Lubdhak Chatterjee’s documentary Vaikhari has much to offer to connoisseurs of classical music and dance. The Public Service Broadcasting Trust production is dedicated to Padhant, the art of reciting mnemonic and rhythmic syllables in Hindustani classical music and dance forms such as Kathak.
Padhant is recited by dancers and musicians during a performance to mark space and time through words, hand movements or the beat of the percussive instrument. A variation of Padhant in the Carnatic tradition is the Konnakkol.
Chatterjee, an engineer by training and a self-taught filmmaker, delves deep into this art of recitation with the help of renowned Kathak exponent Parwati Dutta. He sets the film in Dutta’s beautiful Mahagami Gurukul in Aurangabad, ensuring that the aurally rich subject gets a fitting visual treatment.
The 59-minute film follows Dutta and her students as they prepare to stage a dance adaptation of Kalidas’s Sanskrit masterpiece Meghadootam. Chatterjee silently observes as Dutta delineates the role of Padhant in depicting key parts of the text.
Vaikhari will be screened at the Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute in Kolkata on September 5, followed by PSBT’s Open Frame festival in New Delhi on September 18 and the Pondicherry International Film Festival on September 30.
Chatterjee is not a trained musician or dancer but is a devotee of both art forms. In Vaikhari, these passions come together with his love for still photography and filmmaking, which he discovered while doing his post-graduation in engineering. His made his filmmaking debut with In A Free State, which was screened in the Cannes Film Festival’s short film section in 2016. Vaikhari, a Sanskrit word that means intelligence and articulation, is his second film and first documentary.
A lifelong exposure to classical music and dance drew Chatterjee to exploring Padhant. “I didn’t learn these forms but there were people in my family who practised it,” he said. “I also used to attend seminars and recitals. It was during one of these occasions that I first witnessed a performance of Padhant. At that point in time, it appeared as a language, a mode of communication to me. It intrigued me.”
The fascination for the form lingered when he went to Delhi for higher studies. He regularly attended classical music and dance recitals in the capital. A parallel fascination for filmmaking too began to develop. “Sometime during my Masters degree, the idea of making a film had begun to take root,” Chatterjee said. “And I felt that if I were to make a film, I should choose a topic that I’m confident about, at least. Even if I’m not a trained musician or a dancer, Padhant is something I have been familiar with and a connoisseur of.”
Chatterjee found that while Padhant is widely known in classical art circles, it was not familiar to those outside that world. “I thought it would make a good idea for a film,” he said. “And I felt that the research that I will have to do for the film will help me gain a deeper understanding of the form. And that’s what I feel has happened. A whole new world has opened up in front of me.”
Chatterjee had watched Parwati Dutta perform at a concert at Delhi’s India Habitat Centre in 2015, and he had also followed her work and her scholarship in Kathak. He felt that she was the ideal person to lead his exploration. “What really interested me is her keen interest in ancient traditions, in Dhrupad music and in different, old bandishes that are not performed generally,” Chatterjee said. “When I emailed her in 2015, she asked me to visit her school in Aurangabad. Once I went there and discussed the entire concept for the film with her, I felt that I have come to the right place.”
Chatterjee stayed in Dutta’s gurukul and began his research. Slowly, the film began to take shape. “The idea of including Kalidas’s Meghadootam emerged out of my discussions with Parwati di,” he said. “Although it is a non-fiction film, I was very particular about not using voice-overs and interviews, which are the stereotypical tools used in a documentary.”
In the documentary, Chatterjee allows the details to unfold by filming Dutta explaining Padhant to her students. Padhant’s complex history and its various manifestations are also revealed. “By utterances of bols, we can show the arrival of clouds,” Dutta says in the film, picking up an excerpt from Kalidas’s text. “Every alphabet or utterance is inspired or derived from nature after all. Like the phrase gheghethita alludes to the rumble of clouds. By expanding the phrase, one can show a scene of arrival of clouds.”
Chatterjee’s camera movements too seem to mimic the beat of the Padhant. “One can call it a dance of the camera or my response to the music, to the bols,” he said. “In indoor spaces, for instance, my camera tracks only in a horizontal axis keeping in mind a dancer’s body in response to gravitational force.”
Chatterjee also attempts to recreate the rhythms and sounds of the space around him. “A lot of this film is shaped by my experience of sitting in Mahagami and experiencing that space,” Chatterjee said. “Whether it is the sight and sound of dry leaves falling, of a downpour and lotuses blooming or of a dancer practising dance at a distance – all of it shaped how I eventually shot the film.”
Wouldn’t the concepts explained in Vaikhari be more accessible to those who are familiar with the basics of classical music and dance? Chatterjee disagrees.
“I feel it is very arrogant to think that people won’t get these concepts,” he said. “Most people in their real lives deal with issues and concepts that are quite complex. As for me, all I wanted to do is be honest to the subject. That’s the only way I felt I can provide a profound experience that I can share with others.”