Of Highways, Sunsets and Minstrels

Highway and TCW

Imtiaz Ali’s film ‘Highway and Shubhadeep Roy’s book ‘The Country Within‘ both showcase the topographical and cultural diversity of India.Read on…

You can almost feel the wind in your hair while watching Highway, Imtiaz Ali’s latest film. Having been shot extensively in six different states of India, it is a celebration of human relationships whilst also lamenting the loss of innocence, youth and vitality. Veera and Mahabir take us deep into the soul of the country within and find their lost identities hidden on the dusty streets of Rajasthan and Kashmir or within the sheer charm of Himachal Pradesh . Fluid camera movements and the lack of makeup help.

But liberation also has its own baggage. Who knows it better than a photographer out on the roads, searching for pictures of common joy and sorrow? In The Country Within, Shubhadeep Roy recreates the bittersweet spirit of every Indian festival in the vast array of festive, joyous pictures of colour and revelry. But is that all? Amidst the thousands of celebrators, each a Veera or a Mahabir in their own right, our photographer finds traces of long lost sorrow.

It may be an ancient curse which dooms the Kangdali plant, it may be the lost lifestyle of the masked monks in Hemis or a sudden impulse to give everything up and wander with the singing minstrels of Bengal.

Every picture in the book calls for some exclusivity and introspection, be it a young man playing Lord Krishna or a majestic mosque that sunset has coloured a royal golden. To take you back to our lively couple, they fall in love with themselves and each other and the beautiful Kashmiri landscape, the meandering lanes of Rajasthan and the exuberance of Haryana silently support them, because no one else will.

And when Veera breaks into an impromptu jig by the roadside , the difference between her and the more trained Goncha or Hemis dancers is merely physical; they share the spunk and zest without which any festivity is empty.

And when Mahabir initially plans to sell Veera off, is he not treating her like cattle? Unable to ignore the economic underpinnings of any festival, we have a captor trying to get rid of his ware. And when Shubhadeep writes of the same thing in the Nagaur Cattle Fair, it smells similarly of cruelty and betrayal. It is shameful to sell a living being. It is, in both instances, sorrowful but it is also striking and true. And we continue as quiet observers in the face of so much joy and sorrow and beauty, staring, with Veera, at the flowing, sparkling water. Our defences crumble and we burst into laughter and tears. When we recognize the sorrow underlying so much mirth and gaiety, our travel finds meaning.

Silence descends when Mahabir is shot dead and even Veera’s outbursts are essentially her method of seeking solace. The festival is over for the moment. As it is in the real world, where the last fistful of colour dust has been thrown, the last dance performed, the last meal tasted and the last root of the accursed Kangdali plant shaken off the ground. The captured moments of festivals linger on to remind us that festivals necessarily end. The real flavour of life, however, can be tasted in the variety and richness of the traditions they are born of. Freedom can only be found on the road.

We are all a Veera or a Mahabir searching for The Country Within our heart.

Shubhadeep Roy‘s coffee-table book ‘The Country Within‘ , published by Alchemy Publishers is now available on Flipkart , Homeshop18 , Infibeam and Amazon .

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