Saturday, December 24, 2005

Where the twain shall meet by Arshia Sattar 'Kitte Mil Ve Mahi (Where the Twain Shall Meet' Punjabi

Where the twain shall meet

By Arshia Sattar

Kitte Mil Ve Mahi (Where the Twain Shall Meet) Punjabi with English subtitles, 72 mins, 2004 Directed and Produced by Ajay Bhardwaj Presented by India Foundation for the Arts

This is a film about the dalits of Punjab and their embrace of Sufi traditions Ajay Bhardwaj's new film brings into sharp focus and to public attention the little-known dalits of the Punjab and their embrace of Sufi traditions. He speaks with poets and musicians, mystics and revolutionaries, as he seeks to excavate this vibrant, living syncretism -- an attitude and a way of life that seems all but forgotten in a nation that has been torn from its secular moorings. The film also provides a provocative counterpoint to the globalised punjabiyat that is disseminated through Bollywood and the entertainment industry in general.

Since the explosion of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's enormous talent onto the world stage in the 1980s, Sufi music has taken hold of the public imagination in more ways than one. It has even become one of the cultural building blocks of the rapprochement between India and Pakistan. Bhardwaj goes behind the big stars and the high-profile concerts to unknown villages where the syncretistic devotional traditions of Sufi and Bhakti mingle, where divinity, shrines and saints are shared across lines of religion and caste.

Bhardwaj meets Gadri Baba Bhagat Singh Bilga, the last of the radical Gadar movement. The venerable old man, still engaged in local and national politics and proudly displaying a portrait of Shaheed Bhagat Singh, speaks about socialist heroes being co-opted by the Hindu Right. He believes that dalits will occupy their rightful place on the national stage, as a progressive consciousness is now visible among their youth. The poetry of Lal Singh Dil, a dalit convert to Islam, raises the same hopes, though his conversations about the systematic disenfranchisement of his people (whom he refers to as the local adivasis ), by a caste elite, is imbued with a sense of betrayal and injustice. This is another important aspect of the film -- that it provides a space for the subaltern histories of politics and religion in the region.

The film also takes us to the Paslewala qawwals, dalits, who, along with their caste brethren, have become the keepers of Sufi shrines and music in that part of the world. Bhardwaj's film points out that the mystical traditions of the subcontinent did not exclude women: they are poets and saints in their own right, either through birth and inheritance or by being appointed successors by their masters. Their shrines are equally dear to devotees who come to them for the comfort and solace they offer.

More than anything else, Where the Twain Shall Meet reminds the viewer that the Bhakti and Sufi movements were more than just religious reformations: they were social revolutions that asked questions, overturned hierarchies of gender and caste and preached a doctrine of equality. Some bhaktas were overtly political (like Basavanna in Karnataka), but all of them believed that the status quo had to be challenged and changed.

Bhardwaj gently seeks to establish parallels between the religious reformer and the social revolutionary in his film and succeeds in making the viewer think about this connection. In doing so, the film recalls Amar Kanwar's recent A Night of Prophecy (also reviewed here) and Anand Patwardhan's In Memory of Friends .

It remains the task of the documentary film to open our eyes, not simply to the struggles around us that are hidden from view, but also to those parts of our common heritage that are being suppressed and deliberately denied. Ajay Bhardwaj's film is a firm step in this direction.

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InfoChange News and Features, June 2005