Filmmaker Akanksha Joshi Explores the Internal and External World of Indian Consciousness

A multiple award winning filmmaker, writer and a meditation facilitator, Akanksha Damini Joshi has been witnessing India in its social, political, ecological, cultural and spiritual dimensions. It is the "Indian peoples connection with the Sacred - in all diverse forms and colours – that has been the anchor, through and beyond their crises," believes Akanksha.

On the occasion of Shivaratri, ​CSP in conversation with Akanksha tries to explore the possible union between the internal world and the external world of Indian consciousness.

One of your story tellers says there's a way of viewing India. As one who is an outsider and as one who one who is an insider. In your view how many of us city dwellers can be counted among the outsiders. Do we know the people who inhabit your films 

What I hear you asking is if there a disconnect between modern metropolitan Indians and the indigenous religious-spiritual India. There is no simple way to answer this, but I will try. And in one word that will be, yes. There is a huge disconnect. Most of us modern Indians - not all, but many - have a baggage of inheritance, a mental conditioning of servility.

Almost a thousand years of India being ruled, first under the Central Asian dynasties, then by the European powers. In both cases while there have been beautiful creative learnings, there is no denying that there has been an incredible destruction as well. Destruction of both, tangible and intangible indigenous heritage.

The intangible heritage loss. That of socio-economic structures, of cultural practises, of value systems, of a world view. When I see your question, I see that loss staring at me. Silently. It’s so far gone, that its impossible to imagine what we - diversely - were, before a thousand years. Except through bits and pieces. Like the many indigenous folk religious cultures, scriptures, stories, songs.

Modern India, as reflected in the mainstream metro culture, does not have the time to look back. Neither the patience or the intention to carve an empathetic story, however broken, of India’s past.

As far as the latter is concerned there is a perceptible fear - instilled by modern education based on a western masculinist understanding of science and technology - of anything to do with religions. And if you can’t creatively engage with religions, you can’t engage with India.

For India is, most of all, a land that belongs to seekers. Those who can be seen in my film on spiritual seeking, Hindu Nectar: Spiritual Wanderings in India, or my film on climate change, Earth Witness - where each of the protagonists hold a deeply religious view on life and nature - but those many modern Indians would not have the language even say … umm…  Hello to.

The non Indians you feature appear to be the insiders, privy to a world of wonder and secrets. How do they gain access and ease of being 

How do scientists gain access to truths about the various phenomena in this world? By experimenting. What are the essential prerequisites to experimentation? An attitude of openness and learning.

That is what in India we call shishyatva, an emotive tuning to learn, to be a disciple. That, combined with the courage to experiment in the inner laboratory makes us privy to the world of wonder and secrets, this mother womb of seeking, India.

India has always had people from other lands and cultures coming as seekers. Buddhism and its meditative practises spread along the silk road, far into South East Asia, all the way to Japan as Zen, all thanks to these seekers who came to India with that essential openness, of being disciples.

It is the same ancient current of seeking you witness in the Spanish, Russian, American and Australian protagonists of Hindu Nectar.

As a filmmaker are you on the inside or outside.....do you take a stance?

I am a modern filmmaker who uses all the ease and delight which the 21st century technology offers as tools to create. At the same time, I trace my artistic linage back to the ancient traditions of storytelling in India: like Pattchitra, Natya, Itihaasa and Puranas.

Were these artists, authors, rishis ever outside? Was there ever a difference between the teller and the told in the indigenous narrative traditions of India?

This inside-outside dichotomy comes from a materialistic world view. In Mahabharata and Ramayana both, the Rishi-authors Vyasa and Valmiki, are an integral part of the narrative, as characters. The teller merges into the told. That is my inheritance.

My style of filmmaking is feminine, poetic. I do not go with a set idea. I venture to explore, to absorb. I am also a cinematographer. I don’t subscribe to a vocabulary of “shooting”, the semiotics of which come from the sport of killing. I wait. I watch. I absorb. In the absorbing, is the learning.

So, in short, I don’t take a stance; but with the words, the images, the sounds, in my stories I attempt a dance.

 Does the media need to go deeper and explore this world?

 Recovery can begin only after a recognition of a loss. In other words, you wake up only when you know you have been dreaming thus far.

Modern world, rushing towards a global future continually inventing new dreams and desires barely has the time to pause, to look back, assimilate and digest. To take ahead what needs to be taken, to leave behind what is of no use anymore.

Media is a part of that modernity which has no desire or space to look back. It’s in a mechanical rut only to move ahead: fast, faster, fastest. Time is limited, deadlines are tight. Constant factory-like pressure to produce.

And if there is a looking back, then it is wearing judgmental glasses coloured with modern morality, with no empathetic understanding of the past, for that requires the luxury of both physical time and mental space. It requires deep immersion.

Judgement of one’s own past and its rejection, is like cutting one’s own roots. Like a flower in a vase, one can look pretty, but one will only last a few days. If we need to sustain, we need roots. That for any culture or person is essential.

How do we interpret narratives whose language we cannot speak anymore?

By not being 21st century time-centric and believing that we are best humans that have ever graced this earth. By realising that we are here because of millions of innovations and adaptations done by our ancestors. They laid the foundation for the good that we have today. With humility.

There are many ancient knowledges and experiences that carry on unbroken to this day including our rich culinary traditions.

I will say we need a feminine approach to relearning. As a daughter learns from her mother her family’s culinary skills, with time adapting them to her own tastes and needs. Same. Learn the tools, the skills the ancients offered. Adapt them to the ever changing times. That alone is the method which keeps India, sanatan, eternal.

In your opinion are we any closer as a nation to discovering our inner selves than we were before we were colonized?

What we were before we were colonised is, honestly, like a jigsaw puzzle that many of us try and put together in different  ways depending on our ideology or our area of expertise. Each presents a different picture.

So what we were I can’t say for sure. What we are, I can perhaps attempt to say. India is in a process. A churning. And through this churning is gradually emerging a sense, of our many selves, rooted in the eternal sacred-calling of India.

How has not knowing or not engaging with this core caused harm to our land and water?

I have been researching for a film on Varanasi since a few years. One of my protagonists once told me. There was a time when, before entering the river Ganga, they had to first bathe and cleanse one’s body at home. Only then they would step into the river. For she was the sacred mother who’d clean one’s soul.

As the understanding of that sacredness got diluted with time, so did the people’s attitude towards the river. Sure, she is still called, “Ma Ganga”, but how one is supposed to behave with this sacred mother is forgotten.

I have made award winning films on ecology - Chilika Bank$, Earth Witness. Spending nearly 8 years deeply engaging with the stories on nature. In the process, I realised. The outer ecology can only be saved when we we know how to preserve the inner ecology - through meditation, through worship. That realisation resulted in my film on spiritual wanderings in India, Hindu Nectar - https://youtu.be/pwJntmsMAT4.

Sustainability or environmental awareness was ingrained in our indigenous sacred traditions. Losing them, we lost the lived sutra that linked us to the rivers, the mountains, the earth.

Thankfully, in different cultures, different regions of India these sutras still survive as sacred-memory that perhaps can still be revived.

Does meditation help to center our being, facilitate this exploration?

Dhyana is India’s original export to the world. In the older times toward the East, till Japan. In recent times, toward the West, till America. India has literally embraced the world with the sutras of meditations, letting each land weave the sutra in its own special way.

This has been India’s unique civilizational calling. To offer to those who searched, various tools and techniques of realisation. A realisation of our inherent limitlessness, inherent freedom.

Exploring India without an insight into this is like blind man looking at a source of light - of no use at all, effort wasted.

The feminine filmmaking I speak of is grounded in this tradition of meditative exploration. My crew will vouch for this, each of my filming schedules are an intense meditation process. On a boat in Sunderbans, in a jeep in Chhattisgarh, in the ancient Himalayan forests. To listen, we first need to be empty of ourselves. Meditation does that. It is an essential tool to be a via-media.

It must be exciting to be witness to so much of our country. Are there any stories that are dearer than others?

 India is my Guru. She reveals to me stories, people, experiences  through which I need to learn. The stories dearest to me are the ones … that can never be told. The ones that the reside softly in the heart of the storyteller, beating ever so tenderly in the sacred moments of solitude.

What stories have caused anguish and which ones helped rejoice that India's ancient wisdom is safe?

 I see this as a phase of churning for most ancient cultures around the world. It has come as a response to a dream we had of a global village which ended up manifesting as a global factory: mass producing ideas, culture and things.

How the wisdom of our ancestors - in material, creative, emotive and spiritual processes - survives this flat factory-world is the greatest challenge of our times. That it will survive, I don’t doubt. How it will survive, will be fun to watch.

The stories that disrupt the standardised mode of ideas and processes - the uniform, one size fits all variety -  are heartening to listen, to watch.

How do we break away from the shackles with which English binds us?

There is already a disruption of those shackles, paradoxically   thanks to the global market.

The proliferation of the Hindi news channels in the early 2000s, for example, splintered the notion of Hindi being inferior to English which many held in the cow belt states. Rural markets were now lucrative. Ads started being made for them in their languages. The notion of inferiority of indigenous languages to English started diluting.

We are not fully there - like we need higher science education in indigenous languages -  but I am certain, not so far in the future, there will be a time when English will be seen as just another useful link-language of India, for use nationally and internationally.

(Youtube channel: www.youtube.com/prabhudamini )