Film preservation

With rare photos and letters, a web archive is piecing together the life of film historian BD Garga

A Delhi film collective is developing a website that tells the story of the man behind the phenomenon.

Bhagwan Das Garga’s contributions as a documentary filmmaker and unparalleled chronicler of Indian cinema are widely known. But who was Bhagwan Das Garga, the person?

For the past two years, the Delhi film collective Lightcube has been working hard to produce an answer. A team of five people, along with BD Garga’s wife Donnabelle, is developing an online archive that will provide a peek into lesser-known aspects of the film historian’s life and adventures.

This will be no traditional film repository, say its creators. Anuj Malhotra, who is overseeing the editorial content of the Lightcube website, compared the project to a pharaoh’s tomb. “Just as the ancient kings were buried in their tombs with relics and artefacts, in the case of our archive, visitors will be able to recompile Mr Garga’s life post-death from the resources we provide,” Malhotra said. The project will also have the quality of an investigative novel, he added, in that the final picture can be pieced together through various clues.

Apart from articles written by and about Garga, the website will feature a section dedicated to his correspondence with some of 20th century’s most remarkable film personalities. The icing on the cake will be a gallery of never-seen-before photographs of Garga, which document “the incredible adventure of his life”, Malhotra said.

Donnabelle Garga, who has painstakingly pieced together the material for Malhotra, said the website will go behind the scenes of Garga’s work. “The material in the website has nothing to do with any exhibition done before,” she explained. “It is mostly personal stuff like the letters he shared with Ismail Merchant, during the making of Shakespeare Wallah, and Mrinal Sen and Satyajit Ray. And then the narrations he wrote for various documentary films.”

Bhagwan Das Garga with Satyajit Ray. Image credit: Donnabelle Garga/The Garga Archives.
Bhagwan Das Garga with Satyajit Ray. Image credit: Donnabelle Garga/The Garga Archives.

The website was partly made possible by BD Garga’s own meticulous nature. Over six decades, he carefully preserved photographs taken on film sets, as well as magazines, letters and other material. In 1992, after the Gargas moved to Goa, the historian kept his material in cardboard boxes, and took care to ensure that none of his memorabilia were affected by Goa’s humidity. For instance, he would place special tissues between photographs to prevent them from sticking to each other.

But when their home began to resemble a warehouse, the couple gave away a chunk of the material first to the Satyajit Ray Archive in Kolkata and then to the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts in New Delhi. After Garga’s death in July 2011, when Donnabelle Garga wanted to do another round of cleaning up, Malhotra stepped in.

Malhotra had become acquainted with the couple when he and designer Gautam Valluri worked with them on the layout of BD Garga’s last book, Silent Cinema in India: A Pictorial Journey, which won a National Film Award for Best Book on Cinema in 2012. After the publishers suggested a sequel, Malhotra and Valluri were summoned again. Even though that book did not materialise, the constant interactions during this period became the bedrock for the archive that was to come.

“Anuj stayed with me in 2015 or ’16,” Donnabelle Garga recalled. “I was sorting out a lot of stuff in the house like film magazines that I did not want. He was a film buff and was interested in the material and I said, take what you like.”

Henri Langlois and Bhagwan Das Garga. Image credit: Donnabelle Garga/The Garga Archives.
Henri Langlois and Bhagwan Das Garga. Image credit: Donnabelle Garga/The Garga Archives.

The information was all there, but curating it took a lot of time. Donnabelle Garga rummaged through old trunks, computer hard disks, the library and the attic to find material that could satiate Malhotra’s “persuasive curiosity”.

Malhotra’s excitement was contagious, and Donnabelle Garga began digitising some of the material herself. Once she assembled a framework, Malhotra saw the scope for an actual, real archive – “a mausoleum, if there ever was one,” he said.

At first, Malhotra conceptualised a book, but upon seeing the vast material on hand and contemplating the costs, he re-imagined his endeavour as a website. “When we had a chance to access all of the valuable, exceptional material like the hand-crafted letters, a whole diary of notes on unfinished films, a battery of technological equipment, the very real danger of having all of it lost to an invisible oblivion dawned upon us,” Malhotra said.

Did anything in particular fascinate Malhotra as he sifted through the vast repository of information?

Off the top of his head, Malhotra said he was delighted to learn that Garga had sneaked into a secret screening of the second part of Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan, The Terrible in Moscow – at the time, journalists had been prohibited from writing about the film – and had smuggled out notes scribbled in the darkness of the cinema to review the movie for the Sight and Sound magazine. Hearing the story from Donnabelle Garga, Malhotra said, added a “conspiratorial touch” to this well-known anecdote. The review will be posted on the website.

Bhagwan Das Garga assisting KA Abbas on the sets of Pardesi in Moscow. Image credit: Donnabelle Garga/The Garga Archives.
Bhagwan Das Garga assisting KA Abbas on the sets of Pardesi in Moscow. Image credit: Donnabelle Garga/The Garga Archives.

Malhotra was also fascinated by the letters exchanged between Garga and film critic and biographer Marie Seton, his interviews with producer JBH Wadia, and documents on a 1968 exhibition he organised with French film legend Henri Langlois at the Cinematheque Francaise in Paris. This exhibition was the first retrospective of Indian cinema organised outside the country, and Malhotra’s website will include a catalogue of the event.

Malhotra hopes the website will communicate to visitors the idea that a life such as BD Garga’s – full of commitment, struggle, discovery, intelligence and culture – is possible. “That is essential in the times we live in,” Malhotra said.

To figure out how to organise and index the treasure trove of material, Malhotra’s team took inspiration from various sources, the most definitive being The Documentary Montage, Jag Mohan’s epitaph to filmmaker S Sukhdev. Malhotra said the book came closest to the detective fiction-like structure he had in mind for the website.

This unconventional approach poses a design challenge. “When you approach web design from a traditional perspective, you can dictate the resolution, the format and the sizes that you are going to work with,” said Suraj Prasad, the project’s web developer. “With a project like this, where the material is scattered across different formats, with each photograph having different dimensions, and some of the written or typed text becoming illegible over time, it is a fascinating task to put everything together.”

Malhotra also envisions a greater purpose for the archive – of plugging the gaps in the study of Indian cinema.

“The fact is that histories of film and film culture in India are discontinuous and disjointed, with enormous lapses in the middle,” Malhotra said. “As such, the new generation of critics, archivists, commentators, filmmakers and cinephiles fail to build cumulatively on the work that has already been done, and therefore, each successive generation has to start anew”.

Interview with Bhagwan Das Garga.
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