Far away from the capitalism that rules Punjab's BMW-infested metropolises, the commoditisation that is busted out of glitzy showrooms and club consoles alike, and the shallow bling of excessive affluence, the spirit of its soil lives on. 'Punjabiyat' is a term that literally translates into the 'culture' of Punjab, but has come to mean a range of things – from the deeper sensibility of open-heartedness to a more flippant devil-may-care attitude. But, as filmmaker Ajay Bhardwaj's latest documentary depicts, the real thing survives only on the fringes of an increasingly polarised society.
Milange Babey Ratan De Mele Te (Let's Meet at Baba Ratan's Fair) is an exploration into East Punjab, a rural landscape characterised by lush yellow fields and a syncretic culture quite at odds with the dominant perception of a land neatly divided on religious lines. After 1947, Punjab became a laboratory to test the two-nation theory. But Bhardwaj's journeys to border-adjacent villages reveal an organic blend that flourishes in shrines to Sufi saints, nostalgic texts, and poetry.
"Theories on nationalism may be communal or secular by nature, but religion is indispensable to this discourse. Yet, cultures themselves cannot be defined like this. People have their own energies and create their own spiritualities, which don't always fit neatly into the frameworks of religion as we have defined them," says Bhardwaj, explaining the raison d'être of his film.
To begin with, the myth of Baba Ratan stretches across borders, both temporal and spatial. Born Ratan Pal, he was christened Baba after he went on Hajj and drew Prophet Mohammed's astrology chart. The 'mela' in his name, a convening point for religions which weren't as 'water-tight' as they may seem today, was an affair of repute, drawing in crowds from near and far. With the holocaust of 1947, this affair seemingly came to an abrupt end, but the spirit is preserved in poet Rajab Ali's verses and Professor Karam Singh's history of Bhatinda, where the Baba Hajji Ratan shrine is located.
Bhardwaj’s journeys to border-adjacent villages reveal an organic blend that flourishes in shrines to Sufi saints, nostalgic texts, and poetry.
Taking off from this point, the film visits villages like Chhapar, which houses the Gugga Marhi shrine and Bhundri, home to the Haider Shahi shrine, where everything from frescoes on ceilings to individual narratives tell stories of a faith that runs deeper than blood. We meet Machhandar Khan, whose constant guffaws as he talks of love, Heer and Ranjha, of philosophies about God and creation make for a delightful juxtaposition to his coffee-coloured turban and snow-white beard. We meet Bhai Daya Singh, whose father was nominated Pir by the Sheikh of the order, and who now heads the Gugga Marhi shrine, preaching to his disciples how creation and creator live within each other.
We also meet Fateh Singh at the Gugga Marhi mela, who talks of being a sadhu, inquilabi and Communist, all in the same breath. "A true sadhu is one who believes in a formless God. And what is atheism, but a faith in formlessness? This is why I lean towards Marxist-Leninist ideas," says Singh while sitting in the shrine, eyeing the camera suspiciously. Everyone in the film quotes verses from qawalis, talks about God and the idea of faith rather enthusiastically, and turns nostalgic about their pre-Partition days.
The film itself keeps the auteur in the background; as Bhardwaj lets stunning visuals, such as of the sun going down on burning fields and of a hummingbird stuck mid-air, mid-flight speak volumes. "This was really more of a personal than an academic journey for me," says Bhardwaj, "because it started with the question – Who am I? For my parents, who belong to the Nehruvian era, culture had to be 'secular' and antiseptic. When I learned of the existence of these shrines, I asked them why they never talked of them before and my mother simply told me they didn't agree with their principles."
Milange Babey Ratan De Mele Te is the last installation in a trilogy of works on Punjab that Bhardwaj began in 2002, which includes Kitte Mil Ve Mahi (Where the Twain Shall Meet) and Rabba Hun Kee Kariye (Thus Departed our Neighbours). "You can't take away Islam from Punjab, or from the very nature of Punjabiyat. The borders live inside us – we look at ourselves as a nation, a religion, a race – and these are identities that are manufactured," he rues. His search for Punjabiyat, then, is a desire for harmony in a callous, competitive world – one that should find place in everyone's bucket list.