Mani Kaul’s Siddheshwari (1989) is based on the life of renowned thumri singer Siddheshwari Devi. It is one of the most unusual films to have been produced by the Films Division of India. In the following, Kaul rejects two holy tenets of documentary namely linearity and exposition. Instead, the film focuses on how the singer came to be immersed in classical music. Mani Kaul gets Mita Vasisht to enact the role of the singer and depict key events in Siddheshwari’s life.
This includes demonstrating the early years of her training and consequent struggles to survive as a single mother. He juxtaposes these re-stagings with recreations of Siddheshwari’s memories and epiphanies. Siddheshwari by the Indian experimental filmmaker Mani Kaul is beautifully photographed but certainly impenetrable.
Siddheshwari 1989: A Docu-fiction?
Siddeshwari is a mix of documentary and fictional idioms. From a monocular perspective, however, that is incorrect. The film employs what we have termed the presentational idiom. Therefore, contrary to certain assumptions that Mita Vasisht plays or rather personifies Siddeshwari, it is a simultaneous representation of the reel and real. Every bit of the actor’s work in the film is only a visualization of Siddeshwari’s life and work.
Additionally, the film is a presentation of Thumri as a poignant musical form. It also employs the means of the spiritual/sensuous equation in various traditions of Indian art and literature. Particularly the miniatures and the epics as massive influences on imagery and sound as demonstrated.
A Cinematic Portrait
At the start of Mr. Kaul’s film, words that offer facts about the life of Siddheshwari roll by so speedily that it would help to have a photographic memory.
A legendary singer of Indian Classical music, with expertise in thumri (a poetic and improvisational form), Siddheshwari lived from 1908 to 1977. The film dramatizes events in her life with no explanation. Witnessing Siddheshwari with her teacher is self-explanatory. But without a table of contents, it is not clear why she is banished from her aunt’s house. Why she is imprisoned or which scenes are the fantasies that allow Mr. Kaul to reflect the free form of his subject’s music?
Siddheshwari becomes the equivalent of an abstract painting, wildly open to interpretation. It may be best to forgo narrative coherence entirely, listen to the music (recordings of Siddheshwari herself), and appreciate Mani Kaul’s visions of Indian art, bejeweled hands, and narrow stairs leading to modest cramped houses.