pray in my grottoes. I stare out day and night in expectation of a visit which never comes, for time flows only one way grooving through me like water. The other way ghosts travel, their vaporous breaths hanging in the quiet dusk like adolescent boys who are shocked to find themselves for once without walls, and to find themselves heavy with birth, and to find themselves weeping.
I am the guardian of an empty space. My responsibility is to see that no one takes away the nothing I sit by and fills it with themselves. The light songs of birds, and the trails of insects pass through the nothing that I watch and fall into it. And they become like dotted lines, and then sparkles, and then only a slight expectation in the space. These are the undulations of my fabric. They pass like breezes through my open windows. My things are left with you where you may enjoy each other. I lie beneath your parties, protecting the gaps for you to sway and breath in.
I am a sensation welling up as water does which winks through grass and opens itself in a rising sheet until a laketop of feelings quivers. I am the dust being born in the sunlight and dying again at its edge. I curl around the limbs of things penetrating them with my directness, shocking them with my uncompromising elements, which are brimming with the experience of things. I am the coursing you have felt when you are taken by surprise in a space between your intentions. I am the impact crater which is soundless and without a centre.
I am an envoy and a sentinel, conveying the message of sentience to those whom you have forgotten to greet. I have come to tell them your news. Their spines and pages flap with thoughts which may have once been inhabited but which now only stand against the fading light to give the shadows a place to meet. My stairwells and alcoves are their veins. My heart is their cellar. I overhear their conversations and store them in the movements of my body. I have been waiting here for ages and can explain, if you would like to listen, what is about to happen.
I wonder what memories are stored in the vaults. I keep thinking of them as underwater. Before I went there for the first time I had been thinking I would just swim through images and sounds, tickling and plucking them here and there. But it wasn’t like that. In fact I never got to do any rummaging. The closest thing was rifling through the database on a computer screen.
I made lists and lists of images I would like to see. Most of which I never got round to actually pulling off a shelf. I didn’t quite feel comfortable getting a butler to do it. Although the staff there were incredibly helpful. In fact I gradually realised that the real archive was inside them, not in the physical materials. They materials are useless in themselves. You have to know what you were looking for.
But I had no idea what I was looking for – which was a bit disorienting for them I think. First time they’d had an artist there. And for me the list became more interesting than whatever it might refer to. I felt like a blind person in front of a beautiful and intricate painting. I began to imagine reading the archive in complete different ways. I began to think that disjunctions of meaning would begin to reveal the nature of the archive as contingent and arbitrary rather than as just a neutral documentary resource.
If our passing emotions and thoughts are like clouds, then this building is a dreaming body, stiff and old and almost blind. I wondered what a film archive would mean to a blind person.
The eye works at a distance and seduces oneself into believing in the possibility of objectivity, impartiality. Touch renders us intimately implicated.
I took the notes gleaned from exhaustive picture searches and translated them into Braille. I wanted to have someone read it who was blind and drunk or waking from a very deep sleep or somehow didn’t understand the language. I spent weeks trying to think what kind of relationship I would need to foster with someone to allow me to turn up at dawn beside their bed with a camera crew and an absurd list in Braille.
It was in the middle of all this that my grandmother died.
In fact today is Batshorik.
In Gokulpur she used to be called gopper jhunri – basket of stories. She had an incredible memory. I spent hours listening to her stories. She was 97 when she died and had lived through some of the most eventful years in Indian history with her eyes wide open. But I especially liked her ghost stories.
Death is the loss of memories, but it also makes space for new ones.
So now I feel the responsibilities to take up the story. Not to tell it but play it.
She was the last person in my immediate family to keep a really intimate connection with the land of our ancestral village.
Her sons look to the glittering horizon of the metropolis, the gold-paved streets of London. I feel it is my responsibility to serve my ancestors.
The function of memory is to relativize the present. Remembering the details of other possibilities renders any present actuality simply one among multiple potentials. Memory is to time, what travel is to space.
It broadens the mind. Sati is necessary for panna. Panna is a Pali word meaning knowledge of an object from a number of different perspectives. Re-membering is reuniting. It is a kind of yoga.
It’s not only at your own death that scenes from your life flash before you. I started to remember my grandmother. Episodes held in place by her continuing presence suddenly in her absence fell out of my archive. What had seemed, given, inevitable suddenly became clearly my responsibility. When I visited my village last year it was election time. 87 people were assassinated. Preventing things like that would be step towards cultural diversity.
And in joining my ancestors she started to speak with the voices of a maternal line stretching back to the first mother. Contrary to what you may have been told about intelligent machines, it is the line of mothers who create the matrix. The matrix is the ground of memory.
I have a dream
Its beads are drying
As the waters of the Ganges did from my skin
When I washed off the grief of loss.
I am playing in my family’s arms
Pissing as I dance. Free of care.
The swinging arcs of urine
Like laughter everywhere.
I am walking by the edge of the jungle
My cuts soothed by its intricate juice
The leaf escapes me now.
Where the jungle was, is a stone house.
I am pouring white liquid
Over the black shaft of the universe
My mother whispering in my ear and guiding my hand
My grandmother pressing a honey dipped finger between my lips
My ancestors are filing past me
They heap grass and seeds upon me
And water me with tears from their eyes
Beseeching me to grow.
My father is squeezing the heart of a mango
Until its sweetness pours through his fingers
Onto mashed bananas, rice, and milk
He is laying a plate of leaf and a woollen seat
For those who will never come again.
I am in a bower of jasmine
The new world spread before me
A young woman clothed in silken petals comes
And outside the door an old woman sits all night
With her ear to the door
Now you have gone to sleep, Hum
And the sudden silence startles me awake.
Our past is a sleep. And our future too.
And in our present is only coming to and falling.
Memories and dreams mingling into a stream of stories
That slip continuously through my fingers
The basket of stories has gone leaving only evaporating ghosts
Like ponds in the sun and dreams in the morning mist.
Box 10, number 2, Dart 23, 16mm jungle
Mark Clare Archive coll. Sept 00 8mm Colour
Library loc. X3913 Reel 3 – boy on Heathland, boy on rocks
Reel 8 boys in wilderness
Sharp Coll. Sept 01 library loc X4106
Can 6 children in grass skirts
Can 5 Atlantic swells, lumpy seas
Reel 7 can 9 country scenes can 11 harvest
Reel 11 can 4 Indian crowds on quayside
Reel 12 can 8,9 juggler 1, 2 mango tree in basket
Reel 13 can 4 snake charmer
Tape no: 281064
Program no: rack 2 nudes by sea short clip
Lib loc XF0063 Mark Alderson
Reel 8 snake charming Indian scenes
Reel14 naked children play with hosepipe
1971 interviews with Leonard Elmhirst
lib loc X3523 sari colour texture folding
X3609 home made globe time 21’ approx
AD2619 Page & Willis archive sunrise / sunset time lapse
Slow motion diving swimming
Can 1 start time 01:09:00:00 fancy dress party
Views of city people Ad 2413 29.09.61 children dancing in medieval costume
Women dance with tambourines
AB3518 Naked child playing on beach
AF2815 naked child on beach 11 running into water
AM0083? X3423? Topless women licking grass, making a blouse
X3920 young child in a field [Kemp] (naked) near end of reel 1 00:14:27
Tape no. 210582 Ballroom dancing at Continental Hotel
The sraddha sends the living off to dine with all those who have lived before.
Today is the end of the past.
The film archive brings back those who once lived to dance with us again.
The original act of projection is birth. Life comes out of the void. Today is the beginning of the future.
Poet and peasant are mutually indebted. I believe we are doomed unless we can formulate an art in which soil and soul are equally tended and where education, creativity and industry are consciously tied to non-human rhythms. This relationship need not always be simple. It can be complex but it must be conscious.
The silicon cells of our digital machines may seem far away from the sands of the littoral zone but they should be understood as being made of the same stuff. Although our tools have changed throughout history, the songs remain the same. Certain choices have certain inevitable effects however. Childbirth and harvesting can be made less painful, less strenuous, less taxing. Death can be hidden away. But at what cost?
The rhythms of work are common to all of us. Life is drummed into us. We dance on the dirt in which our food grows. The roots of all civilizations are in the soil. Cycles of growth have prompted us to study the heavens, and the dance of distribution has led us into vast economic systems. Hunger, harvest, digestion and waste have shaped our orientation in the world. Wherever we are, however culturally diverse, All flesh is grass. Grass is the ground of our life. We have spliced and fenced and beaten it until its head droops with fat grains. We have trodden it into submission and thrashed the life out of it. The effort of nourishing ourselves on this grass has been our main work. It has taken up most of our time for hundreds of thousands of years. Cows chew and chew. Humans work – with slabs and stones, ploughs, scythes, pitchforks, chains, millstones, mortars and pestles, fire and, lately, with crystals of sand in vast electric arrays of flicking switches. In our intricate rituals we work with clay pots made of Ganges mud, filled with milk and ghee, or with catheters and probes and heartbeat monitors. Our tools may grow and change in our hands but the rhythms of these various instruments have been our music since the very first work we ever did. My work as an artist is simply to remember this.