Sometimes the question of ancestry can become pressing on contemporaneity in a manner that recasts the memory of an entire civilization and the time that has passed around it. This time i.e. the time of the ‘now’ invoked by ancestry is not to be found in birth or death, ancient maps and calendars or even in old rocks. It seeps into the way we walk, turn our heads and suck on our words. It rests on our skins and leaps across our eyes in moments of collective insanity. It is this time that can fold up against wars, famines, diseases, coups and celebrations to ask perhaps a fundamental question- who can be an ancestor?

It is in the terrain of this question that Rahal’s film can be opened out and placed within both- a concretely material as well as a semi metaphysical world. The keeper in ‘Forerunner’ is both a site of precision through his invocation of mathematical coordinates but also a source of silvery fables around mythical creatures and disposed emperors. Infact, what connects the keeper of this film to the question of ancestry is the voice that brings to us his jottings. Ever playful and yet distant, it makes available to us a nuanced performance of ‘objectivity’ and the recording of history. Referencing multiple filmic tropes like the ‘voice of god narration’ and the ‘newsreel’, the film is able to channel the conventional power of these forms by placing them on a cosmic scale, and revealing from within the inadequacy of the unique narrative; but also the value of its surviving, tattered remnants.

The presences of the keeper, as well as of the one reading him are conjured using a range of texts that include selections from Borges’ Lottery In Babylon (1941) and The Exactitude of Science (1946) and various scientific reports investigating the Pir Ghaib Observatory, a fourteenth century hunting lodge and observatory by Feroz Shah Tuglak, located in the northern ridge area of New Delhi. Witness to a history of abandonment and reappropriation by the Mughals, the British and post-colonial heritage-cartographic projects, Pir Ghaib gets its name from the curious instance of the ‘disappearance’ of a saint from its premises. It is from this disappearance that the film takes its cues. It reflects on ‘chance’ and probability, where the stakes extend far beyond a hunt. Someone does escape chance, his exit is seen as stuff of legends but his non-presence is still characterized within the language of absence. This question of chance and disappearance, though seemingly removed from our material worlds is far from obscure. I am reminded of another poem, by a poet writing in anther world about this idea of the absent-present

Hum dekhaingey

Lazim hai ke hum bhi dekhain gey

Hum dekhain gey

Jab Arz-e-Khuda ke Kaabe sai

Sab butt uthwaye jayen gey

Hum Ahl-e-Safa Mardood-e-Haram,

Masnad pe bithaaye jayen gey

Sab taaj uchhale jayen gey

Sab takhat giray jayen gey

Hum dekhain gey

Lazim hai ke hum bhi dekhain gey

Hum dekhaingai

Bas naam rahe ga Allah ka

Jo Gayab bhi hai Hazir bhi

Jo Manzar bhi hai Nazir bhi

Faiz’s ode is to the simultaneously gayab and hazir (absent and present) name of god that could be the harbinger of justice in an unequal world. I use this verse not in an effort to make any direct connections between the reflections of the filmmaker on the idea of the elusive, self-conjuring absence, but rather to point at the rich thickness of the terrain within which the referential universe of the film can be located.

Amongst allied curiosities is also the question of ‘nearness’ and ‘distance’. In her piece, ‘From the Cartographic View to the Virtual’, Christine Buci-Glucksmann discusses Pieter Bruegel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (1558). She argues that it is after this work where Icarus from a higher vantage point, is contemplating scenes playing out on the Earth, that more scientific atlases and maps could be visualized. She writes, “he plunges infinitely into a maritime horizon of light; up close we can glimpse his tiny leg. Such a plural view of distance and of nearness will gradually bring together the Icarian eye and the cartographic eye, into a space with no center, and will introduce a dialectic between the site and the non-site”. The Map, Glucksmann argues becomes a veritable alternative to the Albertian model of the window to the world. Here space could be fashioned and constructed, and the gaze could be nomadic. Forerunner’s evocation of the star-gazers of the empire, their ‘zenith tubes’ and the visuals of gigantic oscillating remains of imaginary constructions, places it between the madness of Borges’ emperor who wanted to make a map on the same scale as its territory and of the playful utopia of Lewis Carrols map, where blankness becomes a cartographic form.

The film stitches together, much in the fashion of the insane cartographers it takes from, visuals of the Pir Ghaib observatory, images of outer space taken from NASA’s space shuttle Endeavour and documentation of Rahal’s own performances where he inhabits the city of Mumbai as a “mysterious warrior bard”. Finally, the film much like Rahal sculptural work takes the idea of bricolage and opens it to challenges of stases and the inverse.

Tex by Pallavi Paul.

Published on Art Barricade, 2013
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