100 yrs of Indian cinema through scrapbook memories- a visual tribute



Madhusree Chatterjee

New Delhi

Cinema and conventional visual arts are inextricably twined. The former is an extension of the latter in which the visuals become moving images of story-telling within a stipulated time-frame and celluloid format.

In India, the interplay between cinema and the arts spill beyond the obvious – from the shots behind the lens, concepts to the art of the cinema and the peripheral world of posters, advertisement billboards, lobby cards, film publications and the accessories that make cinema a complete arts experience.

The year 2013 has been significant to Indian cinema – for it completed 100 years of boom on screen. Tributes to the unique “money-spinning” world of the celluloid have been pouring throughout the year — and as the year caps to a chilly close, yet another “visual tribute” emerges from the repertoire of Art Heritage Gallery and the curatorial archives of Rahaab Allana. Allana, a young curator, manages Ebrahim Alkazi Foundation of Arts with his family.

Ebrahim Alkazi (curator Rahaab Allana’s  grandfather) was one of the most influential figures on the Indian stage (as the former director of the National School of Drama). He engaged with the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group early in his career in 1940s — and later founded the Art Heritage Gallery at the Triveni Kala Sangam in 1977 with wife Roshan Alkazi—a legacy that his descendants carries forward.

An exhibition in two parts, “Filmi Jagat: Contemporary Art Work Inspired by Bollywood” and “Filmy Jagat — A Cinema Archive” curated by Rahaab Allana, at the Art Heritage and the Shreedharani Gallery in the capital has interpreted the journey of India cinema in the context of “kitsch and memorabilia art” using a combination of cinema related souvenirs and visual translations of milestones and the movements in cinema – in conceptual compositions by artists. It is based on a scrapbook, “Filmi Jagat”— a pre-Independence era picture book supposedly compiled by one Mangaldas V. Lohania – a cinema lover in the 1930s.

As the young curator was “wee confused” about the antiquity of the picture book— a common leisure activity among the movie-goers of the black and white era — he moved cinema scholars Debashri Mukherjee and Kaushik Bhaumik to date the book. The book was dated to the pre-Independence era between 1930s-1940s.

“It was super-exciting because the scrapbook showed six movies that don’t exist anymore as film reels. I commissioned them to write essays on Indian cinema,” Allana told this writer. Some of these movies that no longer exists include — Apna Nagariya (1940), Duniya Kya Hain (1938), Kunwara Baap (1942) and Tasveer (1943).

The scrapbook archive is made of 90 frames – of single images, collages and published objects. The curator has made a 10-minute documentary on the “turning of the pages of the scrapbook to reveal its content”.

The works — acrylic on canvas renditions, mixed media, oil, installation, ceramics, photographs, serigraphy and digital art — freeze the “watersheds” of moviedom from the days of the silent cinema, black and white talkie narratives, colourful romance, historical epics, actions, new-age cinema, budget movies and “upscale” multiplex stories — inspired by the photographs from the scrapbook and the general mood of Bombay talkies that it conveys.

Dated between 1950s and 1980s — this debris of modern pictures comprises an essential sub-culture of photography that had mass appeal –several of which were transferred into large film posters.

One of the highlights of “Filmi Jagat” is a folio of 20 movie billboard photographs, “Culture of the Street”, shot by M.F. Husain in Chennai.  Husain, soon after relocating to Mumbai from Madhya Pradesh, made a living as a billboard painter — painting new movie releases in large poster-style still portrait formats. He used photographs (movie stills) as his templates for the billboards. Most of his later works like — “Mughal-e-Azam” and “Gajagamini” were inspired by his billboard painting days in Bollywood.

Beginning 1920s, film studios across the country hired painters, photographers, sketch artists, lettering specialists and billboard printers to make banners and other display articles which were crowded and strangely inter-textual. These image montages and collages — transgressed the notions of good and bad aesthetic taste in their attempt to highlight the stars as well as the stories in succinct forms.

Baburao Painter, an stage painter-turned-film director, was the first to use posters and painted cinema displays that soon grew into a distinct oeuvre of graphic art – of a commercial nature. Artists like S.M. Pandit – of the Raj Kapoor-Nargis “Barsaat” poster fame, D.B. Neroy and R.V. Mulgaonkar, Vaman Mistry, Gopal Kamble, D.R. Bhonsle, J.P. Singhal and Ram Kumar Sharma made a name for themselves with their realistic “portraitures” on movie posters.

The art of painting movie displays logged to the digital and photographic arts in the 1980s when the tradition of painting movie stills made way to photographs. Photographer Dhiraj Chawla shot to limelight with his cult poster of actress Zeenat Aman in the movie, “Satyam Shivam Sundaram”.

The curator said “the idea for the exhibition germinated with the Alkazi Collection — by studying the histories of photographs via the perspectives of a collector. You begin to question the representatives of mainstreams in art practises…”

“By mainstream, I mean understanding art from a historical point of view –when material published and looked at by a historian suddenly come to the conscience of the public and rouses certain amount of consciousness about practises — and it has to do in the right contemporary contexts,” Allana explained.

The curator “initially began collecting images of cinema”. “I was generally interested in the images of romance on screen. I liked the way in which early film depicted passionate embrace of lovers. There was a stylised sentimentality —like the paintings of Raja Ravi Varma which had western influence- a hybrid notion of the traditional Indian style and the coming of the Victorian art. When the two mix, they come to represent the popular Indian art,” Allana said.

The exhibition has unearthed several rare black and white Hindi movie stills from the archives — like snapshots from “Narsi Bhagat” a religious movie by Vijay Bhatt made in 1940,  “Adalat” (1958), Chori Chori (1956), Kal Hamara Hain (1959), Ek Saal (1957), Andaaz (1949), Aaap ki Kasam (1974), Dus Lakh (1966),  Dafa 302 (1975),  Nazneen (1951), Guest House (1959), Nasherwan-e-Adil (1957) and Boyfriend (1961).

Allana said he was curious about the way “the human body was depicted”. He collected film stills in the oeuvre of romance.

The staged photographs of the late 19th century presented an array of captured emotions, Allana said. “They were represented in idealised forms – as often seen in the works of Shahpor N. Bhedwar and Jahangir Tarapor. They were manifestations of feigned affection. Films like ‘Jawaani ka Hawa’ and ‘Jhoola’present significant images of how the posed images created a sensational effect,” the curator explained. The staged “images of subtle romantic love” of the early 20th century changed to “brazen erotic imageries” in the 1980s when love became “aggressive” and “bold”. – providing a  backdrop to the cultural collision of ethnicity and sexuality in a beautiful idyll which can be regarded as a visual sensitivity – derivative of a colonial past.

Allana said, he put “the word out and people brought him material ranging from lobby cards, show cards, film scripts and song books with lyrics- which viewers carried to the theatre to hum along with the songs on the screen”.

The scrapbook which arrived in the process “became interesting” because it presented a sub-culture of cinema”, Allana pointed out. The “creator” had been “pasting things from magazines and creating montages”. “All this was important part of modernisation – depicting the high and low forms of art overlaying practise- inscribing material with personal equations, the curator said, pointing to the “core” of the exposition.

The show runs at Art Heritage Gallery in New Delhi till January 21, 2014


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