Throughout history artists time and again have been obsessed with relics and ruins. This is because, humans suffer from nostalgia and artists often display their chronic desire for melancholy. Artist Piu Mahapatra looks at Mrinal Sen’s Khandhar which literally means ‘ruins’ and deciphers how ‘ruins’ act as a metaphor for a forgotten ‘time’. The author highlights how ruins not only act as a background of the narrative tension but they also are a foreground wrapping the characters within them.
“Think of a short trip, a gateway from the maddening crowd to a place unfamiliar, drifted and lost with time, and yet is waiting somewhere far, for you to find. Could have been a story if untold.” Loosely translated from Hindi, Khandhar starts with these internal monologues of Subhash, the main character who plays the role of a professional photographer. In a way, these lines, almost poetic and echoing against the buzzing noise of a swarming street, creates a heady feeling and subtly makes its audience ready for a tour to a parallel world. A world where ‘Ruin’ stands as a metaphor of forgotten ‘Time’. For ages, time has a deep relationship with ruins and this eternal element has been strongly considered by Mrinal Sen while filming Khandhar (1984).
Subhash, Dipu, and Anil, three hard core city-dwellers, travel through ‘time’ to reach ‘Khandhar’ meaning ‘ruins’ in Hindi. It cannot be an easy route and hence the film embarks on a journey in stark daylight with a shrill honk of a fast-moving public bus, crowded and speeding through the highway. It is a familiar sight of any metro city representing the contemporary time and even now. But it is in the pitch darkness of night, the audience along with the actors are dragged in a timeworn bullock cart to their destination where the clock has almost forgotten to tick. Mrinal Sen purposefully wanted to slow down the pace of viewing and recreate a different reality for his audience. The shots taken in the last half of the journey from the city to the outskirts were deliberately lazy and unhurried. There, unlike the buses in the cities driven under the complete control of humans, the driver of the bullock cart dozes off leaving his four-legged friends to carry the half-awake time-travelers to their vacation spot. Sen masterfully creates a climax right before reaching Dipu’s ancestral home, the majestic ruins of Khandhar. Dipu, a distant successor of this very ruin, wanted to show his city friends the real ‘darkness’ that canopied the path. His steady, sweeping flashlight slicing through the thick darkness reveals a series of old, morbid tree trunks which stand like bleak guards of the ruins in the near distance. A perfect drama, a planned curtain raiser before the ruin reveals himself.
Desire for Ruins
Humans suffer from nostalgia and the artists through ages often display through different forms of creativity their chronic desire for melancholy. If we consider the 16th century printmaker, the architect, Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s prints of ‘Views of Rome’, we will find an amplified view of Roman relics and ruins which are so disproportionately larger than reality that it can almost put the real ruins in competition. Piranesi, himself being an architect cannot use the excuse of mis-math and his exaggeration of proportions of the decaying architecture. It was probably his ruin-lust which changed his gaze.
There are many masters in the world of painting like Joseph Mallord William Turner, whose quick drawings and sketches of the ruins were brief, close to reality and most importantly humble.
However, when the sketches developed into paintings like ‘Tintern Abbey: The Chancel and Crossing, looking towards the East Window,’ the reality became an intense dream world. (Image 1)
Then again, there is Johann Fussli’s, ‘The Artist’s Despair Before The Grandeur of Ancient Rome’ which is just a drawing done in red chalk, but it captures the awe and pull towards this very obsessed surrender towards history and relics. (Image 2)
If we think West is infected with this malady, then it is time to look closer and consider ‘View of a Mosque and Gateway to Motijhil’ by Sita Ram. This is one of the Company School Paintings of India as late as 18th century. Here as well, the city of Delhi is captured through ruins and memoirs. The artist chose to emphasize the broken-down gateway, a relic of its time by placing it in the foreground rather than the majestic palace at the far background. Sita Ram, the painter of the East is also not spared from the dizzying romanticism of glorifying melancholy through ruins and decay.
Khandhar: Ruin as background and foreground
If we shift our attention from the painted ‘still’ to ‘moving’ films, ruin remained as a constant backdrop and even extended in the foreground in Mrinal Sen’s Khandhar.
It isn’t Subhash, the sensitive and soft-spoken observer who is fascinated by ruins, or Dipu, his free-spirited friend. It is also not the friendless, strong-willed woman Jamini. Instead, it is the massive ruin which ‘acts’ the vital role of carrying out the play silently. Mrinal Sen himself admits, “I was scouting for the right house to shoot my film in. It seemed that the dilapidated mansion stood there waiting for my film to be shot. Or, maybe , it was the other way round. I found the house and then decided to make this film.” If we observe the film closely, it justifies a thought that as an artist, we just don’t stumble onto ruins, but we search them and are pulled towards them to idly loiter in the neglected debris of what once stood proudly during its time. There is an inherent compassion for values which are long lost, treasures that turned to ashes and pride which buckled under the pressure of time. We find a similar resonance in Satyajit Ray’s Jalsaghar where the still-standing mansion is counting its days along with its master, to become a ‘ruin’.
If we think about the very first encounter of the ‘hero’, photographer with the ‘ruin’ being the other protagonist, it is a stumble on the first steps of the relic which throws the photographer off balance although he somehow manages to stay on his feet. The time spent by the trio, three aliens of another world, within ‘Khandhar’ is mostly shown by the director where they explore the space of the ruin. They meet the darkness but fail to befriend it, are terrified by the fragile balance of support which keeps the ceiling from crushing down, the steep steps that encroach them all through. They are outsiders confronted passively by the silent structure.
Even those who live within the fallen frame are part and extension of the ruin and are not separate identities. Jamini’s first appearance in the movie is a replication of a previous scene where the line of immobile trees at the side of the road are partly revealed through the feeble moving light of Dipu’s torch. This time it is Subhash and his flashlight passing through the motionless pillars and bleak structures before falling on Jamini, caged behind the bars of the window frame.
Jamini is captured in various shots, in fleeting moments and even in the promotional posters where the fallen mansion supports, frames or is arched around her portrait or torso. Her pensive mood, the bare simplicity and even the earthy tones of her clothes create a camouflage with her surroundings. She becomes a painting on the wall or the wall spreads taking her along with it. As the film progresses, it becomes difficult to isolate the casts from silent brick walls which remain in the background and slowly take over the foreground.
Khandhar: The Light and Life around Ruin
Throughout the film it appears as if the director savors the opportunity of partly revealing and romanticizing the relics for his audience using light as a tool. The shadowy deemed light of the oil-lamps or the dramatic focused flashes of the torches almost make the ruin an artifact, a mystic nostalgia far from the maddening crowd. The audience, along with the director gaze at ‘Khandhar’, an intoxicating sight which is vividly picturesque and yet painstakingly gloomy.
Nine photo stills probably taken by Subhash are shown in the film like an album with a background score. There are certain ways of looking at objects and considering the proportion of height and spread between the man and the architectural ruins. The masculine, once bold, brick and stone structure are often captured from below like a worm’s eye view to emphasize and exaggerate our own fantasy. Seven out of nine images are taken from the ground and the remaining are from a safe distance of the terrace. Each still can remind the audience of the paintings of the Roman relics – isolated, lonely, fragmented, mystic, and never a humble, down to earth adobe of mortals which like its ancestors will soon decay to oblivion.
Apart from the ruin, the film has a story of few men, who will visit only to leave, a woman who will remain till there is no end, a mother who never loses hope, a distant brother who never hopes and other tertiary characters who remain like the fleeting shadows of the ruins.
Khandhar like its title is not just about the human relationship and its decay, rather a fascinating means of ‘viewing’ ruins and how through various great artists, the subject has been narrated, painted, or sung through films, in canvases and often in lyrics.
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