Far Away and Long Ago | A memory-image of Mahabalipuram

The rock art of the temple town came alive when a Tantric painter collaborated with an art historian, a still photographer and a filmmaker

KV Haridasan was an unusual character and a talented painter. One had first been introduced to him sometime in 1977 by our mutual friend Raj Iyer; Raj had done an MA in Art History from Baroda's MS University in addition to earning a degree from Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. The venue for this introductory meeting was Triveni Kala Sangam in central Delhi's Mandi House. We hit it off immediately because he spoke little, but when he did he was witty and observant. Hari, as he liked to be called, was a Tantric painter when Tantra was all the rage in Indian art circles. His images were introspective and not decorative unlike those by other very competent and well-known painters who sold more than him. Many of his paintings stayed in the mind.

Raj and I fetched up in Cholamandala Artist’s Village on the outskirts of Madras (now Chennai) in late February 1978, and were pleasantly surprised to find Haridasan there. Hari arranged for our stay in fellow artist Vishwanathan’s cottage, who happened to be living in Paris at the time. We had arrived there with a vague idea of making a film on the artist’s village when our money had run out after a misadventure in Orissa, where we had tried to make a film on Odissi with a promising 16-year-old dancer Aruna Mohanty (who became famous in later years). The flight from Delhi to Cholamandala, was, in retrospect, an attempt to find a new life in Madras and a career in documentary films.

Hari quickly caught on that we were a pair of somewhat confused, enthusiastic young men raring to make a film with hardly any money in hand, and on courage fueled by consumption of the local hooch - Arak. He suggested that we make a film on the rock art in Mahabalipuram. When I protested that my knowledge of the subject was zero, he said, “I will direct it, you photograph it.” So, armed with a sturdily built, non-reflex Bolex 16MM camera and some rolls of Orwo black-and-white reversal film, we set out for Mahabalipuram by the sea. We were a unit of five – Hari, Raj, Satish Sharma, I and an assistant of Ajit Kumar’s, who had hired out the camera. Satish, a talented, adventurous photographer of stills, whom we met in Cholamandal, was a godsend as he had a very good quality photo meter and we had none.

We were working without a script and Hari was probably hoping to create a structure on the editing table. We shot for two days, through the morning into evening, just before sunset

Satish gave me a reading from his photo meter so that the correct exposure could be set quickly and efficiently for each shot. We bought rolls of silver foil, crushed the torn out sheets and then smoothed them out before mounting them on a plywood board to make an improvised reflector. Raj and the assistant often had to stand in the hot sun, directing the light from the reflectors on to the sculpted images in the caves. The ASA rating for the film was only 80, but the grain was fine. We were working without a script and Hari was probably hoping to create a structure on the editing table. We shot for two days, through the morning into evening, just before sunset.

There were carvings on the rocks in the open that needed no supplementary lighting. After 40 years, one fondly remembers certain shots: Pancha Pandava Ratha; Krishna lifting Mount Govardhan; a slow, almost lazy left-to-right circular movement on a leafy tree that drew the viewer in; a left-to-right and then right-to-left movement on a large rock face with some foliage on it in 8am morning light. About this shot, Hari asked, “Why did you suddenly pan from right-to-left?” I don’t remember what I said, but photographed with a Taylor Hobson 75MM lens, it did look good.

Then the Micawburian spectre of lack of money reared its head, and I had to head home with rolls of exposed film and 24 rolls of unexposed film in a steel trunk. There was a two-fold problem: where to get the already shot footage processed, and what to do with 24 rolls of new, unexposed film? The second problem was tackled first; the new rolls were given to Deepak who made his first documentary on a certain aspect of a Naxalite uprising in Bihar. He then, over the years, became a veteran of over a hundred documentaries, including several very fine ones.

The Mahabalipuram footage was processed at the Pereira Laboratory in Calcutta (now Kolkata). It came out looking good. I saw it only once at the Institute of Mass Communication, later called MCRC, in South Extension, Delhi, thanks to a 16MM projection arranged by my late, lamented friend Kajal Das and his colleague Shyam Saroop.

Hari, had, by then, headed off to Trivandrum to teach at the art college there and kept asking for the footage. I sent it to him. He wrote back: “I showed it to my students. The pictures were upside down!” My riposte was immediate: “Please ask your projectionist to load the reels correctly. The images looked fine when shown in Delhi.”

Hari, Deepak and Kajal have all passed away in the last two years. Raj and I haven’t been in touch for almost 40 years. The Mahabalipuram shoot is a memory-image.

(Photo: Partha Chatterjee)

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