Rajat Nayyar – Luminous State of Mind

Rajat Nayyar (with camera) during the filming of an ethno-fiction experiment to co-create and retell an ancient folktale about Tenali Rama, along with the local people of Varanasi, with whom he lives and studyies. Photo: Abhishek Sengar

Rajat Nayyar’s online CV tells us (in part) that he is “working towards redefining ways we can safeguard the Intangible Cultural Heritage of India through the medium of ethnographic films. Rajat is the co-founder of the Varanasi based non-profit Espirito Kashi. This interview was conducted on behalf of mediaforchange.org by Shamina de Gonzaga.


SG: How did you come to name your project “Espírito Kashi” and qualify your work as documenting “intangible cultural heritage”?

RN: “Intangible cultural heritage” or “ICH” is a term I came across going through UNESCO’s charter. I use it to encompass oral and performance traditions, as well as beliefs about cosmogony, death, anything intangible, formless, such as knowledge, which is transmitted orally from one generation to another, including through song. There are many types of songs that are not performed on stage. This is a defining characteristic of ICH; it rarely comes with a stage and audience.
“Espírito Kashi” means “luminous state of mind”: “kashi” means “luminous” and “espírito” means “state of mind”. Kashi is also the ancient name of the city of Varanasi. People believe this city exists outside of time and space, and that, if they die in Varanasi, they will achieve liberation from the cycle of reincarnation into a physical body. We call it the biggest cremation ground of India because people come there from afar, before death, to die, and even after death, as ashes, to be thrown in the Ganges and remain formless.

Growing up, my grandmother had tried to instill aspects of philosophy in me through folk tales, which entered me as seeds, but they took time to grow as plants, and that happened when I reached Varanasi. I was not a filmmaker before. I had worked in marketing, in the hotel industry, and with NGOs in New Zealand and Brazil, but it was when I came to Varanasi that I started to make observational films. I would sit like a fly on a wall documenting after-death rituals on the riverbank. I was born in a Hindu family, and we have rituals where the dead body is kept in front of the family and we are required to observe it, burn it, witness it while it is burning, and hit the skull of the father while it is burning with a stick, to enable the spirit to leave the body through the skull. Witnessing my own grandfather melting was a big thing for me, I felt that my own face was burning, that I was melting, and I started thinking more deeply and realizing that we are constantly dying since birth, which is why we have to be devoted to the spirit.

In today’s society, we avoid death, or go to hospitals to prolong it, never to ease it. Living in Varanasi, I faced death many times a day. When death is so close to you, it changes you. Presently I am following people who come to die in Varanasi at a particular hospice that is said to have a devotional landscape. I want to see how the landscape affects the dying person and the family that accompanies that person until death.

I started thinking more deeply and realizing that we are constantly dying since birth, which is why we have to be devoted to the spirit.

S.G.: What brought you to Varanasi?

R.N.: Someone had asked me to meet them there and then didn’t show, but I stayed on and even when I travel, I continue coming back. The Indian, Vedic cosmogony cites Varanasi as the union of Shiva and Shakti. Before there was anything, there was nothing, it had no shape, no attributes. With its own desire, it wanted to divide itself into two—Shiva, the physical manifestation, and Shakti, the spirit that resides in the body—in order to come back together and create Varanasi or Kashi. Varanasi doesn’t exist outside you; it exists within, when you come into unity with your own spirit…. We are born with a split and the task is to come into unity.

Rituals and Cultural Diversity

S.G.: In your documentaries of rituals, including folk songs, the captions state that the rituals are disappearing, yet, the films show young people participating. How do you determine that these rituals are disappearing?

R.N.: I’m not saying the rituals are disappearing, but cultural diversity is disappearing. Folklore is constantly changing, it’s not something fixed, we all accept this, but cultural diversity is fading. Very few young people are still participating and there is a gap in the transmission of oral traditions starting with my parents’ generation that experienced the onset of globalization in the 80s and 90s. It was my grandmother who narrated the folk tales, songs and mythology to me when I was growing up; my parents gave up on it. With Espírito Kashi, we are filling that generation gap through our audiovisual ethnography, conceptual films, combining art and anthropology. When I go back to the villages to screen the films I have made with them, it’s the first time the community sees its own cultural practice documented. Young and old gather around to watch and we create discussions. It’s not that the younger generation is not interested, it’s that they don’t know how to ask the right questions. In their own house, there is an old lady who is a big bank of folk songs. When I stay with her, and observe her life, these young children who never paid attention to her before suddenly become interested. The camera, in itself, is an important tool. We are against the old preservation models used by my own government’s Ministry of Culture and organizations that are working to safeguard culture. Preservation is not merely recording a folk song, putting in it in an archive, and saying “this is the most authentic folklore”, thus assuring anything else will be compared to it…. I have found that folklore is never unique; the song will change according to the present moment and mood of the woman singing.

Importance of Women

Women of Chowgdikala village in Bihar singing a Sita Bhajan. Photo: Rajat Nayyar

S.G.: Women seem to occupy an important role in the rituals you document.

R.N.: In the northern Indian context, 90 percent of folk songs are performed by women. There are songs for each stage of life—when a child is born, goes to university, or marries, or when there is death—and songs that are seasonal, for example, when there is monsoon. There is a male priest chanting as well. Generally, men chant mantras and women sing the folk songs they feel capture the emotion of that moment. The community tells me the mantra is for the mind and the songs are for the heart. For any transformation and creation to happen, a union of mind and heart is important. These days, the men have sustained their position of chanting the mantras, but the space of the women singing is increasingly absent, even in rural areas, because their role is being taken over by electronic music.

S.G.: As a man, are you welcome to document the role of women? Do you personally engage in any of the rituals you document?

R.N.: Will I go through these rituals? What is the point of going through a ritual that is half dead? I have friends who, when they marry, go around the fire seven times. When I ask if they understand the ritual they are enacting, they don’t, because the emotions are missing. Those emotions are transmitted through the songs sung by the women. The voice of the women is missing and has never been recorded. I have been to villages where I experienced women loving the fact that I came to create a dialogue. They allow me to document them because I connect with them and am usually the first person coming from urban India who uses local language and comes to them with respect, to observe, participate and self-reflect. When I film someone through my camera, I don’t use a tripod; I use the viewfinder. So while I am noticing the other, I am also listening to myself breathing, I am aware of my own position, of who I am, and what I want to feel through this experience. The other is no longer outside of me; he or she is my mirror.

Women of Zohrawarpur village in Bihar singing a Khilauna folk song (during the time of child birth). Photo: Rajat Nayyar

Understanding Cultural Heritage

S.G.: How has your approach evolved over time?

R.N.: I made a film about initiation rites and when I went to the village to show the film, one of the old men told me that the sequence of the ritual was not correct. I was so confused because I had filmed and edited in a linear sequence. That experience made me doubt linear sequence, because, for the community, the “real” thing I had documented was not real. It is a big misconception that one thing is authentic, because the ritual varies according to every village, every family home, every person. The rituals are tools and symbols to reach a certain essence. My grandmother wanted to convey morality to me, but if she had given it to me directly, I wouldn’t have understood…. The ritual was a tool for that essence to become accessible. So now I am departing from linear sequencing, I want to juxtapose images sounds and create films that present the underlying essence.
Also, instead of making only ritual films, where the people are, in a sense, meaningless, I would like to follow a character, or crew of characters, stay with them and feel the issues they are facing, show life before and after the ritual. The ritual is a theater where the community engages and is allowed to act in a way that is out of the day-to-day norm. By following the people involved in the folklore, I can show their transformation. I will also begin curating my own exhibitions, in which I will use anthropology as a method for my research, and art, as a method for my presentation. I don’t want to preserve according to the western hegemonic models of preservation, which generates archives that are inaccessible to the community. I am not looking to achieve the sustainability of my film, but the sustainability of the folklore itself, which will be through innovation not preservation.

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