by Anjali Monteiro and K.P. Jayasankar, December 2010.
Filmmakers Anjali Monteiro and K.P. Jayasankar remember the revolutionary poet who chronicled working class life in Mumbai, in his poems. Surve appeared in Saacha (2000), their film about Mumbai’s working class, but more significantly, inspired them with his unbounded optimism.
Narayan Surve on...
Narayan Surve, who passed away on August 16, 2010, was in every way a remarkable human being. Abandoned as a baby on the footpath, he was picked up by a mill worker and brought up in the mill areas of Mumbai. He was again left to fend for himself at the age of 10, worked as a child labourer in the mills, did several odd jobs, living on the pavements of the city. He was involved in the Left movement at an early age and also participated in the freedom struggle. By dint of hard work, he became a peon in a municipal school, passed the school leaving exam and became a teacher. Surve Master, Comrade Surve, Surve the revolutionary poet-in all these avatars, he gave of himself selflessly and freely, carving out for himself a unique niche in the Marathi literary scene. His poetry is remarkable for its originality, simplicity, humour and its affirmation of the energy of the marginal people-the mill worker, the prostitute, the woman worker, the horse-shoer, and so many other figures come alive in his powerful poetry.
(Surve's poems feature in the authors' film Saacha (2001), which can be viewed here)
His poems can be heard here: 'Mumbai' (excerpts one and two), 'Karl Marx', 'Thus I am Brahma' and 'My University' (excerpts one and two)
We first met Narayan Surve in person sometime in early 2000, when we began work on the film Saacha. We had decided to celebrate the memories and spaces of working class Mumbai through image and word. We had already decided to work with Sudhir Patwardhan, whose work we were familiar with. We were looking for a poet or a writer when we came across a translation of Surve's poem 'Mumbai'. The raw power of his work touched us and we decided to meet him personally and explore his participation in the film. We met him at Bhupesh Gupta Bhavan and were captivated by his charm, warmth and enthusiasm for the project. He readily agreed and gave us a whole lot of his poems to look at, most of them in Marathi, as also an autobiographical piece that he'd writtten.
We met subsequently at his home in Andheri, where we were treated to tea and kanda pohe by Krishnatai, his ever hospitable wife. We discussed and shortlisted the poems we were to record. Surve pointed us towards some poems which we had not selected ourselves, but which he thought should be included, like Aisa Ga Me Brahma and a couple of others which we couldn't include in the final film.
We were looking around for a suitable spot to do his interview, as we felt that his home did not have the visual feel that we wanted. At that time, we had started shooting in Poddar Mills, a visually fascinating place, with a very cooperative management. We asked them if there was a quiet, unused corner in the mill where we could do the interview, and they took us to this huge derelict shopfloor, replete with cobwebs and decaying machines, that spoke volumes. We had found our location.
At the time of the interview, after we started rolling, the word went around the mill that noted poet Surve was being interviewed on their premises. A huge crowd of admiring workers gathered to hear Surve speak. Surve responded to Anjali's questions, speaking back not just to her but to the large appreciative audience in the wings. This is apparent at several points in the interview, where he looks at them and addresses them. He was a wonderful subject to interview, a captivating speaker full of energy, wit and passion, very down-to-earth, modest and honest. When interacting with him, we never felt the difference in our ages and statures; he spoke to us like friends, comrades-in-arms who were working for a common purpose.
(Monteiro's and Jayasankar's full-length interview with Narayan Surve is here. An instance of Surve addressing the audience can be seen here.)
Editing Surve's interview for the film was not easy. Everything he spoke was so interesting and powerful that we had a hard time choosing the bits. At that time, we thought maybe sometime we should do a separate piece on him. That has not happenned so far, except for a small film Mumbai, which is a poetry film edited out of Saacha.
After we finished editing the film, we went back to him to show him the first draft. This must have been in early 2001. At that time, he was recuperating after heart surgery; he'd had a coronary bypass. He was quite pleased with the film and recounted a story. After the surgery, once he recovered consciousness, he was wheeled back to his room by a ward boy. The ward boy asked him, “Are you the same Narayan Surve who wrote the poem Majhi Aai (My Mother) which I learnt in school? Will you please recite the poem for me?” And Surve told us how he sat up in bed and recited the poem with gusto, ignoring his pain and discomfort. Such was the spirit of the man.
What remains with us after all these years of our meeting and working with Surve is his unbounded optimism. We were quite depressed by what was happenning to the mill lands and to the working class movement in Mumbai. What we learnt from Surve is not to lament the past but to move on. Where would we be without dreams and hopes? How can one affirm not just the large struggles, which seem to be withering away for the most part, but the everyday struggles of marginalised groups? The need to be open to new modes of struggle and resistance, the need to look ahead with poetry in one's soul. This is the legacy of Surve Master, which will always stay with us.
Anjali Monteiro and K.P. Jayasankar are Professors at the Centre for Media and Cultural Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. Both of them are involved in media production, teaching and research. Jointly they have won twenty-three national and international awards for their documentaries. They have several papers in the area of media and cultural studies and are visiting faculty to media and design institutions in India and abroad. They are both actively involved in ‘Vikalp‘, a collective of documentary filmmakers campaigning for freedom of expression. They are also associated with various media and voluntary organisations.