Anjali Panjabi

Arts Research and Documentation

Grant Period: Over one year and six months

Having made ‘A Few Things I Know About Her’, a national award-winning documentary film on Mira, filmmaker Anjali Panjabi revisits Mira, albeit with a difference. The current film (a continuity from the previous project) she now proposes to make is about the oral legends of Mira, the storytellers and the community from which the stories emerge. An exploration of stories and storytelling about Mira, the film seeks to probe how the stories about her become expressions of a lower caste community’s oppression, yearnings, and perhaps, the articulation of resistance.

While the narratives about Mira in the oral tradition take many forms, Ms Panjabi will explore two specific instances of narrative performance: Kumbharana ri baat (The Tale of Kumbharana) and Mira Janampatri (Mira’s Lifesong). The first is a story about Mira’s resistance to the Rana of Chittor, though the interest of this particular rendering lies in the centrality accorded to the role of Ravidas, her lower-caste guru. Ms Panjabi is fascinated by what she sees as a ‘transgressive twist’ in the epilogue of the narrative, where the audience is told that Mira would be re-born in a potter’s house and the Rana would have to transcend caste taboos to marry her. Mira Janampatri, on the other hand, is an evocative narrative about Bhakti, rendering the story of a strong and willful Mira from the time she is in her mother’s womb to her transformation into an ascetic. The film will explore how the storytellers develop their own styles, improvising creatively within the tradition.

Kumbharana and Janampatri are performed over a couple of nights, with the narrative interspersed with songs and expositions. The performers are male, quasi-professional performers of local stories and caste epics, or itinerant bards with a large repertoire of sacred and secular narratives. A male storyteller narrating the story of a woman saint is in keeping with the `transposition of gender' that inheres in the bhakti tradition, where the seeker assumes the role of a woman yearning for her beloved. It is also indicative of a social reality that is still largely feudal and patriarchal. The performance takes the form of a dialogue between the chief storyteller and his assistant and the performance text have alternate segments of spoken and sung narrative. The songs are accompanied by a simple string instrument. The narrative is taken forward in the narrative segments, each followed by a refrain. Episodic in nature, certain segments of the narrative often contain descriptions of landscape or other digressions, incidental to the central episode. The participation of the audience is central to the performance. Not only do the members of the audience pick up the refrains, they too develop their own stories and songs, adding to the oral tradition.

In her attempt to unpack these marginal narratives about a mainstream cultural icon, Ms Panjabi would like to see them as alternative renderings of familiar stories. Mira in these stories is often a weaver, a potter, a bhajan singer, an ascetic and sometimes a dervish dancing in wild abandon. In the inverted world of these stories, the king and his priest can be ridiculed and an untouchable guru can become the protagonist. In their retellings of the mainstream narratives of Mira, these lower-caste storytellers imaginatively critique the great tradition of brahminical Hinduism and kshatriya codes of valour and pride, while attempting to reclaim a cultural space within the rigid social structure of contemporary Rajasthan.

An exploration of bhakti is also one of the underpinnings of the film, especially the manner in which it has been transformed in the contemporary context. Ms Panjabi is interested in examining how the inner lives of these storytellers who are also bhaktas translate into their stories, their performance and artistic practice. She would also like to enquire into the impact the performances have in their spiritual quest and whether this experience extends into the audience. Bhakti is a spiritual practice where the individual posits himself/herself as the source of the quest and inner transformation. In envisioning the film, Anjali Panjabi sees herself moving back and forth between the oral legends, those who perform them, those who watch/listen to and participate in the performance and her own concerns around subversion, critique and resistance through alternative storytelling. She hopes to use richly-layered sound to complement the interwoven filmic narrative. It will also be a creative, imaginative work that will evolve at various levels.