Among the documentaries that will be screened at the annual Public Service Broadcasting Trust festival Open Frame in Delhi between September 13-19 is Gouri Patwardhan’s In a Shadowless Town. The absorbing 52-minute documentary is placed at the intersection of history, Dalit activism, and the development of Pune city. In the Shadowless Town presents a cross-weave of strands: an alternate reading of Pune’s history of conquest and defeat, an emphasis on the valourisation of upper-caste, officially sanctioned heroes, and a tradition of myth-making that has overlooked the contributions of the Dalits to the city’s history. As one commentator pithily remarks, our understanding of history is shaped by the question “Who remembers what?”
The opening sequence establishes Patwardhan’s concerns: the annual celebration of the Mahar Regiment’s formation and its contribution towards the defeat of the Peshwas by the British in 1818 at the Bhima Koregaon village near Pune. Every year, lakhs of Ambedkarites and survivors and descendants of the soldiers gather at the Bhima Koregaon memorial to pay their respects to the 20 Mahars who died in battle.
Patwardhan then examines the heroes Pune tends to commemorate through statues at traffic islands and others it has either undervalued or ignored. Chief among these is Jyotirao Phule, the pioneering activist against caste and for education, especially of women, and one of the bravest social reformers India has produced. Through interviews with scholars and Dalit activists, Patwardhan resurrects Phule’s legacy and underlines the importance of his memorial in a city that did not always respect his efforts.
Patwardhan also devotes a chapter to Shivram Janba Kamble, the Dalit activist who wrote to Sayajirao Gakewad II requesting a scholarship for BR Ambedkar. There are nuggets about Phule’s will and the discovery of one of few photographers of the reformer. Here is the clip about the photograph.