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Elroy Pinto’s 2018 film Kaifiyat takes us on a journey through the world of Hindustani classical music, its history and evolution, in synchrony with the history and evolution of Indian society with its myriad contradictions—such as those between tradition and modernity, or between religiously marked social realities and pluralistic cultures.

The film has garnered recognition, including the Best Documentary Film award at the 2019 Mediterranean Film Festival of Cannes and the Cinema Experimenta Award in 2021.

This is a reflection on Kaifiyat exploring its various themes, artistic sequences—that have been presented in the film in a non-linear dreamlike form, drawing at length on a long-form interview that I had conducted with the filmmaker.


Material World

The film opens with vivid visuals of Indo-Persian miniature paintings captured in intricate detail, juxtaposed with scenes of a city where pale skies are crisscrossed by electric wires and hordes of apartments have sprung up around a drying lake. This is the story of Nauraspur, the narrator informs us. Nauraspur was established in 1599 under the patronage of Ibrahim Adil Shah II, the king of Vijaypur, who was known for his religious tolerance and devotion to music, art, and literature. The king envisioned Nauraspur as a town dedicated to music and dance, where musicians would be supported, and exceptional music would thrive. However, very little of what was built in Nauraspur survives today.

The film takes us to instrument makers and wood-carvers at work, crafting the instruments that form the foundation of the music and bringing it to life. These artisans, filmed in Bombay, work in the lower tiers of an industry that no longer receives the patronage it did in the mystical town of Nauraspur. Filmmaker Elroy explains, “There’s still a vestige of early 20th-century music-making in Bombay. Many traditional venues have disappeared, and the entire system has collapsed due to socio-economic factors like declining support from trusts that used to provide patronage to musicians. Technology has also played a role: the ability to record and replay music has changed performance practices. In a capitalist city like modern Bombay, these remnants of music and instrument-making have been pushed to the margins. This realization prompted us to explore what exactly has survived.”

The focus on the instrument-maker is significant. Dominant narratives about music (and the arts in general) often tend to obscure the material foundations on which it is built. The creation of the tabla too is ridden with myths and illusions. Elroy adds, “There are several versions of the creation story of the tabla. These often involve mythologized tales about a divine being destroying the mridangam to create the tabla, or a king destroying the mridangam or pakhawaj, and then creating the two parts of the tabla. I found most of these to be unappealing because they completely obscure those who really make the tabla. That was what we wanted to understand.

“The tabla makers are highly skilled artisans. We worked with Dhere buwa who is based in Dadar. Day in and day out, he is working on these various tablas, as they are fine-tuned to different pitches. For him, the process of working on the tabla is done by the sound of ear and by his relentless labour.”

Instrument-maker at work (still from the film)

Thus, in our world, the material world of labour and dire economic necessities setting the limits of artistry, the historical town of Nauraspur can only be a mystical memory of a bygone era. Regardless, the hopes of world-to-come persist, where the realm of necessity has been superseded, and the realm of freedom finally appears at the horizon, perhaps a new Nauraspur will be built, one where musicians and artisans, instrument-makers and labourers will thrive and give birth to radically new melodies that our ears are not quite familiar with.

Ustad Nizamuddin Khan

In the midst of the dilemmas brought about by the long march of modernity from the historical conjunctures where royal patronage triumphed, to the times of commodities and wealth accumulation, we are presented with the story of Ustad Kamaluddin Khan, son of Ustad Nizamuddin Khan—both maestros of the tabla.

The filmmaker, coming from a background in mass media and film theory, has also spent a number of years learning classical music, in the Gwalior gayiki, from Neela Bhagwat, who is a leading exponent of the Gwalior style. Elroy explains his fascination with Ustad Nizamuddin and his style and lineage, “A couple of years after I started learning Gwalior gayiki from Neela Bhagwat, she had invited me to listen to Kamaluddin Khan, son of Ustad Nizamuddin Khan. I had not heard Ustad Nizamuddin playing in person because he had passed away in the year 2000. I was acquainted with the mainstream tabla style being played at the time. When I heard Kamaluddin's style of playing, it struck me as something unique that I had not heard before. The kinds of pauses, the silences that were present stood out. There are very few tabla players in the present time, who play in that style.” Ustad Kamaluddin Khan passed away only a few months before Kaifiyat was shot.

The unique style of this lineage and its relevance to the film needs to be placed in the context of historical and social changes and their impact on Hindustani classical music. Elroy addressed this in our conversation, “As far as the Gwalior gayiki is concerned, it is tied to the Mughal sultanate, beginning with Ustad Sadarang and then after its collapse there are the grandsons of one Nathan Pir Baksh—Haddu Khan and Hassu Khan who consolidate it in the 19th century. These styles also disperse in other regional courts. The version that is now sung by very specific musicians was largely formulated around the time of these two brothers, Haddu and Hassu Khan in Gwalior.

With royal courts collapsing, patronage is not available for the court musicians. The same process happens in Gwalior as well, where we see the Scindia family not being able to keep the musicians on retainerships. That generation of musicians would undergo a tremendous fall. They would then have to find ways to make money and participate in the industry. They would have to go out and sell their ability to labour in exchange for a wage. When these musicians come to Bombay and Calcutta after the broad collapse of patronage across the courts, these two cities emerge as key musical centers. We would then also have the Dagars (Dhrupad players) coming to Bombay, to Chembur, as well as the other Dhrupad musicians.

“As court patronage declines, radio and the Hindi film industry emerge but fail to sustain musicians adequately... that is what happens with Nizamuddin Khan. In a certain period, he’s playing in Mughal-e-Azam and then towards the end of his career he’s playing in B or C grade films, potentially for lesser pay. This is not to say that one is purer and the other is not. It’s just that you can see a downward trend in artists being recorded live and a fall in the demand for musicians to record live.”


Politics and the Arts

Kaifiyat, while being a chimera of stimulating visuals, decorated with paintings, dance performances and music recitals, it nonetheless adheres to a coherent view of politics (and political economy.) That for a work of art to adhere to political positions, it does not need to vulgarize and reduce itself to sloganeering and hollow moral preachings, and that a form as abstract and as distant from rigid realism can nonetheless posit progressive political content, is demonstrated by this film. It could be argued that the core idea present throughout the film is that the richness of musical mastery stands firmly on the complex and strenuous labour of the instrument-maker, that the development of history, in tandem with the development of productive forces underlays the myriad developments in how music is patronized, created, composed, presented and heard—although the musical domain certainly has its relative autonomy within the bounds of which great heights are achieved by maestros such as Ustad Nizamuddin Khan. Marx’s close collaborator, Frederick Engels put it this way, “Mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion, etc.; that therefore the production of the immediate material means, and consequently the degree of economic development attained by a given people or during a given epoch, form the foundation upon which the state institutions, the legal conceptions, art, and even the ideas on religion of the people concerned have been evolved.”

In our interview, Elroy discusses at length about his political outlook towards cinema, “I have worked with the filmmaker Kumar Shahani. His approach is the closest to a Marxist perspective. I will cite an example from Shahani’s film Tarang, which translates to ‘Wages and Profits.’ It is set in the 1980s. The cotton-mill working class is being destroyed completely in Bombay with that final strike that never really ended so to speak. The film follows multiple sets of contradictions, at the heart it appears to be about the mill workers and the industrialists. He is trying to show that the subject of Janaki played by Smita Patil in the film is a historically conditioned subject. When he decides to portray that historical conditioning, he turns to one of the myths which the Marxist historian D.D Kosambi critically analyzes in his book Myth and Reality. This is the myth of Pururavas and Urvashi. In the film, he shows how Janaki’s existence is conditioned and related to social relations of production. He is able to portray this characteristic even within the capitalist class.”

Shahani’s film emphasizes the interconnections in the themes it covers, and presents them as contradictory facets of one unified whole that is the capitalist system. Elroy recalls, “My grandfather was a cotton-mill worker in Bombay. He was working as a weaver in the Khatau Mills, most of his life. He arrived there in the 1930s. His children (my uncles) worked in the mill for a time but had to move on during the strike years. The industrialists were not interested in upgrading equipment and technology, which is one of the hallmarks of the Indian capitalists that continues today. I think all of these aspects are shown in the film Tarang.” The inception and development of the capitalist system relates in different ways to the working class and the capitalist class, it embraces both conflict and collaboration between the foreign capitalists and their Indian intermediaries.

It follows from this, that all that is born must perish. Just as the musical town of Nauraspur arose and gave birth to a host of excellent music, it would eventually be swept away by the whirlwinds of history. So too will the exploitative systems that appear immortal today. They will make room for that which is better, and will be replaced. Often this historical contingency of things, this inherent nature to be located in history and to eventually find its end, tends to be absent in cinematic representation. Often, temporary phenomena are presented as universal and unending. Elroy adds, “I think a majority of cinema we watch, whether it is mainstream or middle-road films, are tinged with this tendency to represent historically specific subjects as trans-historical (i.e. remaining unchanged throughout history).” This is a tendency that Kaifiyat attempts to overcome by demonstrating that every phenomenon portrayed on screen, is conditioned by history and changes with the various twists and turns of the historical epochs.


Myths and Realities

As the film travels across historical time, various myths, tales as well as literary documents, are recreated. There is the story of the Muslim merchant named Mahyar who fell in love with Chandarbadan, the daughter of a Hindu king. Chandarbadan would reject Mahyar’s love and break his heart. Mahyar would live in the forest for a year only to plead with Chandarbadan another time, and would be rejected another time. This can be sourced to the work of a poet, one Muqimi, who completed it in 1627. In the story, the despairing Mahyar would commit suicide. This story is to be connected with the narrative around Nauraspur through the appearance of Ibrahim Adil Shah II, in that he would order an honorable burial for Mahyar in the story. Music remains a central aspect to these retellings, as does the imaginative liberty taken to contextualize these narratives in ways that do not adhere to strict realism.

Dramatization of myths (still from the film)

There is the adaptation of compositions from the Kitaab-i-Nauras, or the Book of Nine Rasas, which is a collection of verses composed late in the sixteenth century by Ibrahim Adil Shah II. The book contains fifty-nine songs and seventeen couplets written in Dakhni Urdu, specifying the ragas in which they were to be sung. It is known from about ten manuscripts copied between 1582 and 1618. Explaining the process behind picturising compositions from this book, Elroy says, “The visual elements of the Kitaab-i-Nauras and the poetic language that is deployed there along with intricate design elements, had to be discovered. We do not have records of how the melody would have sounded. There was a courtesan, whose name was Mah Laqa Bai, in the Nizam’s court in Hyderabad in the 19th century. There is no recording of her. But it is said that she was still singing these songs of the Kitaab-i-Nauras, which denotes that the Kitab-i-Nauras did not die with the Adil Shah kingdom being overthrown by the Mughals.

“In a one-on-one conversation with Ustad Bahauddin Dagar, he informed us that they still practice these compositions, although they don’t perform them publicly. So, the compositions were there in the general understanding of the musical landscape. The challenge in adapting those compositions was not about fidelity to some nostalgia-tinted version of the Kitaab-i-Nauras. It was about connecting it with the present moment. A lot of people would argue that the Kitaab-i-Nauras was meant to be sung in a form that was somewhere between Dhrupad and Khayal. Indeed, when I was working with my guru Neela Bhagwat, she noted that there were a lot of compositions that had that kind of Dhrupad feel to them. In Dhrupad, there is a different relationship between the syllables as compared to the Gwalior gayiki. We decided to take it with this Gwalior gayiki. As I said, it was more about bringing it to a present moment in time, rather than trying to recreate a ‘faithful’ version.”


In the Valley of Historical Time

Towards the film’s conclusion, we encounter a series of juxtapositions: horses running past roads reminiscent of medieval times, followed by contemporary roads and bazaars, culminating in the haunting image of the mushroom cloud from the atomic explosion in Hiroshima-Nagasaki. Jazz music prominently plays in the background. This sequence evocatively intersperses tradition with modernity, ending with a visual symbolizing modernity’s greatest fear—a fear of total destruction, which has only intensified over time.

On that sequence, Elroy comments, “It is about the idea that modernity arrives in India at a specific historical juncture incorporating aspects of colonialism, and those of the transformation taking place in the musical scene. I wanted to create a sequence in which this glitch occurs and I want to see what kind of signification that can raise for the viewer, in terms of how they would perceive this. 

“The jazz in the background is accompanied by a carefully placed Shehnai on loop. It’s a very specific part that is being looped constantly. Within that free Jazz framework, we were trying to bring out something which, I think, all of cinema tries to explore. Every artwork tries to move towards an experience which is unnamable. I have had interactions with people who have watched the film and have told me very different readings of Kaifiyat. That conveys to me that there are multiplicities of viewing possible.”

Suryashekhar Biswas is an independent journalist and researcher based in Bangalore. His research interests include political economy, media and literature.

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