The Threshold

in Article
Published on: 13 November 2018

Kumar Shahani and Udayan Vajpeyi

Kumar Shahani began his filmmaking career with the celebrated Maya Darpan (1972), which made him one of the most significant directors of the New Indian Cinema. He has since made feature films such as Tarang (1984), Khayal Gatha (1989), Kasba (1990), Bhavantarana (1991), Char Adhyay (1997) and Bamboo Flute (2000), which have received wide international recognition. Less well known is his work as a teacher and his interventions as a public intellectual. He has taught in several film schools in India and internationally, made short workshop films with students, and lectured extensively on academic and other platforms.

Udayan Vajpeyi is a Hindi poet, essayist, short fiction and script writer. He has published two volumes of poetry, a short story collection, a book of essays and other miscellaneous publications (including a book of recreated folktales and an account of an extended conversation with filmmaker Mani Kaul). His work has been translated into Bengali, Tamil, Oriya, Kannada, English, French, Swedish, Polish and Bulgarian. He teaches Physiology at Gandhi Medical College, Bhopal.


Distinguished filmmaker Kumar Shahani and eminent poet Udayan Vajpeyi present a remarkable paper that is equally discourse and dialogue on their idea of the development of rasa.  Both nuanced and penetrating, this essay at once unfolds and foregrounds a hoary aesthetic practice as interpreted by the art filmmaker and his scholar-poet collaborator. This text has its roots in Taittiriya Upanishad that was shown by Shyam Goswami of Vallabhacharya Sampradaya.



क्षणे क्षणे यन्नवतामुपैति  तदेव  रूपं  रमणीयताया  ।।

(…beautiful is the form which changes every moment)

17/4, Shihupalvadhan, Magh


As virtual space begins to take over and control our experience, the human body’s rebellion takes on many forms. Including the brain’s own realisations, I imagine. It should be obvious but experiments on the brain’s functioning can hardly confirm any clues that all our modes of exchange offer. Moreover, in our insecure, doubt-ridden world, all bearings express themselves in temporary co-ordinates. Just as well. For, no one should ever lay claim to the whole truth. When, in fact, the ways of apprehending the world are themselves partial, in quantity as in quality.


The brain’s realisations, rarefied and refined into the most brilliantly varied systems constitute the mind in a continuum with the body.


Yet, there has always been a divisive fissure between the concepts of the body and the mind as if the concepts were not realisations, but were realities out there. Not expressions of our deep-seated despair or ecstasy of knowing or both together in a scale of modulations, so subtle that they may extend across infinity or collapse beyond the recognition of emptiness.


And, why should we balk at such possibilities in the realm of the imagination, when we have legitimately begun to posit dimensions that may not have any physical record.


If chaos theories have begun to give us simulations of the accidental, perhaps someday they will give us insights into the nature of mental events that defy the crude hydraulic/moral/aesthetic models that have hitherto dominated our scientificist perceptions of the particular. Science and metaphysics have both to stop playing God.



Causes can be viewed as limited and contingent to clusters of events, species, resemblance and difference with no overarching laws governing them.


Art itself may go beyond the purely redemptive passivity that makes it so vulnerable to appropriation and consumption. The true enchantment of the fetish which art has to offer is supplanted both by the market’s applications of reason and number to make it a commodity. The fetishism of that condition, of one’s being itself being turned into an abject object, we have now known for centuries. The fetish in pagan societies was magical, before religion, keeping order at bay. It is now an aspiration, kindled by its very opposite, the metonymies of guilt that surround our desire.


Can artistic activity break through its own semioses so that a new, not yet born signification can enter words, gestures, tones, colours, technologies, even the dread cloaks of habit that we wear into our skins? To produce such signification as can appear in near gratuitous play, where the contingent may illuminate the never before or the never after. Like the trailers of the biggest movies had always promised!


Sometimes, the cameraman even kept their word, not so the compositions!


The stills from such takes became even more spectacular than the shots themselves.


Photographs of an instant do so surprise us, eclipsing our notions of day and night.


In that instant, the space conjured up by the photograph reveals/hides its own history, like a face wearing its own mask.


There is an invitation by the photographer to unravel just that moment amongst the many such that he might have exposed.


The photographer himself has disappeared behind the particular viewpoint of a lens upon a world calibrated to an immutable regularity.


Moreover, the opacity of the surface increases when we ask who has made this particular choice of the presentation of the scene of that moment. Is the choice his own, of the imagined spectatorial subject, a personified market or an animist god who resides in the scene, mocking the deadness of the technology that grew flatter with the electronic image.


One way or another, the spectator’s idea of the world has to be startled into focus.


Fig. 1: A still from Kumar Shahani's film Khayal Gatha (1989)


If so, does the photograph question or endorse the spectator’s vision by presenting the Real as bizarre, creating a hallucinatory state from which the photograph itself delivers us? The boundaries of the photograph which have drawn us in, have also excluded us, other subjectivities, other forces both social and natural that impinge on that reality.


The persistence of vision, the thresholds of hearing (cinema? The live lived and questioned in awe and bewilderment?) allow multiple horizons to inhabit the screen, ever so evanescent as to make the possibility of the frame flying out of the window as palpable as Dolby sound.


The visual fugue can make the dampness of colours hanging upon a clothes line come into a musical counterpoint with the camera’s own mechanical energy, even as the body-minds of several disparate individuals search in one another’s eyes the overtones of receding thoughts.


Produced perhaps by toes that have touched the scorching earth at the very moment when television monitors see glorious flames envelop Baghdad is silhouettes upon the wintry dark skies of desert nights, young.


After a night of sobs,

In the morning, we grow old and shut our eyes.


There is a relay between the senses which creates an aura of brilliance in sound as well as light that touches us, generating possibilities of experience that may not have acquired a name nor a form nor measure, surprising us with incredible intensity.


I have often wondered how that happens.


A poet and teacher of medicine, Udayan Vajpeyi, recently passed on a passage from the 2005 Review of Medical Physiology:


The sensory receptor may be part of a neuron or a specialized cell that generates action potentials in neurons… The receptor is often associated with non-neural cells that surround it, forming a sense organ.


The form of energy converted (into electric current) by the receptors include, for example, mechanical (touch-pressure), thermal (degree of warmth), electromagnetic (light) and chemical energy (odor, taste and O2 content of blood). The receptors in each of the sense organs are adapted to respond to one particular form of energy at a much lower threshold than other receptors respond to this form of energy. The particular form of energy to which a receptor is most sensitive is called adequate stimulus. The adequate stimulus for the rods and cones in the eyes, for example, is light. Receptors do respond to forms of energy other than their adequate stimuli, but the threshold for these non-specific responses is much higher. Pressure on eyeballs will stimulate the rods and cones, for example, but the threshold of these receptors to pressure is much higher than the threshold of the pressure of receptors in the skin. (Ganong 2005)


Further, as my neuro-scientist brother, Manik, has often pointed out to me, that there are junctions between nerve cells and muscles, stimulated by neurotransmitters, setting up impulses. These impulses are obviously very difficult to measure, except perhaps in rather narrow ways, since the modes of measurement themselves have to be usually reductive to enable the measurement. When translated into active synaesthetic responses of the body as the nervous system, disciplined into responding to complex stimuli with the tangled cultural baggage that we all carry what comes into play is surely the necessity to free ourselves articulately from encoded evolution and determinist mechanisms of thought.


Everyone is a born dancer,


Resisting pressures that surround her,


Like fish in water.


The inner ear still has the ocean in it!


We are tuned to receive sound waves through ocean. We are the waves which have come out of the ocean carrying itself in the spaces surrounding each cell.


In a conversation with a linguistician, Dr Henning, I began to guess about the generation of meaning in musical enunciation. I put forward a proposition that it may just be the intervals of those sensuous thresholds we spoke of, earlier, that become overtonal responses, modulating consonants and vowels with such subtlety that the composer’s intentions are transcended.


I was thinking of the way Stockhausen’s daughter played the piano in Mumbai on an evening long ago. Stockhausen’s harsh consonants almost like system noises could attain the value of elements sonantiques of his discourse only because she sustained an ethos through her notes.


An Absolute, like the universe expanding, not vanishing into darkness, appeared.


Upon which the others squeaked and gibbered.


And yet, it was the music of the spheres,


Notwithstanding the rude dowagers and corporate celibates of Bombay.


When one dances, her steps in a particular ‘laya’ and ‘taal’ gradually enter the textures of language through ‘abhinaya’ thus that which is spaceless and timeless gets located into space and time. A circle is formed, time and timelessness, space and spacelessness get absorbed into the unfolding of experience.


When you look at the text of a tarana, you can be quite astonished at the voiding of the vowels in syllable after syllable.


Music enters the syllable, although often it is taught as if it were draping it.


Its beauty is coeval with its violence. When we look closely at a lotus bud, it overpowers us with its fragrance: we may want to lick it and feel its contours and sense of how the nutrients surged up from the bog to fulfil its desire to open out to the sun.


A conjectured constellation where Venus and Mars are both present.




Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra looked up his dog-eared notes from his own Goswamy’s oral shiksha to open his composition of the Navarasa for my film, Bhavantarana.


Siva manifests himself to himself, shudders with astonishment at his own strength and splendour. The shoulders tremble, the torso expands as he breathes the air in, his gaze falls upon a blue lotus. The world swirls around. His throat is parched.


The erotic sentience is born.


Fig. 2: A still from Kumar Shahani's film Bhavantarana (1991)


The lotus renders Siva divine. The other promises to reveal the self to him neither as logos nor as a reflected representation but as universal jouissance.


Rasa is all pervading joy that brings in its train sorrow and compassion, heroism, wonder and awe, anger, fear, repulsion and that still, silent sunya, thank Gautama the Buddha that has neither beginning nor end.


After all, only some stories have a beginning or an end. That too without necessarily a middle and, often, not in that order either.


Is there nothing new under the sun? After God-dard?


There was, from the 16th to the 28th December, just over a month ago, some living!


A show by Vivaan Sundaram: living Delhi


Foetal matter or fetid garbage?


Installed in the Academy of the Capital of the fastest growing democracy, as it accretes and excretes together.


The mugs of rag pickers and other such citizens amongst us are hung on walls.


Their beats are mapped. Who is terrorizing whom?


The darkness of the debris in which they lie dismembers their limbs. Yet, as they stretch and wake up every morning, their thin arms grip a trapeze, their chest made of ribs and skin inhaling the air broken down into chemicals other than oxygen. As for rest, shanti-h, moksha and nirvana or Christian Grace, history’s corridors lead you into the dim glare of naked bulbs, pendant over beds with cold metal frames, a base stitched together with wire and punning soles of discarded industrial footwear.


Is there an afterlife?




As you come back to where you started, what you had thought was the washing all shrunken into serviettes, you pause to shop because these napkins are being offered for some few rupees. They look clean after all the excessive accumulation around. What is more, they invite you to look at them, know them like the blue lotus/Siva who covered himself with ashes and lived amongst the corpses. Are these paper-cloths shrouds to adorn prophets or prophecies?


The nascent forms drawn upon them seem to respond to the humours of the womb, minimally awakening to life under pressures, known and unknown, inherited from the ocean.


There is a divinity that shapes our ends,


Rough hew them as we will…




Ganong, William F. 2005. Review of Medical Physiology. McGraw-Hill.