Pushpendra Singh’s seductive Pearl of the Desert is as much about cinema as it is about music. Singh winningly meshes together fiction and non-fiction for a hybrid documentary about the Manganiyar folk tradition. Pearl of the Desert has observational footage as well as dramatised scenes that trace the journey of teenager Moti Khan Manganiyar and his place in an undated and uninterrupted conversation with the joys and mysteries of the desert.

Moti is the pearl of this film as well of the folk music style he represents. Moti is inspired both by his legacy as well as the sand and the vegetation around him, and through his character, Singh points to the ways in which Manganiyari music survives as well as adapt to the digital age.

The film revisits Moti’s early preference for singing over his school lessons, his musical training and his career highlights, which include performing at international events. Moti re-enacts some of his previous experiences, and the feeling of sliding between fiction and documentary is enhanced when characters speak in rhyme.

Pearl of the Desert was on Singh’s mind when he was making his directorial debut with Lajwanti in 2014. For the adaptation of the Vijaydan Detha story about a married woman and her encounters with a pigeon breeder, Singh took the help of noted performer Anwar Khan Manganiyar. That was when he met Anwar’s nephew Moti, who would “follow us around and sing”, the filmmaker told Scroll.in.

“I wanted to explore the oral traditions of the Manganiyars, how music was passed on from one generation to the next, how they cultivate their tastes,” Singh added. Moti becomes the vehicle for Singh’s quest.

Pearl of the Desert (2019).

The film’s formal approach, which moves seamlessly between the documented and the staged, fell into place during the first shooting schedule. “I wanted to make a film where I was also interested in the practice of cinema itself,” said Singh, who has an acting degree from the Film and Television Institute of India and has also made the film Ashwatthama. “We would shoot and edit and get new ideas, and the boy’s voice would strike me again and again.”

Moti is both playing himself as well as a typical representative of the current generation of the Manganiyars, who once depended on royal patronage for their survival. Pushpendra Singh was sensitive to the exoticised manner in which the Manganiyars are often represented, especially in films and tourist videos. Moti is a symbol both of his own ambitions as well as “the dilemmas of the new generation”, the filmmaker said.

“Moti still carries the old traditions, but because of digital technology and television, he is also grappling with newer practices,” Singh added.

Among Singh’s inspirations was Mani Kaul’s 1981 documentary A Desert of Thousand Lines, about rival music clans in Rajasthan. The initial title of Singh’s film was Shifting Lines of the Desert. Pearl of the Desert, translated in Rajasthani as Maru Ro Moti, is the more apt title that captures the vision of both the protagonist and the filmmaker.

Singh drew on his formative years in Rajasthan for Pearl of the Desert. The Marudhar Arts and Seesaw Pictures co-production was screened in the Indian competition section at the recently concluded Mumbai Film Festival and is now headed to the prestigious International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam (November 20-December 1). Pearl of the Desert will be screened in the competitive feature-length section at IDFA.

Meanwhile, 41-year-old Singh has already wrapped up his next feature film, which explores folk storytelling traditions in the Bakharwal community in Kashmir.

Pushpendra Singh.

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