Yasmin Gunaratnam talks to Indian historian, writer and filmmaker, Lata Mani
Lata Mani is a feminist historian, writer and filmmaker based in Bangalore. She has authored several books, including Contentious Traditions: The Debate on Sati in Colonial India (1998) and The Integral Nature of Things: Critical Reflections on the Present (2013). In more recent years, Mani’s work has grown to include the interweaving of poetry and biography with historical and cultural analysis and most recently film. The change was triggered by a serious head injury in 1993, when she suddenly found herself in a new world, living with illness and disability. Here, in an email conversation that took place over several days, Mani talks about her latest multi-media collaboration The Poetics of Fragility, with the Argentinian filmmaker Nicolás Grandi. “The film is so viscerally moving,” Angela Davis said in a post-screening conversation.“ And I think what really struck me about the way in which you create this pas de deux of fragility and strength is that is that it calls upon us to contemplate together.”
I talked to Lata about the making of The Poetics of Fragility and the work that she has been doing with Grandi that extends the project into broader dialogue with international audiences.
Yasmin: Fragility has been a longstanding theme in your work. How did this most recent project, with Nicolás Grandi come about and why now?
Lata: My reckoning with fragility began with a brain injury I sustained and took the form of a non-narrative memoir, Interleaves. Part of the effort of that work was to give tender attention to the texture of illness, to suggest that it was not simply a pointless disaster to be overcome but a meaningful experience that can remake how we see the world. I did not downplay the challenges but wanted to show how the prevailing understanding of illness actually compounds the difficulties.
The Poetics of Fragility project collectivizes that concern and broadens it to a consideration of fragility in nature not just in human life; to fragility as foundational to existence within interdependent impermanence. This interdependence implies a dynamic state in which everything is continually modified by everything else in relation to which, one might even say by virtue of which, it exists. This reality makes absurd the notion that strength is the ability to stand up in a storm. Most of nature survives by bending in the direction of the winds. What would it mean to bend and what might we notice when we do?
In The Poetics of Fragility Nicolás Grandi and I explore the idea of fragility through story, poetry, performance and optical vignettes of nature. And of course, fragility as an idea is not separable from questions of human embodiment. We humans may be a node in a web but it is in and from our bodies that we apprehend the world and it is on our bodies that processes like gender, caste, sexuality or race are inscribed. Though set in a wider context, the human story remains core to the project.
The timing and form of this work also relates to my developing collaborations with Nicolás. Over the past several years we have been asking ourselves how we might counter the visual excess and the instrumentalisation of language that marks the present, its tendency to disrespect readers and viewers. Our response has been works of intimacy that construe spectatorship as a kind of intimate remove. We have been experimenting with videopoems as well as with what we call videocontemplations. Can an idea be experienced? And in such a way as to simultaneously allow for reflection on the inquiry we propose? The Poetics of Fragility is our second videocontemplation, the first being, De Sidere 7, a film on desire set in Bangalore.
Yasmin: The Poetics of Fragility is a film, a bi-lingual website and a book. There is something about this use of various media that invites different sensual pathways into the work. To read the book, you have to first tear it open. The website allows us to read the script in a non-linear way. It seems as if you’re also opening up something of the fragility of yourselves as artists, showing interpretation and meaning as contingent. What was the thinking behind using different media?
Lata: The transmedia aspect grew out of two interrelated interests. The first was in drawing attention to the kaleidoscopic and processual nature of perception and interpretation. Second, we wished to explore the limits and potential of each form in embedding and pushing our aesthetic and conceptual inquiry: film, book, website and within these moving image, film still, motion graphics, typography, sound, silence. While the script and images from the film form a common core, we do not duplicate the material across platforms. Each builds on and breaks with the others in some way and each poses specific questions about fragility, including the fragility of the medium.
Process is at the heart of the pedagogical impulse of the project, our own as well as that of viewers or readers. It is in this context that the performances in the film were developed collaboratively in situ and why post-screening interactions are important to us. We have posted extracts from several discussions on the website. And the process continues. We are currently extending the project to space-based work which we will present at La Paternal Espacio Proyecto in Buenos Aires in August. The works will propose fresh relations between elements, including cell phone videos of the artist book being torn open (sent at our request), audio recorded in post-screening discussions and new poems sparked by our traveling with the film. We are still learning with those generous enough to respond to the project. So yes, interpretation as contingent, located, recursive, evolving.
Yasmin: There’s also a generosity there on your part as artists, creating these sorts of longer-term relationships and conversations. It’s a slow creativity that is very much present in the pace of the film. When we hosted the screening in May at Goldsmiths, it was during a hectic part of the academic year. I was rushing from one meeting to another and finishing off marking. The film drew me into a different world and tempo, away from the hustle and bustle. I’m sure my heart rate actually dropped! So, for me at least, there was a surprising twist. Fragility seemed to work in several directions, which included how the film and your own ways of working end up becoming a form of care. So you think you’re going to watch a film about fragility and you find yourself being tended to. You find some of the soreness that we all carry so much of the time coming to the surface and being eased. Was this multiplicity something you wanted to create?
Lata: Indeed. The ideas we are exploring intimately concern all of us and we wanted to draw on the sensuousness of the moving image to offer a multidimensional consideration. Hence the diversity of speaking subjects (in terms of age, gender, race, nationality), and as well of expression and treatment (vignette, poetry, performance, teaching, sutra). It has been really gratifying to hear people say they have felt held, been palpably slowed down while watching the film, made aware of themselves. The pace of the film was a conscious choice. It is arguably a singular notion of time and its relentless foreshortening that secures our subjection to the logic of the present. To slow things down is in a very real sense to undermine its propensity to draw us into its vortex. Even a slight delay has the potential to drop us beneath the level of habitual perception, enabling us to notice what is generally hard to access in the continual state of distractedness that capitalism in the present requires of us. Thinking of the camera as a witness not a voyeur (Nicolás’ phrase) is crucial to this restoring of time’s multi-temporality. During the filming, we allow the scene to unfold before us trusting observation as a method just as one would in an artistic study or in the practice of meditation. This makes space for the unexpected, the unplanned, for textures and details to be gradually revealed. The approach to the edit and sound design is highly crafted. The material is treated as a compositional whole. The analytical dimensions of witnessing come to the fore.
Yasmin: There are many other arresting and surprising moments in the film, including how we see and hear some of the better-known narrators. I’m thinking about the academic and activist Angela Davis and the playwright Cherrie Moraga. In Angela’s piece, she says “A strong woman is sometimes strongly fed up” and Cherrie Moraga says “Suffering in and of itself is boring.” To get technical for a moment, how did these narrations came about?
Lata: When we invited people to be part of the project we shared with them our concept for the film and the material we had in mind for them to narrate. With Angela Davis, Cherrie Moraga (and also Nora Cortiñas of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo) we were also working with the fact of their being public figures, renowned for their strength. We wanted to engage the disjunction between this image of them and the vulnerability of the words we were inviting them to speak. Angela could only spare us an hour. We first recorded the audio, our modus operandi with all the performers. It brought all of us into the mood of the piece and initiated the building of the sequence. All we knew prior to the shoot was that we wanted to begin with an empty chair and to offer a representation of her outside the frame of a political icon and orator. The rest evolved from the atmosphere, off camera conversations, the quality of the light. We had far more time with Cherrie, hers is a much longer piece. Our initial ideas about a segment built from interiors and exteriors fell away as we started talking about her arthritis. The writer’s body presented itself as the visual and narrative hook and we went from there.
Yasmin: As we have been ‘talking’ over the past couple of days, you’ve been making your way from India, where you’re based, via San Francisco to Argentina, to meet up with Nicolás. As you cross the globe and enter into this new phase of the project, I’d like to go back to a question that you posed at the beginning of our conversation, ‘What would it mean to bend and what might we notice when we do?’.
What have you noticed?
Lata: May I respond with a poem I wrote for the show in Buenos Aires?
A praisesong is not a privileging
but a reclamation, a reckoning
a cri de coeur, a primal scream
an observing, an honoring
the hues, the tones, the bhava
the melody, the rasa
the aria, the plainchant
the ragas of states of mind
such particulars compose
the music of experience
to reject, pay no heed to them
would neglect, deflect our humanness
to open on the other hand
to the gifts that our undoing brings
is to stay the course with grace and grit
to activate the alchemist
Lata Mani has published on a broad range of issues, from feminism and colonialism, to illness, spiritual philosophy and contemporary politics. She is the author of The Integral Nature of Things: Critical Reflections on the Present (Routledge, 2013), Interleaves: Ruminations on Illness and Spiritual Life (Yoda, 2011), Sacred Secular: Contemplative Cultural Critique, (Routledge, 2009) and Contentious Traditions: The Debate on Sati in Colonial India (University of California Press, 1989). Her films with Nicolás Grandi include Here-Now (2012); Nocturne I and Nocturne II (2013); De Sidere 7 (2014); The Earth on its Axis, We in our Skin: The Tantra of Embodiment (2015). More at latamani.com which also archives her blog, talks and several films.
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Yasmin is a writer and academic, interested in illness, death, migration, the body and feminism. She teaches in the Sociology Department at Goldsmiths College on research methods, culture, representation and difference and feminist theory. Yasmin is the curator of Media Diversified’s academic space. Her latest book Death & the Migrant (Bloomsbury Academic) is about transnational dying and care in British cities.
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