Let’s Meet at Baba Ratan’s Mela

Ajay Bhardwaj’s ‘Punjab Trilogy’ breaks the loud conformity of the commercial narrative and resurrects the syncretic aesthetic of stoic silences across popular consciousness on the margins
Asad Zaidi Delhi 

Mainstream images of Punjab are saturated with the narrative of the Green Revolution, the rise of the new, prosperous elite, the manner in which parliamentary politics shapes and reshapes the dominant political discourse and alliances — Akalis, Congress, BJP, and the ebb and flow of the BSP’s fortunes. And then there is the projected ‘Punjabiyat’ of the diaspora, the dissemination of commodified music, videos and films — all the kitsch that masquerades as ‘crossover culture’. It appears Punjab has no poor masses or subaltern classes of its own; they all come from Bihar and other labour-exporting regions and leave no traces of their prolonged visits.

In filmmaker Ajay Bhardwaj’s path-breaking series of three documentaries — the Punjab Trilogy — we see a Punjab that most people in the country don’t often get to see. Bhardwaj largely ignores the ‘Brave New Punjab’ and emphatically shows that the old Punjab still lives in its eastern wing, in its depressed and numerous but marginalised communities, who have resisted the erasure of memory. The past may have changed or evolved in more than half-a-century, but it is not over. For the disinherited people, it is their present too, and they hold it dear. They are the real custodians of the past.

If there is anything to the notion of ‘Punjabiyat’ — or ‘Kashmiriyat’ and ‘Bengaliyat’, for that matter — the human essence of it has to be possessed and evolved by the ordinary folks, whose deprivations have not damaged the codes they live by. Such folks are visually present here, as protagonists, as proper subjects, for our own education. This is a significant achievement of Bhardwaj’s Punjab Trilogy.

The latest (and third) documentary, Milange Babey Ratan De Mele Te, screenedacross Delhi and elsewhere recently, is a long meditation on the syncretic cultural and religious traditions of Punjab, the lived reality in present-day Punjab, and hope in its future. The filmmaker manages to leave his own ambivalence behind and tries to think along with the people he is recording. It is slightly different from his second documentary, Rabba Hun KeeKariye, which was a straight-from-the-heart narrative about how the terrible events of Partition are ‘memorialized’ by the people of East Punjab. The film, with its remarkable testimonies, is an argument against wilful erasure.

What they lived  with before Partition remains with them. It is written on their faces, in their body language

The first, Kitte Mil VeMahi, is about contemporary discontent of the dispossessed and marginalized peasantry and lower caste people and their strong rootedness in the old, syncretic, cultural traditions of Punjab with a memory that resists cooption into the new, degraded identities. It has become a valuable document because it revolves around the figure of revolutionary Dalit poet Lal Singh Dil shortly before his death.

Bhardwaj is raising issues that our social historians, ethnographers and political scientists should have studied long ago. He has meticulously taken up a task that basically belonged to the two previous generations. Among so many lapses, there is a time lapse, and it makes his work especially poignant. He records not just the less audible voices, but also the great silences of a society which simply doesn’t know where its conscience — indeed, its identity — lies. 

Are we overstating the case? Just remove the toxic curtains of the Green Revolution, the sectarian politics of the dominant castes, the clichéd, celebratory images of the eternally vociferous Punjabi diaspora, and the stereotypes of bubbly balle-balle at high decibel, and you will see old Punjab still living, breathing, resurrecting, going about its daily life and loves with quiet dignity. Their culture speaks in very different registers. It persists; it is aware of a past that holds so much for them.

These are the communities all over Punjab whose stories fascinate the filmmaker. What they lived with before Partition remains with them. It is written on their faces, in their body language. A certain knowledge and regret about the past has settled in their bones, and they carry this burden with a sense of resignation, although they are not responsible for it. 

The documentary has found a way of dealing with castes and groups in the margins in a way that challenges the standard nationalist narrative of freedom and Partition. The marks of hurt and injury that Punjab (and the subcontinent) carries are not only those inflicted by Partition. Even the older ones inflicted by the so-called reform movements — the Arya Samaj and Singh Sabha, and various forms of reactive religious reorganization among Muslims — combined to bring society to a tragic impasse, of which Partition and its devastating aftermath in Punjab were just the initial price to pay.

All the reform movements targeted the much older, shared, cultural and religious traditions and the shared way of life. One often forgets that this synthesis was not another form of social/cultural corruption, or a careless mixing up of several distinct and purer traditions. In fact, that is how cultures originally and authentically evolved, and how they were received and internalized in Punjab. Certainly, these traditions are much older than the newly minted identities, of delusionary purity.

The reformers wanted to redefine, firm up distinct religious boundaries, consolidate caste hierarchies, create categorical communities of faith, and purge the elements of commonness. No less important was the colonialist obsession with religious boundaries and classifications as represented by the census exercises which generated so much competitive parochialism and destructive social energy. It is these elements which eventually led to the redrawing of physical and political boundaries, militarizing politics and minds, the intellect of this subcontinent.

In recent years — the past two decades or so — one has seen the emergence of Partition narratives, particularly women’s narratives, which, interestingly, do not touch issues like caste. Bhardwaj has taken an imaginative leap forward; he talks about community living, a whole way of life that was lost by the powerful sections of society who didn’t even realise its misfortune. By focusing on the Dalit experience, the experience of the subaltern classes, and the stubbornness with which marginalised groups have preserved their way of life and togetherness, the filmmaker has resurrected a moment of enlightened hope.

One can also travel  with the simultaneous presence of a ‘Left memory’ and its persistence. This is an important element in the Punjab story

One can also travel with the simultaneous presence of a ‘Left memory’ and its persistence. Bhardwaj has a way of suggesting it with the slightest of touches and nuances; this is an important element in the Punjab story — the various Left and revolutionary currents that left their imprint. We need to pay attention to this to come to terms with the question of ‘Punjabiyat’ and Punjabi culture, by talking frankly about Partition, and all that which still survives.

It is important to break silences in the cultural discourse about a region where such massive demographic changes have taken place. The Punjab Trilogy does that. Recently, Gurvinder Singh’s wonderfully crafted film Anhe Ghode Da Dan, a feature film based on Gurdayal Singh’s Punjabi novel, marked a new milestone. One comes away with the feeling that these two filmmakers are quietly creating a different and serious Punjabi cinema genre which breaks the threshold of loud conformity, and celebrates the cultures of stoic silences, resisting erasure. 

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: APRIL 2013