Scenes from a sketchbook is based on and inspired by the tinted brush drawings, sketches and some finished but minimalist works of the master 18th century miniature painter Nainsukh. Even in some of his finished paintings, the artist did not hide his corrections and premeditations, which he allowed to show through an austere page mostly intact. This film attempts to do the same.
Scenes from a sketchbook is the first part of Amit Dutta’s filmsa selection of films programmed by Iman Issa as the tenth cycle of Artist cinemasa series of long-running online film programs curated by artists for e-flux Video & Film.
Amit Dutta’s Films takes place in six weekly episodes from March 7 to April 18, 2022 and features six Amit Dutta films accompanied by a six-part conversation between Amit Dutta and Iman Issa, released in text form. A new movie and part of the conversation comes out every Monday. Each film is shown for one week.
Amit Dutta in conversation with Iman Issa
I first saw your films when a collection of them was shown on MUBI in 2020. I remember watching Scenes from a sketchbook (2016) first and I was completely mesmerized, and for the next few days and weeks I watched your movies every night until I finished every one that was available and started to repeat them. The process lasted until they were removed from the site. The most striking feature for me was how the material you showed was organized. It was clear that the storytelling was not a guiding principle or at least not the central principle, and that there was a strong sense of rhythm that was not easily decipherable. As soon as I thought, I knew what was coming in terms of image or sound. or feel a sequence sink into an aesthetically or emotionally familiar trope, your next move would immediately throw me off balance. There would be a cut, sound or other intervention that would completely change the logic. There was also something sharp, humorous, maybe even playful about the way any familiar trope was interrupted or subverted. As a viewer, it keeps you on your feet, your mind constantly working, trying to put the material together, making sense of what is seen and heard and how it all relates. It is an extremely engaging and enjoyable experience. Can you elaborate on how you go about making those decisions and organizing the material at hand?
You describe your viewing process beautifully. I consider myself lucky that you turned on your computer at that exact moment, far away in Berlin, and came across my work. It is said that a work of art should be left incomplete so that an ideal viewer completes it with his intelligence and wisdom. You did. You have completed my imperfect works with your wisdom. Now that you describe my films in these terms, I find myself rethinking them. Most of the time when I do them, I’m in a sort of trance. I make decisions quickly and intuitively. I don’t know if you play chess. Online, there’s a one-minute version, it’s called “lightning.” To play this version you must first practice and internalize the chess patterns, then when you play, sometimes up to sixty moves in a minute, it’s your muscle memory that counts. When I make films, it’s a bit the same. I read a lot about it and think about it day and night, internalizing the rhythm, the flow of ideas and the attention. But when I’m filming, editing or designing the sound, it’s super fast. I make movies at a breakneck pace. This rhythm is my form.
Another aesthetic idea that has resonated with me since my student days also syncs with this question. There is an ancient aesthetic mode in Indian poetry called Vakrokti – entire treatises are devoted to it. Literally, it means “twisted/meander mode”, where the goal is to use an indirect means of communicating an idea that will actually create a stunning effect greater than the idea itself. It’s a way in which craftsmanship can really create epiphany, because sometimes pure ideas can be too sentimental.
Yes, I read that you were an avid chess player. It’s interesting what you mention about Vakrokti. Usually when I’m working I always try to take the most direct route to my subject, which inevitably ends up being quite twisty. But are you aiming for the winding road from the start?
To put this into perspective, let me first return to the chess metaphor. When I was young, my goal was to become a chess player. But there were no books or ways to improve your game where I was growing up. My interest in chess did not stop there despite many disturbances, but other interests were added: music, literature and cinema. The plot with the game remained, and is still there. The complexity of the game fascinates me. During my studies at the cinema institute, I even wrote a small essay on the idea of time in chess, cinema and painting. These days I mainly play correspondence chess, where you make a move every ten days; but then you play thirty to forty games at any given time. Each game can take two years to complete. But by the end of the two years, you’ve played forty to fifty high-quality games. Likewise, when making films or writing a book, I do many things at the same time, but slowly each of them emerges with individuality. Ideas form at such a slow pace that it’s hard to tell where they came from, where they came from. And when I happen to finish a certain number of films or books in a given year, it seems very prolific although the process is actually very slow.
Now back to your question – if I’m aiming for the twisty road from the start. I believe that even within the same idea, time scaling can be a very interesting ploy. A very simple idea can sometimes be devoid of mystery at first, while I’m just trying to understand the material at hand. Sometimes it’s the other way around, the material at hand gives some sense of definitive understanding. But the understanding must recede for something more magical and expansive to appear. The quest is to explore an idea purely, like improvising on a raga or musical scale. Time can bring about this alchemy. Because even when human articulation is necessarily linear, human understanding need not be linear. The order in which I can rearrange and present ideas creates different experiences of the same material. This possibility is very exciting. For example, if I say Apple the meaning is consensually clear, but when I space out the articulation of Apple in time or in space the sounds become pure syllables: Do I still intend to say Apple? Does my intention acquire a different power or does it dissipate? I also felt that in your work, where you arrange the artwork in various contexts, changing the context, totally changing the experience of the works.
I’ll give you an example by describing a scene from Nainsukh (2010):
At first glance, Nainsukh’s painting Balwant Singh about to hit a tiger evokes a heroic feeling. The Raja’s sword is held above his head, just before the killing blow is delivered to the tiger’s scalp. The tiger has clamped its jaws around a man’s head, which it grips with its enormous claws. A frightened group stretch out their arms behind shields at a safe distance from the mauling beast. The drama is palpable, and the immediacy is heightened by labeled inscriptions of the participants’ names, which give the image an air of historical authenticity. Yet, if new information became available to the viewer, this painting would no longer necessarily represent what it appears to be. For the art historian familiar with the similar and earlier Mughal painting of Prince Khurram slaying the tiger (flanked by his father Emperor Jahangir and courtiers, and based on an actual Padshahnama incident), Nainsukh’s painting may convey a completely different aspect of Balwant’s life, and thus the heroic feeling portrayed by the painter will also take on another flavor. The painter, inspired by earlier Mughal painting, might well have staged the event to praise his patron, and the whole forest scene might simply be evidence of the painter’s skill in bringing an event to life. imagination with such thrilling dynamism. Cases of an exemplary incident entering the realm of legend, pattern, and ultimately even symbolic meaning are not uncommon in traditional art, where grasping the essential modes and learning to improvise in this genre are most high value in the practice of an artist. Time in this painting then not only becomes a pun, but also affects the viewer’s rasa as it develops with each layer of association.
[To be continued on March 14, 2022]
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