Followers of Indian art will recognise the references contained in the title of RV Ramani’s 2017 documentary Santhal Family to Mill Re-call. These are the names of two of acclaimed sculptor Ramkinkar Baij’s best-known works. Santhal Family, made in 1938, features a set of parents, their child, their dog and their worldly possessions. Mill Call, created in 1956, is another monumental work, showcasing a family setting out for work.
Ramani’s documentary, however, is not the story behind these artworks, which rank among the greatest examples of Indian modernist sculpture. Rather, Santhal Family and Mill Re-call is about the story behind a story about these works – the multi-genre show 409 Ramkinkars, which was held at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts in Delhi in 2015. The show featured artworks, a stage performance and installations that responded to and reflected upon Baij’s creations and approach. The show included the involvement of such heavyweights as Vivan Sundaram, Anuradha Kapur and Rimli Bhattacharya.
Ramani’s documentary will be screened at the national competition section of the Films Division’s Mumbai International Film Festival, which will be held between January 29 and February 3.
Ramani was commissioned by the Vivadi Collective, of which Kapur is one of the founders, to shoot the setting up of the show as well as the actual event itself. The film involved “being witness to the efforts made by Vivan and his group of artists, in re-creating the works of Ramkinkar, in their own terms, with different materials in Delhi”, Ramani said. “The theatre directors Anuradha Kapur, Santanu Bose, working with actors, to evoke the period of Ramkinkar, his thoughts on art making and also at the same time. In fact the film is like multiple mirrors, reflecting each other. I saw my role too in a similar way, as someone who is doing a re-take on the process of re-creation, re-interpreting, of not only Ramkinkar and Vivan, but also of the theatre directors, actors, other artists involved in the process, sometimes moving away from the main narrative, bringing in other elements of documentary filmmaking.”
One of the early shots establishes the 112-minute documentary’s ambitions. As a poster of Baij is unfurled, the camera moves in close to his face. This poster soon gets covered with collages from MF Husain’s paintings.
The documentary captures the behind-the-scenes energy, collaboration and give-and-take of ideas that go into the performances and the interpretative artworks. Ramani familiarised himself both with Baij’s sculptures as well as Sundaram’s approach to art and installation for the documentary. “I had seen a few images of Ramkinkar’s works, and had heard a lot about him from friends who had studied at Santiniketan,” Ramani said. “Though I had seen some of Vivan’s works done many years back, which I found fascinating, it became important for me to familiarise myself with Vivan’s body of work too. It became clear to me that I was dealing with two artists, Vivan and Ramkinkar.”
Ramani visited Santiniketan in Bengal, where Baij lived and worked for the bulk of his life, and where many of his sculptures still stand. The film evolved into “one artist looking at another artist, and me looking at both the artists, the process of interpretation, in my own perspective, bringing in the process film-making as another conscious element of interpretation in the whole process”.
Several of Ramani’s documentaries, including Saa (1991), Nee Engey (2003), Nee Yaar (2009), My Camera and Tsunami (2009) and Hindustan Hamara (2014), are about the making of a making. His films capture the often abstract process of creative expression, the ways in which performance pieces come together through discussions and rehearsals, and the energy that is generated during this process.
“The process of creativity and imagination lies in everybody,” Ramani explained. “Its expression comes often through other parameters rather than stated parameters. I also look at the contexts around which an artist functions. It is about how I express what I experience.”
A trained cinematographer, Ramani shoots his own documentaries, and use his hand-held camera to scoop up the often invisible truths that underpin the creation of art. Ramani’s fluid camerawork follows the spirit of the moment rather than adheres to any rulebook about how shots should be composed and how much light should enter the frame.
“Cinematography is very much the fulcrum of my work, I am almost re-discovering it all the time,” said the director, who trained at the Film and Television Institute of India. “The image making process is so volatile and everything is important. An NG (not good) shot is as good as an OK (okay) shot. I almost sculpt my film through shot taking. My camera becomes a pen, an audio recorder, a pulse, a companion, a looker, an engager, a philosopher, a recipient, a friend, a lover, a magician. For me, every film is new, starting my career all over from zero. One is always in a process of negotiation with your characters, which is very exciting and challenging.”
Would Ramani have approached Santhal Family and Mill Re-call differently if it were not a commissioned film? “When I embark on a film concept, the filming just starts and I end up completing the film,” he explained. “I am generally scared bringing in a funder, thinking it might alter the film. But in almost all my works, I look for a funding source, which does not interfere with my own process. In this film too, I felt proud to be associated with such great artists and people, who invited me to be part of the process, and allowed me to create my own perspective and experience of a film.”