When river meets the sea | A viewer’s account of experiencing film-screening of Janeu: Bhojpuri Initiation Rites and Folk Songs.
By Jennifer D | May 14th, 2016
The recently concluded Delhi screening of Janeu, interested those who still wished to be associated with the enchanted world of myths, rituals and folk songs rather than the politics, scientificity and rationality of it, which pre-occupies the disenchanted modern day. Rightly pointed at the beginning as rite de passage (rite of passage), the short-film was only, a part of a larger whole which popularly exists in the social imagination of folks experiencing life as it happens in parts of North-Western India.
As the introduction to this short-film began with a little initiation story of Rajat Madan himself (Field Assistant at Espírito Kashi), into the field of Ethnographic Films and a short-message sent across by Rajat Nayyar (Founder / Visual Anthropologist at Espírito Kashi), who was then in Estonia, acted like connecting dots for those encountering Espírito Kashi for the first time. Staying true to its ideology of acquainting the world- with the rituals and folk culture- just as it brews in Indian soil, the clippings accompanied with English translations of the song, immensely helped non-Bhojpuri speakers to play along gently with the metaphors involved to mark the occasion. Surprisingly, one does not get lost in translations, given the rhythmic nature of the song which invokes participation of folks. Mark the continuous crying out of names belonging to different women, who either hail from the same household or the village. The presence of the protagonist, Rahul Tiwari, in the same hall where screening was happening, played a big role in the way the film was perceived by all, it literally blew life into our motion picture. Those who were present and didn’t know what the cameo held away from them, could build a little connection, thereafter.
The release of a booklet carrying illustrations alongside the English translations of the folk song was new experiment with transmedia. More than reproducing the songs on different platform and format, it was a valuable step towards sustenance of these songs alongside ‘thoughts’ underscoring it, which are today sliding towards oblivion. Borrowing from the post-screening discussion itself, since today not many undergo Janeu, which is why debates ensued around- the number of days this ritual was technically performed, and how much the film-maker actually missed- the booklet in my view would make for a wonderful treasure for children who are ‘Coming of Age’. Nowadays, they get spared from rites associated with ‘Coming of Age’, it is no revelation, that they find themselves embroiled in utter confusion that advancing age brings into their life. There is no tall claim-making that rites are quintessential or we need to bring them back and all must go through these rites, but it is to highlight certain structures that were present in society to familiarise the young with disorientation itself. This made their society more dynamic and cohesive, responsibility towards society could not be thwarted easily, thereafter.
A fine example would be ‘Coming of Age in Samoa’, where issues surrounding adolescence were first dealt with by an American Anthropologist Margaret Mead. The approaches to handling adolescence since time immemorial has been different in different societies. Ethical standards, modesty, courteousness, discipline is conveyed differently. In Janeu, shedding of ego, through shearing, begging for alms, travelling long distance and staying away from ‘home’ was the societies way of making him a man who will one day be inducted back into society.
In the present day scenario, when most of us first had to leave home in order to pursue higher education, it almost felt like ‘the world was coming to an end’. While some of us turned away from families only to look-elsewhere for solace, some others discovered like-minded friends. Many stopped relating to family members anymore, it almost felt like rupturing of tender ties with parents. A deep-seated enmity began to take shape which provoked that ogre in our minds, a figment of our imagination, causing us to believe that we don’t need our family, first and second, we need no society. Looking-inwards, which most children do, no matter how much of an introvert or an extrovert, they can never find answers to most of their doubts. It is true that we never stop learning or growing, but there comes a point of time in life from where visiting memory lanes, of when we were in adolescent period, it becomes difficult to answer why we did what we did, what other options did we have, why didn’t we chose option A over option B.
Unfortunately, not children but the elderly become target audience of short-films like these in India. The messages carried in translated songs and colourful illustration, needs to find an entry point into this essential bracket of our population where our future lies and so does the societies sustenance. However, this can never replace the first-hand experience of those taking part in these rites. Interesting revelation by one member in the audience, hailing from Varanasi, pointed at how she failed to understand the significance of Janeu by merely ‘seeing it’ when she was growing up. In fact Dr. Karin Polit, Assistant Professor at Department of Anthropology, University of Heidelberg in, ‘The Performance of Chakravyuh: Aestheticizing Ancient Local Traditions in The Garhwal Himalayas’, says that, “it is impossible to transmit cultural knowledge about ritual traditions simply by writing them down, by taking pictures or even by video or audio taping them. It is, therefore, important that the young and educated people of Uttarakhand should know about the embodied heritage of their home. The only way to transmit this knowledge is to engage people physically and mentally in the performance traditions.” For the same audience member, watching similar images of Janeu as captured by the film-makers, made her even more appreciative of the finer details that the lens had identified, which, in turn, she could identify with. For instance, many young girls juxtaposed between several elders shared in the singing of their folk-song.
Hasty reference of the protagonist present amongst audience makes for a good journalistic piece. But having found a seat right next to him, I cannot miss this opportunity to recount my spurtive thoughts during the film-screening as I watched him in-between, perched on his seat, with eyes fixated upon twin screens (UChicago Hall), flashing scenes from his lived-experience in the dark, sharing a space with so many others watching keenly a ceremony which was only visceral to him a while back. Being outside the body and witnessing the performance from a distance, I kept wondering how did he feel watching himself on life-size screen, visually undergoing the same ceremony again… His friend Vivek, sitting at a distance, passed on teasing glances suggesting how funny he appeared given that he was to attend his sister’s wedding the very next day, “imagine with shaved-head”, he recollected later still chuckling. This friend not just had real time concerns but unknowingly questioned the relevance of this Samskara. Janeu or donning the sacred thread- a marker of rebirth, claims to bring intellectual birth nearer. The Sacred thread consists of three strands symbolic of three debts of teacher, parents and scholars, also symbolises three divinities Parvati, Lakshmi and Saraswati. On the other hand, Christianity has Holy Spirit on whom the Christians are dependant, is also symbolic of three functions- the healer, comforter and guide. Both emphasize upon advancing intellect, unifying the mind, the previous paragraph is proof enough that our minds are spiritual battlegrounds. As one embarks upon a journey of spiritual awakening, it is not his outward but his inward that gets recreated. Rahul, the protagonist’s hair had regrown and he looked just as he did, before shearing. If what changes is inside him and what’s inside him is invisible to Vivek, to me, to the audience, to the film-makers, then the pertinent question is what knowledge does the society hold within, that it deems as important and turns it ceremonial with songs (calling for attention) and other ritualistic behaviours. Most religion distinguishes between an inward change and an outward change. To be born again, is to be born spiritually, is the belief. In the process, it doesn’t mean one has experienced change in their mind, emotions, will and body yet. But the change in spirit assists change in mind, emotions, will and body as they promise to learn, to seek, to critically judge, to evaluate and be guided. All these feed and renew the mind, emotions, will and body slowly and steadily.
The last visual where the landscape shifts to ghats of Kashi therefore becomes significant, which even caught the curiosity of one another viewer, who enquired about the sudden shift in plot. Kashi being symbolic of spirituality marks the initiate’s inward journey towards spirituality, even though the protagonist physically didn’t go to Kashi right after his Janeu. The ceremony displays society’s preserve of knowledge and thus, this way it lays emphasis upon attaining that level of spirituality from where there will be waning of confusion rather than harbouring many of them and wandering aimlessly. This is why, the write-up begins with the mention of two kinds of world – the enchanted and the disenchanted. To which world, one desires to belong also becomes the lens through which one views these insignias of rites.
Watch the film here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YBfC3rp7aIk