Pad.ma 2009: Ayisha Abraham - Ram Gopal, the dancer on 8mm found footage
Duration: 00:25:35; Aspect Ratio: 1.366:1; Hue: 210.554; Saturation: 0.146; Lightness: 0.274; Volume: 0.207; Cuts per Minute: 5.042; Words per Minute: 91.778
Ayisha Abraham who has made a film, 'Straight 8', using 8 mm found footage, chose to look at rare films made on Ram Gopal, a dancer who became famous in the mid-twentieth century. Using the footage of Ram Gopal that had been shot by an amateur film maker Tom D'Aguiar, perhaps the only existing fragment of moving image of Ram, Ayesha posed questions about the relationship between the materiality of film, the role of archives and the reconstruction of histories through them. http://pad.ma/MS/info
Ayisha Abraham is a member of the Bangalore artists collective, BAR1, and works as a visual arts consultant at the Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology.
For a report on the event, see http://camputer.org/event.php?id=75
SA: Ayisha Abraham, an artist who has been increasingly researching and working with 8mm found footage, including the film series "Straight 8". She is a member of Bangalore Artists' Collective, Bar1 and works as a visual arts consultant at the Shrishti School of Art, Design and Technology.
A clip of the footage of Ran Gopal that Ayisha will present appears as part of her film "Straight 8" in May 2005. This film is being used in a larger film on Ram Gopal himself that Ayisha has begun researching. Working title for the film is "You call it Dancing, I call it Rythm".
Who are We hall, Nehru Centre, Worli
AA: Thanks Shaina. When I was looking briefly, on the 14th of this month, Valentine's day, to gather some notes, I came upon a definition of 'amateur'. And I think I've been an amateur film maker for years now. And I didn't actually that the origin of the word 'amateur' came from- lover, a devoted friend, a devotee, an enthusiast, pursuer of objective. And it was in the late 18th century that the definition then mutates to being- A person who engages in arts for example as a pass-time rather than as a profession. By the late 19th century, its actually a derogatory term. 'Amateur' is looked down upon because its discouraging ... its set against the professional.
So I just thought I would begin with that. That you know, as terms do change, and value changes, I think so do forms of media. And that's why yesterday, in fact I'd gone to Pad.ma... I was sitting and annotating the footage yesterday at the CAMP office, and there's this moment of real excitement that happened which was when I was looking at this footage of Ram Gopal and almost came upon a make believe conversation between Tom, who actually filmed this, and Ram Gopal himself. I was, in a way, I think playing both roles, and annotating from Tom's point of view, and from Ram Gopal's point of view. I think that's when I realised that there is such possibility in this medium. Because when you make a film, its often hard to put everything you want to say partly because making a film very text heavy or very voice/sound heavy,- it becomes an overkill. But then you lose out on so much. It was just the sheer excitement- a serendipitous moment when you feel "Oh there's something great happening here!"
AA: Again, the serendipity is more ...goes back to when I found this footage, in 2002 after Tom D'Aguiar and (?) were living in my neighbourhood, living alone, with a dog, passes away. I have actually done some interviews as a recce sort of a project, I wasn't sure whether I was going to make a film. Majlis actually funded the research. And I was doing these interviews with Tom, and ...He could get it before I could actually make a film, he passed away. He was 92. And one day when I passed his home, I noticed there was some activity in this, what had been a dilapidated locked up old house for a couple of months. And his son had arrived from the UK...I think some of that is in the annotations - and he just turns to me and says 'We were going to throw this plastic bag of footage out. Would you like it? Because my father actually did mention that you were going to trying to make a film on it."
So he gave me this footage, it was in fragments, extremely fragile. I managed to digitise it and I don't think I could do it again. Its very ...its almost dust by now.
AA: This footage then becomes part of a film that I do make on Tom, but I don't really delve into who he is. So there is a side of him, I felt there was something incomplete about this project. And even though I really want to move on and move beyond these early 1940's film footage, I felt that I should actually annotate this footage, even make a film, or give it all up to an archive. So I was looking for such a place where I could give the original 8mm film and possibly some of the interviews that I had planned to do with the dancers that Ram Gopal used in his troupe. He kept ...
Sorry I'll just go back a bit...
AA: After 1938 he actually becomes an internationally known dancer. And he forms a troup where they are presenting Indian dance to the world. Many of his dancers are still alive- Bhanumati Rao, Mrinalini Sarabhai, Kumudhini Lakhia. So I've tried to do interviews essentially about Ram Gopal. And I have this footage now and I am hoping I can put it up on Pad.ma. Which brings me back to why in a way I find this form quite liberating because it makes me feel that I can do what I would like to do with the footage, if at all. It could be historical material, it could lend itself to another project, it could just be there as a story, or as narrative.
AA: So this is some of the raw footage...
I do mention here, how for Tom this is kind of a challenge because he tries to illustrate all the mudras that are being demonstrated and so he films a lotus opening over days and then cuts it into this footage.
AA: So I'll just briefly go through some of the issues that may come up with something like the home movie, which is a completely different genre from a lot of the documentary material that we've been seeing- partly because the footage that this is, goes back so many years, so that we come to it 60-70 years later with a lot of baggage, a lot of preconceived notions about what we are seeing. And perhaps the tendency could be to overwrite over the footage, in which case the footage tends to loose its specificity. And I think that can often happen specifically with this form of standard 8mm film which is silent.
So I think the problem with home movies and interpreting it, is that we do want to give a voice to it, and so we can go overboard in interpreting it. And yet, in a sense, that is the only way to make sense of it.
AA: ...So the Ram Gopal footage presents this dilemma, this innocuous encounter in a small cantonement on British India in Bangalore between these 2 people- an amateur anglo-indian photographer and a young 20 year`old who wants to be a dancer- leads to the creation of this fragment of historical footage that needs annotating, comes from the 30's. And there is a genre of found footage, of home movies that have reached archives now and are being annotated now. A lot of it is pre-war footage and I'm going to specifically mention one film, and one attempt to write over a group of home movies- And that is Peter forgot his Malestrom(?)- where he re-edits footage of this Jewish family, living in 1933 or 1936...I think the footage was from that time, its also standard 8. And some of the dilemmas that he faces were that this is just very ordinary family home movies, and because of our knowledge of what happens in the war, we tend to feel the ominous aspect of what is really just very banal family outings and picnics.
AA: So, his film really tries to expand on this ominous quality, and therefore such annotation, for the skeptic, it can ...be like... why would one want to derive so much meaning out of something is just meant to be a document of a family?
So do we risk losing the specificity or the particularity of that moment?
AA: Different people can have different demands on footage, like you may want to see that footage honorary, as it is, as involving melodrama, or history in itself, so that one can be over-pedantic. The problem of home movies is this problem of particularity- trying to find a way to make sense of something individual, without erasing its individuality, its oneness, and its distinction.
Doing something, making something means to put that thing, its relation to something else, or to subsume it under broader conceptual themes. Understanding our connection to the indiccidual object of knowledge is enriched, made more complex and deepened by embedding that object in the world that we know. By doing that, the frightening and sad part of it of this feature of our understanding, is that we may lose the specificity, thae particularity of the object as we come to see it as one among many objects that are similar and different from it.
AA: So when it comes out of its natural environment, we have to wrap it up in something- we have to wrap it up in music, voice, sound- This orphaned film calls for continuous annotation and we just cannot let it be.
AA: And then as in the case of Ram Gopal, when we consider poeple or places of extreme beauty, we may be content to simply take pleasure in these people or places; in other words, to leave that aside from our understanding. We invite delight more than comparison or knowledge; to engage in the attempt to know the beautiful often spoils our delight, or spoils the delight of others.
That pedantary or being pedantic is a feature of understanding of knowledge, but not of wonder. Understanding and knowledge demand that you move away from the intimacy of you relation with any object. Understanding may promise a richer experience in the end, but there is a risk in that movement because we move it away from...we distance it, and knowledge can distance that - the intimacy- that sense of intimacy that we feel.
AA: These home movies are often a medium of joy. They are a medium where the best- however much of a front it was- the best and the happiest moments of your childhood or your life, or whatever your family might have represented. But the representation is only part of this particular history. So the problem of particularity- you just cannot leave it alone, but it doesn't...in a sense, there is no other way but to give it more meaning.
But what I find quite beautiful about the Pad.ma page is that there is this sort of continuous line which is very daintily(?) but it also seems to suggest that you can have a rather continual, you can have something that works along a continuous- so your interpretation can work along that. So you can have something that is very personal, that is very close, that may also appreciate the silences in footage, but that it can take all the way to really historicising and providing. So that it can be many things to many people. In a way ...my films are mine... in a way, one can't do that really, it just becomes too niche(?) ...expression.
AA: ...So thinking with history relativises the subject, whether personal and collective, self-reflexively to the flow of social time. Making something history makes a part of something else. So in a sense what happens with Ram Gopal footage is that its a very innocent moment where Ram Gopal says I want to see myself in colour, he invites Tom to film him on his terrace, but now when we look back at it, we see it historically. So it has gone through this passage.
AA: And...to make a case for this historicising, in a sense, every image that we see, everything that we see, could be otherwise. Everything you can describe at all, could be, also, otherwise. And so that one can continuously also be pushing the boundaries of a very minimal piece of footage here.
AA: Now with my own work....I'm just going to show examples of 2 ways in which this footage has entered my own work.
The first piece- this is an interview with Tom and it is online, so you could...I don't think we need to play it now. But ....and then Tom's voice makes less opaque Ram's dance and the footage of Ram Gopal.
More recently I've actually been able to find an interview with Ram Gopal himself, taken when he was in late 80's or early 90's. The fragility in his voice, I tried to rework into the fragility of this film that is falling apart. His voice is not very clear. At least in my film, the idea was to not actually provide the information or focus on what he is saying, but more to bring these 2 elements of fragility and ageing, together. Both, in the ageing of the mdeium of film, and, the ageing of an ordinary mortal.
AA: I think we can just watch...
(Clip on Pad.ma: The dancer Ram Gopal wants to see himself in colour, 8mm, 1938
Tom D'A: ...international photographic exhibition at the hall, not this one. And for my colour films I was awarded a plaque or something, I forget now. Ram Gopal came to the exhibition and he had never seen colour prints before. So he wanted to know who had taken them and so on. So he got in touch with me, we made quite good friends. He used to live in a place called (?) castle.... And his brother lived downstairs. ...
AA: An exceprt from 'Straight 8'....
....I had made the first colour films in Bangalore. At an international exhibition...not international- Whole of India- photographic exhibition... Ram Gopal came to the exhibition. And he had never seen colour films before, and nobody else had. So he wanted to know who had taken them and so on. So he got in touch with me. We made quite good friends.
.....fish pond with lilies. So I sat down every now and then...so that gradually the lily opens like this. Or for instance, a butterfly. ...his hands, and then the photograph of an actual butterfly.
AA: This is a short installation piece, and its called 'You call it dancing, I call it rythm'.
This is Ram Gopal's voice.
(Ram Gopal's voice, and dancing)