Looking up to a golden era of cinema: Rahaab Allana on the show, Josef Wirsching and the Bombay Talkies
The story of Josef Wirsching is illuminating in every sense of the word.
At the exhibition, A Cinematic Imagination: Josef Wirsching and the Bombay Talkies, which will present rare behind-the-scenes photographs, production stills and publicity images largely dated between the 1920s-’60s, viewers will get to revisit a golden era of actors such as Devika Rani, Ashok Kumar, Leela Chitnis and Dilip Kumar.
While there are reams and reams waiting to be written on the subject, we held a chat with the curators Rahaab Allana and Debashree Mukherjee along with Creative Collaborator Georg Wirsching of The Wirsching Archive, to get straight to the heart of the show...
Here's the complete transcript of our exchange with Rahaab Allana, about the time he spent to get the works together for this show:
Could you take us on a quick walkabout of this exhibition? What aspects make it a landmark display, and how much of a larger impact do you hope it will have, among audiences in Chennai?
The exhibition is about a certain artistic and imaginative globalism before the coming of globalisation. The collaborative impulse of the coming of the Bombay Talkies speaks to a time of modernism when traditional concepts about art and aesthetics were being challenged with a New Vision.
The latter was actually a school of thought that drew attention to new ways of seeing and reception in the interwar years, which was also the time of arrival of new media and cameras, such as the Leica on which most of the images have been shot by Josef Wirsching.
Tell us a little about the relevance and significance of this show being hosted in Chennai. What kind of background information do we need to know about Josef Wirsching and the Bombay Talkies, in order to appreciate the show to its fullest?
Cinematic histories come with the sense of being trans-national, and for some time the Wirschings too had moved to South India after the passing of Josef.
Other than this practical fact, we hope that with other initiatives like those instituted by Shivendra Dungarpur (from whom we had earlier landed a Mitchell camera for the show), on sensitising the public to analogue practices and film histories, many of which have had manifestations and workshops in Chennai over the years, will make us focus on the South Indian film industry, much of which gets produced from Chennai.
However, the example of the Bombay Talkies is always pivotal as it was the first professional film production house, leading onto others like Filmistan, which had a distinct international reception.
Its story is not only about the arrival of talkies cinema, but also about socio-political issues in the pre-independence years, such as minority rights, which were being given due airtime for the larger Indian public, a kind of reference to what has been termed as ‘swadeshi modernism’.
How rare are some of these photographs and material - from an archival context, and also in terms of value? Could you give us an idea of the inputs that the Alkazi Foundation has brought along with it here? How much of this has never been shown to the public before?
They are extremely rare as the coming of the Leica, with 35mm film in India now has a definitive timeline. Its value lies extendedly in how the medium of film was also gaining international presence within exhibition spaces such as the iconic Film und Foto exhibition which occurred in Stuttgart in 1929, and which by insinuation highlighted others cross-cultural exchanges at the time.
Germany, with its long history of Indological enquiry, also led to interactions such as with Rabindranath Tagore, who visited Germany in the 1920s, and in turn, the Austrian art historian, Stella Kramrisch, joined Shantiniketan and organised a landmark Bauhaus exhibition in Calcutta (1922).
As highlighted by my co-curator, this two-way cultural exchange was keenly felt in the world of cinema; the success of Oriental films such as Sumurun (1920), The Tiger of Eschnapur (1921) and The Indian Tomb (1921).
On the other hand, Raja Ravi Varma had already popularised German chromolithographic techniques and European approaches to the body through his mass-produced calendar art, as well as postcard culture, a subject on which the Alkazi Foundation did an exhibition and publication last year at the Bhau Daji Lad Museum with the collection of Omar Khan.
How was it to be in that milieu back then, to be actually making a creative community - to be full of ideas, and rife with fresh possibilities? How positive was the atmosphere, and how optimistic was the overall purview of things? We'd like to get a sense of the camaraderie, the goodwill, and the forging of lasting, life-long relationships... all for the making of some landmark cinema.
From the point of view of the Alkazi Foundation, another archive of photography we have from approximately the same time is the one of Homai Vyarawalla, India’s first woman press photographer. She studied at the JJ School of Art and subsequently worked for the Associated Press, but came from the Parsi community in Mumbai.
There is also aesthetic and artistic expressionism in her photography that is then deployed in a kind of political manner with the rise of the national movement. I think this rise of the movement forms a backdrop to much of what we know about the period.
It also gave rise to relationships such as of Alain Danielou and Raymond Bernier in India, who were deeply influenced by its syncretic culture and associated with other film pioneers such as Renoir in the future, who came to India to shoot films such as The River.
This relationship with other Europeans interacting with local cultures also therefore extended into the post-independence years with directors like Louis Malle, who shot the controversial film in Calcutta in the late 60s. India was more receptive to these contrasting opinions and expressions, and we must remember that such openness should be invited even today.
Lastly, could you give us a few words on the role played by the hosts of the Serendipity Festival, towards this initiative? In the last few years, the festival has made great strides for the sake of cultural exchanges. How does this exhibition rest as a sort of feather in the cap of the festival planners?
The Serendipity Arts Festival hosted this project in Goa, also bearing in mind that this archive is located in Goa. I think it’s important to remember that festivals have a tremendous responsibility to the public, as a way of creating modes of reception and perception that are viable alternatives to what exists in the field, and also foregrounding the cultural production of time, in terms of ideas and objects.
The ‘archive’ in this plays a significant role as it challenges contemporary practices by providing new material, but also creates a timeline to existing trends. In this respect, the festival has been extremely sensitive and astute in presenting an exhibition which speaks to multiple communities in and outside India, to suggest how today we are citizens of the world, and whose media practices have also developed over a large span of time.
So many younger audiences have now become producers and consumers of media, without actually having exposure to print culture and television the way some of us did in the 1980s and '90s, when the Bombay Talkies films were often aired by the national television.
By reviving this history through a newly discovered family collection, all the collaborators were interested in how important it is to look at personal memorabilia as a way of encountering history; and how collaborations between historians, anthropologists, and institutional fora is a way of making the approaches to the past more interdisciplinary.
Serendipity Arts Foundation in association with the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts and the Goethe Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan will co-host ‘A Cinematic Imagination: Josef Wirsching and the Bombay Talkies’ at the Lalit Kala Akademi, Chennai from July 19 to August 4, 2019.