A tryst with Mirabai and Narayan Surve @ the FD Zone

What comes to your mind when you think of Mirabai (or Meerabai, depending on your choice of spelling)?

Mirabai, Meerabai, Amar Chitra KathaThe 16th century princess-turned-poet from Rajasthan who was a devotee of Krishna? The rebellious Rajput princess who refused to worship any other god, but Krishna? The widow who was harassed by her in-laws because she refused to become a sati? The pious saint whose soulful compositions we hear now and then through the renditions of Lata Mangeshkar, Kishori Amonkar, M.S. Subbalakshmi, and others? An incident from Mirabai’s life in a school text-book? The Amar Chitra Katha comic book that narrates her entire “life story”?

I am thinking about all this as I wait for a documentary on Mirabai to begin at the RR Theatre of Films Division (FD) at Peddar Road in Mumbai. An initiative of The FD Zone, this screening is part of a curated two-film package: the first is the film on Mirabai titled A Few Things I Know About Her and the second film is Narayan Gangaram Surve.

A Few Things I Know About Her (30 min, 35 mm, 2002) by Anjali Panjabi is a travelogue that takes you through towns, villages and the vast desert of Rajasthan in search of the Mirabai not shaped by popular culture. This is particularly pertinent as the viewer comes to know that our knowledge of Mira is shaped by popular notions and not by historical documentation, of which there is very little evidence. The following words of a record-keeper in a dusty palace library drives home the point.

All women from the royal family had their own life stories written—like a record of their lives. But there is nothing on Mirabai, except when she was born and when she was married. That’s all. It is as if she didn’t exist.

This happened because Mirabai defied societal norms in preferring a spiritual life over a life that revolved around her family. The efforts to erase Mirabai from the collective memories of people was so concerted that for a couple of centuries or more, Mira was not a favoured name for girls; families were afraid that their daughters, too, would turn out like Mirabai. If it were not for communities like the Bhils and Meghwals, and to a certain extent the Pindars, Mirabai would have been lost to us for ever. The Bhil and the Meghwal communities have made Mirabai their own and sing her compositions with an earthiness and fervour, so far removed from the popular recorded versions that it comes almost as a shock. And these are compositions that contradict the popular notions that chooses to see Mirabai as only a saint and a devotee of Krishna, and not someone who questioned societal norms and traditions.

As Anjali Panjabi travels through Rajasthan searching for Mirabai, stories emerge—stories of strength, of peace, of devotion and much more. A woman from a very traditional and orthodox family narrated her tale of how she was not allowed to go to the nearby temple; her in-laws told her to pray at home instead. But this woman persevered and after many years was finally allowed to go to the temple. She said:

My problem was nothing compared to Mirabai’s suffering. Hers was so much more. She gave me the strength to continue. Mere toh giridhar gopala, doosra na koi… goes the popular song. But for me it is “Mere toh Mirabai, doosra na koi…”

These words are echoed when a Bhil singer says that to know Mirabai is to internalise her philosophy, her devotion, her inner strength, and her love for her Krishna. Just singing her bhajans is not enough, she adds rather caustically.

Throughout the film, the audience is reminded how little information there is on Mirabai; even something as simple as whether she wore a widow’s whites or a sanyasin’s saffron robes. Whatever little we know is through oral histories and of course her music—in fact, if not for her music, there is nothing to remind us that she once existed.

As the film ends and the credits roll, another thing comes to my mind. Male saints and philosophers had it easier in giving up everything and taking on the life of a sanyasi as compared to a female saint. Take Madhavacharya or the Buddha; after initial resistance from their families they were free to pursue life as they wished to, and over the centuries their writings and philosophy has survived and thrived. The same cannot be said for Mirabai, who was harassed and ostracised during her lifetime, and her very existence removed from royal records !

I could have continued thinking about Mirabai and her life and music this for some more time but the next film on Narayan Surve began almost immediately.

Narayan Gangaram Surve (45 min, 35 mm, 2003) by Arun Khopkar is a biopic of this leading Indian poet through his poetry. Though Surve wrote primarily in Marathi, sometimes his poems contained a mix of Hindi, Urdu, and English as well.

Abandoned at birth outside a textile mill, Surve was raised by a mill-worker, who found him, till the age of 10 and then once again abandoned and left to fend for himself. He then worked as a waiter, a helper in textile mills, a peon in a municipal school, and then finally as a primary school teacher. He remained an active Communist Party member all his life.

The film, which is in Marathi with English subtitles, begins with these beautiful lines voiced by Surve himself:

When I was born it was without a name. When I go I will leave with one. Narayan Gangaram Surve.

Surve plays himself in this film reminiscing about his life, his poetry, the state of Marathi poetry, of revolt, of child labour, of Marxism, of the labour movement in Maharashtra, and of life in general. This is done through a seamless blending of Surve’s poems and conversations with Kishore Kadam, a Marathi poet and actor, who plays the role of the younger Surve in this documentary. It was fascinating to see Kishore Kadam interact with the “real” Surve, first as himself, and then as the actor.

There is a fantastic scene in the film where Kishore Kadam is getting ready to play the role of Narayan Surve, while the man himself is keenly watching him apply make up and adjust his hair. Amused, Surve he tells Kadam, “Nothing that you do, no amount of make up will make you look like me.”

To which Kishore Kadam laughs and replies, “I am not trying to look like you; I am trying not to look like myself. I’ll soon be walking along your paths, speak words that you have spoken and written. And pretend I’ve written your poems. How can I do this looking like myself?”

Saying this he puts on a pair of glasses, squares his shoulders and brings a slight pout to his lower lip, instantly transforming himself to look like the real Narayan Gangaram Surve. In this scene, both of them are captured in a single frame and viewed through a mirror. When Kishore Kadam transforms into Surve in an instant, even as the man himself looks on, it was a goosebump-inducing moment, and one where I understood what the term “getting into character” actually meant.

Surve’s poems are extremely lyrical and highly visual, and Arun Khopkar has used it very well in the film by juxtaposing images or choosing apt settings to enhance the emotions of the poem. One such example is the beautiful poem Majhi Aai (My mother). In the film, the poem is narrated as part of a poetry lesson taken by Surve in his school and the emotions playing out on the faces of the students as the narration/lesson progresses is something to be seen.

Each poem, each conversation was a thought-provoking and rarely left me unmoved. The film ends with these beautiful and powerful lines narrated by Narayan Surve himself.

Since I have come into this world
And since I move in this harsh reality,
I must live it,
Make it my own
Sometimes receiving knocks
Sometimes giving it back

The selection of screening A Few Things I Know About Her and Narayan Gangaram Surve was curated by Jabeen Merchant, who was the editor of both these documentaries. In her curator’s note, Merchant points out to that in spite being separated by 5 centuries, both Mirabai’s and Surve’s poetry “stood for the same things” and spoke of “rebellion against the system” and gave “voice to the subaltern”.

Yes, there are similarities between the 16th century poet and the 20th century one. But their approach was very different. While Mirabai advocated surrender and devotion at the feet of Krishna, her beloved God, Surve wants us to engage with the world, to resist, to question, to introspect, to seek and yet look at the world with a dispassionate, but critical eye.

I particularly liked the following lines, which are a mix of Marathi, Hindi and Urdu words:

Ek dhyan madhe thev, beta
Ek dhyan madhe thev, beta
Shabd likhna bada sopa aahe,
Shabda saathi jeena mushkil hai

(Remember one thing, my son
Remember one thing, my son
It is easy to write words,
difficult to live by them)

And this is so true, isn’t it?

(i) Narayan Gangaram Surve is available on YouTube in two parts and be watched here and here. And it is a must see.

(ii) The FD Zone is a film club that screens films from FD archives as well as independent films every Saturday in Mumbai.

53 thoughts on “A tryst with Mirabai and Narayan Surve @ the FD Zone

  1. Lovely post and the FD club sounds really interesting. I am also glad people are making documentaries still in India which is something taken up vigorously in the west. I would hope to see more documentaries in India about India in the future. Thanks for the you tube links.


    1. Thanks, Raghav. The culture of making documentary films is pretty strong in India, through there definitely is a problem with distribution and visibility. And this is where organisations like Films Division come in. The FD Zone is a great initiative and they have already had some 5-6 screenings of which I have attended only one. I hope to go there agin this Saturday.


    1. Suranga, I’m so glad that you liked the post. I always value your comments, but a comment on this post is extra special. I couldn’t find the film on Mirabai onlline, but if I do I will send you the link.


  2. Wonderfully written post, Sudha! It feels as if we are watching these documentaries ourselves.

    Very interesting idea, that the poetry of both “stood for the same things”. I’m not sure I agree. Through that may be because Narayan Surve’s poetry seems so ‘earthy’ so to speak. Must read his poems again. 🙂

    I would love to see both films. Thanks for the link to the one on Surve.


    1. Thank you so much, Manju. I am really happy that you liked this post and as I responded to Suranga earlier, your comment for this post is extra special.

      It was the curator of these two films who suggests that the poetry of both “stood for the same things”. Like you, I don’t agree with this either and the only thing in common between Mirabai and Surve is that they were both poets. Whatever little I know of their work, I can say that their styles are hugely different — the former metaphorical and the latter lyrical and visual.

      I have come to realise that I don’t know Mirabai at all, or rather I know only her popular songs and poetry and not the ones sung by the Bhils and the Meghwal. I really need to read all of Mirabai’s and also Surve’s to be able to give my opinion more confidently.


  3. Such a soulful post! Both the stories humbled the human in me. I have read it twice over and have it bookmarked too. Those are amazing revelations about Mirabai and Narayan Surve.


    1. I think for most people in India Bollywood and Amar Chitra Katha have shaped our ideal and understanding of Mirabai. So yes, the film does come as a welcome surprise. As for Narayan Surve’s poems, what can I say? They are just brilliant.


  4. Superb. The bit about Mirabai seemed to justify that history is written by the victors. Thank god for our songs; we’ve been preserving history long before it became a “subject”!

    On another note, would you know of any similar club in Bangalore?


    1. Oh yes, history is always written by the victors. And even if it is written by the losers, they write it in such a way that they become the victors!

      I don’t know of any film club in Bangalore, but will ask the FD guys here and let you know.


        1. Never thought about that. I’m quite glad that I studies history when I did 🙂 I checked with one of the FD Zone people, who said that while there is nothing similar to this in Bangalore, there are plans to extend the FD Zone to other cities as well. So who knows, there may be an FD Zone coming your way soon !


  5. Yet again, you have made me look at things with a new perspective. The saint I was named for is my ideal and the original feminist but having looked at her through your eyes or in this case the director’s eyes, I have new found respect for her tenacity, her beliefs and her devotion.

    Thanks for introducing me to Surve. Hindi and Marathi poetry have a depth that I have rarely found in English. With very simple use of words both languages have the capability to stir emotions. Now there are more books to add to my ever growing list 🙂


    1. Earlier today, I met a fellow blogger for lunch and we got around to talking about this post. I asked her what she knew about Meera, and her answer is like so many others — practically nothing apart from the Amar Chitra Katha stuff. The film was a revelation for me in terms of Meera as a person, a poet, a woman, a rebel, an outcast … As for her music, it was nothing like what I had heard before — raw, earthy as against the sweet bhajans that I knew.

      I have a difficult and diffident relationship with poetry, particularly English poetry, and is something that I have never been able to explain to people. Watching the film on Surve made me realise that, like you, Marathi and Hindi poetry is my cup of tea. These languages, and for that matter most Indian languages have that emotional depth that I can connect to.

      I may choose to write, to communicate in English. But if I want to read or listen poetry, my choice is going to be in Marathi, Hindi, Tamil…


  6. Like the other commenters above, I have to say that you make us think differently and anew about people and things. Like you, I know of only the melodious bhajans that we have got to hear thanks to films and classical singers. The Bhil and tribal connection is something astonishing. Thank god for such directors who take the pains to dig out the story behind the legends. Narayan Surve sounds very earthy and immensely readable too. Thanks for the link.


    1. Yes, truly. Thank god for such directors. Anjali Panjabi is still researching into the life of Mirabai. She is currently making a longer film of her and I guess we would be seeing a folm on Mirabai soon. I can’t wait to see it.

      Narayan Surve features in another documentary film called Saacha (The Loom,2001) which is about Mumbai as seen through the eyes of a poet (Surve) and a painter (Sudhir Patwardhan). And the poetry is scintillating here as well.


  7. More than the topic, I am filled with wonder on how beautifully you write ! Amazing flow of language and such a beautiful choice of words, if your blog was a book, it would have been un-put-downable !


  8. wonderful post, Sudha!!!!! I would have loved to see both the films too….. for me, Mirabai reminds me of my visit to Chittorgarh, where she arrived as a young bride. Apart from the temple, there is nothing more there to remind us of her, or give us more interesting details about the woman she was. I would love to make the journey they have described in the film, tracing her path!!! About Narayan Surve, I have heard of him, but very little, and I have yet to read his work. However, what the two really share in common is the complete confidence in themselves, the courage to hold on to their beliefs and ideas in the face of severe opposition, and the conviction to do what they believed was right, no matter what!!


    1. There is a scenne in the film on Mirabai where the pujari (?) says that in the past there had been attempts to remove the idol. He says, rather passionately, “then what is left of her to remind us of her.” I would love to make this journey too, in search for the Mira that is not known. Anjali Panjabi is making another film on Mira, a longer film, nearly 10 years after she made this one. I can’t wait to see it.

      You have made the point on the commonalities between Surve and Mirabai very well and I really liked it.


  9. I like the the immediacy that your lilting prose brings to its readers. The subjects you choose to write about gives an insight into your own world which gladdens my heart. Meerabai of course represents the ultimate in devotional love for Krishna.Reminds me of Surdas and Udhav too and the associated literature. I envy you for knowing Marathi for i have only heard that its literature is so rich and reading translated works is just not the same.Keep them coming..your posts!


    1. Welcome here, Anil, and thank you so much for stopping by and commenting. Delighted you found the subject of the post interesting anf that you liked it.

      Reading in the original is always recommended, but since it is not possible to know all languages, translations are the next best thing.:-)


  10. Where do I get these documentaries from , its good as someelse also pointed out about the documentaries , as in west we have these often


  11. Your posts are always so different and fascinating. It is like I know I do not have the talent or knowledge to appreciate them if I had seen them by myself but after your post, I understand and develop sensitivity towards them. What a fascinating combo–Mirabhai and Surve! Surve’s poems moved me deeply. Sudhagee, ever plan to do one on Lal Ded–she is my favorite mystic poetess from the older times….


    1. You underestimate yourself, Bhavana. You would have seen the films and enjoyed them just fine; only your perspective would have been unique. I would have loved to watch these films with you just to know what you thought of them.

      I have only heard of Lal Ded, but have not read much of her or about her. Looking forward to getting to meet her through you. 🙂


  12. As usual your post is very informative and feeds our intellect and emotions. To me Mirabai was always an ardent devotee of Krishna. My information about her was through the Amar Chitra Katha and Hindi textbooks. What immediately came to my mind was that as a school activity, I was inspired enough to do a ‘batik’ of Mirabai.
    Your post is my first introduction to Surve. I will watch the the documentary on Youtube.
    Most of us have been introduced to the classics/myths through the Amar Chitra Katha. I do not see the younger generation reading much of that. That is really very sad. My younger nephew and niece seem to gather all this information from television only.


    1. Thanks Neena. It’s amazing how many people are coming up with their ACK knowledge of Mirabai. These really played an important role in our learning and reading growing up, didn’t it? But then at that time my grandparents grumbled a lot about my reading a lot of comics or ACKs. I guess these days it is the kids watching too much TV. 🙂


  13. All that resonates with us,
    does so because..
    there is a little part of them
    in our own selves..

    Like water flows to water
    and air mingles with air
    fragrances are found
    where they are revered..

    The voice of a mystic,
    the cry of a commoner
    in the quest for justice
    are quite similar..

    The urge of one
    was simply to merge,
    as the other revolted
    against invisible curbs..

    The cry of their spirit
    across the expanse of time..
    is folded in gently
    between your lines..

    Poetry is what
    touches the heart
    when the writer says
    all that cannot

    be put into words
    enclosed in rhymes
    for poems are feelings
    deceptively fine..

    The grains of fervor,
    and the mist of honesty
    make this write-up
    a piece of poetry..

    Great post Sudha…<3


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