Review: Siddheshwari, and the Fictional Documentary

“I’ve given up representation, and taken up fragmentation.”

  Robert Bresson’s film theory can be paraphrased to divide film into two types – the representational, and the non-representational. The representational is an umbrella term for when objects in the film aren’t as they appear, that is to say, they are imbued in a certain metaphorical gaze that is essential to the understanding of the film. There is an intention behind making the film, and the final product is representational of the idea the director initially had in his head.

The non-representational (or the ‘fragmentation-al’), on the other hand, comes from films having a complete lack of intent. The ‘literal meaning’ in a film doesn’t take on any ‘extended meaning’, and the traditional metaphors that guide the audience towards a coherent meaning are missing. If these traditional markers are removed, how can a film manufacture ‘meaning’?

Mani Kaul’s Siddheshwari is a film where regular motifs are hard to come by, and appear only at times when the sheer depth of the film almost swallows the viewer. Whether it is the appearance of water, the use of mirrors, the clattering of pots and pans, or the almost-static actors (something that will be discussed further on), it is all to give a semblance of narrative to a film, without which it would be too dense to ingest. Couple this with a heady mixture of miniature paintings, Siddheshwari Devi’s thumri, poetry, and an assortment of voices that come and go, it is a dreamscape that is almost impenetrable. In fact, the New York Times review for this film suggested that the aesthetics of the film were the only thing they could appreciate, for the rest was beyond them. While all this might be true, it is a fact that at the end of the film, the viewer is left with a profound sense of intimacy with Siddheshwari Devi, and almost reminisces along with her (or Mita Vashisht playing her) when she talks about how music in the olden days used to be much more complicated. You just have to watch it to know that the film has no dearth of meaning, and yet isolating it isn’t an easy task. Entrenched in this discussion of meaning is Kaul’s treatment of film as a temporal medium, the linear narrative that films are a victim of, and the idea of perspective.

 The Image & Abstraction

   From the very beginning of the film, its pace emulates real time, within which the viewer is co-habiting with Siddheshwari Devi. Every little movement within the frame affects him, and also pulls him closer to Siddheshwari Devi. Slowly, he understands that the only way to become wholesome with the singer is to give himself up completely to the living and non-living entities within the frame, and the movements of the camera and the music.

One thing that points to the ‘non-representational’ nature of the film is the number of actors who play Siddheshwari Devi. It was almost as if giving the part to only one actor meant that the actor represented everything about her. A single actor meant that Siddheshwari Devi was affected by the same quirks that the actor has. This could have lent a modicum of intent to the character, as well as a continuity to her life, meaning that the film wasn’t ‘presentation’ anymore. The mere act of casting various women as Siddheshwari is relevant because Kaul seems to have believed that nobody could completely play the part.

Throughout the film, the actors are expressionless, or rather, they keep a single expression. Only the young Siddheshwari is seen to be smiling or scowling, and it is imminently noticeable because of the contrast between her and every other actor in the film. This lack of expression can be understood by going back to Bresson’s theory, wherein Bresson said that any movement on screen has a certain intent associated with it. In one of her interviews, Mita Vashisht said that Kaul used to hand her tiny slips of cinematographic-al feedback, and it could be paraphrased to, “If an actor were to run around screaming that the ship was burning while the ship was in full view of the audience, what is the point of the actor existing?” It is of course a funny anecdote, but one that hints at Kaul fastidiously directing every little movement of the actors.

Take for example, the scene where Siddheshwari is on a boat, recounting how music has changed with the times. Because of the length of the shot, and the stillness of the actor, the audience starts looking at the passing visuals out of the tiny boat window. Another example would be when Siddheshwari is young and orphaned, and she is sitting by a window and delicately sorting out rice, while not even gazing at the plate in hand. There is music – not Siddheshwari Devi’s music – playing in the background which she seems to be affected by. Again, the audience notices the movements of her hand and the music solely because of Kaul’s measured blocking.

All of this is to give a sense of the passing of real time. In contemporary cinema, movement has always been tantamount to action, and a lack of movement is always understood as a lack of said action. In Siddheshwari, the movement is so coveted by the audience that any disturbance in the still frame is looked at with utmost attention. Somehow, the lack of movement induces a reverence to actual movement (when it happens). The camera too moves at a pace that is synchronous with the visuals, cutting only when the audience has had enough time to both absorb and then ruminate over the information within the frame.

The film is careful enough to not lose track of what it is essentially about. It does not lose track of the fact that it has a responsibility of communicating an idea to the viewer. Or that it is expressing itself in images while it is unfolding in real time. The film seems aware of its own temporal nature. This is clear from the way it unravels in a seemingly random manner and the paradoxical thing is that, because it is aware of its temporal nature, it is timeless.

The unusual blend of literature, art, music, and photography in this film perhaps implies that Siddheshwari Devi and her music is not containable within the confines of a single art form. Instead, she created something so subliminal that even recreating her life and music on film meant that the boundaries of the medium had to be destroyed. The film plays like a juxtaposition of loose flowing oneiric images and sounds, and together, these give us an insight into the life and art of Siddheshwari Devi.

Like Bresson, Mani Kaul believes in the notion that filming or recording something as it is amounts to nothing. In one of his last interviews before his demise, he said that a beautifully composed image “does nothing for him”. With Siddheshwari, Kaul makes an attempt to film, or rather, capture ideas. He “uses some words to create that absurd image which is behind those words, and then creates an abstraction which is a source of the experience”. The said abstraction mirrors its source — the life and music of Siddheshwari Devi.

Music, and the Beat of Siddheshwari

   Without music, the image, in itself, has no meaning. This might strike most people as surprising, since the film is visually lustrous. The visuals, however, mask the true soul of the film — Siddheshwari Devi’s music. The visuals navigate the serpentine twists and turns of Banaras, characterising the narrow spaces of Siddheshwari Devi’s childhood, and the flow of the river Ganges. At each turn, the visuals accentuate the pathos of the music, and not the other way around. At times, the camera is motionless, almost as if to observe the music that is being played rather than interfere with it. As the film goes by, the camera moves not to create beautiful visuals, or to deliberately make it an ‘art film’, or to create metaphors, but to harmonise with the music so as to form a medium that flows from one to another without any conscious thought. Visuals on their own are irrelevant, but the music on its own isn’t.

Interestingly, the 90-minute film features just 20 to 25 minutes of Siddheshwari Devi’s music. We are introduced to her music for the first time when a tappa starts playing four minutes in. A tappa is a form of Indian classical music that has rhythmic and tonal bursts in an irregular manner, as it seeks to represent the emotional outbursts of a lover. The music starts after we hear Siddheshwari Devi’s voice simply saying “I don’t know who is singing. I don’t know anything”.

Throughout the film, Mani Kaul plays with the duration of an image to add meaning to mood (induced by the music). One striking image is that of a group of men appreciating a singer’s voice. On first glance, this seems like a depiction of awe. But Mani Kaul chooses to elongate this particular shot, which leads the viewer to wonder whether the tradition of women singing in Indian courts and durbars was voyeuristic in nature.

Music and sounds in the film are able to create an intimate atmosphere between the film and its viewer. This effect is highly noticeable when whispers and oblique dialogues are melded together to create an air of poignant comfort and dolour. Interestingly, this technique is also utilized during the conversation between Urvashi and Arjuna. She fails to seduce him and ends up cursing him to live as a eunuch for an year. Indra, then, exiles Urvashi to Earth, where she is condemned to spend her life as a Gandharva musician. Urvashi is said to be as much a source of delight as of dolour. This makes sense in the way the film’s music is edited. Atappaplays before this scene. There is a certain comfort in realizing that Urvashi’s angst and dismay is being resonated through a tappa.

Sixteen minutes into the film, and we hear Siddheshwari Devi’s slow and alluring voice again. This time, she is singing athumri, a form which is connected with dance, dramatic gestures, mild eroticism and evocative love poetry. The scene is that of Chapala, a singer whose voice is noticed by a king, and who is summoned to the king’s court. She talks about her search for her father. The thumri continues to play in the background, as Chapala’s plight is depicted. The music along with the images again underlines the innate voyeurism involved in a man’s appreciation of a woman’s art. It also conveys Chapala’s loneliness, thus creating a poignant mood.

Mita Vashisht plays the character of Urvashi and Chapala. Interestingly, Mita Vashisht also plays Siddheshwari. Mani Kaul is trying to portray how Siddheshwari Devi’s music was an attempt to empathize with Urvashi and Chapala by reflecting on her own loneliness and angst. It can also be interpreted as a self-referential act of Mani Kaul. He purges his emotions through Siddheshwari Devi’s story, the same way Siddheshwari Devi purged her emotions through Urvashi and Chapala.

The film also explores the musical relationship between Siyaji Mishra and Siddheshwari Devi. Siyaji Mishra is often shown playing his instrument and a lot of the diegetic music in the film owes its presence to that. Mani Kaul blends the sound of Siyaji’s instrument with the sounds of birds chirping or the gentle sound of a river flowing — the practice of music provided peace and harmony to Siyaji Mishra, Siddheshwari Devi, and the people around them.

Motifs & the Power of Suggestion

   The Renaissance brought with it an ideal that artists have abided to for centuries. Even till this day, popular art is infused with this ideal. The ideal in question is the linear narrative. It is necessary to clarify that the non-linearity of time isn’t the only narrative being talked about, but also, the idea of a ‘climax’, where two parallel lines intersect at a point of resplendence or ‘infinity’, and that infinity is a point which is beyond the imagination of the human mind. To make this infinity plausible, artists got into a habit of using visuals as metaphors, something that has carried on since.

In another one of his interviews, Kaul posits that this increased dependence on metaphors has killed the very art of creating an image, and has led to the point where an image stopped being representative of the multiplicity of the subject, and instead just took on the surface value of being ‘beautiful’. Because of this, Siddheshwari is almost completely devoid of metaphors, and to an extent motifs. They appear only at perfectly calculated intervals, where the audience might get lost in the stairs of Banaras, or in Siddheshwari Devi’s voice, or in the texture of a Mughal miniature painting.

For this very reason, objects in the film are shown in suggestion — the hands of a woman with bangles on them, the repeated appearance of the water of Ganges, the reflection of artists rehearsing, and the pots and pans of the household. It is so that the audience is filled with the physical experience of Siddheshwari Devi’s life instead of just a cerebral recount of history. The idea of a mis-en-scène is abandoned to make way for a more powerful experience based on the whims and desires of the body, rather than the spatial understanding of frames that the mind is taught because of mainstream cinema.

Hands-at-work occurs repeatedly, symbolising that the head-centric narrative is essentially incomplete, as the body does as it feels like irrespective of the urgings of the head. The film is even structured in a way that is strangely similar to the impulses of a human being — the way it takes hold of a thread of story, and doesn’t let go until it is satisfied that the film itself is fulfilled. The film plays like it is in deep meditation with the craft of filmmaking solely because of the way that impulses are fulfilled.

The mirror is a very common motif used in various films, but it can be used for a surprisingly high number of reasons. The mirror can find use as a form of falsity. It’s where one puts on a face, covering up the reality beneath. Most commonly, the mirror is used as a symbol of narcissism and shallow judgment. When telling a story, the mirror also finds use as an aesthetic device. It can be used to isolate characters in a frame, both from one another and from the audience thus giving a sort of an unconscious perspective. In Siddheshwari, it finds use as a totem of loneliness, as well as an aesthetic device. When used to depict loneliness, it is used as a metaphor for self-reflection and self-remembrance. Subjects in front of the mirror never look directly into the mirror, because they are not bothered by how things stand in the present or at the surface. They are bothered by how things once were and how things could have been. Mani Kaul goes on to show that each person wallows in their own form of loneliness. Rajeshwari Devi, Siddheshwari Devi’s aunt, is shown standing directly in front of a mirror. She takes a glance at her reflection and looks away, disinterested. Meanwhile, the voiceover talks of birha, the feeling of separation which implies longing for reunion. Incidentally, birha is something that Siddheshwari Devi often sang about. The use of reflective imagery has been done in a sullen and delicate manner. Movement in front of the mirror is never abrupt. Subjects move in measured ways, in front of the mirror, which coincides with the air of plaintive loneliness. Thus, a mirror is more than just a reflection of ourselves, and can be used as a symbol of remembrance and of what we were or what could have been.

Mughal miniature painting is firmly embedded within the film, as this is an art form that persisted with the layering of its art despite encountering the illusions (or metaphors) of Western art. Mughal miniature paintings explicitly tried to showcase the gradients of colours that lay in the image, instead of relying on chiaroscuro. Further, it tried to show distance instead of convergence, and treated its subjects in the same way that Mani Kaul treated Siddheshwari — with a sense that there were many complex layers to her, rather than she being a dramatic gateway to her music. Through these miniatures, Mani Kaul tells us about his own sense of perspective, as well as explaining the sheer depth of Siddheshwari Devi, and by extension, her music.

The Transcendence Of Siddheshwari

   Haikai No Renga is a form of poetry that consists of linked verses composed in collaboration. The opening verse of a Renga is a hokku (popularly known now as a ‘haiku’),which consists of three unrhymed lines of five, seven, and five syllables. Basho, a 17th century Japanese master of the form, wrote his magnum opus based on a style of writing that is a combination of the haiku and prose, called the haibun. What is wonderful about his poetry is that each individual word in each individual verse takes on its literal meaning, and yet each verse forms a layer to the story being told. In the same way, each individual verse takes on its own separate meaning until it is combined with the next verse, and the verse after that.

This is important with Siddheshwari because, like Basho, Mani Kaul uses individual ‘verse’ to create layers within his story of Siddheshwari Devi, furthering her complexity with every second that the camera keeps rolling. In the end, the film manufactures the feeling that the audience has not just glimpsed specific aspects of Siddheshwari Devi’s life, but have lived through her entire life. In the moment that the credits start rolling, the audience exhales a deep breath not because of the edge of the seat action, but because they have just witnessed an entire life. From young Siddhi’s birth, to her first recognising that music might be her saviour, to the ‘improvisation of camera’ that Mani Kaul includes in his table of contents.

The moments between each ‘section’ of this table of contents tells a story of its own. Hidden in these silences and pauses is the deep angst that Siddheshwari Devi feels, and the sheer joy that music brings into her life. Within these pauses lie the entire meaning of the film, and they are fundamentally un-analysable for the same reason that the depths of a human being are unreachable.


Adheep Das & Arnav Pathak have both been coordinators of the BITS Goa Drama Club at some point. Presently, Adheep is pursuing film direction and writing from FTII and Arnav is interning at Memesys Culture Lab.

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