Avijit Mukul Kishore’s documentary on Indian painter Nilima Sheikh titled ‘The garden of forgotten snow’ (2018) represents the filmmakers’ direct involvement with a world encounter through the paintings of the veteran artist and tries to understand the world of beauty and politics expressed within. Here is an excerpt from an interview.
Cinemawallah: Why have you titled the documentary as ‘The Garden of Forgotten Snow’?
AMK: I felt that the film needed a title that would evoke an image. Nilima’s work on Kashmir includes beautiful, gentle images of the place. The film needed to mirror those, so the two images in the title – of the garden and the snow, both references to Kashmir.
Cinemawallah: The narrative pattern of your film follows Nilima Sheikh’s art practice and her engagement with the land of Kashmir over several decades within a logical progression of time-bound events.
AMK: Nilima paintings have embodied art-historical and literary references on Kashmir. The front face of her scrolls in her show ‘Each night put Kashmir in your dreams’ (2010) is made up of images and some
text, while the back is largely all text, from sources spread across several centuries. The film uses her
work along with images of Kashmir, with selections from the text that she uses, as the voice-over, which is rendered for the film by Sohaila Kapur. Kashmir was a place that Nilima’s family visited on holidays when she was a child. Her mother’s 8mm film recordings of those travels, along with my travels to Kashmir in 2011 and 2014, make up the video of the film, along with extensive documentation of Nilima’s installations.
Cinemawallah: The documentary steers away from making political commentary in polemics regarding the unrest in Kashmir but yet there is an undercurrent that is represented through the work and the literary and art-historical traditions of the protagonist.
AMK: In the last five decades or so, Kashmir has been represented in the mainstream through the binary of ‘paradise on earth’ and armed conflict. Both the narratives – one that evokes an exotic land and the other one that speaks of extreme violence, are images of a distant ‘other’, removed from mainland India.
Both are reductive in ways that obscure other representations and narratives, told across centuries. The film follows Nilima’s work in acknowledging the memory of these writings and art histories. The voice-over text of the film includes the writings of the medieval poet Lal Ded (I, Lalla) and colonial writers
(Walter R. Lawrence – The Valley of Kashmir), as well as contemporary ones, most prominently, Agha Shahid Ali (Country Without a Post-Office) and Salman Rushdie (Shalimar the Clown). Added to this is the layer of cinematography and sound, both of which seek beauty in the everyday landscapes and life in Kashmir, while there is no getting away from the undercurrent of strife. The film deliberately stays away from the images oft-repeated in the media – of military presence and barbed wire, except though Nilima’s work and in the writings she references.
Cinemawallah: Like your previous documentary ‘Nostalgia for the future’ (2017), your recent documentary also traverses the many layers of memory and history. What was the methodology behind such ideations?
AMK: The two films you mention are as dissimilar in form as they are similar in the threads of memory and history that run through them. The Garden of Forgotten Snow is the straighter and quieter of the two films, as the histories and memories are embedded in the paintings and texts used, unified by Nilima’s distinctive style, choice of materials and colour palette. Nostalgia for the Future, on the other hand, uses multiple film materials and references to invoke these layers, through the effortless switching between celluloid and digital, black and white and colour, archival material and fake archival material. Both films use personal memory and association with histories that we are part of, though 8mm home-movies in the case of Garden.. and family photographs in Nostalgia… The latter goes a step further to create on 16mm film footage that could have been someone’s home movie, through the association with the granularity and tonality of film, as well as the use of the handheld camera, in places that are as much a part of public memory as images of Kashmir are.
Cinemawallah: You had made the creative choice to use off-screen narrations at a certain point for the structuring the film. What were the texts you had opted and why?
AMK: The texts are a representative selection of writings on Kashmir, from the ones that Nilima quotes on the back of
her scrolls. All the texts carry different philosophical tones and meanings, reflecting on the multiple realities and temporalities of Kashmir.
Cinemawallah: You have repeated your crew members from your previous films such as Rikhav Desai (Editor), Suresh Rajamani (Sound Recording), Sabari Pandian (Assistant director) amongst others. Can you please tell us about your collaboration with your team?
AMK: My friend, film maker Madhusree Dutta says that it is easier to find a good life partner than it is to find the right film crew! Suresh is among the pillars of the documentary movement, whose work I had seen (heard) before I joined film school, in Reena Mohan’s Kamlabai (1992). Rikhav is another pillar of the documentary (though he is now better known as the editor of Court by Chaitanya Tamhane – the power and visibility of the fiction film!) and we have worked together since 2010, when we made Vertical City. He edited To Let the World In, Electric Shadows and many other projects that we did together. He is truly an editor with inter-disciplinary sensibility and the editor of choice of eminent visual artists. His editing seems loose, but is very precise, in his creation of space around the characters in a film, their speech, actions and movements. While Suresh is a documentary natural (national?) and we don’t need to talk while shooting –except when I want to shoot really wide in spaces, showing the ceilings of rooms and he refers to it as “you mean it is one of those ‘the world is my frame’ shots”, so he can’t use the boom mike.Sabari started as a regular at all film screenings in Bombay, including the FD Zone, where we met. He is indispensable, I can leave everything to him, from production details, to workflows and additional photography. Another person I need to acknowledge is Rohan Shivkumar, who has been a close collaborator and sounding board all along. Vertical City came out of my interaction with his work as an urban scholar and the film features him and his colleagues, on the soundtrack. Nostalgia for the Future, was written and co-directed by him.
Cinemawallah: Can you discuss the development process for the documentary?
AMK: Sometimes accidental – something like “PSBT is commissioning, so let us propose” (Vertical City), sometimes much deliberated and thought out (Snapshots from a Family Album, Nostalgia for the Future), sometimes commissioned (Certified Universal, To Let the World In, Jaye He) and sometimes self-developed and proposed (Electric Shadows, The Garden of Forgotten Snow). Each is different on form, treatment and process. Sometimes one does films for the sake of familiarity with a subject or a thought. Sometimes to learn something new and experiment. I think Snapshots from a Family Album and Nostalgia for the Future are quite unprecedented as films (if I may say so myself), in both their subject and treatment. It is probably early for me to talk of the development process for a documentary in general terms. But the one thing that is common across the categories mentioned above, is familiarity with the people featured in the film, or an active engagement and preoccupation with the ideas dealt with. Many of these are coming from lifelong engagements and thoughts – about cinema, about art, experientially, citizenship and politics (of the medium as well).
Cinemawallah: So far where have the film been screened and your plans with the distribution of the film?
AMK: It has only had two screenings so far – at Chemould Prescott Road Contemporary Art Gallery in Mumbai (they supported the post-production of the film) and at India International Centre in Delhi.