Maha Kumbh Journal during the making of “Kalkimanthankatha – Part 2.

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Still from Kalkimanthankatha.

Saturday, Feb 2, 2013
I think Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” works very well in Kumbh. A post-modern text located in a pre-modern universe. The rupture is generated and almost organic to the film. This second Kumbh Mela of the 21st century is an ancient religious gathering gridded in the cartographic imagination of postcolonial town planners. It is a hybrid universe fatefully fluctuating between primordial impulses and rational compulsions. A pre-modern religious imagination controlled, ordered, and confined within the gridded universe of a Cartesian structure. Here faith is restrained by an eccentric postcolonial Foucauldian governmentality. Here religious belief is tightly fastened by the rational state. Here religion is gridlocked by the panopticon regimentation of postcolonial govermentality.

In this universe two men are searching for the tenth avatar of Kalki – the most ambiguous avatar of Vishnu. He is yet to come but he is probably already here. The avatar of Kali Yug. The avatar that will save the world from annihilation. Like Beckett’s Godot, he is here but he does not show up. Why will he show up? For whom will he show up? However instead of waiting, the two men are searching, because they know that he is here. And if he is here he has to come to Kumbh. For Kumbh is the place where all come: it’s a bombed-out, post-colonial, post-partition, post-holocaust refugee-camp of the faithful.

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Photograph by Pravatendu Mondal.

Sunday, Feb 3, 2013
Kumbh is the monumental city of believers who have come wash their sins in the waters of two of the most polluted rivers in the world. “Loha lohe ko katata hai” [only iron can cut through iron] – wryly remarked Sanjeev Kumar, the conscientious, but mutilated ex-police officer at the beginning of the greatest Bollywood block buster of all time – Sholay. Perhaps only the polluted waters of Ganga and Yamuna can cleanse the collective sins of the Indian civilization.

The irony of Kumbh is its muted violence. The violence of popular contemporary Hinduism, which is a mimesis of Bollywood – with its pretentious sets, its suffering masses, its superhero Gods and demure Goddesses, its melodramatic rituality and romantic spirituality. This modern Hinduism is firmly and fiercely controlled by the vehemence of the postcolonial state as it determinedly contains the chaos on the dry, dusty riverbed of Ganga within its cartographic rationality. The modern state’s grasp over premodern religiosity is definite and comprehensive. Now sins can only be washed under the penetrating gaze of police CCTVs.

Monday, Feb 4, 2013
There is a din, a noisy tumult of the mantras and songs that pierce the aural universe here, a cacophony is created in which a certain sense of religious piety is performed. This dissonance penetrates the world and this perpetual aural irritation becomes part of the ontological experience here. I get up every morning with such a din and it continues throughout the day, only to be overpowered by my own voice or the voices of people we are talking to in Kumbh. Huddled under two woolen blanket, covered from head to toe in socks, money-cap, and sweater to protect myself from the cold and trying to hide from the aural stimuli that encompass us all in this tent of 25 feet by 25 feet with 8 rickety iron cots. Kumbh is tiresome. It makes us all weary. The cold of the night and the heat of the day, the dense fog that sometimes destroys all sense of visual perspective, have taken a toll on all of us. The cinematographer is unwell and running a fever, the sound recordist has a bad stomach. My assistant director is also running a fever. I have a very bad cold, which is now hurting my ears. Every time I swallow, it hurts. We are all fatigued. But the film has to be shot, so we try to get our energy high and try to work. A couple more days to go…

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Photograph by Pravatendu Mondal.

Sunday, Feb 10, 2013
Today is the biggest bath of the Kumbh and the most important day. I was up at 4 am and along with my friends we went into the Sangam, which is around 7 km from our camp. Here the two greatest rivers of Indian civilization – Ganga and Yamuna – commingle, conjoin, copulate.  It is here that millions of people come together to take a holy dip to wash their sins. The roads were super crowded, almost like a busy, very busy street in Dadar market, or like the Girgaum Chowpati during Ananth Chaturdashi. I have always enjoyed being in crowds – in Calcutta or in Bombay. A sense of communion with people, a visceral intimacy with fellow beings makes me calm.


Photograph by Domingo Medina.

I was speaking to Manoj – a cardiologist friend from Bombay who had been to the earlier Kumbh in 2001. He explained that participating in such a huge gathering kills the ego and makes you realize that you are no one: “you are just one among millions and millions”, he calmly expounded. I had not thought about participating in this mass in this way, but it made sense to me. For me the very fact of being part of a crowd makes me feel that I am not alone and I just sway with the people. The act of walking with the people, the mass of the people, gave me an amazing sense of oneness with the world. Today it reminded me of times when I would take the local train in Bombay from Church Gate to Virar during the rush hour, which in official railway terminology is called the “super-dense crush load”. The commuter trains are packed more tightly than sardine tin can. It is so crowded that if your hands are holding the railing on the roof, you cannot pull it down to scratch your balls.


Photograph by Domingo Medina.

Monday, Feb 11, 2013
The past two days were the biggest days at Kumbh. They say that nearly 30 million people came for the holy dip. One of the most persistent voices that one would hear on the public address system that provided information about people lost and found. These announcements were being made almost constantly, and over time, I started recognizing the announcers’ voices. Today, when I got up, I noticed that their voice had gone hoarse. They had been constantly announcing throughout the night, and their voices sounded like that of the old man chanting Ramcharitarmanas – exhausted and weary. One of them was a young woman, who had a very forthright, clear and aggressive voice, speaking in the very chaste Hindi that is typical of this region. Yesterday evening when I was returning, her voice was already cracking up and becoming fatigued, by now it was almost gone, but she continued to speak with a determination that was very persuasive. She was convincingly announcing the names of three kids who were looking for their parents from “Village: Madhopur, Bock: Khutuna, District: Madhubani, State: Bihar”.


Photograph by Domingo Medina.

Tuesday, Feb 12, 2013
Today is the last day. Will be leaving by afternoon for Banaras. Feeling sad that I have to leave. I had gotten used to the place – living in tents, the bitter cold, the feeling of warmth under two woollen blankets, the constant din of the noises on the loudspeakers, the tired voice of the lone man who would recite Ramcharitarmanas the whole night without a break. Tonight his voice was so indefatigable that he penetrated my dreams. Tonight I dreamt that I was in his tent at the behest of the people in my camp who could not sleep. I went to him and asked him to continue but without the loudspeakers. He agreed and he gave me some sweet rice porridge to eat.


Photograph by Suchitra Vijayan.

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