FROM READERS: A passage to India, beyond the 'Heat and Dust'

Friday, September 14, 2012 | 10:00 a.m. CDT; updated 1:16 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, October 10, 2012
"Seeing the Divine in Hindu Art" will be an exhibition on Sept. 22 at the MU Museum of Art and Archaeology.

W. Arthur Mehrhoff is the academic coordinator for the MU Museum of Art and Archaeology. Click the links in the body of the text for additional background information.

“This great world is a mirror where we must see ourselves in order to know ourselves.”—Michel de Montaigne, "Essays"

Film Showing

The Museum of Art & Archaeology Film Series will show the Merchant Ivory film “Heat and Dust” (1983) on Thursday at 7 p.m. in Pickard Hall 106. The film is free and open to the public. Pickard 106 is ADA accessible.

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When Montaigne penned those words during the Renaissance, he could well have been reflecting upon Indian culture. From Alexander the Great to Marco Polo to Christopher Columbus to Walt Whitman to The Beatles, the Passage to India has fascinated and attracted people of The West eager to experience something wholly Other, perhaps even the missing part of themselves. While India is rapidly modernizing and assuming an ever-larger role on the world stage, its ancient fascination as our mirror image remains intact.

So it makes sense to seek the source of that mirror image in our quest to see ourselves more clearly. Hinduism, the oldest and most widely practiced religion in India, possesses especially deep roots in the Indian subcontinent and the life of India’s people. Despite countless political upheavals and foreign invasions over the millennium, Hinduism remained a constant cultural vibration in this region of the world. One of the oldest and most complex religions in the world, Hinduism has also depicted the divine in art for millennia. Hindu beliefs developed over the centuries and include many influences, including numerous sacred texts, thousands of deities (like the goddess Lakshmi on the exhibition poster above) and holy sites that continue to draw millions of pilgrims.

Seeing the Divine in Hindu Art, the upcoming (September 22) exhibition at the Museum of Art & Archaeology, respectfully examines many of the important gods and goddesses in the Hindu pantheon, from the eighth century to the present, fashioned in a variety of media. The exhibition depicts the exploits of the gods and goddesses as well as the deeply symbolic meanings signified by these beautiful and fascinating images. As Hindu scholar Diana Eck (1998) writes: “Since in the Hindu understanding the deity is present in the image, visual apprehension is charged with religious meaning. Beholding the image is an act of worship.” Images, ritual, sacred sites and pilgrimage all contribute to deepening this special type of seeing the divine and ourselves.

This “auspicious sight,” as well as the complex beauty and mystery of India revealed in the exhibition, are brilliantly evoked in the critically acclaimed Merchant Ivory film “Heat and Dust(1983), starring Julie Christie, Greta Scacchi, and Shashi Kapoor. The film provides an excellent orientation to the exhibition for those not raised in the Hindu tradition. As Eck noted, the medium of film is particularly well-adapted to convey the visual world so important to the Hindu tradition through the multiple cinematic perspectives of intense sight, sense, sound and motion.

The film is closely based on the novel by long-time Merchant Ivory collaborator Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who won the award for "Best Adapted Screenplay" in 1983 from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts for her script. Another longtime Merchant Ivory collaborator, cinematographer Walter Lassally, vividly depicts the changes and continuity in India over six tumultuous decades, from British crown jewel to political independence and partition, through sights, sounds and textures, while the fascinating film score mixes sitar with Schumann to underscore the complex interplay of East and West.

The centerpiece of the film is the story of Olivia (Greta Scacchi), the restless young bride of Douglas (Christopher Cazenove), a very proper but thoroughly decent British colonial administrator during the '20s in the small town of Satipur, India. The story of Anne (Julie Christie), the granddaughter of Olivia's sister, frames that of Olivia’s and heightens its meaning. The story begins when Anne, a BBC researcher, discovers some letters written by Olivia revealing her heretofore hidden story. The letters gradually reveal how she fell in love with an Indian nobleman (Shashi Kapoor) and left the devoted Douglas for her exotic lover. Anne travels to India to continue exploring Olivia’s story, where her own experience of the heat and dust of modern Indian life adds new facets of meaning to Olivia's life under the British Raj.

With her files of old letters and a tape recorder for conducting interviews, Anne settles down in Satipur with a middle-class Indian family that (by chance or karma, you decide) lives in the same house where Olivia and Douglas acted out their star-crossed drama. The film treats both of its love stories as conscious decisions by intelligent women to follow their own paths rather than just exotic romances. By comparing the places, paths and choices of each woman, we see a reincarnation of sorts taking place in the thoroughly modern, emancipated Anne.

Like the powerful tectonic forces which still roil the Indian subcontinent, the interwoven story lines examine how British and Indian folkways, mores, and centuries of history have collided and interacted. “India always changes people, and I have been no exception,” Anne says at the beginning of the film. Indeed, she clearly indicates her willingness and strong desire to be changed by India. Through flashbacks, we see how the heat and dust of the Indian countryside drives the restless Olivia into the arms of a less than noble nobleman. Two generations after Olivia, Anne also readily absorbs the various "characteristic odors of India", of ""spices, urine and betel", visiting the same places visited and described by Olivia two generations before. In the process, she forges a strong spiritual connection with her ancestor.

I clearly remember the outpouring of film and television productions during the first half of the '80s in a particularly British preoccupation with India and the Empire, as Great Britain struggled to assimilate waves of immigrants from the former colonies. In addition to "Heat and Dust", this genre also included "Gandhi" (1982),
"The Jewel in the Crown" (1984), "The Far Pavilions" (1984) and "A Passage to India" (1984). "Heat and Dust" offers a particularly subtle, intimate study of the interaction between the British and Indians in the last days of the Raj. Director James Ivory and producer Ismail Merchant spent several decades making films about the British in India, and Mrs. Jhabvala's screenplay dances with fascinating characters.

There is Harry Hamilton-Paul (Nickolas Grace, the legendary Anthony Blanche from “Brideshead Revisited”), who appears to be a permanent guest at the palace of the Nawab, for whom he is both court jester and political prisoner, as well as Anne’s interviewee and muse of sorts. This blithe spirit says of the riots that swept Satipur in the 1920s, ''When all these things began to happen, I just ran away to Olivia's and asked her to play some Schumann.'' Other minor characters with crucial roles include a stern English doctor (Patrick Godfrey) affronted by Olivia's independent behavior and who condemns her publicly, and the Nawab's chain-smoking, autocratic mother, played by the beautiful Madhur Jaffrey, seen earlier in Merchant Ivory’s ''Shakespeare Wallah.''

This Indian-born producer (Merchant), American-born director (Ivory) and European-born screenwriter (Jhabvala) seem far less guilty about post-colonialism than most British productions about the Empire. Anne exhibits a wide range of attitudes to modern India, as does her ancestor Olivia. In fact, all the English characters express a great range of attitudes towards India and Indians. Although some of the British, such as the doctor, are obviously racist, the British administrators like Douglas often appear more concerned about the welfare of the Indian population than do their own rulers, such as the Nawab.

Few of the characters want to transcend their times or rectify social injustices, though; it’s Olivia’s boredom rather than feminism that leads her into "scandalous" behavior. She simply knows she feels stifled by the attitudes and platitudes of the mem-sahib (British colonial wives) as well as the heat and dust. Furthermore, Olivia's behavior breaks cultural rules on both sides; the Nawab’s eagle-eyed mother regards her just as critically as the British women.

Anne not only represents the success of the women's liberation movement; she might also be one of its victims. Her contemporary story of discontent doesn’t initially seem nearly as glamorous as that of Olivia and the Nawab, partly because contemporary problems seem rather mundane compared to the legendary love story. When Olivia abandons her adoring English husband, that act possesses enormous political as well as personal significance. When Anne draws her landlord Inder Lal into her bed, it seems much more like “hooking up.”

A fascinating character in the contemporary story is Chid (Charles McCaughan), an American hippie from Iowa who comes to India in search of Truth and instead finds severe gastrointestinal problems. Chid, a kind of holy fool and cinematic foil, simultaneously silly and sad, seems to signify the filmmakers’ cautionary tale against “going native” in such an ancient culture. Such diversity of perspectives help us "see" far more than would an exercise in revisionist history.

By deftly cutting between 1920s and 1980s India, the film reveals how some attitudes have changed while others have simply transferred themselves to Britain’s male successors. When Olivia arrives in Raj India, the wife of another British official tells her that Indian men "want only one thing” (three guesses) due to the overabundant spices in the Indian diet. Later, Douglas cautions Olivia about appearing in front of the domestic help in her not-particularly-revealing night clothes. In the modern story, Inder Lal (Zakir Hussain) becomes agitated when Anne waits for him outside his office to hitch a ride on his scooter, worried that their relationship will be perceived as sexual. Culture, like the footpaths that students wear across campus lawns, does not change all that much or that quickly.

However, it does ultimately change. In the final analysis, ''Heat and Dust'' is about the differences and similarities between Olivia and Anne, who also seems a romantic at heart but in a very different sort of way. As the aged Harry Hamilton-Paul, Olivia’s confidante whom Anne initially interviews for her research, firmly declares: “Some women just shouldn't come out to India.' The romantic Olivia stays with her Nawab even though he uses her to taunt his imperial rulers: "How grand it will be to see the faces of the District Collector and others when they know." She recognizes and accepts her fate as a trophy wife in this clash of the colliding cultures.

Julie Christie's Anne travels to a completely changed India, wandering around town in slacks and casual clothes, talking to anyone she pleases. The vast palaces of the royals have become public property, the houses of the old Civil Lines now business offices. It's as if the independence struggle of India and its partition, as well the introduction of mass air travel, somehow killed off the endangered species of heroic romance in this process of cultural evolution.

Yet just as India drew Olivia into a love affair with a mysterious Other, Anne finds herself fascinated by modern India and Indians. Inder Lal, head of the family with whom she is staying, takes her by scooter to the different places of Olivia's past. Through her journey into the past, Anne comes to terms with her own kama and personal identity. Far more than documentary research, it is a journey of self-discovery. Both Julie Christie's Anne and Greta Scacchi's Olivia find themselves "reborn" as independent women through their Indian pilgrimages. Like "A Passage to India", the story of “Heat and Dust” ends in the icy chill of the Himalayas with a cinematic homage to the hard-won enlightenment of these women and their surprising new/old relationship.

So why bother viewing a film like “Heat and Dust” or a museum exhibition like "Seeing the Divine in Hindu Art"? Please consider the possibility that, like Olivia and Anne, you might discover your own Passage to India and be deeply changed by the experience. As one reviewer of the novel "Heat and Dust"wrote:

“I have lived in India all my life. I have watched beggars swarm around cars at traffic junctions, lived with betel nut stains on whitewashed walls of hospitals and government offices, and revered the holy cows that stalk past heavy trucks on crowded streets. I have lived with these and never known otherwise. (“Heat and Dust”) makes me get up and see India in a whole new light- through the eyes of a foreigner…who knows that beggars are not 'dispensable' like the widowed and dying beggar Leelavati in the novel.”

Perhaps through "Seeing the Divine in Hindu Art" and its related programming like “Heat and Dust”, we can also learn to see deeply through “foreign eyes” and to know ourselves by looking in the mirror of this wide world.

This story is part of a section of the Missourian called From Readers, which is dedicated to your voices and your stories. We hope you'll consider sharing. Here's how. Supervising editor is Joy Mayer.

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