The Cinema of Pryaog( Experiment)

'Prayōga' is a Sanskrit word, which loosely translates as 'experiment' but can also mean 'representation' and 'practice'. Coined by film historian Amrit Gangar, the term 'cinema of prayōga' defines "the eternal quest, [the] continuing process in time and space" central to artists' film and video.

"In 1949, Einstein pointed out to me during one of several long and highly involved private technical discussions that certain beautifully formulated theories of his would mean that the whole universe consisted of no more than two charged particles. Then he added with a rueful smile, “Perhaps I have been working on the wrong lines, and nature does not obey differential equations after all.” If a scientist of his rank could face the possibility that his entire lifework might have to be discarded, could I insist that the theorems whose inner beauty brought me so much pleasure after heavy toil must be of profound significance in natural philosophy? Fashions change quickly in physics where theory is so rapidly outstripped by experiment." – D.D. Kosambi

The late Prof D.D. Kosambi was perhaps one of those few Indians who had grasped the modern transformation of science and its implications, particularly for India. He was, perhaps, the only one who had endeavored to act on a wide canvas, to make the scientists of this country realize their tasks and catalyze their tradition-bound society. Through his studies and writings on Indian history, mythology and religion, literature and sociology, he not only applied scientific methods to these areas but also showed that new explanations to age-old beliefs were desirable and possible.

Interestingly, Prof Kosambi has left a profound influence on some of our progressive, innovative filmmakers – Kumar Shahani, in particular. Prof Kosambi lived in Poona (Pune), close to the Film & Television Institute of India (FTII). As Shahani told me once, Prof Kosambi had good insights into cinematography, too. As a great teacher he would take young Shahani to the surrounding areas; on the way he would pick up a pebble and start narrating history. History, for Prof Kosambi, was at one’s doorstep. ‘History at the Doorstep’ was his radical concept to study and understand the past. Some of his field works are extremely significant.

Einstein’s dilemma or self-doubt also reminds me of Stan Brakhage in an interview, regretting his underestimation of ‘the historical flypaper’ he was stuck in. “I didn’t realize until much later how people in their daily living imitate the narrative-dramatic materials that infiltrate their lives through the radio, TV, newspapers and, certainly, the movies.” He also felt that “despite all the evolutions of his film grammar and his inclusion of hypnagogic and dream vision, they were still tied to the more traditional dramatic-narrative framework!” It is, I think, a trial and error game that one keeps playing, always in pra-kriyā, the process, creative or post-creative. But there is a difference between empirical sciences and the plastic arts such as cinematography. What, however, puzzles me is Brakhage’s repeated use of the term ‘film grammar’, which is essentially rules-bound, whereas avant-garde, to my mind, is iconoclastic. It is interesting to note from Prof Kosambi’s comment that even in physics, fashions change quickly and theory is so rapidly outstripped by experiment. Does this, or has it, happen/d in the praxis of experimental cinematography? Later in this essay and in the context of Cinema of Prayōga and the Euro-American avant-garde and underground cinema, I propose to refer to the kind of unsteady axes that these terms have always stood on, floundering.

The Spirit of Experimentation
It was during EXPERIMENTA 2005 in Mumbai that I thought of creating the term Cinema of Prayōga, as a prayāya, an alternative to Experimental Film and its synonyms. [Prayōga is pronounced as prayōg, and paryāya as paryāy]. And I wrote briefly about it in the festival catalogue. Given that the first explorations into the so-called experimental / avant-garde / underground films started in Western Europe and North America, the relevant theories also naturally emerged from there. Why so? Isn’t experimentation intrinsically universal – in one form or another? In the times when the Euro-American establishment can only assimilate non-western art on manifestly ethnographic terms, while keeping the option open to reject it precisely on those terms, how do we recognize the avant-garde in India? Do experiments happen in isolation of local conditions? Do experiments rapidly outstrip theories across the spectrum? Or, in particular, how stable the theories or paradigms of these operative terms have been vis-à-vis developing cinematography and its technology? And does the experiment end once the artist has completed his work? If so, are we talking about just the process that the ‘experimental film’ has gone through? These are some of the questions (and they are not actually new) that have been troubling my mind for quite some time, and in the context, I would like to check whether the idea of cinema of prayōga could be put in currency in the global cinematographic vocabulary and discourse for better employment and use. Prayōga includes both these applications.

While examining and elaborating the term prayōga, I would also like to explore and contextualize Indian film history in brief. It is also of interest to see the Indian political economy entering the realm of the ‘experimental’.

In fact, the so-called ‘experiment’ works in the form and with or without the form. Again the question – what after all is not experimental? – looms large. This essay would branch itself into multiple but integral streams, all finally flowing into the mahāsāgar, ocean of prayōga.

Experimental Environmental
Amit Dutta, the youngest artist in the ‘Cinema of Prayōga’ programme believes that everybody is born experimental. Or as Ritwik Ghatak said, experimentation is an ever-living and never dying thing. Experiment is part of life so why name it, why label it? To my mind at the moment, the three most experimental objects or organisms that we always live in are: food, architecture, and erotology. All these are experiments-in-perpetuation. Look at food and the way we ‘experiment’ with it all the time, look at its history, it is nothing but the history of experimentation, underground or over-ground, inside the oven or outside it, front guard or rear guard, less spicy or more. The configurations keep on changing, even the way the vegetable or meat is cut and placed. The gastronomic aesthetics is a glocal experiment; it has its visuality and aurality, plus the smell. And the sound. But I haven’t yet found the term experimental gastronomy or avant-garde food except the explorations made in molecular gastronomy. Architecture has its own avant-garde and experimental history, but not without problems. The fact is, like the art of the culinary; the art of architecture affects us the most. Architecture was the first obvious sign of post-modernism, just around the corner of our living place, or across the street – anywhere in the world.

And thirdly, erotology, that fathoms the human body, mind and its deepest environs, in the realm of fantasy, pleasure and pain. One of the greatest ‘experimental’ work of art, a grand prayōga, in this realm is Vātsyāyana’s Kāma Sātra. It is a manual for erotic specialists, in the same sense that Kautilya’s Arthashāstra is one of the most open-ended manual for power specialists, and it drily lists the techniques of sex. There is a widespread notion among foreigners that every literate Indian reads the Kāma Sātra.

I think if we contextualize experiment environmentally, or environment experimentally, we get a transcendental experience of the realm of cinematography. It is always in the process. The naming or labelling perhaps helps give it a push, to polemicize the thought that dies and takes birth again to die. The term prayōga suggests the eternal quest, a continuing process in time and space. And it is not exclusivist. It, I think, would create ‘an ecology of aesthetics’. In its comprehensive sense, the word ‘ecology’ is crucial in our context. According to French philosopher and mathematician, Michel Serres, the American philosopher Henri David Thoreau (1817-1862) must have invented this word in 1852. In the French language, it appeared for the first time around 1874, following the German usage proposed by the biologist-philosopher Ernst Heinrich August Haeckel (1834-1919) in 1866. Since then ecology has generally acquired two meanings: as reference to a scientific discipline, dedicated to the study of more or less numerous sets of living beings interacting with their environment. And secondly, ecology also refers to the controversial ideological and political doctrine varying from author to author, or group to group, that aims at the protection of the environment through diverse means.

Experimental or avant-garde theatre has happened all over the world, either on stage, or in streets. As Richard Schechner comments, “Much of the post-war avant-garde is an attempt to overcome fragmentation by approaching performance as a part of rather than apart from the community. Sometimes this community is the community of the artists making the work; this has been the pattern in New York, London, Paris and other Western cities. Sometimes – as in the general uprisings of 1968 – the art is joined to large political movements. Sometimes, as in black and Chicano theatre, and more recently in other ‘special interest’ theatres, the artists identify with – even help to form – a sense of ethnic, racial or political identity. This community-related avant-garde is not only a phenomenon of the industrialized West, but also of countries that are industrializing or undergoing great changes in social organization.” Theatre makes it possible, because it is much more physical than the cinema? But I think here there is much more conceptual clarity, so it is perhaps in avant-garde music. In Indian classical music (both Hindustani and Carnatic) the prayōga or prayōgam (both in the sense of experimentation and usage), is an integral part. The relationship between Yoga-Tantra and music is another wonderful area of pra-yōga study to intensify its ecology.

The Indian Environment: State Funding Spirit of Prayōga
Film Finance Corporation et al

India is a peculiar case. On the one hand we have some of the craziest kinds of popular culture imagery or art works, breaking all the conservative or non-conservative rules, while on the other we see our cinematography feeling increasingly shy of bold prayōga. At the initiative of independent India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, the Film Finance Corporation (FFC), later becoming the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC), the Film & Television Institute of India (FTII) and the National Film Archive of India (NFAI) were set up in the 1960s. FFC’s original objective was to promote and assist the mainstream film industry by providing, affording or procuring finance or other facilities for the production of films of good standard. Later, under the direct influence of then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, the FFC initiated the New Indian Cinema (the media dubbed it as Indian New Wave) with Mrinal Sen’s Bhuvan Shome and Mani Kaul’s Uski Roti (A Day’s Bread), both made in 1969. This indeed was a national prayōga in cultural-political economy. Kaul’s debut was an adaptation of a short story by the noted Hindi author Mohan Rakesh and was perhaps the ‘first consistently formal experiment in Indian cinema.’ While this state-funded film was violently attacked in the popular media, aesthetically sensitive intelligentsia defended it across the country.

Paradoxically, this new movement was born of a governmental decision and not from the impetus of filmmakers rebelling against the existing commercial or popular cinema. The public institutional aid created its own problematic. In most cases, the financial aid was very meagre and that many a time became detrimental to the formal vision of the film. But eventually, “the prizes and awards won by these small budget films led to the feeling that only ‘small’ was ‘artistic’. Nevertheless, as the English proverb goes, “Necessity is the mother of Invention”, and innovative auteur filmmakers found creative ways to make films, the body of which was eventually called the ‘parallel’ cinema in India; parallel to the mainstream. In-between the parallel-mainstream poles also emerged the ‘middle-roader’ cinema, the one that compromised between the two in order to attract more viewers. The scenario was noisy with loud rhetoric against the state-funded filmmakers who took initiatives to rigorously explore the potential of cinematography in their works. Many said it was waste of public money. In these times, filmmakers such as Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani made some of their most serious films, beginning with Uski Roti and Maya Darpan (Mirror of Illusion, 1972), respectively. One of the most ‘remarkable avant-garde’ films Ghasiram Kotwal (1976) was made by the Yukt Film Cooperative. It was co-directed by the Cooperative’s founders, Mani Kaul, K. Hariharan, Saeed Mirza and Kamal Swaroop, and was shot by the cameramen Binod Pradhan, Rajesh Joshi, Manmohan Singh and Virendra Saini – all FTII alumni. Interestingly a nationalised bank financed this film, in those days when the film industry was not recognized as such officially.

Films Division
Experiment of Government Made Experimental Films!

It is quite interesting to see the category of ‘Experimental Films’ in the Indian Government owned Films Division’s catalogue. However, as Jag Mohan, the author of a book on the Films Division said, “Experimental films as understood in the West have made slow progress at the FD. From its inception, the FD has been concerned with information, educational and propaganda films. The utilitarian aspect of the film is primary consideration in the selection of subjects. Besides, the Film Advisory Board, which approves films for public exhibition through the FD circuit, also keeps a watchful eye on the utilitarian value of the films. Thus films of the type popularised by Norman McLaren, Len Lye, Lotte Reiniger, Maya Deren and later by the American Underground filmmakers cannot be found here. Probably for hitherto underdeveloped and now a developing country like India, such films are a luxury.” According to Marie Seton, some of the Films Division films had practical as well as artistic value. “They make their impact, strikingly different as they are because they have a style of their own. They are mature films.”

Nevertheless, the Films Division did venture into this so-called ‘luxury’. The late Vijay B. Chandra, who was then FD’s Chief Producer (later the first Director of the Bombay International Film Festival for Documentary, Short & Short Films launched in 1990) always talked about producing visually stimulating ‘food for thought’ to nourish India’s millions of illiterate people. To whatever extent, it was the public sector Films Division that took the risk of making films such as Explorer (Pramod Pati, 1968), And I Make Short Films (S.N.S. Sastry, 1968), Trip (Pramod Pati, 1970), Child on a Chess Board (Vijay B. Chandra, 1979); all these filmmakers were the FD staffers.

Mani Kaul has made several interesting documentaries for the Films Division, as an outside independent producer. And there are many other young and old leading filmmakers – including Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Mrinal Sen, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, G. Arvindan, Kamal Swaroop, Rajat Kapoor – whose films are in the FD’s collection. As the Founder Director of Datakino, I had the opportunity of setting up a comprehensive database of the entire FD output from its inception to the year 1995 – over 8,000 newsreels, newsmagazines, documentary, short features, and animation films. We did it on a primitive PC286, without Windows; I would jocularly compare this project to the making of Pather Panchali (Song of the Road, 1955), which Satyajit Ray was able to make without enough resources. Of late, the Films Division has updated the Database and made it Windows-based.

It was in December 1947 (India attained independence on 15 August 1947) that the Standing Finance Committee of the Government India approved the scheme for the revival of a film producing and distributing organization, as a mass media unit of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (I&B). First christened the ‘Film Unit’ of the Ministry of I&B and finally renamed as the ‘Films Division’ in April 1948, it was described as ‘the official organ of the Government of India for the production and distribution of information films and newsreels.’ The documentaries were to be released under the banner of ‘Documentary Films of India’ while the newsreels under ‘Indian News Reviews’. It was mandatory for all the cinema houses (over 12,900 permanent and touring cinemas) in the country to show the documentaries and newsreels produced by the Films Division. Produced in fourteen major Indian languages of the country, over 300 prints of each documentary and newsreel went for the first and second weeks to first-run theatres, and later-run halls over a period of up to nine months until this batch of prints was withdrawn. The cinemas paid the Films Division for the hire of these films on a contractual basis. The annual output of over 30,000 prints in 35mm and 16mm included not only the copies for theatres, but also prints supplied free of charge for use on the mobile units of the Central and State Governments, those selected by Indian diplomatic and trade missions abroad for their territories, those distributed for foreign television and theatrical hiring outlets, and films supplied for ‘prestige and publicity’ to international festivals and other occasions. Over 15,83,654 prints of its films had been in circulation by 1987. Imagine millions of people watching the Films Division’s ‘Experimental Films’ across the county.

Historically, this is not very unique to India alone. The Soviet Union, under the dynamic leadership of Vladimir Lenin had marched far ahead in producing radical ‘experimental’ cinematography. It was Lenin who supported Dziga Vertov (Denis Arkadievitch Kaufman) when, early in 1922, he told the Commissar of Education, Anatoli Lunacharsky, “Of all the arts, for us, film is the most important.” India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had understood the potential of cinematography but his mentor Mahatma Gandhi had a different opinion.

Indian Political Leadership Attitudes Towards Cinema
Mahatma Gandhi was not well disposed towards cinema – no matter if his work had influenced many a filmmaker in those early days of Indian cinema. Gandhi’s dislike for cinema is evident in his note to the Indian Cinematography Committee (the Rangachariyar Committee) in 1927-28. Again in 1938, on the occasion of the film industry’s anniversary, a Bombay trade paper asked Gandhi for a congratulatory message; his secretary responded, “As a rule Gandhiji gives messages only on rare occasions – and those only for causes whose virtue is ever undoubtful. As for the cinema industry he has the least interest in it and one may not expect a word of appreciation from him.” Journalist-turned-filmmaker K.A. Abbas wrote an open letter to Gandhi and, while greeting him on his 71st birth anniversary, said: “I have no knowledge of how you came to such a poor opinion of the cinema. I don’t know if you have ever cared to see a motion picture. I can only imagine that, rushing from one political meeting to another, you chanced to catch a glimpse of some lewd cinema posters that disfigure the city walls and concluded that all the films are evil and that the cinema is a playhouse of the devil.” In his letter, Abbas also provided a list of Indian and foreign films which were “unexceptionable even from the viewpoint of the strictest moralist”. Had Gandhi and others taken interest in the budding filmmaking enterprise during 1930s and 1940s, would the Indian cinema have taken a different shape?

Phalke’s Pioneering Experiment With Form And Funds
When Dhundiraj Govind Phalke (1870-1944) pioneered feature filmmaking in India in 1913, India was still a British colony. Dadasaheb (as he was popularly known) Phalke was a versatile artist; he learnt and pursued many arts and crafts including drawing, painting, printing, engraving, photography, moulding, architecture, music, magic and amateur acting. Thus he was a complete karmayōgi (man of action) prayōga person.

After watching the film Life of Christ at the America-India cinema in Bombay during Christmas in 1910, he had decided to make a film featuring Hindu gods and goddesses. As he wrote, “While the life of Christ was rolling fast before my physical eyes, I was mentally visualising the Gods, Shri Krishna, Shri Ramchandra, their Gokul and Ayodhya. I was gripped by a strange spell. Could we, the sons of India, ever be able to see Indian images on the screen?” He was forty then, without any dependable source of income on which his family could fall back, and, since he was not prepared to do anything else except his experiments in filmmaking, the future was dark, insecure. Undaunted, he made a short film Growth of a Pea Plant to convince his potential financier. Incidentally, through this film, he introduced the concept of ‘time-lapse’ photography as also the first indigenous or ‘swadeshi’ instructional film. To get the first hand knowledge of necessary equipment, he went to London, pledging his insurance policies. There, Mr Carbourne, editor of the Bioscope weekly helped him to identify the right camera and other equipment as well as raw negative film. He also introduced Phalke to Cecil Hepworth who took him around his studio.

Back home in April 1912, Phalke busied himself making his / India’s first silent feature film Raja Harishchandra (King Harishchandra). It was released on 13 May 1913 at Bombay’s Coronation Cinema. About the most upright and truthful king, the film was based on a story from the epic Mahabharata. The film was advertised as “an entirely Indian production by Indians,” indicating Phalke’s resolve to establish a new ‘swadeshi’ or India’s own industry in those colonial times. Gandhi was yet to return home from South Africa. Lanka Dahan (Lanka Aflame) was a big success and he could make a new version of Raja Harishchandra. Released in 1918, Shree Krishna Janma (Birth of Shree Krishna) was made by the new Hindustan Film Company of which Phalke was a working partner with other five financing partners. Feeling bitter, due to internal differences, Phalke took voluntary retirement and went to the holy city of Benaras towards the end of 1919. However, convinced by several other producers, Phalke rejoined restructured Hindustan and remained there until it folded up in 1932, when Indian sound film was barely a year old. The last silent film directed by Phalke for Hindustan was Setu Bandhan but with the advent of sound, the film had to be post-synchronised. It flopped. On 16 February 1944, Phalke died a pauper at the age of 74 in Nasik, ‘like those two other pioneers of early films, George Melies in France and Fraise Green in England.”

In our Indian prayōga context, Phalke occupies a significant space because, besides being a pioneer, he personified the prayōga spirit in those awkward times. It is an open secret that Melies had already made ‘fantastic’ films such as A Trip to the Moon in 1902 and that Phalke took ten more years to produce his first feature film, which does not survive in totality, but we do get a definite idea about his insights into the art and its craft. He wanted to prove to the British that an Indian working under primitive conditions could make films too. On an aesthetic level, Phalke’s tableaux remind us of Raja Ravi Varma’s oleograph paintings. As Ashish Rajadhyaksha mentions, “The painter Raja Ravi Varma was in many ways the direct cultural predecessor to Phalke, greatly influencing his themes, his images, his views on culture.” Phalke mixed his patriotic ‘swadeshi’ spirit with his cinematographic prayōga experimental praxis – in constructing the gaze, the frame, the space and time. Comparing Lumiere’s L’Arroseur arrose, Rajadhyaksha observes that in Phalke there is almost no definition of time; the contiguities are employed in the different states of seeing as they come together. “The story, if there is one, is a continuous back-and-forth interaction between the viewers and the object viewed; we are shown the imaginary universe condensed into the object, our seeing is reciprocated.” Apparently, Phalke was aware about the plastic potential of the medium he was working in. In nutshell, Phalke provides the earliest example of India’s private filmmaking enterprise as against the post-colonial public Films Division.

Good Cinema Bad Cinema
Art Film Commercial Film

It was in the 1960s and 1970s that the divide between the so-called ‘art’ and ‘commercial’ film became rhetorically pronounced, often becoming acerbic. Thousands of national / mental hours were spent on deciding what was ‘good’ cinema and its corollary ‘bad’. This obviously moralistic stand unfortunately took the toll of the prayōga spirit. In retrospect when I look at this past, its ramifications seem to have been widespread and serious. Gradually, the ‘rhetoric’ impacted the FTII and its progressive, prāyōga outlook towards cinematography. And as we witnessed, it led cinematography to becoming part of mass communication and management studies curricula in colleges, depriving millions of youngsters the experience of facing creative challenges that cinematography potentially puts forward.

A film magazine interviewed several thinker-filmmakers about what they thought of ‘good’ cinema and whether it was viable commercially. The general tone amplified the Indian artist’s struggle to make ‘self’ responsible to her/his art and at the same time to ‘society’ at large. As film and theatre director Vijaya Mehta said, “The filmmaker must have a sense of responsibility to the society at large.” For Shyam Benegal and Govind Nihalani, good cinema was one that re-sensitised the sensibility of the people who watch it. This ‘Self-Social’ balancing becomes pivotal to art in a country like India, determining its very nature and its own essential ‘self’. And became the fertile terrain for ‘rhetoric’ to mushroom.

Nevertheless, beyond all this ‘good-bad’ debate, what was significant in the prayōga context was Mani Kaul’s persistent radical cinematographic / philosophical praxis in Indian cinema. In his film Naukar ki Kameez (Servant’s Shirt, 1999), he did not let his cameraman look through the camera while a shot was being taken. He believes, “the moment the eye looks through the camera it ‘appropriates’ the space it is filming by a dichotomous organization that splits the experience of that space into a fork: of being sacred and/or of being profane. Obviously it saves what it knows as sacred from an exposure to what it thinks is profane.” This gives yet another dimension to the understanding prayōga, if I may say so. His philosophy of abhed ākāsh or undivided space and its application to cinematography is a part of his prayōga. He has been resisting the idea of the European concept of Renaissance perspective since it splits space into object-horizon polarity.

Today, the media has almost completely shunned that period in Indian film history that was pregnant with a certain youthful restlessness. But strangely it keeps using the word ‘avant-garde’ even for the most old-fashioned stuff simply because it seems different from the crass commercial crap. Recently, a journalist wrote that the older generation of
avant-gardes “bridged the gap between masala and art cinema.” Did avant-gardism in cinema in Europe play such a function? For Andrew Sarris, the avant-garde films pointed the way for commercial movies.

Avant-garde Indian Art
New Formalism Cultural Difference Political Urgencies

Early on, the label avant-garde was used especially for the films by filmmakers such as Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani who, I presume, felt embarrassed since their cinema had attempted to rigorously revitalise Indian narrative traditions, including the epic. Interestingly, they could reconcile Ritwik Ghatak and Robert Bresson in their cinematographic worldview. For their films’ obvious ‘visual or dialogic slow or static’ space and their public praise of Bresson, the journalists dubbed them Bressonian, in the sense of imitating him.

How do we recognize the avant-garde in India? While raising this pertinent question, Geeta Kapur, the eminent art critic and author, says: “The Euro-American establishment can still only assimilate non-western art on manifestly ethnographic terms, keeping the option open to reject it precisely on those terms. On the other hand, Asia / Africa / Australia, not to speak of Latin America, look for a new formalism, an extension of language on the basis of cultural difference and political urgencies which, because of the shared history of the 20th century (via capitalism / imperialism), implicates the artists in global questions: of location and the appropriate forms of political redress from their vantage point. These artists, living in societies riven with contradictions, ask for synthesizing universals, for visionary and vanguard initiatives.” Kapur’s context is Indian fine arts and within the questions of cultural differences in a changing India.

Experimental Avant-garde Old New Underground
Unsteady Axes Doubts

Watching from hindsight, we could feel how unsteady these nomenclatures or terms have been historically. I think one of the major problems with these labels was the womb they were born from; the womb was in movements outside it – Dadaism, Surrealism, for instance, no matter how plastic. As Kumar Shahani commented, the avant-garde experiments, borrowing syntax from the other arts, have been attempts at achieving a kind of respectability for the cinema. Or as Janet Bergstrom argues, “When avant-garde is used to describe an artistic movement, such as Cubism, it means that the movement is, for a time, ahead of critical acceptance. But when Cubism becomes absorbed into the mainstream of the tradition, it is no longer avant-garde. In connection with cinema, however, avant-garde does not mean ‘in advance of’ a developing film tradition; it is taken to mean, rather, apart from the commercial cinema.” Especially by its own historians, who almost always see the avant-garde cinema in terms of a development completely separate from that of history of cinema. It is seen in terms of the ‘art world’ (painting, graphics, music, poetry, sometimes architecture) rather than the ‘entertainment industry’. On the contrary, Andrew Sarris thinks that avant-garde films point the way for commercial movies. “It is difficult to think of any technical or stylistic innovations contributed by the avant-garde. Avant-garde critics and filmmakers have had to be dragged screaming into the eras of sound, colour, and wide-screen. Avant-garde impulses seem to be channelled toward the shattering of content taboos, political, religious, and sexual. Luis Bunuel and Rene Claire have come out of the avant-garde, and some think that Cocteau never left it, but avant-garde mannerisms stand for long the withering gaze of the camera.”

Bergstrom also believes that the definitions of avant-garde or experimental cinema have always been controversial because they have always presupposed value judgments; even those offered in the most recent histories provoke the kinds of counter-examples, which imply conflicting opinions about what counts as avant-garde cinema.

And with the historic shifts in these movements, the terms for the cinema also kept floundering with self-doubts around the exclusivist factions. Quite earlier on, the sudden advent of the 1929-depression shook up the dominating art-for-art’s sake philosophy of the avant-gardes. And as Arthur Knight said, with panic, starvation and ruin all about them, they found it peculiarly inappropriate to be concerned solely with revolving starfish and swinging pendulums, with textures and prisms and the dream world of the subconscious. “The penetrating works of Soviet realism had been seen and discussed in the numerous avant-garde cine-clubs that spread through the Continent after 1925. For many they were a revelation, a proof that the problems relating the real world could be as intriguing, as challenging – and as artistically valid – as anything they had done before. After a decade of altering reality, kidding reality, ignoring reality, they suddenly found themselves concerned with reproducing reality, substituting social purpose for aesthetic experiment.”

The willingness to experiment, to try out new forms, new techniques and ideas, is as vital to the arts as it is to science. “Today, through an unfortunate limiting of the word, experiment in film has come to be associated almost exclusively with the efforts of small avant-garde coteries working quite apart from the mainstream of motion-picture production.” In fact, a lot of ground- or path-breaking work in cinematographic aesthetics and technology had already been done (without any labels). Quite early on, what was Griffith doing when he pushed his camera closer to the actors against the prevailing conventions? What was Ritwik Ghatak doing in his radical employment of the archetypes? Or evolving strange but sweet love between man and machine in Ajantrik, for example? They were creating newer forms of narrating stories; they were at the vanguard. Most of the time the artists only reclaim the old to make it new, in newer contexts and environments. But it is all in a continuum.

It was during the 1920s, when the avant-gardes were in full swing on the Continent, that the idea of experiment became identified exclusively with their peculiar kind of filmmaking. “If a film were abstract, baffling or downright incomprehensible, it could always be described as ‘experimental’. And since these films came from Europe they were also considered ‘artistic,’ an assumption based largely upon the native American tradition that anything European is necessarily more artistic than the native product. Thus experiment acquired a certain honorific connotation, a quality that has clung to it ever since. And because the men who were experimenting in the studios, never claimed that they were doing anything but making films as best they could, a certain preciousness and ‘little cinema’ aura gathered about the word as well.”

Underground Film and Pop Art, as Parker Tyler has said, represent the only elites in human history which insist on the privileges of an elite without any visible means of earning or sustaining those privileges; that is, without any values that can be measured, or even, properly speaking, named except by its own labels. A distinct irony of the Underground is that here the film, the only complete time art of the theatre, exactly duplicating itself simply by staring the reel over again, declines to take seriously its own historical integrity. The Underground standpoint, thus, betrays the very lifeblood of the avant-garde.

For Andrei Tarkovsky, the concept of avant-garde in art was meaningless. “The whole question of avant-garde is peculiar to the twentieth century, to the time when art has steadily been losing its spirituality.” He thinks the avant-gardes were confused by the new aesthetic structures, lost in the face of the real discoveries and achievements, not capable of finding any criteria of their own, they included under the one head avant-garde anything that was not familiar and easily understood – just in case, in order not to be wrong.” Tarkovsky even questions the very notion of experimentation in art: How can you experiment in art? Can one talk of experiment in relation to the birth of a child?

Experiment, according to Richard Schechner, is going beyond the boundaries, although he thinks experimentation in theatre is dead. “There’s not much of that going on these days. As things have gotten desperate outside of theatre, they’ve become more conservative within. The great period of experimentation that began in the fifties ended by the mid-seventies.” What is, however, interesting for him is the ‘foundation of practice’ bestowed by the experimental period. This foundation is a performance art based on a post-modern consciousness.

Experimental film or the avant-garde cinema doesn’t seem to be sharing this experience with theatre, maybe because of its huge technological stake. Every technological change or shift affects it aesthetically, lately from analogue to digital, the new media, for instance. But still the connection with history can’t be snapped.

Applied Avant-gardism has often met with its death. It has also become like the chameleon, changing garbs and loyalties. The author of A History of Experimental Film and Video, A.L. Rees, thinks that, “Using the terms ‘avant-garde’, or even ‘experimental’, film at this late date may appear anachronistic or a provocation. For a long time they have scarcely been used without some degree of embarrassment. It was applied loosely to artists’ filmmaking from the 1920s, but peaked in the 1970s when it ousted the term ‘underground film’ as a seemingly more serious name for the then rising structural film movement.”

Lucie-Smith: Can you give a definition of ‘avant-garde’?
Greenberg: You don’t define it; you recognize it, as a historical phenomenon.

Is Greenberg talking about ‘historical avant-garde’?

- Amrit Gangar.

- An Interview with Amrit Ganger

The article is republished here from Cinema of Pryaog was an exhibition of experimental Indian films 1913-2006.

- The article is part of our constant effort to bring forth essays, articles, reviews by Indian filmmakers, writers, authors, and even translated works- with proper credit to the source material.


Anonymous said…
yes, experimentation in sexual activity makes out sexual relationships new and interesting and gives heightened trust between partners who are open to one another's curiosity.
Sachin said…
Thanks for posting this. Good timing too. Just yesterday, I was thinking of avant garde cinema and how limited my knowledge is of that. Then I thought of Indian avant garde and how cinema-scope has mentioned some examples. But I wondered where I could find those Indian films? are they available in Delhi at any place?

Ok, I will go back and read the article now :)
nitesh said…
Thanks for the comment, Sachin. These movies are not easily available here in Delhi, however, I'm trying to get hands on some experimental works from FTII, where I have friends studying.

I got few films of John Abraham. Beside these days lot of experimental films are being shown in art galleries here in India whether its a work by a video artist or filmmaker experimental works are finding a place and audience in galleries.

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