Time Is Another Name Of Love

Love is about memories and rememberence. Love is also about knowing Saba - the 'suchness of things'. Time is the medium where Saba is recorded. Yet, at the same time, Saba is the 'imprint of time' on things and beings. When one truly gets over the fear of time, then he/she can say that "I am in Love" or "I am alive". Love is the true unconditional existence.

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Location: Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, India

I believe in Love

Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Eye and The Infinite Image

[This is a talk given for the 1st K. K. Mahajan Memorial Lecture at the Film and Television Institute of India during the closing ceremony of the 50th Anniversary of FTII. K.K. Mahajan is the most celebrated cinematographer graduated from FTII and ranks along with the great masters Subrata Mitra and VK Murthy.]

Let me begin with a salute for the great Master of light and life. Although the pain of the physical loss of a dear person like KK Mahajan, will linger on in our hearts, his beautiful creations with light and shadow will solace us and guide us to reach out for the best in our profession. KK Mahajan's love for cinema and love for life have been stamped on all his creations. We, generations of cinematographers will always be inspired by his eternal presence. I remember a small incident. When KK came to do the workshop with our batch of students at FTII, one night he was lighting up the old Film Archive building. K K's lighting rendered it more elegant and beautiful. The texture and the gray tones of the granite walls, details of the tiled roof and the contours of the trees surrounding it has become alive and vivid. I was so happy to see the dance of light and dark and I decided to sketch the scene and I did a pretty good sketch. Believe me, that probably was the first moment when I experienced an inner union with the light and shadow and it was also the moment when I realized that I could also be one day become a cinematographer. All the interconnectedness revealed through the eye.

When I joined the film institute, my choice of specialization was editing. After few weeks into the 3rd year, one day Mr. Bhanumurthy, our cinematography professor suggested me that I change my specialization into cinematography. I did so very reluctantly only because he told me this under the 'Wisdom Tree'. So I salute both Bhanumurthy sir and Wisdom Tree for whatever I am today. When Bhanumurthy sir heard of my lecture he wrote to me about KK Mahajan sir “He was a nice person and his personal self is reflected in his work. He approached all problems like a surgeon. I know him when we all started our works at Mumbai in the second half of 60's. We used to meet at Bombay Film laboratories, in Prabhadevi area, near Portuguese church. It was our starting days. Both of us we used to work for AD films and documentary films. Lovely times. Sharing a cup of tea used to be our pleasure”.
I still vividly remember my first viewing of 'Bhuvanshome' directed by Mrinal Sen and photographed by K.K. Mahajan in our film society screening in Kerala. The elegant tonalities and simplicity of those black and white images are an eternal source of energy for us. His works are a fine examples of the theme of 'minimum' in the art. John Pawson in his unique book MINIMUM says “The minimum could be defined as the perfection that an artifact achieves when it is no longer possible to improve it by subtraction. This is the quality that an object has when every component, every detail, and every junction has been reduced or condensed to the essentials. It is the result of the omission of the inessentials”. Dear friends this great quality of simplicity arises from a way of life. Now you will understand why I quoted the story of a 'simple cup of tea'. Simplicity is an enigmatic ideal shared by many cultures among many generations. All of them looking for a way of life free from the dead weight of an excess of possessions. John Pawson continues “Minimal living has always offered a sense of liberation, a chance to be in touch with the essence of existence, rather than distracted by the trivial. Clearly simplicity has dimensions to it that goes beyond the purely aesthetic: it can be seen seen as the reflection of some innate, inner quality, or the pursuit of philosophical or literary insight into the nature of harmony, reason and truth. Simplicity has a moral dimension, implying selflessness and unworldliness”. KK Mahajan the artist and the person lived among us to show the true virtues of a creator and a compassionate person. Let me respectfully remember the other shining examples of such simplicity among the Masters of our great cinematographic tradition. Late Subrata Dada and VK Murthy sir who is still among us. I had been lucky to have a close interaction with all three of them. They are simplicity personified. Almost a lost tribe of goodness. I hope the new generation aspiring to become cinematographers will deeply look into these lives and their works to know better how our lives and art are interconnected.
K K's magical accomplishment of creating an Indian visual culture of compositions based on the Indian miniature tradition in Kumar Shahani's KHAYAL GATHA was unique. Arun Khopkar in his detailed study of KK's work in the context of visual culture says “ In Khayal Gatha we saw the brilliance of Indian miniature paintings, often in full saturation and links were established between an art form of our century and centuries of visual arts, whether painting or textiles. Unlike the west, whether the aesthetics of colours is better searched through its painting, Indian sensibility is best seen through its textiles. For a weaver has to take care of the flora and fauna around him, of the nature of the incident light and the skin tone of the wearer. In KK's work, all of this was woven together by his lighting and framing”.
Any image created by a monocular lens system within a frame inherently produces a visual perspective of space. All western traditions of painting tried to enhance the effects of 'perspective'. From a single point perspective to multi-point perspective was applied to achieve the maximum effect. They were also using the light to create the three dimensionality of the objects. They wanted to emphasis the separation of space into foreground, middle ground and background etc., there by putting the protagonist literally at the central stage of an event. This could have been the result of a world view and philosophy which was anthropocentric. Man has to be at the center of everything. I would like to call it the 'Tyranny of Perspective'. Later in photography and cinematography this trend has continued. From Griffith's description of Billy Blitzers use of chiaroscuro in lighting as Rembrandt lighting [he charged extra for this from distributors] and the use of 'deep focus' technique in Citizen Kane by Orson Wells and Greg Tolland are the result of this philosophy. I am not saying that this is good or bad. Later in films like 'Godfather' we connect to Caravaggio, In 'Goya' we connect with his own paintings and in 'Girl with a pearl ear ring' we connect with Vermeer.
But in the east the pictorial traditions were to develop in the opposite direction. We saw life in a harmonious unity, where, man, animal and a blade of grass were given equal importance. The paintings were part of the environment. Even the idea of a 'frame' was often discarded. From Ajantha cave paintings, to our traditions of miniature paintings or the large scale scroll paintings of China and Japan were all depicting man as part of the environment. In my re-reading of cinematographic history I have only seen two directors trying to break this 'Tyranny of Perspective'. Ozu and Paranjinov. Ozu achieves this by the elevation of his camera placement and Paranjinov achieves this by the placement of his characters at different elevations. Ozu's low angle placement is sometimes attributed to the Japanese tradition of social interactions and his laziness. But a closer study reveals that by doing so he achieves the impossible. He breaks the ill effects of perspective and gives a unity which respects each and everything in the frame. The faces in the foreground and the out of focus clothes in the background etc are there with equality and treated with same respect. Man and his environment is seen as a whole. This magical effect he achieves brings us to the earlier idea we discussed about 'minimum'. We see a composition full of compassion and humane feelings.
What can we say about the visual culture of our own cinema? How much we are aware of our pictorial practices and does anyone try to enrich a cinematographic tradition inspired by those sources. It is not an easy task. We can note such a relationship between Phalke and Ravivarma. Shanthi Niketan Painters had a strong influence on Subrata Mitra and Satyajith Ray. In later period we see those attempts in KK's work only. Arun Khopkar says about Mani Kaul's 'Uski Roti': “ In my memory, in Indian cinema first such experience was Uski Roti. Mani had visualized the compositions along the lines of Amrita Shergil. But that is only half the story. If the film is not a Tableaux vivants of her paintings, what does the cinematographer do? Moreover colour was such a strong point in Amrita's work and the film was in black and white. It is to KK's greatness, his ability to enter someone else's soul' to see through their eyes that the frames of Uski Roti not only breathed the spirit of the compositions of Amrita but made new things visible through her eyes. The melancholy that she had seen on the faces, in the atmosphere of rural India had a new life with KK's work.”

This ability to enter into the eyes of the other is one of the foremost quality of a cinematographer. Of late we see a trend in film schools where cinematographers insist to the directors that they tell the stories through the DOP's eye. I am openly wondering whether this is a correct approach!! This ability to enter into the soul of the other enabled KK to give a distinct look to each directors vision while maintaining an over arching unity of his own style. This is a true stamp of a master. This search for an Indian idiom in cinematography and visual culture should become a priority for the new generation. Remember there is a cinematographer in Europe who is inspired by the Indian philosophical tradition and imbibing its energy into his works – none other than Vittorio Storraro.


What a marvelous sense ability which we have, called the 'vision' or 'sight'. And the eye makes it all possible. Eye is sometimes described as the outwardly visible part of our brain. Each waking second the eye send some incredible amount of fresh information to the brain. The human eye can sense millions of gradations of light and different shades of colour. Eyes are responsible for about 75% of all that we perceive. Few creatures could boast of eyesight as power full as man's. An Astronaut orbiting the earth could spot the Pyramids of Egypt. What a wonder!! The 'cornea' in the eye receives most of its oxygen directly from the atmosphere with the aide of tears! If it was to be from the blood that would diminish the transparency of the cornea, it will be a diminished truth.

We all know that if the film negative could react to light as human eye, cinematography would have been easier. Though some of the CCD manufacturers claim more latitude than films we need to see it in practice. We all know that the necessity for lighting arises not only due to the light reception limitation of the recording medium but also due to the aesthetics of contrast which gives rise to meaning.

THE LIGHT AND DARK - Mankind’s urge for light:

Remember, The only constant in the universe is the speed of light.

Without light, there would be no vision, no color, and no food to eat. Without light, there could be no life on Earth as we know it.

In Greek mythology, Apollo was the god of the Sun, logic, and reason. The Greeks had already made a connection between light and the workings of the mind. This concept exists today in phrases like "Let's shed some light on the subject" and "I see!" A standard convention in cartoons is to represent someone who has an idea as having a light bulb go on over their head.

The Old Testament begins: "In the beginning God created heaven and earth. The earth was unformed and void, with darkness over the face of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water. God said, 'Let there be light'; and there was light." (Genesis 1:1-3) By the Biblical account, the creation of light was one of God's first acts. Light is at the very foundation of life on Earth as we know it.

Light is such a central component of human life that it is probably no coincidence that many religious and mythological texts try to explain it. And Light is symbolic of God's presence in many religions:

Everyone and everything on this planet is connected by the common thread of light and dark. This generality is true because every living thing is guided and directed by the light of day and darkness of night. Where the angle of the sun’s rays makes contact on the earth's surface, the elliptical path, and position of the Earth dancing around the sun determines the seasons.

In the Rig Veda it is said “There was neither death or immortality then. No signs were there of night or day. The one was breathing by its own power. Only the one was. There was nothing beyond. Darkness was hidden in Darkness. All was fluid and formless.”

People around the world seem to feel that darkness precedes light. Darkness is somehow older, more primitive, more fundamental, and light penetrates a darkness that was there before it. 'From non-being lead me to being', 'from darkness lead me to the light, from death lead me to immortality' Says the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad.

As Clement A. Miles wrote a hundred years ago, the imagery of the light shining forth out of darkness is a theme that seems to strike deeply in the hearts of humankind. The sight of the beam of light from the projection room itself was a joyful experience of our childhood.

Psychological need for light:

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a recognized form of depression that affects many millions of people during winter. Human beings have an internal biological clock that is synchronized with the light-dark cycle of the physical world, causing humans to be alert during the day and sleepy at night.

Light therapy has become a standard treatment for SAD. Doctors prescribe exposure to a light box in the morning. "It's not the kind of light, it's the intensity," experts say. Generally the light boxes use a bright light with a frequency spectrum closely simulating the frequencies of natural sunlight. The required length of exposure depends on the severity of the winter depression. While no one is certain why this helps, scientists hypothesize that it has to do with shifting the body's internal clock. And there are many testimonials to the success of light therapy.

Looking from all perspectives, it is no wonder that after the very first screening of the Lumiere show in Paris, a news paper critic declared: “Death is no more an absolute truth”. More than 100 years have passed since then. Cinema has become a much more complex phenomenon. It has become a narrative device to tell stories and there by a medium of entertainment. Cinema has also become the most important tool to travel deep into the unknown realms of human mind and imagination. We all know that human mind assimilate knowledge through images. ‘Eye’ has become the central instrument for the microscopic and telescopic exploration of our physical world, both in its seen and unseen domains. Whether it is the Mars Exploration, Hubble scope telescope or the most powerful microscope, it is the eye which reaches out to the dark corners of fathomless knowledge.

Though everything begun from the word, somehow, vision was the most important aspect of a creative process even for the GOD. The idea is that the image is relevant to every spiritual identity, even for God. And by creating our own images, we search, we identify, we find out more about ourselves. We picture our own being, we realize who we are. Millenniums later, 350 years before Christ, another philosopher declared the supremacy of the ‘faculty of vision’ in the development and progress of human species. Thus spoke Plato:

"Vision, in my view, is the cause of greatest benefit to us, inasmuch as none of the accounts now given concerning the Universe would ever have been given if men had not seen the stars or the sun or the heaven. But as it is, the vision of day and night and of months and circling years has created the art of number and has given us not only the notion of Time but also the means of research into the nature of the Universe."

So we have invented the microscope and telescope. Human experience of the ‘self’ consists of the awareness not only of the world outside of him but also the awareness of his inner world. Cinema’s greatness and success lies in the fact that the ‘camera-eye/cinema-eye’ has become the microscope and telescope all in one, to reveal the hidden, magical wonderlands of human mind. Cinema also has the unique gift of creating ‘mystery / wonder’, more than any other arts form, by the sheer power of its images and it’s sculpted time. This ability of cinema to create ‘mystery / wonder’ takes the viewer closer to his experience of Nature. In fact, the feeling of mystery / wonder is the first seed of spiritual awareness.

Yes everything was originated from the ‘word’. But for now, from man’s eye/vision originates ideas and from these ideas, originates the word/language. If he were to go after the aural alone he would not have understood and humanized the silent world of the stars, sun and trees. Is it not a wonder that sun sends us the light and from light, trees manufacture the food for our body? Yes, light is the food for our body. May be light is also food for our soul!! And who gives this light to Sun? Sunlight is the source of all biological energy on Earth. Plants turn light into chemical energy in the form of sugars, which fuel the entire food web. There is probably a connection between the photosynthetic process and people's craving for light and carbohydrates during the winter.


As much light is the prime source of life, we all know that water is also the prime condition for the existence of life. Self recognition in an organism is said to be an indicator of its position in the evolutionary ladder. It must have been a thirsty human being who bend down to the lake and saw his image for the first time. It must have been a high voltage visual/neuronal experience. Witnessing ones own image. Water reflections of the landscapes, mountains and the sky must have been some of the wonderful visual experience of early human beings.

MIRRORS – The self, Image and questions of beauty.

My tryst with images started on the day I read the following line in the bible “And God created man in his own image” - to imagine a form to such a god was easier. And the interconnectedness between god myself and the idea of 'image' in between was reassuring. In a magical way, god's existence was made very tangible to a 7 year old child. Because, I did like my own image in the mirror and to think of a god who would look like me was fun. In fact by then the mirror has became my favorite childhood toy. I would use the mirror in many ways to play with the light. One of my game was to place the mirror upwardly at my stomach level and walk inside the house. It was a thrilling experience as if I am walking upside down on the wood panels of the room. That was when the mirror started liberating me and it was probably my first experience of making a rudiment form of cinema. Surely it also made me very joyful. A joy coming from wonder and beauty of imagination. Much later when I was in class seven, the mirror was to affect me in a very profound way.

When one of my classmates told me that there was a temple at Kalavomkodam, little away from my home where there is a MIRROR installed by great Narayana Guru instead of any idol of a God or Goddess, I was very eager to visit this temple. I remember going to the temple and seeing that mirror. This was the most defining moment in my life. All my interest in Indian philosophy and my urge to learn about Narayana Guru, later meeting Guru Nithya, all this has the root in this visit. So when I started learning the philosophy of Narayana Guru, it was very clear to me that all philosophies, all art and living itself, everything is interconnected as an expression of 'love'.

The concepts of both beauty and image are somehow related to the questions of one's own being and its relationship to others. It considers both the real an the imagined. In a motion picture this fact becomes more blurred. Who is the 'double'? The reflection of me seen in the mirror or the real me. The image of me on the screen or the me who is watching the image of me on the screen. By combining both beauty and image together we are entering into a bigger philosophical realm.

Now what is truly beautiful? Is there any such absolute values? It is said that everything beautiful has some mathematics in it. It is also true that local cultures in different parts of the world looks at beauty from their own local perspective and environment. Have you noticed that all babies look beautiful and charming. So are very old people. Does age/time/experience have anything to do about this fact? Is it a factor to do with original state of human beings and there innocence? Is beauty also connected with concepts of good and bad? Does that mean persons who wont be selected for a beauty contest are bad people? When we meet people do we consider both 'external beauty' and 'internal beauty'? Can we apply same for a work of art? Say a simple portrait – whether a photograph or painting? What are the factors deciding it's outer beauty and inner beauty?

These are the questions we always ask ourselves and thereby inventing new ideas. Obviously we measure beauty in the objects both living and nonliving, through the information received through sense experiences. That is through Eye, Ear, Touch, Smell and Taste. We somehow are tuned to give more emphasis of 'beauty' experienced through vision and hearing. We must also ponder on the influence of our sense of 'time' and 'space' in our consideration of beauty.

In the Bible it is said that “God in his own image created man”. May be it is the other way, “Man in his own image created God”. It could be possible that the IMAGE is a divine link, connecting man to God, man to man and man to universe. Whenever I watch a picture from Hubble Telescope, I am in wonder and awe of the great/infinite universe. If an image or being creates the same wonder I experienced as a child seeing a butterfly, a rainbow, a lotus flower – that is beautiful for me. What about the half buried face of the child in Raghu Rai's defining photograph of Bhopal tragedy? It shows the horror but I will also bravely term it beautiful. Once Aravindettan gave me an interview to read. It was an interview with the celebrated American cinematographer Vilmos Zigmond. He says “ No image can be more beautiful than its meaning” This one line of clear thought have become guiding principle in my profession and life.


When I presented Aravindettan's 'Vasthuhara' at the FTII, I was talking of Vasthuhara as an example of a 'mirror of love'. What does it mean? I believe that any creative expression of an artist, from music to literature to painting to drama to dance to cinema is an attempt primary to show the lacunae of life-supportive/life-nurturing qualities in our life, especially of love. Art by its mystical power, whenever shows an absence, makes us feel the desire for its existence. Conversely it also projects a desirable harmonious beauty which is not present today. Please remember that 'beauty' not necessarily always denote only the beautiful. For me, when there is a balance achieved, or resolution made even after a chaotic conflict, there is beauty. It also does not always mean to negate the not-beautiful/ugly.

A beautiful person of character may be ugly-looking physically. The compassion generated by a photograph [ex. photo of the girl burned by napalm bombs] or by a cinema [ex. Night and Fog] liberates the viewer and makes his/her heart yearn for a society where such things never happen. That yearning is a distilled occurrence of beauty - the source of creation. That is why Dostoevsky says: " Beauty will save the world" Even the 'anger' felt by a viewer after watching 'Hearts and Minds', is coming out of 'beauty' in its roots.

In fact a 'mirror of love' more often needs to show the ugly and the marginal. Striving for beauty or an ideal, questing for the truth and focusing the spirituality of our being does not mean that we shun our immediate reality and all questions related to it. In fact a 'heightened awareness leads us to the very 'here' and 'now' of our daily existence. I am empowered with a new vision, a new hearing and a new touch with which I take part in this very fight of our existence and resulting realization. The very existence of mine interconnected with my neighbors and the multitude of unseen humanity. Within this transcended spirituality, making of a film and completion of an image becomes 'an act of love' as Truffaut said about film making. The work of art becomes a testimony to the artist's ultimate faith in humanity's salvation. Here lies the possibility of the cinema to become a unifying, life-nurturing force in our disintegrating world. Such a possibility makes a film, a "Mirror of Love".

Andrei Tarkovsky in sculpting in time says “I see it my duty to stimulate reflection on what is essentially human and eternal in each individual soul, and which all too often a person will pass by, even though the fate lies in his hands. He is too often busy chasing after phantoms and bowing down to idols. In the end everything can be reduced to the one simple element which is all a person can count upon in his existence: the capacity to love. That element can grow within the soul to become the supreme factor, which determines the meaning of a person's life. My function is to make whoever sees my films aware of his need to love and to give his love, and aware that beauty is summoning him."

Let us also listen to the great poet and philosopher RUMI: “Both light and shadow are the dance of love". In this day of full moon let us celebrate the power of light. Like Christopher Doyle said let us make cinematographic dances every day celebrating this wonderful life on earth.

Long live Cinema... Long live Cinematography