In her new film Belated, Mohini Chandra combines sound and classical Indian dance to explore ideas of history and place. The artist spoke with Autograph’s curatorial project manager Bindi Vora about the concept behind the work, and how the pandemic helped reveal local stories that illuminate global concerns.
Artist Mohini Chandra's work is characterised by a deep engagement with ancestral histories, often exploring sites of collective and personal memory. During 2020, Chandra collaborated with Autograph for Care | Contagion | Community — Self & Other, our commissioning project responding to the wider context of the Covid-19 pandemic. She created the short film Belated (2020), a slow, poetic mediation on the histories of a place: her local area of Totnes.
Chandra worked remotely (and socially distanced) with an international team of collaborators to explore how the sound of bells and classical Indian dance could poetically connect episodes of Totnes's history across constellations of time and geography. To mark the release of our artist commissions, Autograph's curatorial project manager Bindi Vora spoke with Chandra about these ideas, and, in the artist’s words, the "tiny local stories can sometimes illuminate bigger, global concerns".
Bindi Vora (BV): Your works often deal with ideas of the globalised space, interconnectivity between people and the histories of communities. In Belated (2020), this particular work marked a rare moment in Totnes’s history – a market town in the south of England - where you are based. It was the first time since the Second World War that the church bells had fallen silent. Why did this moment resonate with you?
Mohini Chandra (MC): I have, up until this point, made work mainly in the Pacific and India, reflecting on the movements and migrations of people across the globe, on journeys both forced and voluntary since the colonial period, especially around slavery and indenture. I have also been very interested in the disciplines of anthropology and ethnography, particularly in relation to photography and how this shaped the way the culturally and ethnically ‘other’ was visualised and stereotyped. My research around family photography of the Fiji Indian diaspora is, in some ways, an attempt to address this and reframe domestic photography as an alternate means of ‘telling’ everyday diaspora experience and expressing a more fluid concept of migrant identity. My own work was, I think, an extension of this expression. This is possibly why I came increasingly to rely on film, sound and other time-based media, to interrogate photographic processes and methods and to extend and destabilise the ‘moment’ of indexicality.
"I was intrigued by this ancient and rather dominant soundscape, and the way it punctuated time and the natural sounds of the surrounding hills"
My work shifted slightly in the last few years, when I started working in the nearby port city of Plymouth, with a project called Paradise Lost (2020), which considers shipwrecks as a way of retrieving lost narratives considering the ‘heart’ of empire in relation to slavery and indenture around this location, as the ‘heart’ of empire. However, I have also been fascinated by Totnes and its various paradoxes for a while now, particularly since coming to live here a few years ago. As the highest inland shipping port on the River Dart, mercantile trade has existed in the town since at least medieval times and flourished during the Elizabethan period. It is, in some ways, a quintessential English market town, but also a centre for alternative living. So, Totnes has both inward- and outward-looking characteristics (and links to the rise of global economies and colonialism), as well as both conservative and more radical politics.
I worked with the fifteenth-century St Mary’s Church when making Paradise Lost, so was familiar with its daily rhythms, such as the hourly bells on an automated system and the peal of hand-rung bells throughout the weekly cycle of services. Although not a Christian believer myself, I was intrigued by this ancient and rather dominant soundscape and the way it punctuated time and the natural sounds of the surrounding hills and elements. I had been interested in making a work about this phenomenon for a while, possibly looking at the bell-ringers, as an interesting documentary project about life in a small English country town. Being restricted to my home during lockdown focused my mind on my local environment, while being aware of its global connections and complexities, which have, perhaps, gone largely unappreciated. For example, the explorer William John Wills, who famously perished at The Cooper Creek in Australia in 1861, was from Totnes. His former house is marked with a blue plaque and there is a monument to him in the town. Growing up in Australia, I studied the tragedy of ‘Burke and Wills’ almost every year at school. It was a salutary tale of colonial failure, with the explorers stubbornly refusing to take advice and assistance from traditional landowners and subsequently dying of starvation. I am drawn to such failures as, along with shipwrecks, they speak of the permeability and flawed nature of the apparently all-powerful colonial project. I am also aware of the working people from different races and cultures who – as indentured migrants, slaves, servants and sailors – suffered and lost their lives in these ventures.
The period of lockdown during the global Covid-19 pandemic was so strange for a small bustling community like Totnes. What struck me the most at first, was the way sound changed. Everything was quiet, the streets were empty … and the church bells fell silent.
BV: Totnes has a really fascinating history. Poetry, folklore, the River Dart and progressive educational ideologies are all part of the community’s history, which has a very romantic allure. For example, at the nearby Dartington Hall Estate, Rabindranath Tagore, a Bengali polymath, poet, writer, composer, philosopher and painter, resided during the early twentieth century and was quite transgressive and influential as a future thinker. This connection between the local area and its history became a fundamental element of your work and the dialogue around community in particular. Why did Tagore play such a central role in the piece?
MC: I dealt with the isolation of lockdown by going for daily walks by the River Dart along a forested path from Totnes, which leads to the Dartington Estate, as well as swimming in the river along the way. I have been interested in Tagore’s connection to Dartington for some time now and have been trying to find an ink stain that he famously left on the floor. I walked this path with the archivist, singer and composer Moushumi Bhowmik when she came over from Kolkata to record a song for Paradise Lost (2020) and she discussed her research on Tagore as we explored the Dartington Estate. Walking through Totnes’s bustling Saturday market earlier that day, dressed in a blue sari for our filming and recording in the church, Moushumi noted the stalls selling Indian clothes and smiled, making the connection and being rather bemused by it.
Lockdown was a year later and made for a brutally different spring. However, it inspired me to think about the silence and how other alternate discourses and sounds could emerge in this space. Since Tagore’s residency at Dartington, this space has become renowned for Indian music and dance events, as well as radical thinking. For those unfamiliar with the connection, it is perhaps a surprising narrative of cross-cultural exchange (in the heart of Devon) that has existed since Tagore influenced the philosophical ideas behind the Dartington project, with its combination of sustainable agriculture, creativity and community.
While contemplating the silent church bells recently, the thought of Indian ankle bells occurred to me as a natural yet unnatural replacement, particularly as I considered the links between Tagore and my local area.
The dance is meant as a gift to the town, but it is also disruptive. The intervention of the dance ‘arrives’ in the work in the style of early montage film, which we do not necessarily expect in a slow, meditative, documentary work.
BV: We have all experienced over the last few months the concept of distance, be it a few miles or several thousand miles. It has been one of the most challenging aspects to contend with as we navigate this new normal. With video calls becoming integral to our daily lives – from virtual meetings to family gatherings - having a form of human interaction has been incredibly important despite it being mediated through a screen. You collaborated with your cousin Lalita Lakshmi, a classically trained Indian dancer/choreographer who is based in Brisbane, Australia. You recorded her performing a response to Tagore’s poem ‘Hriday Yamuna’ (The Heart’s Yamuna), which he penned in 1892. I am interested in understanding why you chose to utilise Zoom, a video calling technology we have become so accustomed to using over the last year, in this work.
MC: My cousin Lalita performs the dance via Zoom from Australia, her movements choregraphed to reflect Tagore’s poetry. The method of discussing, filming and recording reflects the only way we could communicate at this time, both for work and to keep in contact with friends and family. We came to rely on this extended virtual world, just as our real world shrank to a new strange experience of the domestic space, a single walk per day and for many no physical human contact for weeks at a time. For me, this experience heightened my appreciation of other things, such as nature and the passage of time.
When I thought of the idea for Belated, I considered how to include ankle bells in the work and contacted Lalita, who is a classically trained Indian dancer, to discuss the project. We worked out that she could perform on Zoom and we could record this, as an integral sequence for the film. I quite liked the imperfect and glitchy nature of the medium, as it seems to speak of the times we live in and the intimacy, yet distance, we are all experiencing. There is a specific dance style associated with Tagore, which Lalita incorporated into the choreography.
BV: What drew you to this particular poem by Tagore?
MC: I am fascinated by Tagore’s work, although I am still learning so much about it. He wrote in Bengali and this is an important detail, since many indentured labourers came from the Bay of Bengal area and the ships that took them to destinations in the Pacific, Africa and the Caribbean set forth from the Port of Calcutta (Kolkata). He was a polymath who worked in painting, poetry, writing and philosophy … and I just imagine how he must have kept himself busy at Dartington, while also influencing the radical thinking around art, agriculture and sustainability for which the estate has become renowned. I was drawn to this particular poem because it covers some key themes, such as life, death, nature and sensuality, while constantly referring to a much-loved river. This meditation on the cycle of life seemed perfect for the troubled times in which we are living, as well as my personal experiences: a very slowed down and considered appreciation of nature and time, even though fear and uncertainty were in the air, both locally and globally.
"The dance is meant as a gift to the town, but it is also disruptive"
BV: Lalita’s performance is a key element in your film. We see her adorn her feet with a pair of ghungroo (a set of musical anklets that are used in classical Indian dance) as she performs a response to Tagore’s poem. I am particularly drawn to how the sound of her dance reverberates within a silent church tower, which in some ways embodies the concept of distance described earlier - the elements of dance, voice and place come together, invoking the kind of closeness that we have all missed. What do the bells represent to you?
MC: The ankle bells provide an alternate soundscape to the church bells, which have fallen silent, and interrupt a slow meditation on the quiet and empty bell-ringers’ chamber. The dance echoes Tagore’s poetry, bringing his words into the chamber. For me this is about a sense of longing and loss that echoes the migrant experience and the recent feelings of separation that we have all faced. Life that was so certain in the more privileged parts of the world can no longer be taken for granted. This sudden vulnerability, awareness of mortality and loneliness, is perhaps encountered widely as a kind of bereavement.
BV: All of these deconstructed ethnographic symbols that you share with us – the church tower, the bells, the river, the inscribed history of the town – in some way or other weave together so many of the ideas prevalent in your past work. How do you reflect upon these conjunctive representations of place, space and people?
MC: Yes, it seems I have become fascinated by Totnes and am turning it into a location for a kind of alternate ethnographic ‘field work’, which considers English small-town life, rather than some ‘exotic’ faraway community! It is kind of interesting to see the UK in this manner. It is an affectionate portrait I should point out, although I am interested in the way that the power of State and Church has worked in the past and how power works today within global capitalism. I was also mindful of a wonderful film I re-watched recently about Raymond Williams’s influential book The Country and the City (Chatto and Windus, 1973). This rather ponderously narrated educational film (by Williams himself), made in the 1970s by Mike Dibb, deconstructs power and privilege around the ideological separation of town and country and this certainly influenced the opening and town/landscape shots of my film.
BV: The church is a central focal point within Totnes and its bells usually sound several times a day. One still in particular really resonates as a reflection of the times in which we currently live: just under halfway through the film you pause on a dead butterfly, as the words of Tagore’s poetry, recited by Moushumi Bhowmik, continue to fill the space, along with the constant beat of the dancer’s feet. To enter this space must have felt profound – what was it like for you?
MC: It was quite an extraordinary experience to enter the bell tower, climbing hundreds of stairs so steep and uneven that you could only prevent yourself from falling by hanging onto a rope, and then to walk into the almost silent bell-ringers’ chamber. I also continued to the top of the tower, which has amazing views over Totnes and the surrounding countryside, but the bell-ringers’ chamber as an intimate, yet rather municipal, space really intrigued me, and this is where most of the filming took place. Here were the signs of decades of human presence: an old cardigan, letters, notices and photographs, bell-ringers’ sequences noted down, graffitied walls, cobwebs and dead insects. It is both loved and neglected … and a wonderful palimpsest. All our mortalities and our fears are wrapped up in this timeless and intimate space. I do like the idea of creating a cultural ‘takeover’ with the poetry and the dance, which was projected in the bell tower as we filmed. It seems to become a more inclusive and decolonised space. Perhaps it reflects my childhood, which culturally was shaped by a mix of Fiji Indian and English/Christian influences. In my imagination, as the dancer twirls and stamps her feet, the sound of her ankle bells is projected across the town, instead of the church bells, which in days gone by called people to church or work, providing an authoritative means of controlling time and the way it was used. Her dance, perhaps, does something else … transports us somewhere else. However, like a mythical princess, she is also trapped in the tower. The beating heart of the film is the tick-tocking of the automatic mechanism for the hourly bells, but we never get to hear them, as the dancer takes over.
BV: I would like to circle back to the title of the film Belated. What does this word mean to you at this moment?
MC: The title came to me because the dancer seems to come from another time and is trying to tell us something. Perhaps it refers to our belated or delayed understanding of our own vulnerability: something that has become much clearer in the recent months. It was so hard to accept lockdown at first, it was kind of unreal, but a form of acceptance came over time. Also, our government seemed very slow to take effective action early in the pandemic. Almost simultaneously, issues around the Black Lives Matter movement emerged. Again belatedly, we accepted as a society a different and more challenging truth about ‘black and minority’ community experience. These issues were interwoven in my mind.
BV: This is the first short film you have made. What was this process like for you?
MC: It has been really interesting to create a more extended moving image work, as previously I have made shorter pieces that were usually designed to be seen on a loop as part of a gallery installation, or in a site-specific setting. Perhaps knowing, initially at least, that this work would be seen online encouraged me to think about producing a single film sequence that has its own contained narrative. Even though it uses elements of montage film making, the work is also intended as a slow, meditative documentary: each shot hovers between still and moving image while it is often only sound that gives us a sense of time passing. I hope it is more of a poetic than didactic experience. I worked with a really great team: Moushumi in Kolkata (poetry reading), Lalita in Brisbane (choreography and dancing), Beccy in Totnes (camerawork and editing) and, I like to think, Tagore himself, who might have enjoyed the conversation. The project felt international and collaborative, while simultaneously allowing me to concentrate on my local area during lockdown. The church was so open to the idea and supportive in giving us access, which meant that the whole project flowed extremely well. Tiny local stories can sometimes illuminate bigger, global concerns.
Renée Mussai introduces the new artist commissions in a curatorial essay One (Pandemic) Year On...
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Image captions: 1-8) [Film stills]. Mohini Chandra, Belated, 2020. Video 12' 49". © and courtesy the artist, commissioned by Autograph for Care | Contagion | Community — Self & Other.