Mythic Material in Indian Cinema
I WANT TO put forth an interpretation of two films, Sant Tukaram (Damle/Fattelal, Marathi, 1936) and Devi (Satyajit Ray, Bengali, 1960) with a view to understand how the desire for social emancipation may be expressed through cultural creation during and immediately after the struggle for national independence. And especially how the past, in the form of mythic material, comes to be handled in the process.
On the assumption that the primary function of myth is to define and sustain the specific identity of a community, its investigation occurs at points of historical crisis when this identity is embattled — as at the breaking point of colonialism. But rather than undertake this investigation at the level of naivety, believing the symbolic to be sitting fixed and luminous at an imaginary source, we have to proceed along mediating processes recognizing the mythic nucleus by what is said (discourse), by what and how lives are lived (praxis), and by an understanding of the hierarchical structuring of a society and the levels along which the mythic elements are distributed. Only when these are mapped one upon another shall we be able to follow the trajectories that the symbolic yields to the social and vice versa.1
It is this process of reinterpretation that we call tradition, the living tradition. What I want to emphasize however is that the recuperation of a tradition is not just an ideological operation; that it must be perceived at the level of aesthetics proper.While trying to understand how the synchronic structure of a myth may be opened up, and its symbology set out as a series of motivated signs within the dimensions of contemporary history, we must also be able to recognize the ingenious use of genres, the inflection of motifs, their symbolic extension and formal deconstruction. And to recognize also the narrative strategy whereby an inherited iconography is transfigured and sometimes radicalized.
This paper was presented at a seminar. The Indian Revolution in Perspective' held in Leningrad in August 1987.
Journal of Arts & Ideas 79