Book offering first major analysis of Amit Dutta’s work puts Indian film-making in the spotlight

Since October, the Robin Museum of Art in New York has been showing Amit Dutta’s short film, earth smell (2021) in the Mandala Multisensory Laboratory exhibition space. One of the world’s leading experimental filmmakers, Dutta (born 1977 in Jammu, North India) is no stranger to the international art world, and his films have been shown at the New York Museum of Modern Art, the Tate Modern in London and the Rietberg Museum in Zurich.

As described by film critic Srikanth Srinivasan, Dutta is “in constant dialogue with ancient Indian artistic thought and art vernacular traditions,” which, as the film maker himself notes, “envisions all art forms in an essential continuum.” The first book-length analysis of Dutta and his work, Modernity by other means This is a comprehensive study by Srinivasan of over 18 articles. Some of the references, as above, are from Dutta’s own writing, which helps the reader navigate the challenging, multi-layered world of a filmmaker’s audiovisual practice. Stylistic experiments refer to Dutta’s early work and shorts, as Srinivasan notes, “evidence of the excitement of a young artist discovering the power of his medium,” with ka (2006), Karamasha (2007) and The Man’s Woman and Other Stories (2009) “Prone to all kinds of cinematic trauma” as Dutta excavates legend, folk tale, and myth from childhood memory.

authentic modernity

However, through the world of art and art history, Dutta will discover his unique language and cement his reputation as a leading avant-garde artist. In his research publication, Invisible Networks: An Art History Inquiry into the Life and Death of Gangarh Singh Shyam (Indian Institute of Advanced Studies 2018), Dutta noted, as paraphrased by Srinivasan, that the tribal painter Ganggarh (1962-2001) “reached a modern style without having to learn, and therefore rejected, the expressions of European naturalism, as would be expected From primitive cultivated painters such as Henri Rousseau and Joan Miro.” Srinivasan likens Dutta to Jangarh – Dutta also reached “authentic modernity… through careful study of indigenous knowledge systems” – at the same time he was grounding cinema in the “romantic categories” of nature, beauty and transcendence.

dotta Ninsukh (2010), a fictional “biography” of the 18th-century miniature painter Bahari, produced by Swiss art historian and collector of Bahari Eberhard Fischer, with whom Dutta explored the Kangra Valley in the Himalayas associated with the artist. As Srinivasan explained, this subject matter enabled radical changes to Dutta’s practice, providing him “a new framework for understanding the aesthetics of film that challenges his basic assumptions of miniature painting.” The writing of the prominent Indian art historian Briginder Nath Goswami formed the basis for the film’s research, while he began, says Srinivasan, “Dutta’s exploration of ideas of tradition, lineage, and inheritance in the field of art history in [later] movies like Imagination Museum (2012) and field trip (2013)”.

Srinivasan also highlights the influence of pioneering filmmaker Manny Cole (1944-2011), one of Dutta’s mentors, in shaping the artistic vision of the latter, noting Cowell’s references to “the stifling grip of Renaissance notions of perspective and convergence on artistic imagination”. The Indian miniature tradition rejects visual realism for the sake of a more abstract epistemology. Dota movies from Ninsukh Onward, these qualities are shared, for example, when the depicted images are in motion—revealing, in Srinivasan’s words, “the hidden depths and motion which hitherto frozen in compositions.”

Dutta’s interests include architecture, as seen in the four-hour documentary finished / incomplete (2015), in which he captures every minute detail of an eighth-century rock-cut temple complex at Masrur in the Himalayas. Srinivasan’s book is also a manifestation of this careful study and examination.

Srikanth Srinivasan, Modernity by Other Means: The Films of Amit DuttaAnd Lightcube, 200pp, with color illustrations, Rs 399 (hb), published November 10, 2021 (Kindle version published August 23, 2020, Rs 250 / £2.50 / $3.30)

• Arun AK He writes about culture and cinema, and has contributed to Little White lieAnd ArtReview Asia, CinemaScope and MUBI’s notebook

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