‘I have been to the immortal lands…’

RAJULA SHAH’s film, Word Within the Word, quietly and gently goes to the core of spirituality in everyday life. Painting broad strokes through her camera, her cuts and her conversations, she seeks meaning in Kabir as sung and interpreted by a farmer, a vegetable-seller, a halwai, a petty shopkeeper. There could not be a more damning document of organised religion and its keepers.

The 70 minute film constantly seeks the sublime in the ordinary, in ‘the wretched of the earth’, as she states in her synopsis. Rajula does not choose to dwell on the devastation of the landscapes she films and shuns any attempt at romaticising them either. She engages with those who sing the words of Kabir, and revels in their interpretation of his words and their lives. And in these conversations she gestures towards very difficult lives lived with profound grace and wisdom. “My daily rounds fetch me supper. Wandering you eat, tethered you starve, says He,” Quotes the vegetable seller who sets out for the day.

At a distance, a farmer cajoles his pair of bullocks to plough the earth. The camera stays still as the trio enters frame and exits, then re-enter and re-exit, again and again, until the soil in the foreground has been turned over. With the same meditative rigour, the farmer tunes his musical instrument in the next shot. The farmer and his companions sing, “…I have been to the immortal land, Why do you stray here and there, All sacred lands, find here, He is within, don’t seek without.”
They go on to argue, “First wind, then water and then the earth, in darkness dwelt the three. Shakti has no form, nor Mahesh a body, it was lit with the flame of the formless, the free. As thunder and light hit Shiv Shakti’s night, the three worlds came to be. Thence the trinity. Where in the world were your Ram-Lakshman then?… What can they do, these stone idols?”

To relegate the Kabir panthis into a sub-culture worthy of being recorded and archived is a typical and might I add a damaging impulse that belongs to a narrow ‘secular’ imagination. Rajula Shah’s films probes a thriving counter culture that is produced and reproduced with vigour and inventiveness. She lays claim to her own meaning and intimate involvement with the form when she relates a story to the vegetable seller, about Vishnu proving to Narad, who is his greatest devotee. Is it the common farmer who at times takes his name even as he toils away, or is it Narad who takes his name constantly?

Secularism is a much used and abused word. Kabir sits high in the pantheon of secular thinkers. But his spiritualism and the quest for the esoteric stick out inconveniently in the imagination of the flag bearers of secularism. Rajula Shah is not bothered with these constructed polarities. She collects small details in a nondescript urban setting, the space that she belongs to, concrete columns framing day break, smoke above a row of water tanks, a remote and a tea cup on a ledge, a bird, a wire, a patch of sun. Rajula transforms this space into the spectacular by following clouds heavy with rain. Kumar Gandharva’s voice fills the frame as he sings Kabir, “Clouds burst in the west, Raindrops fall to a rhythm, O wise one go tend your fields…” This is the opening of a remarkable film.

Full review here

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