What comes to your mind when you think of Mirabai (or Meerabai, depending on your choice of spelling)?
The 16th century princess-turned-poet from Rajasthan who was a devotee of Krishna? The rebellious Rajput princess who refused to worship any other god, but Krishna? The widow who was harassed by her in-laws because she refused to become a sati? The pious saint whose soulful compositions we hear now and then through the renditions of Lata Mangeshkar, Kishori Amonkar, M.S. Subbalakshmi, and others? An incident from Mirabai’s life in a school text-book? The Amar Chitra Katha comic book that narrates her entire “life story”?
I am thinking about all this as I wait for a documentary on Mirabai to begin at the RR Theatre of Films Division (FD) at Peddar Road in Mumbai. An initiative of The FD Zone, this screening is part of a curated two-film package: the first is the film on Mirabai titled A Few Things I Know About Her and the second film is Narayan Gangaram Surve.
A Few Things I Know About Her (30 min, 35 mm, 2002) by Anjali Panjabi is a travelogue that takes you through towns, villages and the vast desert of Rajasthan in search of the Mirabai not shaped by popular culture. This is particularly pertinent as the viewer comes to know that our knowledge of Mira is shaped by popular notions and not by historical documentation, of which there is very little evidence. The following words of a record-keeper in a dusty palace library drives home the point.
All women from the royal family had their own life stories written—like a record of their lives. But there is nothing on Mirabai, except when she was born and when she was married. That’s all. It is as if she didn’t exist.
This happened because Mirabai defied societal norms in preferring a spiritual life over a life that revolved around her family. The efforts to erase Mirabai from the collective memories of people was so concerted that for a couple of centuries or more, Mira was not a favoured name for girls; families were afraid that their daughters, too, would turn out like Mirabai. If it were not for communities like the Bhils and Meghwals, and to a certain extent the Pindars, Mirabai would have been lost to us for ever. The Bhil and the Meghwal communities have made Mirabai their own and sing her compositions with an earthiness and fervour, so far removed from the popular recorded versions that it comes almost as a shock. And these are compositions that contradict the popular notions that chooses to see Mirabai as only a saint and a devotee of Krishna, and not someone who questioned societal norms and traditions.
As Anjali Panjabi travels through Rajasthan searching for Mirabai, stories emerge—stories of strength, of peace, of devotion and much more. A woman from a very traditional and orthodox family narrated her tale of how she was not allowed to go to the nearby temple; her in-laws told her to pray at home instead. But this woman persevered and after many years was finally allowed to go to the temple. She said:
My problem was nothing compared to Mirabai’s suffering. Hers was so much more. She gave me the strength to continue. Mere toh giridhar gopala, doosra na koi… goes the popular song. But for me it is “Mere toh Mirabai, doosra na koi…”
These words are echoed when a Bhil singer says that to know Mirabai is to internalise her philosophy, her devotion, her inner strength, and her love for her Krishna. Just singing her bhajans is not enough, she adds rather caustically.
Throughout the film, the audience is reminded how little information there is on Mirabai; even something as simple as whether she wore a widow’s whites or a sanyasin’s saffron robes. Whatever little we know is through oral histories and of course her music—in fact, if not for her music, there is nothing to remind us that she once existed.
As the film ends and the credits roll, another thing comes to my mind. Male saints and philosophers had it easier in giving up everything and taking on the life of a sanyasi as compared to a female saint. Take Madhavacharya or the Buddha; after initial resistance from their families they were free to pursue life as they wished to, and over the centuries their writings and philosophy has survived and thrived. The same cannot be said for Mirabai, who was harassed and ostracised during her lifetime, and her very existence removed from royal records !
I could have continued thinking about Mirabai and her life and music this for some more time but the next film on Narayan Surve began almost immediately.
Narayan Gangaram Surve (45 min, 35 mm, 2003) by Arun Khopkar is a biopic of this leading Indian poet through his poetry. Though Surve wrote primarily in Marathi, sometimes his poems contained a mix of Hindi, Urdu, and English as well.
Abandoned at birth outside a textile mill, Surve was raised by a mill-worker, who found him, till the age of 10 and then once again abandoned and left to fend for himself. He then worked as a waiter, a helper in textile mills, a peon in a municipal school, and then finally as a primary school teacher. He remained an active Communist Party member all his life.
The film, which is in Marathi with English subtitles, begins with these beautiful lines voiced by Surve himself:
When I was born it was without a name. When I go I will leave with one. Narayan Gangaram Surve.
Surve plays himself in this film reminiscing about his life, his poetry, the state of Marathi poetry, of revolt, of child labour, of Marxism, of the labour movement in Maharashtra, and of life in general. This is done through a seamless blending of Surve’s poems and conversations with Kishore Kadam, a Marathi poet and actor, who plays the role of the younger Surve in this documentary. It was fascinating to see Kishore Kadam interact with the “real” Surve, first as himself, and then as the actor.
There is a fantastic scene in the film where Kishore Kadam is getting ready to play the role of Narayan Surve, while the man himself is keenly watching him apply make up and adjust his hair. Amused, Surve he tells Kadam, “Nothing that you do, no amount of make up will make you look like me.”
To which Kishore Kadam laughs and replies, “I am not trying to look like you; I am trying not to look like myself. I’ll soon be walking along your paths, speak words that you have spoken and written. And pretend I’ve written your poems. How can I do this looking like myself?”
Saying this he puts on a pair of glasses, squares his shoulders and brings a slight pout to his lower lip, instantly transforming himself to look like the real Narayan Gangaram Surve. In this scene, both of them are captured in a single frame and viewed through a mirror. When Kishore Kadam transforms into Surve in an instant, even as the man himself looks on, it was a goosebump-inducing moment, and one where I understood what the term “getting into character” actually meant.
Surve’s poems are extremely lyrical and highly visual, and Arun Khopkar has used it very well in the film by juxtaposing images or choosing apt settings to enhance the emotions of the poem. One such example is the beautiful poem Majhi Aai (My mother). In the film, the poem is narrated as part of a poetry lesson taken by Surve in his school and the emotions playing out on the faces of the students as the narration/lesson progresses is something to be seen.
Each poem, each conversation was a thought-provoking and rarely left me unmoved. The film ends with these beautiful and powerful lines narrated by Narayan Surve himself.
Since I have come into this world
And since I move in this harsh reality,
I must live it,
Make it my own
Sometimes receiving knocks
Sometimes giving it back
The selection of screening A Few Things I Know About Her and Narayan Gangaram Surve was curated by Jabeen Merchant, who was the editor of both these documentaries. In her curator’s note, Merchant points out to that in spite being separated by 5 centuries, both Mirabai’s and Surve’s poetry “stood for the same things” and spoke of “rebellion against the system” and gave “voice to the subaltern”.
Yes, there are similarities between the 16th century poet and the 20th century one. But their approach was very different. While Mirabai advocated surrender and devotion at the feet of Krishna, her beloved God, Surve wants us to engage with the world, to resist, to question, to introspect, to seek and yet look at the world with a dispassionate, but critical eye.
I particularly liked the following lines, which are a mix of Marathi, Hindi and Urdu words:
Ek dhyan madhe thev, beta
Ek dhyan madhe thev, beta
Shabd likhna bada sopa aahe,
Shabda saathi jeena mushkil hai
(Remember one thing, my son
Remember one thing, my son
It is easy to write words,
difficult to live by them)