Kaul continues his interest in a cinema in between fiction and documentary with this magnificently shot feature about Siddheshwari Devi (1903-77) of the Benares gharana. She was the most extraordinary 20th C. singer in the classical thumri tradition which, according to legend, goes back to a eunuch at Indra’s court, cursed for failing to return a lady’s love. As a young woman, Siddhi silently absorbed the music listening to the artful performances of Siyaji Maharaj. Thrown out of her aunt’s house for daring to ask questions, she painfully tries to survive in the streets of Benares, the city of rituals, suffering and death but also of passion, transformation and the sublime. Eventually, accepted as a disciple by Maharaj, she started performing at 16 years of age and became a uniquely popular singer condensing a lifetime of horror and joy in the grain of her voice, singing thumri music in addition to its variants in the Kajri, Chaiti and Jhoola folk idioms. The narrative is structured like a thumri piece: it presents key motifs (of Siddhi’s life as well as of myths and locations) and elaborates on and around them with different songs, moods, camera movements, etc., until the whole becomes a moving tapestry celebrating the transfiguration of life into music. Shot in colour and monochrome, the film proceeds by means of metaphors, evoked rather than named: an ultramarine boat floats on the Ganges, a dropped metal utensil produces musical overtones, etc. The intoxicants mandatory to the euphoria of a (sexual) meeting are contrasted with the labour that went into practising the difficult art of music. There is something of Lewis Carroll’s cat about the movie: as it evokes Siddhi’s life, her physical presence becomes more and more elusive, even escaping the actress (Vasisth) who tries to embody her existence. Towards the end, archive footage of Siddheshwari’s sole TV appearance offers a glimpse of the singer, an image which seems to recede into the technology of the recording until only the eerily intense voice remains.
This particular version of the film was one that its cinematographer Piyush Shah reconstructed from a very poor digi-beta tape that the Films Division had made available. It was, he says, an act of desperation that made him do it. Shah speaks extensively on this process, on the film, and on Mani Kaul, here: https://pad.ma/GWI/info