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Making Life History Film1

American Anthropological Association Annual Conference Montreal, Canada ID # 11828. 16th-20th November 2011 David Blundell National Chengchi University Abstract The objective of this presentation is to give orientation to the understanding of life history film making in past and present contexts. I will look at filmmaking in the process of ethics and local support in visual anthropology as a production by, for, and with the people it’s intended to represent. My intention is to show how I have dealt with questions in making visual biographical accounts in specific research contexts using shared techniques for comprehending the individual in the matrix of society. The ethnographic films I have done to share are made in South Asia, related to Buddhism, philosophy, and life's experience utilizing the cultural tools at hand for achieving social goals. Introduction This is a revisit to my film productions (1.) in Sri Lanka for the visual documentation of the autobiography of a Sinhalese Buddhist headmonk; (2.) with a Canadian filmmaker, Ms Anika Tokarchuk, for her final edit production of a film entitled Life as Cinema about the making of Phörpa (The Cup), an independent feature film by Dzongsar Khyentse Norbu Rinpoche, and other Tibetan monks who are rekindling their Buddhist faith in India and in some cases returning to Tibet to film documentaries on their heritage; and (3.) in India with the “untouchable” people (dalit) to work on a biographical film on Dr B R Ambedkar (1891-1956) who started the human rights social transformation movement. My basis of research was grounded in the experimental film work of Ronald and Donald Rundstrom and Clinton Bergum on the serving of traditional Japanese tea entitled The Path. They filmed The Path for a course project taught by John Collier, Jr. at San Francisco State University. The film was based on the interactive participation of a local Japanese tea hostess serving her guests. It was a step by step study of the underlying dimensions of traditional sensibilities by performing a social art. A strategy of laying out a storyboard was followed by the direction of a Japanese tea hostess (Rundstrom et. al. 1973). Reflexivity: My Education on Visual Anthropology Anthropologists study to understand cultural systems. Anthropology contributes to a holistic view of culture as an educational process. Clifford Geertz introduced “art as a cultural system” as a way to illustrate a guiding factor in defining ethnicity and collective human identity. Yet, aesthetics works on a theoretical plane that is multi-dimensional for

Presentation for the American Anthropological Association Annual Conference Montreal, Canada, 16th20th November 2011. Presentation ID # 11828. Start Time: November 16th 2011 at 16:45.

the understanding of cultural expressions in society evincing its self-worth, world-view, and human organization. Therefore, the study of aesthetics as applied to anthropology (the study of humans in terms of language, biology, prehistory/history, and culture) is a look at a system that permeates in depth. Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead (1942) in their Balinese Character pioneered a visual study of understanding a society, in this case at Bali, Indonesia, through sequential photographic observations. It proved that there were prevailing trends in daily life and ritual occasion transmitted as heritage behavior, such as bathing and caring for children and the embodied trance in spiritual rites. It was an age in anthropology to determine “national character” or “social norm” (see related national studies in the genre of Ruth Benedict such as the Chrysanthemum and the Sword, 1986 [1947]). Styles of civilization (Schapiro 1953:287) were understood as prevailing cultural norms kept by the arts. Jacques Maquet in his 1986 Aesthetic Experience broke ground in anthropology by explaining the universal cross-cultural sense of experience based senses, yet being culturally specific at the point of origin.2 I am addressing the ethical questions anthropologists’ face when doing research. Perhaps this is different from “making a film,” since I am an anthropologist. Of course we could discuss “what is anthropology,” to no end. According to Prof L. L. Langness, a specialist on the history of the discipline (see his book 1974 The Study of Culture), “anthropology is what anthropologists do” (seminar comm. circa. 1978). He was at odds with himself as to the nature of his own science with so many divergent opinions. As for my own experience, and this is what I will discuss today, I must say that my past with anthropology as being, archaeology, linguistics, ethnology, and the presentation of cultures, has been a life long road. My parents were instrumental in cultivating my taste for the world through traveling and education. I decided to start college by entering the School for International Training in Vermont. This school provided the language skills to study in Sri Lanka. I was adopted by a Sinhalese family that continued supporting my activities and studies for the following years of research, through to the present. In addition my mother introduced me to the children of her childhood friend, just at that time living in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Don Rundstrom and Ron Rundstrom. I was invited to live in a house owned by Joan Williams. And my studies in integrity and ethics began. I was taught how to walk across a pueblo in terms of sacred space, the integrity of firing pottery, and the ethics of archery. In 1977 I met John Collier Jr.3 with Don Rundstrom in Santa Fe where my work was based with the Pajarito Archaeological Research Project conducted by James N. Hill to survey 600 sq. miles of land northwest of Santa Fe from the Rio Grande to mountain peaks and caldera slopes for archaeological remains. While in town I stayed with the Rundstroms. While I was there, Larry Littlebird gathered local pueblo artists as Native American storytellers in initiating Circle Films as a Native American outlet for producing motion pictures. Dave Warren at the School of American Indian Arts gave me a fine orientation on the way of looking at native aesthetics from an insider’s point of view. It was the study by Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead, Balinese Character, placed in my hands by Don Rundstrom, and meeting with John Collier Jr. that started my profound
2 3

Also see his Introduction to Aesthetic Anthropology (1979). John Collier Jr. initiated visual anthropology as a sub-discipline with his publication Visual Anthropology: Photography as a Research Method. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston (1967). Revised with Malcolm Collier, 1986, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press


interest in visual anthropology. Secondly, it was the Sol Worth and John Adair (1975) experiment of giving cine cameras to Navajo people at Lone Pine, Arizona, in the 1960s to see if they could document the aesthetic of their way of life that prepared me for understanding the Rundstroms’ visual work, The Path. Japanese Tea as the Path In the film on serving Japanese tea, a strategy of laying out a storyboard was followed by the direction of the tea hostess. The resulting filmic process, symbolism, and cultural dimensions occurring in this cultural document impressed me for my research plan. I found this to be an excellent way to elicit the values of a culture. After being instructed by Ronald and Donald Rundstrom, I conducted my field studies in Sri Lanka to explore the visual method with local people who would direct and frame a film of their lives. This project was the result of intensive training in Japan on the part of Ronald and Donald Rundstrom who for years practiced the art of Zen tradition through archery. Once proficient in the craft, they decided to pursue visual culture by maintaining a touch hold with its context. With the study of tea serving through the filmic medium, opportunity arose to make a concentrated effort to understand the process


by framing. This is to say a step by step study of researched underlying dimensions based on traditional aesthetics and sensibilities of performing a social art. The tea hostess was interviewed and photographed, and photographed while serving tea to guests. From the resulting photographs she was interviewed again as to the meaning and order of the pictures. A strategy of laying out a storyboard was followed by the instruction of the tea hostess. She placed each image in its proper place, telling the story of its significance in the process of serving tea. Then Clinton Bergum filmed the steps of serving tea according to laid out directives to record a cultural process. The resulting film The Path and a corresponding module was published to explain the filmic process, symbolism, and cultural dimensions occurring in the serving of tea as ethnographic columns of notes. Filming Process: A Buddhist Monk’s Life History Here I will review my experience in visual ethnography from the methods achieved in Sri Lanka. After living among the Sinhalese during several years for language and cultural studies, I decided to collaborate with my teacher, Dr Punchi Banda Meegaskumbura, to work on the life history and monastic life of a Buddhist monk. Since I had studied with Prof Jacques Maquet (1975) on the expressive space and Theravada values of an intentional community for the practice of meditation in Sri Lanka, I proceeded to find a suitable place where a number of resident monks interacted as a Buddhist community, sangha. After surveying twenty-seven monasteries near Kandy, Dr Meegaskumbura, introduced his colleague, Ven Dhammapala Thero, who took me by car to a low-country temple: Atulamuni Viharya, Hanchapola. It was exciting to pull up in a driveway to a monastery that had only one light, the only electric light in the village. The headmonk, Ven Hanchapola Gnanavansa came out to greet us. My project was explained, and the headmonk immediately invited me to become a resident. I told him that I had not yet decided whether or not I would do so. He agreed that I should think it over, and come back anytime. I did return and settled into quarters provided for me: it was the house of ordination and confession. I was satisfied to stay there to observe monastic life and get to know the villagers. After several discussions with the headmonk, he seemed to understand that I was interested in recording life in the monastery on film, but he had not seen motion picture before. Before his ordination in 1919, Ven Gnanavansa Thero had heard of cinema, yet his only encounter with photography was being photographed in a portrait studio. But he could not understand what film had to do with researching monastic life. After several months, with some priliminary fiImming done in the monastery, I sent the exposed film to Los Angeles for processing, and it was returned about six weeks later. The monks were


in the monastery one night, and I decided to project the footage on the interior wall. The headmonk was busy ordering other monks in the hall as to what they should do. I screened some footage. Suddenly the headmonk stopped and looked carefully at the projected image on the wall. He could see himself walking across the grounds of the monastery. He stood up and asked me to stop the picture. He said he wanted that one framed. I told him that with motion picture the possibility and utility of the medium is to provide motion. He seemed confused, but then said, “Ah, ha, this has possibilities.” From then on I worked with the headmonk to record his life history. He told me about his life at all times of the day and night. At 3:00 am he might suddenly come to my room to say that he had remembered something about his childhood. I kept notes then consulted my teacher, Dr Meegaskumbura, at the university. It was during a cyclone, and I carried the load of papers up to Peradeniya near Kandy, to discuss with an academic committee arranged by Dr Meegaskumbura including Ven Dhammapala Thero, and others from departments of Buddhist studies and history. We decided to produce a film in twenty-four chapters including twelve from the headmonk’s early life until his decision to join the sangha, and twelve chapters on his eventual monkshood as daily routine life. When I returned to the monastery, I explained the process of filmmaking to the headmonk, and he decided to be the director if I would be the cameraman. We produced a story with each visual image discussed and explained. This collaboration became my training in Sinhalese aesthetics and sensibilities. In the monastery, aesthetic values were expressed in the imagehouse panel series of the lives of the Buddha called Jataka Stories (Wray et al. 1972). The headmonk proceeded according to the painted scenes laid out like chapters in a book, yet spread against a wall. He called it chitra pati which means “picture belt” or paintings in sequence. We mapped out the filmic scenes, the locations, and the headmonk told me that when he was called to perform ceremonies, I was to follow him and proceed according to the laid out story. In this way film stock would not be wasted, as each procedure was planned out. Earlier I had attended the ceremonies including the ones he conducted. Therefore, he would just call me to say, we are going to a farmer’s house to give a blessing or exorcism, pirith, for the farmer who has fallen ill. Or we are going to have a village council meeting. Or, we are going to visit my childhood friend from the time when I was nine, to a place a day’s journey north, Nikaviritiya. On each occasion I followed with the camera. The resulting film was edited in the monastery, after training the monks to do so, and the footage was simply joined together with some scenes of “monks laughing,” or “non essential scenes” edited out. The


final length was four hours, in Sinhala, projected against the temple exterior wall to the villagers. People saw themselves, and followed the life of their headmonk. Framing the Film In the life of the headmonk, it followed his early life and daily life. After he was ordained as a monk, he said that his life was balanced and routine, not remarkable. Yet, most famous monks in the Ramanna Nikaya held this monk to be their teacher. He was dynamic in creating a splendid monastery. This monk was a recluse, yet in the village community. Only insiders of the Nikaya knew of his importance upholding the traditional sangha values. When the headmonk died a several months after the screening of the initial film, the most important monks of the Nikaya attended his funeral ceremony to respect their teacher as a dynamic person in creating a splendid environment of study, social welfare, and strong monastic life interacting with the rural traditions. Only the last scene at the end of Part II was not foreseen nor authorized by the headmonk as it was his funeral. Upon hearing about the death of the headmonk, Mr A. L. Perera went to Hanchapola for the funeral with my cine camera and filmed the events of that day. Otherwise, the short sequences, each lasting a few minutes, were those selected by the headmonk to make the film with the exception of the sequences for the “ideal forest existence for meditation, and community meditation in the monastery.” The scenes about meditation in Part II, starting in color and then filmed in black and white, and not directed personally by the headmonk as he believed it was not his routine life, but a dream world for him to dwell in a forest meditation shelter (kuti). He was a community monk leading a monastic life for the social responsibility of the village people. His philosophy was based on helping Buddhists and working in an institution to care for people’s daily concerns. Therefore the reality returned to the aesthetics filmed in color showing the meditation monk, Ven Dhamma Rakitha Thero, walking in the town of Gampaha (prior to the black and white film section of the journey to a meditation retreat)

Meditation, three clips.


and then leading a circle of people in walking meditation at the village (following the black and white film scenes of the forest hermitage). The film story opens with a young man visiting from Southern Sri Lanka to ask about monastery living. The headmonk decides to receive him on the verandah of this monastic residence and tell his personal story. Part I traces the headmonk’s life history until ordination as a monk. Part II is about the components of his routine life in the village monastery. Part I, Life History Sequence Clips

Ven Hanchapola Gnanavansa Thero bathing white lotus and offering the basket tray of flowers to the Buddha in the image house at the monastery.

A visitor coming to the monastery to ask about various ways of monastic practice.


The headmonk getting up from his afternoon nap to welcome the visitor. The life history explanation begins with “life as suffering,” and to rid himself of suffering he chose to become a monk.

At the old residence, the description of his childhood and about his parents and family.

Going to the temple as a child, bathing the flowers to make an offering to the Buddha, and listening to the resident village monk.


In his boyhood, Ven Hanchapola Gnanavansa told that he almost drowned in the stream. Then he went to Colombo for a stay with his brother, who was a monk much elder to him. He attended a Christian school and played with his friends, not being serious with studies.

Scenes of Ananda College in Colombo and its principal who was an American.

Running away to the northern area of Sri Lanka to work the river sand mines in the jungle with a friend.


Caught by his family and returned to his village, where he felt that the local professions did not appeal to him. While attending the chanting of the resident monk at that time, the boy was impressed and asked to be ordained as a monk.

Getting permission from his family and preparation for ordination as a monk. Being ordained and starting life as a monk, preparing tea, going to the college for monks.

Preparing tea in the monastery’s kitchen.

Attending a pirivena for the education of young monks.


On pilgrimage making the climb to the holy shrine of Mt Sri Pada. Part II, Routine Life Sequence Clips Ven Hanchapola Gnanavansa Thero sweeping the monastic space in the morning.

Attending to the duties of a funeral a village.


Ven A Ariyavansa Thero working on the maintenance of the monastery by painting the relic shrine known as the dagaba, or stupa,

Ven Hanchapola Gnanavansa Thero listening to the grief of a family about a cultivator who has fallen ill and unable to work. He prepares to go out into the village to see the patient.

The ritual of the healing pirith given by monks for a cultivator who had fallen ill. A thread connects the patient and the observers at the ritual. A piece of theard is tied to the cultivator’s wrist as an amulet.


Education of the village children by Ven H Seelavanansa Thero, an experienced teacher monk.

Village committee meeting. The lay village community gathers on the verandah of the headmonk’s residential place to give support for village campaigns.

Going to a house to commemorate the anniversary of a death. A dana, or almsgiving, was provided to the monks.


Going for the ideal forest existence for meditation filmed in black and white as the dream of the headmonk, and community meditation in the monastery by Ven Dhamma Rakitha Thero.

At the Bemmulla Temple, devotees attend to listen as Ven Hanchapola Gnanavansa Thero speaks to the gathered villagers about his reflection on serving the community. After the filming was completed with the headmonk, the story was edited with a Sinhala soundtrack according to the filmed scenes outlined and directed by the headmonk in the monastery. In the spring of 1979 the motion picture was screened on the temple wall from approximately eight to eleven pm. The scenes ran with the voice of the headmonk describing his life. The community turned out en mass for the event, as it was the community’s own product made in, by, with, and for the community. It was a motion picture displaying their village. In the story the headmonk returned to his childhood. People in the village played the roles selected by the headmonk according to their horoscope. The headmonk utilized the local Sinhalese aesthetic system in determining location and time of running the cine camera. Once the project was completed, I returned to the United States. Then a few months A L Perera informed me with a letter that the headmonk passed away. He was able to get


to the monastery with the cine camera and visually record the funeral. Those scenes were done on September 25th, 1979. The following images were recorded by A L Perera.

Scenes filmed by A L Perera with the cine camera used for making the headmonk’s life history motion picture. Below I will discuss briefly the system of aesthetics know as attha rasa, or the eight tastes utilized in the arts throughout Southern Asia, with a ninth and tenth taste added for complete spiritual awareness to the product. Specifically the motion picture arranged by the headmonk was guided by this system.


Aesthetics Based on Eight Tastes, attha rasa The ideational system of a society could be said to be a cohesive weave of form, balance, and texture, therefore the key for this understanding among the Sinhalese is the concept of taste known as rasa.4 The aesthetic value system in Southern Asia generally is based on eight, nine, or sometimes ten tastes. In the case of making the film with the headmonk these fundamental aesthetic qualities worked as a holistic system guiding the process (see also Blundell 1996, 2003). If something is considered to be complete as an object to be sensed as ritual movement, cuisine, music, or fragrance, then the combination of rasa appears woven in it. These tastes or sentiments can be classified as discreet factors: Love, sringara Sympathy, karuna Heroism, vira Wonder, adbhuta Mirth, hasya Terror, bhayanaka Disgust, bibahatsa Wrath, raudra And, sometimes included are nine and ten: Sentiment of peace or tranquility, shanta Paternal fondness or parental loving nature, vatsalya. In the Sinhala world, the aesthetic system comes from an enduring South Asian tradition which is the key to formal and popular notions of “what should be” as what is correct or beautiful. The feelings associated with a cultural aesthetic could be seen as a bias or way of seeing within a particular tradition. Perhaps only the specialist of aesthetics or tradition really sees the layers of meaning associated with art. This talent is cultivated by cultural and art specialists who can use their education and training for the purpose of gaining aesthetic knowledge. The specialist participates in the interpretation process of the art as a standard of reference on several levels. Therefore, aesthetic quality or art objects have first, a network of experts who deal in the cultural art context, second, a particular context within a tradition (indigenous setting), or outside the original tradition as a place where the aesthetic forms were not originally intended (i.e., a Buddha statue in a museum or

See Blundell 1984, 1987, 1994:53-57, 1997:78-85.


gallery), third, the shape and form of the aesthetic object (see Arnhiem 1974). Traditional forms are a model of ideal reality, or a model of quality. Here the aesthetic expression is in the content of Sinhalese art. As the Sinhalese say, the world is a reality (or just the way it is) and a person abstracts from it in order to make judgment or a manifestation. Art is the statement understood through an individual’s basic senses. The individual artist really emerges after a struggle to learn, first, the technique of the art as a science, second, how to use intuition and feelings to produce seemingly natural energy into the construction of art, and, third, how to make a statement using motif and symbol of shape, color and form. The Sinhalese concept of time continuum is very basic to the entire thought structure of the social organization. In conclusion, a brief list of this aesthetic tradition would be first, chronology in proper order as in the life of the Buddha; second, linear presentation as one thing follows another in the proper life sequence. Third, formality in bearing one’s character as in the case of the discipline of monks and the arrangement of temple space, fourth, the use of warm and cool colors as expressed in the temple paintings, and, fifth, the pageantry and ceremony of main events as witnessed and regarded in life. A series of paintings fill the temple image house. One painting leads to another, giving story frames of the Buddha’s life or scenes of Sinhalese culture. Sometimes, the traditional scenes are independent panels or images fluid in a linear direction without framed divisions. As the Buddha was a great storyteller, the monks in the monastery follow the same tradition in reciting the model Sinhalese stories. In the image house, against the yellow, red, green, or blue wall backgrounds, the monks echo the living stories as represented in the paintings (see the example of Wray et al. 1972). Ethics in Making the Buddhist Film The reason I place this case study in the arena of ethics is because, from beginning to end in the research process, regardless of troubles, misunderstanding, not knowing what is ethnographic film to the participants, and other dimensions, it was intended to be a complete loop of cultural filmmaking with a product by, for, and with the people. Filming procedures have followed in this way to take into account the color balance, lighting, manner of step, scene framing, and traditional aesthetic values to produce a visual heritage document intelligible to the viewer of that specific culture. Today is the time when the visual media via the electronic forms of the Internet will dominate interacting with other unique cultures. From the viewpoint of visual anthropology, the uniqueness of monastic life is worth recording with camera image in order to better understand the varieties of human interaction. This was the accomplishment of making of the headmonk’s film in Sri Lanka as a village monastic community project. As the ethics is an important subject, it was the theme for the Fifth International Conference on Humanistic Buddhism: Humanistic Buddhism for Social Well–being, at the International Academy of Buddhism, Hsi Lai University (University of the West) in Southern California. I presented a similar paper to this one and screened a preliminary version of Life as Cinema for evaluation in a Buddhist context. This will be also briefly introduced in the next section of this article.


Film of Tibetan Monastic Life5

Not long ago I heard a British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) story about a Tibetan Rinpoche from Bhutan making a film utilizing the membership of his monastery in Bir, India, to depict the monks illicitly playing soccer. Of course, what is unique about this project is that monks should not play soccer, and certainly not to make a film about it, or even see a film about it. Dzongsar Khyentse Norbu Rinpoche decided to make a film about the events unfolding at his monastery in Bir, India, during the World Cup of 1998. His procedure was to utilize the monks in the monastery to act in accordance to their behavior, temperament, and activities surrounding their enthusiasm for the World Cup. Scenes were displayed of the monks skirting out from the monastery at night to play soccer in an abandoned field, or in a brawl over their defending teams while secretly viewing the World Cup on television. The scenes were re-enacted as they were happening at that time in the context were they took place. There were several other factors that contributed to this film.

This section owes its inception and photography to Ms Anika Tokarchuk, filmmaker of Life as Cinema.


Khyentse Norbu was a graduate student in London when he was invited by Bernardo Bertolucci to work on the feature motion picture, Little Buddha. This was the monk’s introduction to film production. He became acquainted with profession film crews. So, once Khyentse Norbu decided to make his own film, it was at Bodhgaya (Buddha Gaya, or the place were the Buddha was “awakened” 2500 years ago in Bihar, India). There a storyboard was pencil-sketched to outline The Cup, the events happening in his own monastery, in Bir, India. The film depicts Tibetan refugee ordination, the Western dream tied up with Coca-Cola, soccer, television, monastic life, moral standards, punishment, and reflections on humanity. The motion picture was created by the casting of mo—dice cast for predicting events, and puja—offerings to higher beings. The decision for scenes involved this traditional system of ritual. It was the way to switch in the Tibetan belief system into a non-traditional art form, making it traditional. And this became the point of the motion picture, and the monastic authorities conceded to the watching of the 1998 World Cup of soccer in the monastery, thus folding in the traditions of communal solidarity and respect as a Buddhist way. Thus Phörpa (The Cup) was born. What impressed me most was that Dzongsar Khyentse Norbu Rinpoche6 created a feature film utilizing the concepts of Buddhism from the inside out. I was introduced to Canadian filmmaker, Ms Anika Tokarchuk, by Geotano Maida, Executive Director of the International Buddhist Film Society based in Berkeley, California. Mr Maida told me that Ms Tokarchuk was in Taipei for editing of her footage essentially shot in India, depicting the philosophy of Dzongsar Khyentse Norbu Rinpoche who scripted and directed his motion picture The Cup. My role was to gather support, especially funding for the completion of this project. At first Mr Maida suggested that the footage be brought to San Francisco, California, to be professionally edited into a potential feature film. I arranged to discuss this with Ms Tokarchuk at a Buddhist tea house one evening in 2002. This new film entitled Life as Cinema features themes of illusion and the Himalayan journeys from Tibet, and reflected back through the lens of Tibetans recording their own returning to sacred ground and turquoise lakes once devastated, now recovering in the splendor of Buddhism. The story is the renewal of Tibetan Buddhism, through the example of rebuilding the Dzongsar Institute, a famous Buddhist monastic university. This film is being made in Taipei with the assistance of lamas which gives it a special humanistic insider’s quality of the independent film making process. This unique aspect of the film takes the viewer into the lives of Tibetans who create art of their shifting locations, yet remain steadfast in their enduring beliefs. Taiwan forms a basis of reflecting a local and global resurgence of Tibetan Buddhism, between Taiwan, Tibet, and Tibetan refugee communities in India and their cross-fertilizing with Buddhists making return journeys to these places. The resulting film, switching back and forth from Taiwan to Tibet, with a consistent Buddhist reference in and out of a creative, meditative space, and in conversation while sipping at the Wisteria Teahouse in Taipei, is an impressive backdrop for the story based around the Dzongsar Institute, unfolding through the philosophy of Dzongsar Khyentse Norbu Rinpoche and the lens of Karbu lama’s narrative—the inspiring elder Khenpo Kunga Wangchuk’s incredible experiences. Through these narratives, Ms Tokarchuk portrays

Dzongsar Khyentse Norbu Rinpoche has made his second feature film (2003) in his native Bhutan entitled Travellers and Magicians about a young man’s journey across the Himalayan Kingdom with a special quest for his future yet meeting up with legends from the past (see Jakes and Chendebji 2003).


the monks as they relate to issues relevant today determined to work on Buddhist visions of humanity and nature in the process of education and social welfare. Arising Light – A project on Dr B R Ambedkar and the Birth of a New Era in India

Untouchability shuts all doors of opportunities for betterment in life for Untouchables. It does not offer an Untouchable any opportunity to move freely in society; it compels him to live in dungeons and seclusion; it prevents him from educating himself and following a profession of his choice. Dr B R Ambedkar

Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891-1956) rose from the community of untouchables (dalits) in India to educate himself in the United States and England. He became a national leader in India’s struggle for equality and justice. He framed the constitution that made India a secular state and provided the dharma wheel emblem on the national flag. After independence in 1947, Dr. Ambedkar became India’s first Minister of Law. In October, 1956, at Nagpur, in the center of India, with a multitude joining him, Dr Ambedkar embraced Buddhism. This current life history film project is the story of this man, equal in stature in India to Gandhi and Nehru, yet not well known elsewhere. The film looks at the historical implications of Dr Ambedkar’s social transformation vis-àvis the legendary Sakyamuni Buddha’s own revolution 2,500 years ago regarding social and caste limitations and the quest for personal liberation. In 1956, Nagpur, Dr Ambedkar held a conversion ceremony in which he and hundreds of thousands of other dalits converted to Buddhism. In doing so, he launched a spirited re-introduction of the religion in its homeland. One of his primary motivations was to eliminate the negative influences of the caste system. Due to the efforts of Dr. Ambedkar and those inspired by his example, the numbers of dalits converted to Buddhism in India. This documents humanitarian welfare in India. It will also examine the sociological context in which this is being achieved: the movement for social equality and a concomitant resurgence of the Buddhist faith.


Originally the project was about the social work of the Buddhist movement in India stemming from the work of Dr Ambedkar. It was to be a visual documentary depicting 20th century and recent humanitarian self-help education, health care, and spiritual development. Dhammachari Lokamitra7 came up with the idea, inviting me to film the work of social welfare through dharma practice. It was in 2002 that I came to India to film document the daycare centers, hostels, clinics, retreat centers, and institutes of dalit social service. I filmed and photographed in the communities across Maharashtra—in Mumbai, Pune, and to the geographic center of India: Nagpur. At the town of Nagpur, an ancient crossroads of the Deccan Plateau, it was the place where Dr Ambedkar held a ceremony to embrace Buddhism in 1956. To this day it’s pivotal for Buddhist activities in India. I filmed the diksa bhumi, or grounds, and the stupa commemorating the event where a half million people followed Dr Ambedkar becoming Buddhist. When Lokamitra first arrived in Nagpur it was on the occasion of the 21st anniversary of this event that started the dalit community seeking economic and social liberation. Lokamitra was impressed by the devotion of the people to carry the movement forward and by Dr Ambedkar himself. By the summer of 2005 in London I was able to show Lokamitra the beginning of the film being edited depicting the Ajanta Caves. My story was to show the Buddhist civilization in India from the 2nd to the 9th centuries as a dreamy montage of cliffs, rock cut shrines, fragments of murals, and stone steps leading up to a film-cut into the 20th century Mahavihara shrine in Pune. The next scenes were a health clinic, daycare center, meditation retreat center, boys hostel, and the diksa bhumi in Nagpur the grounds where Dr Ambedkar embraced Buddhism. At the Nagarjuna Institute in Nagpur, my interview of Lokamitra came next, He told of his first visit to Nagpur on that 21st anniversary day commemorating the rekindling of a social Buddhist movement in India. The last scene is the naga dance of the girls at the Women’s Development Centre, Nagpur fading to black with the following paragraphs selected by associate film editor Dean Karalekas:
Over a hundred million people in India Are routinely denied a proper education, health care, and decent housing. They have committed no transgression Except that they were born Dalit: And underclass considered untouchable. For many Dalit, their only chance for a better life is to tear down social barriers. Buddhist organizations from around the world work tirelessly across India to provide sustainable food, housing, education and, most importantly, dignity.8
7 8

Founder and Director of the Jambudvipa Trust and President of the Nagarjuna Institute. The short film done in Taipei, led by Dean Karalekas and T C Lin with visual selections by Steven Martin,


Lokamitra invited me for attending the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB) in Nagpur, 9th-16th October 2005 at Nagaloka, entitled Transcending Barriers: Dr Ambedkar and the Buddhist World. This conference encouraged an understanding and communication between the Buddhist followers of Dr Ambedkar and the international community. Dr Ambedkar viewed Buddhism as a means of bringing about social change based on individual practice and service to society. The world community has much to gain from understanding the life and approach of this human rights leader, through his conviction that Buddhism could bring about social revolution. Meanwhile in California speaking with Mr Gaetano Kazuo Maida, Executive Director of the Buddhist Film Society, who thought that it’s an excellent idea to focus on the life of Dr Ambedkar as a feature documentary film. Now the film project was taking a turn to become a focused life history documentary. It started as a social development project with international commitment. To find a story, Ms Anika Tokarchuk proposed a story of a dalit schoolboy discovering his roots and connections to a social welfare movement locally based with global implications. A treatment was drafted and called Jivita as the boy’s name. I participated in the 2005 International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB) Conference and workshops on Transcending Barriers: Dr Ambedkar and the Buddhist World 9th-16th October at the Nagarjuna Institute at Nagaloka, Nagpur, Maharashtra, India. At the conference I met with a community interested in the Ambedkar movement including the Dalai Lama. I could see that the Ambedkar story was needed, not only in India, to be brought to the attention of the world. People in Korea, Taiwan, the UK, Thailand, Australia, New Zealand, and the USA made clear interest statements about producing the film. The story of Dr Ambedkar was necessary as a first step. With Prof Eleanor Zelliot at Northfield, Minnesota, I shared a few days viewing films related to Dr Ambedkar and interviewed this Dr Ambedkar scholar at her home. Once back in India from early December, filming resumed in Mumbai at the places in the daily life of Dr Ambedkar, from the tenement building where he lived most of his years in the city, the colleges he established or taught in, the house that he built, and the cremation site. The cremation was set on a bay shore of the Arabian Sea opposite the playing grounds of Shivaji Park. Multitudes make a pilgrimage to the site annually on December 6th. My filming continued at the birthplace of Dr Ambedkar. It’s known as Mhow, a military base, where I coincidently first visited in the 1970s. Then I traveled to New Delhi and Pune for filming, eventually returning to Mumbai. The film production is a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Dr Ambedkar embracing Buddhism. It’s a 60-minute film looking in depth at the historical and sociological implications of Ambedkar's peaceful revolution. The story of Dr Ambedkar unfolds from a narrative about his leadership and a social humanitarian movement with reflections on the roots of Buddhism and ancient sources and inspirations from India. The goal of the project is to reach an international audience worldwide for telling the story of Dr B R Ambedkar. The resulting knowledge could then possibly assist people of the underclass dalit community in India.
and editing by David Blundell, Anika Tokarchuk (June 2005), and earlier by Christian Anderson.


The story of Dr. Ambedkar unfolds from a narrative based on: (1) Interviews of people who knew him. (2) National and international archival images, footage, writings, and audio recordings. (3) My 2002 filming of the Buddhist movement, community, and historic sites was done in Mumbai, Pune, Ajanta, and Nagpur. (4) Reflections on the original value system and legacy of Sakyamuni Buddha in India. (5) Filming the 2005 International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB) events at Nagpur in October 9th-15th. (6) Legacy of Dr. Ambedkar. (7) Humanitarian support for the dalit community in India. Synopsis of the Film Treatment The film introduces India’s heritage to a general viewing audience including a walk through the Ajanta Caves and legacy of the Sub-continent. In Nagpur, central India, on 14th October 1956, Dr Ambedkar embraces Buddhism with thousands of followers: the greatest non-violent revolution in India since the Buddha exactly 2,500 years earlier. In the late 19th century the story comes to the birth of Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891) unfolding the current situation in India and his parents’ situation: untouchable, yet insulated at a British military camp where his father served. Also, since the time of his father and grandfather there was influence by Kabir who was a 15th century poet critic. Bhimrao lived a sheltered life as his father’s military base, not really comprehending being untouchable: the menial under-caste of India (below the four castes of Hinduism). For the first time when visiting his father stationed at another place, the journey opened his eyes to his community status in India since most cart drivers refused untouchable people in their cart. Since untouchable children were forbidden education, it was one high caste teacher who noticed Bhimrao’s intelligence, helped to guide him, and eventually gave him the name Ambedkar, his own name. Bhimrao suffered insult and humiliation from other students, yet overcame that to become the first graduate of his community. The Maharaja of Baroda noticed his brilliance and gave him a scholarship to Columbia University where he encountered the Afro-American community in Harlem. The 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution and the views of his professors, such as John Dewey who an American philosopher and education reformer, propelled him to campaign for human rights. From his doctoral studies in economics at Columbia, Bhimrao ventured to London to achieve similar success in law. Upon his return to India in 1917, his patron the Maharaja of Baroda awarded Dr Ambedkar with a high position in government. Dr Ambedkar felt obligated at first, yet because no other staff in the government office would deal with an untouchable and there was no lodging available for an untouchable, he resigned. 23

In Mumbai, Ambedkar found government low-cost housing where he could reside in a 10x10 foot room. He tried a law practice, yet his attention quickly turned to the suffering of the millions in the untouchable community. Gandhi called them harijan, children of god. Later known a dalit, deprived people. Dr Ambedkar worked for injustice wherever it existed. To satisfy his determination he proclaimed the slogan: educate, organize, agitate. To educate he taught in colleges, and later built institutions of high learning in Mumbai and across Maharashtra (central India). To organize he became a writer, publisher, social and labor leader, and established political parties. To agitate he sparred with other leaders of his time, such as Gandhi. The Ambedkar–Gandhi “Pune Pact” story is a centerpiece in the independence movement in India. Millions of untouchables were fighting for their social rights against the caste Hindu society. They belonged to the same religion, yet untouchables were treated as polluted people. Caste Hindu people by centuries of tradition considered themselves pure, and could be polluted if touched by an untouchable. Though untouchables honored the same deities they could not enter the Hindu shrine. They were bound to hereditary occupations of menial labor considered unclean. Gandhi appealed to the good heart of Hindu people. Dr Ambedkar wanted social reform and political rights. Gandhi granted untouchables their indivisible rights as part of Hindu society. Dr Ambedkar’s slogan to educate, organize, and agitate was designed to uplift deprived people to equal status under the law. The untouchable population should then have own political voice. Gandhi wanted independence from the British first. The years from 1932 to 1947 were turbulent for the independence leadership in India. Jinnah, leader of the Muslim League, wanted the formation of Pakistan, Dr Ambedkar campaigned to have separate franchise for the untouchable community. Once India became independent from the British, Gandhi insisted that Dr Ambedkar to be the first Minister of Law under Prime Minister Nehru and to draft the constitution. Bhimrao Ambedkar’s life was dedicated to reform in society. He championed a moral social order that would not sanctify the exploitation of people. This egalitarian quest led him to explore various beliefs. As the Buddha’s teachings were born in India, and the non-violent and rational approach impressed him, Dr Ambedkar showed the way to his community with Buddhism in their struggle for equality in 1956. In that year he passed away. The film takes the audience through a pioneering life for humanitarian and social welfare work in India today. This story of Dr Ambedkar is to reach beyond India to world viewers.


Narrative Outline

The story of Dr Ambedkar is told in the following manner: • Opening with Dr Ambedkar’s conversion to Buddhism in Nagpur, 1956. The question, why did this event occur? • Going back to the chronology of B R Ambedkar’s life • Born as a dalit (untouchable) and family context • Social challenges, like the time when he could not partake in the waters of the village tank since he was considered as unclean and dirty • Local schooling and university education abroad • Professional life, starts and stops • Rising to prominence campaigning for human rights • Independence movement • Framing the constitution of India creating a secular state • Dr Ambedkar’s speeches and writings • Coming to a Buddhist consciousness • Buddhist conversion in Nagpur • Following of millions • Socially engaged Buddhism in India • Contemporary outlook through interviews

Girls performing naga dance at the Women’s Development Centre, Nagpur, 2002, film clip.


Conclusion My life account films discussed above are based on Buddhist cultural practice given above portray the humanistic attitude of traditions of giving and supporting as an understanding with a lay community. The Japanese tea film in the spirit of austere Zen illustrated the practice of giving from host to guests as a dialogue of respect as a relationship of “oneness.” This filmic ethnography displayed the idealization practice, yet living, of a modern society. The life history film directed by a Sinhalese headmonk, Ven Hanchaploa Gnanavansa Thero, who depicted himself and local aesthetics with a sense of community sharing, made a film without knowing about the process before. The film featured Buddhist village monks in terms of filming, editing, and selecting color balance in film processing. The film involving Tibetan monastic participants demonstrated a spirit of community from Dzongsar Khyentse Norbu Rinpoche’s making of The Cup and Karbu lama’s footage of his Tibet revisit among a people in this “real” world of trials and tribulations. The last film project mentioned above is to reach an international audience worldwide for telling the story of Dr B R Ambedkar and the social transformation movement. The resulting exposure could then possibly assist people of the underclass dalit community in India and give example for development elsewhere internationally. These cases adhering to Buddhist practice as filmmaking involved ethical traditions nurtured in humanism to produce the resulting stories with revealing levels of cultures in depth. Bibliography Ambedkar, B. R. 1997 The Buddha and His Dhamma. Nagpur: Buddha Bhoomi Publication (original 1957 Bombay: Siddharth College Publications). Anand, S., ed. 2003 Touchable Tales: Publishing and Reading Dalit Literature. Pondicherry: Navayana. Arnhiem, Rudolf 1974 Art and Visual Perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye. Berkeley: University of California Press. Bateson, Gregory, and Margaret Mead 1942 Balinese Character: A Photographic Analysis. NY: The Academy of Sciences. Benedict, Ruth 1989 The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture. Boston: Houghton Mifflin (original 1946).


Blundell, David 1984 The Sinhalese belief system: An ethnographic model. Journal of Asian Culture, University of California, Los Angeles, 8:88-113. 1987 Notes on Sinhalese aesthetic determinants. Asian Culture, Singapore Society of Asian Studies, 9:226-231. 1991 Visual anthropology and cultural preservation and revitalization: Life visual account as community heritage document, Ven. H. Gnanavansa Thero, Buddhist monk (1902-1979). Visual Anthropology, 4(1):43-52. 1994 Masks: Anthropology on the Sinhalese Belief System. American University Studies, Series VII, Theology and Religion, Vol. 88. New York: Peter Lang Publishing. 1996 Aesthetic ethos. Bulletin of the Department of Anthropology, National Taiwan University, 51:43-58. 2003 Cross-cultural discourse on aesthetics. The Aesthetic Experience: An Anthropologist Looks at the Visual Arts. Taipei: Lion Publishing. Pp. 9-15. (Chinese) Collier Jr., John 1967 Visual Anthropology: Photography as a Research Method. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston. Revised with Malcolm Collier, 1986, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. Geertz. Clifford 1976 Art as a cultural system. Modern Language Notes, 91(6):1473-1499. Jakes, Susan, and Chendebji 2003 The god of small films: For Buddhist lama, reincarnate saint and acclaimed director Khyentse Norbu, making films has become a special calling. Time Asia Magazine, January 27th. Langness, L. L. 1974 The Study of Culture. Novoto, CA: Chandler & Sharp Publishers, Inc. (Revised Edition, 1987.) Kantowsky, Detlef 2003 Buddhists in India Today: Descriptions, Pictures, and Documents. New Delhi: Manohar. Keer, Dhanajay 1962 Dr. Ambedkar, Life and Mission. Bombay: Popular Prakashan. Naik, C. D. 2003 Thoughts and Philosophy of Dr B. R. Ambedkar. New Delhi: Sarup & Sons. Omvedt, Gail 1994 Dalits and the Democratic Revolution: Dr. Ambedkar and the Dalit Movement in Colonial India. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.


_______. 2004 Ambedkar: Towards an Enlightened India, New Delhi: Penguin Books India. Maquet, Jacques 1975 Expressive space and Theravada values: A meditation monastery in Sri Lanka. Ethos, 3:1-21 1979 Introduction to Aesthetic Anthropology. Malibu, CA: Undena. 1986 The Aesthetic Experience: An Anthropologist Looks at the Visual Arts. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. Moon, Vasant (compiled by) 1987 Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar Writings and Speeches Vol. 4 Unpublished writings: Riddles in Hinduism Education Department, Government of Maharashtra. Prasad, Chandra Bhan 2004 Dalit Diary: 1999-2003, Reflections on Apartheid in India. Pondicherry: Navayana Publishing. Rashtrapal, Praveen S. 2003 The Betrayal: An Inside Story. Mumbai: Samrudh Bharat Publication. Rundstrom, Donald, Ronald Rundstrom, and Clinton Bergum 1973 Japanese Tea: The Ritual, The Aesthetics, The Way: An Ethnographic Companion to the film—The Path (1971 Sumai Film Company), Andover, MA: Warner Modular Publications. Queen, Christopher 2003 Dr Ambedkar and the hermeneutics of Buddhist liberation. Action Dharma: New Studies in Engaged Buddhism. Queen, C., C. Prebish, D. Keown, eds. London: Routledge Curzon. Sangharakshita, S. 2004 Ambedkar and Buddhism. Birmingham, UK: Windhorse Publications. Schapiro, Meyer 1953 Style. Anthropology Today, A. L. Kroeber, ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Worth, Sol, John Adair 1975 Through Navajo Eyes: An Exploration in Film Communication and Anthropology. Bloomington: Indiana University Press (original 1972). Wray, Elizabeth, Clare Rosenfield, and Dorothy Baily 1972 Ten Lives of the Buddha: Siamese Temple Paintings and Jataka Tales. New York: Weatherhill. Zelliot, Eleanor 1996 From Untouchable to Dalit: Essays on the Ambedkar Movement. New Delhi: Manohar Publishers and Distributors. 28

_______. 2004 Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar and The Untouchable Movement. New Delhi: Blumoon Books. Zelliot, Eleanor and Rohini Mokashi-Punekar, eds. 2005 Untouchable Saints: An Indian Phenomenon. New Delhi: Manohar Publishers and Distributors.