Documentary channel

A documentary captures the hunt for the mythical Saraswati: ‘A gold rush for a trickle of water’

‘Searching for Saraswati’, by Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya, is the first Indian documentary in the ‘New York Times’ newspaper’s Op-Docs section.

In their debut documentary The Cinema Travellers (2016), Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya explored the fading magic of touring theatres in Maharashtra. Their second project goes into starkly different territory. Searching for Saraswati travels to Mughalwali village in Haryana, where, it is claimed, the mythical Saraswati river has been found. The state government has sunk crores into reviving the alleged water body, and has set up the Haryana Sarasvati Heritage Development Board to this end. Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar also declared in March 2017 that the Indus Valley Civilisation should be renamed the Sarasvati river civilisation.

The filmmakers wade into the debate by interviewing believers as well as sceptics. The recent spate of policy decisions fuelled by Hindutva ideology is identified as the larger context for the Haryana government’s attempt to defy existing knowledge that questions the river’s very existence.

Searching for Saraswati is one of five titles supported by a Sundance Institute-MacArthur Foundation Short Film Fellowship, and is the first Indian contribution to Op-Docs, the video channel started by the New York Times newspaper’s opinion section in 2011. The 20-minute film will be released on Op-Docs on July 10. Edited excerpts from an email interview with the filmmakers.

What fuelled the decision to make a documentary on the Haryana government’s Saraswati project?
As the Bharatiya Janta Party ascended to power in 2014, we began to hear a fantastical surmising about the scientific achievements of India’s great, often undated, past. Prime Minister Modi led the charge. Addressing the inauguration of a hospital in Mumbai, he claimed that the physiognomy of Ganesh proved that ancient India was proficient in plastic surgery. The flights of fancy of the political class and its associates and allies took wing.

Amusing as these hallucinatory readings were, they were worrying on many ascendant levels. They showed the lack of comprehension among the political class and its associates of India’s magnificent and imaginative achievements in astronomy, mathematics, atomic doctrines and even surgery. Consequently, it also obscured a vision of the possibilities of these disciplines, as informed by this diffused reading of the past.

Further, the accumulated knowledge of this imagined past was purported to be rooted in ancient Hindu religious texts. Knowledge of science was invoked to validate the greatness of the Hindu religion.

It discouraged the spirit of rational thinking and questioning. And ultimately, it sought to mould our multicultural identity to match an absolutist and misplaced religious idea, that India is a nation of and for, Hindus.

We were looking for a metaphor to express this moment. An idiom, if you will, for this kind of rallying ground. And we found it in the furious search, and eventual declaration of discovery, of the mythical river Saraswati.

Searching for Saraswati. Image credit: Amit Madheshiya.
Searching for Saraswati. Image credit: Amit Madheshiya.

Your film reveals that while there are many converts to the cause, there is also a healthy debate and ample scepticism.
As soon as the district panchayat declared that Saraswati was found, in May 2015, the state government organised an elaborate pooja. Chief Minister Manoharlal Khattar came to worship the spot. The site drew intrepid tourists, pilgrims, believers, miracle workers and curious villagers from near and far.

Here was a gold rush, for a trickle of water.

On the one hand was Sahiram Kashyap, who had left home for the spot where Saraswati had “appeared”. Having built a hut and camping in it, he had been diligently praying to the Mother, lighting a lamp and cleaning the site. He was also documenting details of everyone who has been visiting the site that lay dug up in canals and trenches for revival of the river. Over subsequent visits, we saw women, men and seasons come and go. Kashyap camped. And sought the answer to the one big question, when will Saraswati flow like he has known through the oral traditions and stories of the ages?

Interestingly, he had spent the previous year prospecting for gold along the Ganga. He had returned empty-handed and had since been ridiculed in the village.

Amidst the thronging believers, it was only farmer Jarnail Singh, from the neighbouring village Milkheda, who was not washed over with unquestioning belief. When we asked him about the declaration of gushing groundwater as the mythical river Saraswati, he said, “They had also brought a sadhu who scooped up some water, drank it, and declared, this was the Mother.” He pushed his dark glasses in the direction of his upturned nose, and added, “As if it was Coke.” Finding him was exciting and consoling.

In the concert of voices, we also found RTI activist PP Kapoor as a brave and essential voice of reason. He had persisted for more than a year, trying to chase the district government for reports of scientific authenticity that were guiding their explorations.

Since the film is aimed at an international viewership, how did you keep the balance between explaining a complex issue and maintaining an observational tone?
All stories are dense and overwhelming at first. The story of this film was an accordion of mythology, history, politics, religion, faith, nationalism and science. It was as if we had to write a whole book but were struggling to craft a single sentence.

We went looking for what felt like the truest moment we could experience – that one man, Sahiram Kashyap, waiting for a 5,000-year-old mythical river to flow. Adopting this granular approach was illuminating. It helped us delve deeper, and not necessarily expand wider, into how propaganda influences perception and how faith and reason collide as the sounds of nationalism filter into a small village.

Was the film supposed to stick to a particular length? Could it have opened out to include more details about Mughalwali village and the rise of Hindutva-led politics in Haryana?
In keeping with the dynamism of the story, we had imagined this film to be told through the short format and Op-Docs seemed like the perfect foil and complement to the narrative. While conceptualising and filming, we were still working with the short format on the horizon, but we arrived at this length in post-production as the optimum narrative time for the story.

Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya. Courtesy Cave Pictures.
Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya. Courtesy Cave Pictures.
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