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Kamakha Through Prayerful Eyes
This "finely crafted, lyrical exploration of a sacred site" creatively captures the complexity and mystery surrounding Kamakhya Temple, an ancient place of fertility worship in India's northeastern state of Assam. This temple is unique among Hindu temples of the Devi (the Goddess) in that it enshrines no image of Her.
In the corner of a dark cave is a rock with an impression of the yoni (the female sexual organs) of the Goddess. This rock is moistened by the waters of a natural spring and it remains covered at all times. Devotees and visitors prostrate before this rock and touch it to connect with the Goddess. No one sees Her.
Yet when one steps out of the cave one encounters a rich panorama of visual representations of the Goddess and Her temple, ranging from the ancient sculpture on the temple façade, devotees’ private photographs, Hindu bazaar arts, crafts, and non-objective painting. Filmmaker Aparna Sharma's deft and imaginative imagery and editing luminously reveal the myriad ways by which devotees visualize Kamakhya, the Goddess who resides in Secret and is not Seen.
Fertility worship at Kamakhya dates back to ancient times when the temple complex was a conglomeration of large rocks used by the matriarchal tribes: the Khasis and Garos of Assam. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the temple was assimilated into mainstream Hindu culture. But the film examines visual renditions that are distinct from and more complex than the dominant Hindu narrative relating to the site. It begins by evoking the Goddess through a poem by Assam’s acclaimed poet, Nilmani Phukan, that is visualized in an immersive montage situating the temple complex in the Assamese landscape.
After a portrait of everyday proceedings at the temple, the film moves to two artists who live in its vicinity, depicting their creative motivations, how the Goddess inspires them, and how they give Her form. The film follows the artistic methods they practice on a daily basis and shows how their creations sit within the broader social community surrounding the temple. The film combines observational and reflexive methods to explore how devotees of different socio-cultural backgrounds and aesthetic persuasions imagine and give form to the Goddess who exceeds visual representation.
Kamakha Through Prayerful Eyes is at once a riveting ethnographic documentary and an innovative work of filmic art itself. It achieves what its subjects aspire to do: to visualize a Mystery that is not visible. In doing so its impact on viewers is mesmerizing and memorable.
Kamakha Through Prayerful Eyes will generate thought and discussion in a wide array of classes in Asian and Indian studies, cultural anthropology, religious studies, women's studies, and film studies. It was produced by Aparna Sharma, a documentary filmmaker, film theorist, and Assistant Professor in the Dept. of World Arts and Cultures/Dance, UCLA. An informative Instructor's Guide written by Prof. Sharma accompanies the film.
"Kamakha Through Prayerful Eyes is a finely crafted, lyrical exploration of a sacred site. Taking as her focus the space around the Kamakyha Temple, filmmaker Aparna Sharma weaves a rich tapestry of sound, light, and color to suggest the deeply sensory nature of pilgrimage. She uses her camera imaginatively to evoke the absence and yet powerful presence of the Goddess Kamakyha, whose secret, unseen power infuses and animates a surrounding secular world. Sharma’s innovative use of the film medium echoes and extends the work’s substantive concerns in intriguing ways. This is an important film about devotion, representation, and sacred practice. It promises to catalyze debates and engage audiences across a range of different scholarly fields." -- Anna Grimshaw, Professor, The Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts, Emory University
"Here is an insider's view of a remarkably rich and vibrant form of worship. Surveying artistic representations and scenes of quotidian devotion, the film captures the complexity and mystery of a spirituality that mingles almost seamlessly with the material conditions of social existence. Filmmaker Sharma’s use of a discrete, observational camera style together with titles, interviews, and reflexive comments on the interviews shows a deft cinematic hand at work." -- Bill Nichols, Professor of Cinema, San Francisco State University
"It is a pleasure to watch and hear this unhurried, largely un-narrated piece, which delicately blends the 'pure' history of the goddess and the temple of Kamakhya with the pilgrims and tourist trade that surround it. Starting with shots of his sculpted toes and primitive tools, we see the devotion of a local woodcarver who makes small replicas of the temple; this is no sarcastic expose of the capitalist enterprise surrounding a pilgrimage spot, but a leisurely series of poetic glimpses into the temple's entire ecosystem. The soundtrack, similarly, refuses to idealize: the crying of a baby becomes part of this stream of life, along with birds, traffic, human voices, the scraping of the wood saw and file. I admire the decision to leave in a shot of a little kid staring at the camera, revealing Sharma's filming to be part of this ecosystem. Near the end comes the most exquisite aural version of these departures from normal prettiness: a woman on a balcony with a tanpura sings a melody that dwells on the semi-tones some might consider dissonant until they constantly resolve to a more perfect beauty." -- Claudia Gorbman, Professor of Film Studies, University of Washington Tacoma