Hindi Music Then & Now: Insights from Shikha Jhingann and Gautam Chintamani

I almost bit my tongue for reaching at this public discussion at the time when chairs were being folded and conversations became private over tea. A talk on Hindi music ‘then and now’, four well-informed and passionate individuals came together at Oxford Bookstore to create a discourse on what they termed as a ‘transition period’ of lyrics in Hindi cinema. In whatever little time I had, minus the awkward hesitations, I managed to get few words from the two most interesting and diverging viewpoints – Shikha Jhingann and Gautam Chintamani. 

 

Me: As I see this distinction between ‘then’ and ‘now’, I believe it’s because of the difference in motive behind making music; what was meant to be for engagement before, is made for consumption now. What do you think about that? 

Shikha: I believe music was always made for consumption. It’s hard to imagine commercial production of music without there being a listener for it. 

Me: Let me put this distinction into perspective. By engagement I mean a certain sense of emotional or cognitive relation one develops with the music, while consumption would be a pure non-critical ‘intake’ of music. 

Shikha: That maybe true. But I believe that there’s no need of creating such distinction in the first place. I mean, the sort of music that we have today we had it back then as well, and vice versa. Even today, you have musical pieces with meaningful lyrics being incorporated in the movies. 

Me: Agreed! But don’t you think discussions such as this one require certain sampling? Maybe a little more attention to what is being ‘popularly’ produced these days. 

Shikha: You can do that but I don’t see the need of it. I’m more interested in how music is being used in films rather than what sort of music it is. Earlier, we had musical pieces that existed independent of the main plot of the film and were shown with actors lip-syncing and suddenly breaking into choreographed moves. Now, we see songs getting embedded in the narrative that no longer requires lip syncing and just stoically plays in the background. 

Me: What do you gather from this distinction?

Shikha: I think that has led to further alienation between the listener and the song. We no longer relate to the song or remember the lyrics. Songs are just reduced to a background score. 

Me: But I think I relate more to songs that are consequential to the narrative and are being played alongside the scene. It creates a more holistic and meaningful relationship with not just the song but also the context; taking it back to my point regarding engagement. 

Shikha: Well, some people do relate to the ’embedded’ style of music. But I still feel that the lack of independent space for songs in films affect our connection with not just the lyrics but the song itself. 

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Shikha Jhingann, Professor

Just after my conversation with Shikha, I managed to take Gautam out of what seemed like a lighthearted private discussion, and had a brief talk with him that centered around similar questions. 

Me: Do you see the distinction as one concerning with ‘engagement’ and ‘consumption’?

Gautam: of course there’s consumption. There’s a process in place that sees music as a product and the listener as a consumer. As attention span of public is getting shorter, producers are making music that can catch the fancy of the listener by the earliest. 

Me: So, do you think there’s  some sense of ‘research’ involved in deciding as to what sort of music would be suitable for commercial interests? For instance, psychological studies, market research, etc. 

Gautam: I don’t think so, no. 

Me: Then what is understood as ‘commercially viable’?

Gautam: One that was a major hit last week. 

Me: Shikha pointed out to me that there’s no need for classifying music as ‘then’ and ‘now’ for there are all sorts of music present even today. Do you agree with her?

Gautam: No, I don’t. I believe such distinction is important merely because it is happening. There’s a cultural shift in the way we produce music today and people should have a knowledge of it. Such distinction and its consequences cannot be made apparent if it is not recognised and discussed thereof in the first place. 

Me: Agreed! But as Shikha pointed out, what is the purpose we are trying to serve by creating such distinction? Is it political, cultural, or anything of value? 

Gautam: It may not be political; it may not be of value. But it is definitely significant for critically evaluating the development in musical practices or identifying the best ones of an era. There’s a big change in how Rahman produced music in the late 90s or early 2000s and the way he produces today; same applies to Gulzar and his music. And nothing of it can be understood without sampling and classifying the ‘transition period’. 

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Gautam Chintamani, Writer

My talk with Gautam was ended abruptly by the arrival of his cab and unfortunately he had to leave without answering my further questions. However, whatever little that we discussed, one can gather some insight into how we critically evaluate musical practices, both in terms of as they exist and in relation to their development. On the other hand, Shikha shed some light on an interesting way of looking at our engagement with music; something that is often ignored by the viewer of a film. Apart from their diverging views, I managed to find a single concurring theme – and that – is our engagement with music. Out of the many things debated, both Shikha and Gautam want us to engage with music critically and emotionally and reflect upon such engagement at levels of varying degrees.  

 

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The Nile Hilton Incident: The Struggle for the Land and the Soul

Indeed, no cruel man is so cruel as he whom he has misused believes; the idea of pain is not the same thing as the suffering of it.

– Nietzsche

In The Nile Hilton Incident, I see characters exist outside the debate on moral settlement. What I also see, is space, I see Cairo, in both its making and unmaking; in its residue and revival. 

A police officer (Faris) who discovers a murder of a pop singer in Cairo’s Nile Hilton Hotel soon finds himself in a position where he has been asked, and later threatened, to not to pursue the same by the social and political elites of the land. In between this equation lies a helpless Sudanese maid (Malik), a daily wage worker at the Hotel who is also the only witness to the incident. The plot is set in the Cairo of 2011, just days before the breaking out of the Arab Spring. 

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The characters are unapologetically non-dichotomous, so much so, that they are very much living. The very fact that they have survived in such a milieu, and continues to do so, is because of the certain flaws that they both internalise and resist. Noredin (Fariz) is committed to bring down the man who is backed by a system which has corruption and nepotism seeping through its every possible branch. However, at the same time, he demands bribe from the local sellers, and pockets confiscated money. Salwa (Malik) is aware, to some extent,  of the gravity of what she has witnessed, but still proposes to enter into a financial compromise to stay quite; perhaps forced by her unprivileged socio-economic status. Even in the most insignificant of characters, we see the same characterization being reflected.

The plot seems to be resting on an unsettled bedrock; of many upheavals happened, and waiting to happen. There also exist turning points; moments that changed the pattern of how characters went on to exist and function. ‘Dignity cannot be bought, son’, as said Noredin’s father while aimlessly glaring at the television screen. 

The political revolution of Cairo runs parallel to that of Noredin’s; having a synonymous evolution. What started as a mere sub-narrative, the revolution grows into a climax and finally ends with the only thing left standing. The two narratives, of the revolution and of Noredin, are unaware of each other until  they both find each other engulfed in the agony directed against a common enemy. The development of this relation is slow yet apparent and cathartic. 

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And amidst all this, there is Salwa. Just like the plight of Sudanese refugees in Egypt, she lives in silence and denial until she decides to remain silent no more. She is made aware of both the triviality of her life and the significance of her death. She continues to live under the bridge, both literally and figuratively, until she decides to finally surface and speak up. After an illegal arrest, attempted deportation and an attempted murder, all directed against her, we see her running hysterically in an open field. Noredin asks her to go away and set herself free, but just like the plight of her community and her gender, we see an inconclusive end to her story; or maybe, just the continuation of how it ever was. 

The Nile Hilton Incident is a story of both the people and the land; told in isolation but very much shared and lived together. The multi-layering of  these elements sets up  chaos and uncertainty that gives meaning to life that existed during the Arab Spring; both of the land and the people. As the main character fails and collapses, there is victory of some virtue within;  a virtue that also marked and led the revolution to finally bring down the system in the days to come. 

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Semiosis of the Cityscape: Part I

It is striking here that the places people live in are like the presences of diverse absences

– Michel de Certeau 

What is it to see the city stripped off its subjects; of its people and their perils. How would you ‘look’ at the space when all that is there to see is stillness. A still photograph imbued in a thread of many, unlike a movie, moving in time but not in motion. 

As I board my cab for the airport at around 2 am, I become one of such subjects. I look at the city, like the still photographs, passing by but not moving; with every frame, image, capturing a still scene of what may be the city’s identity, or the part thereof. What is this ‘city’ anyway? How and why do I perceive this space to be a ‘city’; that too a city very orderly differentiated and demarcated from the other spaces (maybe, other cities). What is it that propels an understanding within to see this space as a limited and structured display of self which is given to be demarcated from the limited and structured ‘other’; that ‘other’ being either experienced or imagined. Maybe, in that ride to the airport, I take this limited and structured demarcation to be a ‘given’; much like a Gramscian development of an internalised and rationalised hegemonic belief. Or, is it the pure ‘uniqueness’ and the aesthetic of the same, reflected in the stillness of the city-scenes, that lifts my conscience from the profanity of material understanding of meaning to the spiritual escape into the metaphysical. 

Either way, I continue to travel; being driven on the route predestined by an app that maps my movement, my journey from the start to the end, and introduces it to me in a faceless display with an alien voice. But, how much could the market and its technology  assert control over my journey? What is this ‘journey’ anyway? Is it the mere physical movement within the material space, or does it carry possibility of constructing non-physical movement termed as ‘experience’? If the literature of the past and present (and hopefully future) is anything to go by, the journey is more conversational than didactic. It is the development of oneself through an array of meanings, both constructed and understood. Yes, there is materialism, though not always, involved in what we understand as a ‘journey’. But the meanings that we construct are not always constructed upon or within the space orchestrated by such materialism. And, even if we do, let’s say, my journey is foundational and  is well within the voids structured by the materialism; there is no ‘given’ in terms of interpretations I gather off the well-defined material space. Neither, do I, bound myself to the singularity of meaning that the materialism of the space might expect off me. So, dear ‘mobile cab-booking app’, and the hideous display of inhumane manipulation of the space that you create by ‘mapping’ my movement, you can never control my ‘journey’. You might be able to control the fodder that feeds the construction of my meaning, my relationship with the space, but nothing of your volition will ever be able to decipher the understanding I rationalise through this self-driven ‘movement’ called ‘journey’.  

To be continued…

The Construction of Meaning in Photography

‘Photograph… a record of a reality refracted through a sensibility’

– Victor Burgin (1986)

Shadi Ghadirian and her range of artistic photography vocalise two of her most personal identities: Iran and womanhood. However, as expressed in her collection Miss Butterfly (2011), and in various films that struggle to sieve through the web of state censor board,  personal and public are not significantly distinguished and demarcated spaces for Iranian women. However, it is not the politics of her subject matter that is the only fodder for one’s fascination; if one may look closer, or deeper, it is her process that fancies. 

In her frames, Shadi Ghadirian captures the duality of contemporary existence in Iran; imbued in life’s contradictions and an innate desire to be understood. This duality can be seen as a struggle, if not a conflict, between tradition and modernity in the prevailing sense of representation in Iran. To Shadi, this duality in representation is more apparent in the representation of women. In her collection, Qajar (1998), Shadi uses the style of traditional Qajar photography, famous in the 19th century Iran, and twitches the construction of meaning by invading the traditional space with an object that signifies modernity.

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Shadi Ghadirian : Qajar

The duality represented in Qajar answers well to the understanding of a ‘photograph’ as provided by Roland Barthes. Instead of its artistic composition, Barthes was more focused on its construction of cultural myths on a mass scale. In Mythologies, Barthes asserts that a photograph is a coded, historically contingent, ideological speech which is amenable to scientific study  and semiotic analysis. In Qajar, we can see Shadi substituting the surface understanding of the picture with a larger ideological and political meaning which is represented through well coded symbols that carry certain political meanings in themselves. Therefore, the use of a traditional style (Qajar) as a space where little objects of modernity are placed, alienates the meanings earlier associated with these two elements and conjoins them to construct a new political meaning. Interestingly, the women in these photographs maintain the facial features and aesthetic sense that was prevailing during the Qajar period. In such a frame, an object of modernity seems like an inevitable reality to which women in Iran might have dealt with in an operational sense but not in a cultural sense. 

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Shadi Ghadirian : Qajar

 

 

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Shadi Ghadirian : Qajar

Apart from construction of duality in representation of Iranian women, we see another very fascinating feature in Shadi Ghadirian’s photographic process: The symbolisation of the subject matter. 

Photography for Shadi is as symbolic as it is real. So much so, that when the urge to surface the reality, which has been brushed aside for so long, becomes irresistible, the symbols become the voice that speaks on behalf of reality so silenced. It is when the language of reality becomes too hard to gather, that the symbols become the mouthpiece of  one’s truth. 

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In Miss Butterfly, we see the frames depicting meanings that are drawn not from the referrant herself, but from the space in which the referrant is placed. In addition to this, the interplay or engagement created between the referrant and the object (in this case, the web) alienates both the referrant and the engaged object from their own meanings and reduces them to become mere symbols of a political message. 

Miss Butterfly was inspired by renowned Iranian playwright Bijan Mofid’s piece about a butterfly’s ill-fated pursuit to encourage her fellow insects to escape captivity of a spider’s web and go see the sun again. In each of the images from the collection, women are shown weaving or unravelling webs attached to the frames of light (an exit). They seemed at turns overpowered by the narrow staircases and rooms or dwarfed by the stately homes in which they are placed (Nagree : 2006). More than anything, it is the overpowering darkness that reflects the most upon the reality of the lives of these women. 

Shot in black and white, the women in these frames are symbols of multiplicity of layered meanings. One such layer is the public-private divide in the lives of Iranian women. The images show women wearing the headscarves even in the private space within a domestic setting. Some critics argued that the same was deliberately done by Shadi to comply with the guidelines of the state censor board. One might not see this distinction as relevant within the religious context but the same does come across as a constructed meaning from the direct reading of the photographs. 

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Shadi Ghadirian : Miss Butterfly 

 

Unlike the meaning usually associated with photography theorists, the pictures in Miss Butterfly are much alienated from the actual reality of the referrant. Such alienation is much evident in the poetic construction of the frame where the object which symbolises captivity is enlarged from its usual/normal size. Moreover, the careful selection of space and source of light, also work towards alienating the referrant (women) from their actual historical context; hence reducing them to mere symbols of general understanding of oppression. One may say, Shadi Ghadirian in Miss Butterfly, becomes the author of the photograph; metamorphosing the reality into well construed ideology and representing the same through intelligently placed symbols.  

We can see this well thought of placement of incongruous objects to create meaning in her other acclaimed works such as Like Everyday (2000) and Nil Nil (2008) as well. In all of these works, the ideological motive becomes a vantage point from which objects (including humans) are seen through preconceived meaning. 

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Shadi Ghadirian : Like Everyday 

 

 

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Shadi Ghadirian : Nil Nil 

It is through her well choreographed process, that Shadi Ghadirian imbues movement in stillness. Since the subject matter of her photograph is not the historical fact or abstracted reality but a political meaning, the pictures escape the socio-temporal existence and remain relevant till the political objective is achieved. Therefore, the referentiality and indexicality of Shadi Ghadirian’s  photography is not reflective of the world represented in the photograph but of the world ‘out-there’; that is, the world outside the photograph but yet so near. 

This subject matter, however, runs contrary to the classical understanding of photography which considered a photograph to be stillness; so much so that some considered it to be a death. Christian Metz in his Photography and Fetish (1985) argues that photography operates as a figuration of death. Metz says ‘photography is an instantaneous abduction of the object out of the world into another world, into another kind of time… photography by virtue of its stillness ‘maintains the memory of dead as being dead.’  In common parlance, photography is compared with shooting; the camera becomes a gun.

Shadi Ghadirian, on the other hand, is bringing alive the voices of the dead and the denied. With every frame and image, she challenges the ‘still’ nature of her medium of expression by constructing meanings that remain relevant, existent and omnipresent. Shadi’s camera is not a gun; it is not a flag of peace either. More than anything, it is a mirror; reflecting what ever movement and the moved fails to see through his own naked eyes. 

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‘Lady Bird’ and the Non-Linearity of Life

Human cells live, but not forever. The blood, and what makes it red, dies, exists, and then comes back to life. There’s a life within a life; a cycle of constant birth and death of the same thing, but in a regenerated form. 

Greta Gerwig’s coming of age directorial debut ‘Lady Bird’ is a celebration of the ordinary. Out of many themes, captured and then put in frames of a solipsistic photo album, there’s one that stands out; and oh so bravely and unapologetically.  And that is, we change. 

What we understand of ‘self’ and every extension of the same is a construction; purely hedonistic. We often face flak for not staying ‘true’ to ‘who we are’, and quite interestingly, it always comes from the outside. It’s like all the voids we try to fill in, eventually we tend to outgrow, but somehow still make ourselves ‘fit’ into the same spaces. It is not natural, no, it can’t be. When the elements that constitute your body and make it ‘live’ each day do not remain constant, how can the idea of it remain constant? There is a movement in the understanding of life and the life itself. It may be retrospective, but it’s always moving forward. There is no linear movement, if that may appear from the word forward, rather, it’s the complete opposite of it. 

Saoirse Ronan, in one of the interviews she gave to a talk-show host in LA, mentioned her take on the relatability of  Christine’s (Ladybird’s) character in the film. She said it is not the specificity of Christine’s life but the very abstracted idea of it that makes the movie and the character so relatable; even in a very gender-less way. It’s like having to look at oneself through various costumes until finding one that fits perfectly; and then, maybe, changing even that one, again. 

From love, music, theatre to Sacramento, we finally see Christine moving forward in the movement of life but finding truths about herself that lie not ahead but in the past. Or maybe, they always existed but never realised. Even though she chooses to be who she never thought she would be, the reason why she still prevails is the fact that she exercised a choice. There’s no defined qualitative and ‘identifying’ element in the movement of life. The forward movement in life may not always be marked with a forward movement in one’s understanding of self. And more so than ever, it is the shooting off from one’s own position, that makes a ‘decision’ what it actually is. 

So, the lesson I learn, or should I say, what I see being a reiteration of something I already knew, in Ladybird, is the idea of being non-linear in the movement of life; and in the understanding of the same. We are always a ‘work in progress’ and never in any moment could we be reduced to an identifiable description of self. And let’s just say, it would be a heinous crime to self, by self, if the self is being seen and understood from the mind of the other. 

 

Film Analysis: How Okja Shows Us Rising Emotional Decadence

Okja is undoubtedly a reflection of Bong-Joon Ho’s evolving auteur. A mouthpiece of environment advocacy shied down by wry humour and avant-garde character design. As any film review would define it, Okja is a story about the journey of a young South Korean girl who fights against all odds to get a genetically enhanced pig which does not belong to her either physically or intellectually. The movie never deviates from its central plot and each shot is quite smartly put to create a fast moving progression of the primary storyline; something which really fuels the existing anticipation. However, despite its strict editorial work, there are few shots in Okja that really stand out for reasons other than the central narrative. These shots are not about Mija (Seo-Hyeon Ahn) or Okja; rather they come across as a didactic commentary on a post-modern understanding of human relationships.  

Hayao Miyazaki, a Japanese anime giant, has given us a dreamlike depiction of Mija’s life in the hills. The sounds of running water and breaking branches engulf the viewer in the serenity and simplicity of a life closer to nature.  In almost all the shots we see both Okja and Mija developing a personal relationship not between themselves but also with the natural bounty around them; whether it be the giant rock or the flowing streams. We hardly see any sign of modern technology but there is contentment abound. There’s a prevailing of a selfless yet a settled sort of a happiness which is not dramatically over joyous or unnecessarily indulging.  

And then we move to Seoul; a city to its every definition. Suddenly, we see panoramic and aerial shots being taken of the herd of people moving towards the railway station – just like the ones showing the hills in the beginning of the movie. These shots sort of reintroduce the viewer to the narrative of the film, maybe emphasising on the shift in the storyline. However, I also see them as a conscious effort on the part of the director to showcase a distinction, and that too of a stark one, between a rural and an urban life. However, this distinction is not just physical but also emotional. The aerial shot of the herd of people moving towards the railway station focus only on the quantity of the subject matter and not the identity. So, we just see a faceless crowd moving uniformly towards a common destination reflecting the growing mechanisation of human activity. This is in complete opposition to the free-moving and unregimented movements of Mija and Okja on the hills. 

This regimented and mechanised ‘city-life’ is shown to have a distracting capability of its own. On one hand, we have a determined Mija trying to find a familiar face and on the other, we have an association of beings spatially so close yet empathetically so separated. This brings me to the second most profound didactic theme – alienation. 

When Mija reaches the Mirando building in Seoul she is met with a surprisingly empty office and a lot of glass walls. One of these glass walls separated her and the receptionist who then asked Mija to use the telephone placed on the other side of the glass wall to communicate to her, ignoring the most obvious of Mija’s signals. That glass wall represented the alienation that has become a characteristic of the urban milieu where people are more comfortable in communicating digitally. This also stands in contrast with the kind of communication and understanding Mija shared with Okja despite not understanding each other’s language. This sign of digitally induced alienation is also visible in the scene where a girl who is running away from Okja in a supermarket chooses to make a Snapchat video rather than actually experiencing the feeling of being afraid. 

Within the scenes of Korea, we see another sign of post-modern emotional deficit – Animal Liberation Front. This sign is very subtle and confusing for it operates in overlapping meanings. Modern day organisations walk the line between being phoney and being relevant. And then sometimes we come across organisations or people who cannot fight a cause until it is contextualised; neither can they connect on emotional levels without putting that connection under a contextualised category. ALF failed to grasp both the emotional simplicity of Mija’s relationship with Okja as well as its own decaying ethos – respecting the animal life. Though their understanding does change in New York when they are faced with some disturbing visuals and an unknown fact from the past, the way they operated as an organisation as a whole does reflect a sort of contextualised understanding of animal rights.  Their faith in non-violence and ecological conservation did become a part of Bong’s wry humour but it also reflected as to how modern day organisations have become increasingly normative; vying for immediate short term impact rather than aiming for long term structural changes. 

Okja is not a narrative with explicitly enlarged sub-narratives. These sub-narratives are very subtle and can be subjected to interpretations. However, the use of camerawork at certain shots forces a viewer to delve further into the intentions of the director. The central narrative may or may not promote vegetarianism or at least the abandoning of corporate food processing units, but it sure does try to create an awakening about the rising emotional decadence in the digitally connected urban beings. 

A Musical Inquiry into Existence, Creativity and Bachelard’s Time

What is music to our eyes? It is not the metaphorical use of the word for a visual aesthetic substance but an inquiry to understand the coordinated relationship between the two.

It is when the words drenched in rhythm are let loose on one’s senses that one realises the transcending nature of oneself. It is hardly conflicted that music holds potential to transcend our conscience of its physicality. So, how is it that we often find ourselves in a redundancy of materialism where the context of our physical presence does not resonate with our mental understanding of our own existence? Well, that is the extension that I’m seeking to establish here.

Gaston Bachelard, a celebrated French philosopher, talks about paradoxical nature of time. In his seminal work Intuition of the Instant he quite scientifically establishes the paradox of time in which time’s essence lies in duration, but creativity, in everything that breaks free from it. Duration and Time then come across as antithetical to each other. Duration, to Bachelard, is something that is continuous and creates an artificial distinction between present and future. To the contrary, time is something that is ‘instant’ or ‘in the moment’. Therefore, time is a severing away from the linearity of duration (something that he calls mutation) and can only be creative in the present.

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Salvador Dali

 

It is Bachelard’s fascination with originality and uniqueness that makes him the centre of inquiry in this essay. To him, originality or creativity cannot be understood through Duration because in the realm of Duration, every moment has to have a connection with something in the past. Therefore, he argues that creativity can only happen when action (time) breaks away (sudden mutation) from the historicity of duration. So, the ‘time’ that exists at that moment of sudden mutation is the only action worth understanding and hence is natural. The other distinction of past and future is a mere artificial construction.

We can see the parallel of the same principle in Bachelard’s explanation of science. To him, science rests on an Epistemological Break which says that true creativity in the history of science is possible only when the history is discontinued and the past theory is negated at a particular time.

In the theory of Roupnel, something that Bachelard responded to in his work, art occupies a significant position. According to Roupnel, constant innovation (renewing mutation) is important for evolution and since art is created through original sensations, it becomes an ‘instant’ and hence occupies a key place in this process. In both of these explanations we see a great emphasis being put on the instantaneous nature of creativity, something which I would like to extend to the notion of existence within time.

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Max Planck 

 

Coming back to my hypothesis, I’m here to question what is the relationship of music with our eyes. Is it a mere artistic involvement or is it a higher process of transcendence that outs the very idea of existence and time into question?

When we listen to music, we make a choice. The choice, either consciously or subconsciously involves a selection, a song or a beat, that carries a meaning in itself. As a walker, I often listen to music when I’m travelling or walking from work to home or vice versa. So I can say that music is involved in my life when I already exist in a specific spacio-temporal milieu in time which is relative to my surroundings and is universal for each person around me. So it is also safe to say that the involvement of music in my life (for instance while walking from work to home) is a Duration (In Bachelard’s sense). “I listened to 5 songs while walking from work to home”, justifies the same. This principle might please Bergson but I say that it holds only to a voyeur.

The very idea that we choose a particular song at a particular moment speaks a lot about our cognition of letting an external output coordinate with an internal motivation of brain (neurophysiology argument). The decision making process of the brain, an emotional structure that involves hypothalamus and cerebral cortex, evidences that our music selection is a choice that involves a goal orientation approach. We choose a song which our limbic system and reticular formation tells us to be of a good yield in the past.

So it can be safely accepted that involvement of music in our life is mostly a choice. Therefore, it can be said that there is some sense of instantaneous action (sudden mutation) involved in our music listening practice. Hence, I would deduce that when we listen to music we are not just responding to what has happened in the past, or being just a point in the chain of Duration, but we are generating or experiencing something original and unique. We are living in Time and not Duration. Or it can be said, it is a real perception of time within a realm of Duration garbed as artificial Time.

Now, let’s extend this postulate to the question of one’s existence in the designated spacio-temporal environment. So the question that emerges is when I listen to music while travelling from work to home, do I exist in the time and space of my surroundings or do I transcend to a different instant of time. If I rely on the premise forwarded by Bachelard, my process of listening music is mutation from the historicity of the context around me. And since it’s a mutation, whatever is created during that process of listening music, through my cognitive methods, is original, hence creativity. So it would be safe to say that during the music listening process, I exist in Time and not Duration.

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iCanvas Arts 

Now that my question of existence is sorted, I shall now move on to my question of creation. So, when I use my eyes while listening to music to envisage a deconstruction of the context around me, am I being an artist or maker of that process? Theodor Lipps in his radical hypothesis on art said that the power of an artwork doesn’t lie in the work itself. It is involved in the process where the viewer considers that artwork to be beautiful. It depends on what viewer makes of it.  Hence, it is the viewer who becomes the artist of this new creative process. Extending Lipps postulate to the study of music, I realise the parallels can be drawn. Beethoven would not mean the same to the Liberal Arts students in Ukraine as what he stands for a 60 year old housewife in France. However, I do not stop at establishing semiotic nature of music. I want to take the liberty of extending it to the idea of construction (creativity). I believe that sometimes music becomes a catalyst to a higher creative process sourcing from ourselves. It is us who reach a moment in time where it is not the inherent meaning of the music that we are responding to but rather a new construction of meaning that forms a distinct artistic narrative. So it is when we listen to music that we are involved in a process of artistic construction (keeping in mind the Bachelard’s idea of mutation).

After analysing every inch of my mental curiosity, it would be good to condense my conclusion into a nutshell. I believe that when we listen to music (not as a voyeur) we divorce our existence from the spacio-temporal milieu of our surrounding and transcend to a new instant of time (since time has been proven to be relative). This instant of time is marked by a mutation from the Duration that we were involved in while not listening to music. It is in the instantaneous moment of music listening process that we are involved in a creative activity of forming original works (since art is premised on the freshness of original sensations and every moment in music listening process is mutated from any historical attachment). Thus, it is we who are the artist of this new artistic construction that is formed while we exist in space of time that is severed from the historicity of our physical surrounding in the context it exists.

. I feel empowered now of the fact that music no longer alienates me from my own artistic constructions. I wish I could put them down to concrete works of literature (sometimes I do though) but I get too consumed in the momentary meaning of my own constructions.

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John Armato 

From ‘Looking-Into’ to ‘Living-Into’: Theorizing Existentialism in Cinema

In the early scenes of L’avenir (Things to Come) we see a French artist resting in peace at a place where he wanted to consume himself to the music of winds and sea till the eternity. Commenting on the same, Heinz tells Nathalie that music is not only felt, it is seen. As the movie progresses, we see Nathalie experiencing the same contradiction, a semiotic rather, in her own self. We see her exploring and experiencing the various interpretations of herself, a development of an empathy she creates with the space and circumstances. In a cinematic construction that enables it, we see Nathalie oscillating from a life which she ‘thinks’ of being hers and the life she somehow indulges herself into. It is the fascinating movement of her identity from the past to the present to the future and the constant divergence of it all that made me question the idea of linearity and unity of life and identity.

 

Extrapolating Nathalie and contextualising her to the actress who ‘played’ that character on screen – Isabelle Huppert, I see an extension of this idea. In her interview to Stephen Colbert, when she was asked with a cliché of what is acting, she quite resolutely replied that it is anything but ‘acting’. She said that it is the denial of oneself as one exists in order to be someone else. This is something way more than merely method acting. This is a more psychological and physiological process of ‘looking-into’ the object of consideration. As the German Romantic philosophers or English Aesthetic School might call it active empathy, I would partially agree to that construction, only to extend it to a more complex idea of ‘living-into’.

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I begin with the question of ‘self’. It’s an existential question that requires understanding of the two components or elements that are in a dialogical relationship in order to raise this doubt in the first place. Rachael Corbett raises this point while asking that if we work on an assumption that we consist of something self then what makes us think that the other is devoid of that self? In the present case the two components that I shall consider are – the actor and the character.

The uniqueness of cinematic empathy is that the object and subject are both representational of an interconnected signified. For instance, what it means to be a human is not only reflected in the artist but is also extended to the character. So, it would be a woman playing a role of a woman, or a man, so on and so forth. This nature of duality separates it from the Man and Nature duality of Johann Gottfried Herder. Unlike Herder’s association of ‘human elements’ such as consciousness to non-human elements such as nature; the characters possess humanness in themselves and the same is not artificially extended. This shall also be distinguished from David Hume’s concept of sympathy because there is no recognition of the ‘beauty’ of the character in either relative or absolute terms. Rather the nature of the character is not adjudged by the actor from any representational signifier. There can be slight similarities of this idea with the anthropomorphosis effect as elaborated in Friedrich Theodor Vischer’s operational symbolism, although the presence of magical-symbolism thinking in his theory is the one that frictions the synonymous relationship between the two.

Moving away from Vicher, there isn’t a consciousness of ‘self’ completely present during a cinematic process of acting. As Isabelle Huppert herself confessed in her interview to The Hollywood Reporter, ‘the moment and space of acting is not completely conscious or unconscious in the actor’s head. It is characterised by the state of mind where one is halfway lost of oneself and halfway in gain of someone else.” So Ms Huppert believes that an actor, during the process of acting, occupies a space (both physically and psychologically) that is separate from the socio-temporal space of the actor’s existence.

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Desiree Navab (2004)

The idea that an actor can escape the ‘existence’ that is often synonymous to having a body and be someone else, it itches me to question this very synonymy. Occupation of a space would require some magnitude of mass in the thing that is occupying it. Therefore, it would be safe to say that the fact that a thing occupies a space, that it possesses mass, it henceforth exists. Since, an actor escapes to possess a space which is separate from the space occupied by her when she is not enacting a scene, it could be a plausible extension to say that she goes on to occupy a space that her body (body that she carries when she’s not enacting) does not occupy. So, the process of acting associates some sense of mass in the non-material existence of the idea of the character. It is this mass which is transferred to the actor when she escapes from the mass of the original body. The presence of mass in the non-material idea of the character would now lead us to believe that such an idea exists. Thus, the character itself exists. It may be non-material (devoid of body) but it exists. So much so, that it would safe to say that the character’s existence is independent, and perhaps, predates the existence of the actor.

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Annegret Saldau (1976)

So, why did I recognise the existence of a non-material idea that possesses mass? Well, let’s talk about Descartes here. In his Meditation II, the French philosopher says that the reason that I doubt is because that I think. Therefore, there should be a thinking thing that exists. Since, I think, I am a thinking thing. Therefore, since I think, I exist. When it came to the question of body, he said that the only reason that I know the existence of body is due to perceptible sensations, which can possibly be the deception of the demon. But the fact that he thinks that whether his body exists or not shows that thinking thing (mind) exists. Thus, it is possible for him to exist even when he does not have a body because he has the thinking thing (mind). This duality between mind and body get further detailing in Meditations V and VI where he states that he knows that clear and distinct ideas are true. Therefore, every idea that he can conceive clearly and distinctively shall be true. Since he perceives mind and body to possess clear and distinct ideas, that is ‘thinking thing’ and ‘extension’ respectively, mind and body are two distinct things. Since, these are two different things; the existence of one does not depend on the existence of another.

I’m not saying that this theory completely follows the duality principle of Descartes, because saying so would mean that Leibniz’s Law of Indiscernible Identities would be a perfect criticism to it. On the contrary, The Leibniz Law is a plausible ally of this. The idea that two things that are completely distinct cannot resemble each other satisfies me to create a distinction between the character and the actor. Since there exist distinctions in the characteristics or properties of these two objects, we cannot say that the actor resembles herself or continues to carry the identity of herself while providing material existence (physicality) to the character. Although, the fact that the humanness of both the entities is not affected at all, or sometimes the language, voice or inhibitions continue to persist in the transformation, we cannot fixate the aforementioned Law of Indiscernible Identities here without certain meticulous reservations.

While pondering upon Leibniz, I went further ahead to the concept of ‘bringing about materialism or physicality to the idea of the character’. When the actor escapes the materiality of her original being, she goes on to provide the character her material existence. Well, how does this happen? I believe that the actor’s original body is a mere carrier of the identity that the actor represents. The idea of representation that works here is similar to the one present in the linguistic theory of Ferdinand de Saussure. He says that language is a system of signs where each sign is a combination of a form (signifier) and a particular meaning (signified). Moreover, the relationship that occurs between the signifier and the signified, that goes on to produce a linguistic sign, is created by a convention (usage). Let’s see this in the context of what we use to define ourselves? Or how we define ourselves? We don’t say that I am a particular person because I have a pair of legs and limbs. Perhaps, we don’t say that so as to reemphasise our understanding of identity which is something more than the animalistic existence and distinctive from others in some way.

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Ferdinand de Saussure

The aforementioned argument proves that we have a perceived understanding of ourselves, of who we are, of our existence, which is based on the way we represent ourselves through language. So for instance, if I begin to think about my friend or a colleague in their absence, I would use representational signs of a language to make sense of their existence. ‘He’s very funny’, ‘she’s quite witty’, all of these sentences reduces our existence to a representational system based on language that focuses more on how we ‘come across’ than what we ‘consist of’. This further enables me to think that if it is our representation that defines our existence, then such existence can be understood beyond the presence of the body itself. Therefore, it can be concluded that the body is a mere carrier of an actor’s identity and when she enters the process of ‘becoming’ a character, the same body becomes a material representation of the identity of the character.

Since, I have established the duality of identity and body and the transformation of material representation from the actor to the character, there is not much left for me to deliberate upon but to reckon.  So this is what I think it is – when an actor chooses to take up a certain character, she enters a process of becoming where she moves away (hence denies) from the existence (if existence depends on recognition of itself) of her original identity in order to give existence to the identity of the character. The spacio-temporal existence and reality of the transformed actor (character) is separate from that of the original actor (we can probably say that it replaces the space occupied by the actor for that moment of enactment). The now existent mind of the character gets its body with the material transfer of mass from the actor to the character (since body is nothing but a carrier of identity). Therefore, during the process of a scene, it is the character that exists and not the actor. The reality is associated with the cinematic construction and not the contrary.

Since everything has been said quite contently, I cannot help but raise few questions by keeping this theory as a premise. One of the most prominent of them being that if it is the character that exists during the shooting of a scene, and not the actor then who should get the remuneration that flows from the aesthetic appreciation of that art? Is it justified to create a personality cult around the original figure of the actor when it is the figure of the character that created that psyche among the masses? This, and a lot more triggers my mind for further deliberations and inquiry.

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Isabelle

I haven’t lost myself in a life

Called work, not chained

To impersonal commitments, I

Have just shed a skin

Of life, out of many

That I’ve been wearing for so long

I thought I lived once,

A life, a person, an

Inescapable unity,

All this, until

I saw myself no more

And found everything of me

In else

Words of Viola Davis: Crossing the ‘Fences’ of the Great Man Tradition

“…The fact that we breathe, live a life and are God to our children means that we have a story and it deserves to be told…”

There cannot be a contention to a thought that Viola Davis offered a memorable performance in the cinematic adaptation of August Wilson’s iconic play Fences. Even though her performance underlines her underappreciated presence in Hollywood, the subject matter of her character in the movie is a more fascinating discourse to delve into. Starting from the very decision of adapting a play into a movie to the definitive selection of screenplay and uncoloured construction of dialogues, the presence of this movie and especially of Viola Davis’s interpretation of the idea that it represents comes across as a major challenge to the established traditions of storytelling in American cinema.

When Viola Davis began to deliver her winning speech at Screen Actors Guild Awards (2017), she quite distinctively mentioned the word ‘history’. While expressing what this recognition means to her and to the idea that this film stands for, she said that it is not often that a movie is made to display the story of an average man who happened to be a man of colour. The speech delivered by Viola Davis is a direct attack to the concept of theorizing prevalent practice in both literary and historical studies known as the Great Man Tradition.

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Credits: Huffington Post

Coined by the 19th century historian and commentator Thomas Carlyle, the Great Man Tradition in historical studies is a concept that chooses to understand history from the existence of the ‘great men’ who had occupied decisive and substantially prominent or heroic positions in the society. Such was the conviction of Carlyle that in his book titled On Heroes, Hero-Worship and Heroics of History, he goes on to comment that the ‘history of the world is nothing but the biography of great men’. This idea resonates in Machiavellianism as well which stands of inculcating duplicity and cunningness in general conduct or statecraft. The idea of looking at history from the lens of who is termed as a ‘hero’ focuses on making a retrospective study an instrument for guiding the socio-cultural development of future actions and psyche. The understanding of the nature of history itself has been shortened at one hand by focusing the subject matter on certain prominent figures and on the other hand it has been displayed to be widened by associating it with the understanding of present dogmatic trends and the construction of some kind of future course of action.

There have been many criticisms to this tradition mainly coming from the realms of feminism and Marxist studies. However one that mounted the most was the one given by scientist and sociologist Herbert Spencer who refuted to see these ‘heroes’ in an isolated form. To Spencer, these cult personalities do not occupy these positions on their own or do not exist outside the social relations of their society. It is the social factors prevailing at that time that create a favourable or enabling environment for certain figures to occupy influential positions. So, when Hollywood period dramas celebrate Jackie Kennedy or Lincoln, they get quite deferential by not focusing much on the role played by sociological forces in the construction of personality cult around these figures. However, the practice of building a climax and anti-climax in the narrative of the art has somehow pushed the movies slightly away from the great man practice, but only procedurally and not substantially.

It is in this backdrop that Viola Davis, in front of the entire fraternity, proclaims that the stories of an average man or woman deserve to be in the canon of any narrative that has been built out there. She is reiterating the process of alleviating the common person to the books of history or probably the democratization of the discourse on history itself. The character that she plays is a prejudiced class within a class that has been systematically prejudiced. The slow or ‘real’ movement of her body and corresponding emotions in the space of performance represents the plight of dialectic of sex that has haunted the fight for gender equality since generations. She is painstakingly ‘natural’ and she wants us to know that how unfair this ‘naturalization’ is. This plight and the outburst that followed is a political statement in itself. Through Rose, Viola Davis brings drama at the doorsteps of a minority household; a set of cinematic expressions to the unexpressed desires of a coloured woman.

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Credits: Vanity Fair

As Viola Davis went on to thank her husband and her daughter, and as crowd was left with no choice but to applaud, I could not help myself but think what we have done to deserve an actor like her. Even before Fences, her Oscar nominated performances in The Doubt and The Help reflect her sheer commitment to break away from the great man tradition of storytelling. And as the recognition comes ridiculously late, I hope the very coming of it will also bring the change in the way cinema chooses to represent itself in the cultural industry.