Biweekly Binge: Multiple frames a painting
A fortnightly column on what’s good in the vast ocean of content in the streaming platforms around you, and this week, it's Nainsukh (streaming on MUBI)
Imagine walking from one chamber to another in a museum or art gallery, alone, taking in each painting with a handy audio guide held tight, the other end of which is plugged into your ear, the commentary too fast, too slow or too vast for our legs and mind to keep up. What are some of the first thoughts when we look at a classical painting? For a novice or a dilettante, it is the subject, the painter, the colours, the era or particular year it belongs to and then comes the detail, the expanse, the edges and the straight or crooked lines, the sharpness of a nose or the curves of an ear, the dimensions of foreground to the background and what or who occupies them. MUBI recently opened the window into filmmaker Amit Dutta's career, his experimental filmmaking that is carefully composed in both visual and aural terms. And one of those films is Nainsukh, a peek into the eponymous 18th century painter's most productive phase, told through the deconstruction of some of the painter's works by giving life to his subjects at the moment of their capture, using symmetry and diegetic splendor.
A collaboration with art historian Dr Eberhard Fischer, Nainsukh was shot in the same region the painter belonged to and Dutta once said that he speaks the same dialect. Some of the actors are locals, a few of them direct descendants of Nainsukh and the character is played by Manish Soni, a contemporary miniature painter from India. What we see here is a narrative built out of still life, where there is movement of only one entity at times or several when one of Nainsukh's paintings comes together. A river flows so fast, retaining its shape that it looks stationary as Nainsukh sits in front and paints.
The compositions are always symmetrical and without hearing a spoken word, we can form equations between the people in the frame. Like when Nainsukh is the only one in the frame, with mirrors arranged equidistantly on his sides, working on his self-portrait. Or take the moment when Nainsukh is leaving for Raja Balwant Singh's court in Jasrota from his hometown of Guler. His elder brother is unhappy with Nainsukh's approach, a stylistic impression of Mughal painting flowing into Nainsukh's natural Pahari. We see the elder brother Manaku is in the foreground, a slant of grouch in his stance, and their father further away, not in a straight line but a little closer to the centre of the frame. Nainsukh receives his blessings and begins his descent on the mud steps to say goodbye to his mother, waiting at the door. The brother and the father maintain their positions and the dimensions don't limit Dutta's or our perception of the scene, something that is apparent also in Nainsukh's paintings. They occupy sporadic space and yet retain the breadth of the surroundings.
In Nainsukh, Dutta essentially does a retroactive blocking of the paintings, capturing the visual population from its origins. We see song and dance before the frame comes into view and flips into the actual painting that came out of it. We see someone walking into view and letting go a dove, with the frame concerned with people at different floors and the dove flying away, gaining height. A dance is interrupted, or the symmetry of a tiger being hunted comes into focus from the hunters to their prize. Dutta uses doors, windows and clear symmetrical spaces, frames within frames to give us a feel for the characters that appear in multiple Nainsukh paintings. All of this is shot either in near silence or with a far-off neigh, crows cawing or songbirds chirping in serene melody. The other sounds emanate from the hookah used by the princes, the smoke bubbling as the contents are inhaled. This is a sound that's always by Nainsukh's side, an acoustic accompaniment from an apparatus that probably owes its influence to the Mughals in India, complementing Nainsukh's own artistic inspirations.
Dutta's work doesn't incorporate the epic canvas of, say, Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev, it rather gets into deeper, more minute details of the unwavering artist's ambition, where art is self-reflexive and tells us everything about life in his or her surroundings and during the time. And it is all the better for it. The frames create an illusion of stillness as the paintings come into focus, sometimes Dutta embellishing them with weather and other elements. There are no jagged edges in Nainsukh's paintings and therefore none in Amit Dutta's film, the film at once an examination of an inquisitive mind and a retrospective of that work, an experience richer than walking through the halls of a museum.