Sunday, 21 May 2017

Indian spring… Raja Harishchandra (1913) with Pandit Vishwa Prakash ensemble, BFI

This talk and screening was part of the BFI’s season Music in Indian Cinema: Song and Dance and part of the India on Film strand which is itself part of UK/India 2017 a major cultural collaboration between the two countries.

It featured an introductory talk from South Asian Cinema Foundation director, Lalit Mohan Joshi, who detailed the birth of cinema on the sub-continent with a screening from the Lumière brothers as far back as 1896 which, as with the Velvet Underground in ‘67 or the Sex Pistols in ’76 seems to have inspired all those who saw it to go off and do the same, including pioneers such as Save Dada, Hiralal Sen, JJ Madan and Dadasaheb Phalke.

Phalke didn’t form a band but he did become the godfather of Indian cinema, especially after watching a 1910 film of The Life of Christ which so impressed him he began watching every film in town, convinced that it was possible to make the same kind of film about Rama and Krishna.

Dadasaheb Phalke on location
The photographer and printer packed it all in and – in his early forties – sailed to Britain to purchase equipment and the knowledge to make films beginning with Raja Harishchandra which has just about survived the intervening 104 years. A copy of the film from the Indian film archives was screened, or at least what remains although we do seem to have a beginning and an ending: the story lives on even at half (?) its original length of some 40 minutes.

Based on Hindu mythology, it is your typical King goes hunting, offends holy man then over-compensates before redemption story and is not only instructional in that respect but fun, if a little confusing.

Our king was played by Dattatraya Damodar Dabke, a Marathi stage actor and Taramati, his queen was played by one Anna Salunke, a male actor… the scene in which she and her “handmaidens” frolic in a pool must have doubly confused the audience. The question was one of female modesty as the camera was effectively the public eye and it wasn’t until 1914 that a woman played a woman in one of the director’s films, Kamlabai Gokhale in Mohini Bhasmasur.

The Sage Vishwamitra was played by G.V. Sane who is grumpy good value after his attempt to force the Three Powers to do his bidding is interrupted by the King’s intervention. The King begs his pardon and offers him his kingdom in compensation but that is not enough as the Sage forces him and his family out into the world to pay his dues – the Dakshina. So, the family’s travails begin as their good faith is put to the test…

Phalke directs with the assurance of one who knows what the audience wants and he had clearly been paying attention to western techniques even when producing a story that was to go down exceptionally well at home.

Accompaniment was provided by Pandit Vishwa Prakash on harmonium along with sitarist Surmeet Singh Dhadyalla, the cool Mitel Purohit on tabla (who has performed with a fella named McCartney and many more…) and Avtar Singh Namdhari on the taus, a peacock-shaped string instrument. Prakash sang and was joined by Kusum Pant Joshi and Uttara Sukanya Joshi on vocals.

The composer-singer had previously written a score for Niranjan Pal’s The Light of Asia (1925) for the BFI in 2011 but he said composing for Raja Harishchandra was more difficult because the film was incomplete. His music was no less diligently composed than for the earlier film with many nights spent watching the film and absorbing the narrative and sentiment. The result perfectly underscored the fantasy on screen and, having a seat in the front row, I was able to see the table, sitar and yaus all working together in support of Prakash’ harmonium: a tight but very loose combination that is complex and yet not unwieldy.

I’ve no idea what specific words were sung but the feeling was right, giving expressive voice to characters as the tale progressed.

The early cinema of every country drew on their storytelling traditions and India had a rich cultural heritage of folk theatre for which cinema was absolutely perfect yet, so few Indian silent films survive – only five features? – indicating that perhaps active “telling” overshadowed any western concerns for archiving, but nothing would stop the country becoming a cinematic superpower in time!

The second session featured a Q&A between Lalit Mohan Joshi and Pandit Vishwa Prakash who, accompanied by Mitel Purohit on table, sang his way through his family’s deep connections with Indian talkies. There were tantalising snatches of films such as Mahal (1948) starring the "The Venus of Indian Cinema", Madhubala which just makes you want to see more.

Which is lucky as the India on Film season continues throughout the rest of the year.


  1. Dear Paul,

    Thank you very kindly for writing this blog post. I am Uttara Sukanya Joshi, one of the vocalists who sang last Saturday. Your write-up is very well-researched and insightful.

    Many thanks and kind regards

    1. Thank you for reading and especially for singing for us, Uttara! It was a pleasure to see you perform in such harmony with the film! A very rich and rewarding experience.

      Best wishes, Paul

  2. Dear Paul
    Thanks for this indepth write up on our event. Its very well written. I had visualised it about an year back and am happy it turned out to be a good event. Regards Lalit

    1. Thank you! It was a very enlightening and entertaining event and such a warmth between performers and audience!

      Best wishes, Paul