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‘Searching For Saraswati’: River runs dry

The documentary short 'Searching For Saraswati' investigates the fallout of efforts to make a mythical river a reality

A scene from ‘Searching For Saraswati’. Photo: Amit Madheshiya
A scene from ‘Searching For Saraswati’. Photo: Amit Madheshiya

In May 2015, people digging in Haryana’s Yamunanagar district found water less than 10ft below ground level. This was declared to be the mythical Saraswati, a river mentioned in the Rig Veda and the Mahabharat. Sadhus and politicians descended on the area, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) state government under M.L. Khattar set aside 50 crore for the rejuvenation of the river, and a dry channel was dug to recreate its supposed path.

This story drew documentarians Amit Madheshiya and Shirley Abraham to Mugalwali village in Haryana. Their evocative first feature, The Cinema Travellers (also an award-winning photography project by Madheshiya), premiered at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. Their new short, Searching For Saraswati, supported by a Sundance Institute-MacArthur Foundation grant, was the first Indian film made for The New York Times’ Op-Docs section (it can be viewed for free on the publication’s website from 10 July). The 20-minute film is a sharp look at how religious symbolism, aided by a nationalist agenda, is drowning out scientific curiosity. We spoke to Abraham and Madheshiya about why they chose this particular story, and why it felt like something out of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel. Edited excerpts:

When did you hear about the Saraswati revival plan?

Abraham: We’ve been following it for a while. Successive governments have set up commissions and put in resources to try and find the river. One fine day, we discovered that the Haryana government had said they had found the river. And then there was all this media frenzy about how it was a miracle, how this mythical river had started to flow on earth again.

This was in alliance with the national conversation. When the Modi government came to power, the BJP and its allies started surmising about India’s past in a way that was fanciful. If you look at these statements on the surface you might find them amusing, but there is a danger to this kind of surmising. It is founded on an absolutist idea of India, locating all these achievements in ancient Hindu texts.

Madheshiya: It’s dangerous because it was people in power saying these things, not someone off the streets. There were such hallucinatory readings of our ancient texts—on the one hand, it anguished us, but it also inspired us to do something about it.

What did you find when you first visited Mugalwali?

Madheshiya: We went there in January 2016. It was less than a year since the river had been dug out. There was nothing happening there—except this one man, Sahiram Kashyap, whom you see in the film, sitting there waiting for the river to flow. He left his home in the village and set up camp by this site, which is close to his farmland. So he claims Saraswati has been found on his land. He was one of the labourers working under MNREGA, which is also surprising—that the government hired people to dig a mythical river.

Abraham: The whole thing was like Marquez, specifically Chronicle Of A Death Foretold, because we went there and they said, “A river has been found." It was like a prophecy had been fulfilled.

Caste and its all-encompassing authority is a constant subtext in the film.

Abraham: Yes, how these systems of Brahminical knowledge have been created, how they’re being used to propagate a state of unquestioning.

Madheshiya: There are people in the film who are lower in the caste rung. So when the Brahmin believes, they follow, because they treat them as gods. Even in my home, they would be called “Brahmin dev". It was a very conscious choice to keep that in the film. I wish we could have brought in the caste dynamics a little bit more, but then the film would go in a very different direction.

There are a couple of sceptics whom you’ve interviewed, but do most of the people in Mugalwali believe this is the river Saraswati?

Abraham: One thing we thought about a lot was the nature of faith and belief. They believe, but are they completely guileless? They’re not. Creating a dham, propagating this whole idea that a holy river has been found and you can come here to get your wishes fulfilled—that’s probably how all the pilgrimages in the world came about. We could see that there was a conscious use of their own collective faith. They were completely aware of what this moment could mean for that village.

Madheshiya: They’re not blind believers. The idea was sold to them: that since Saraswati was found here, we’re going to develop this into an international tourist destination. The price of land shot up there. Everyone was happy to believe in it—a very conscious belief, knowing that there was some benefit I can get out of it. Initially, when we made a first trip, we met people who said, no, it’s just groundwater. But this is what propaganda does.

Is the upheaval limited to Mugalwali?

Madheshiya: I think they dug the trench through three villages. But this village has remained in the spotlight because of Sahiram Kashyap. He’s also a mason, and what he did when the water first came was build a sort of well around it. It became a concretized thing—“here is Saraswati". In fact, in a very curious twist, he became a thorn in the side of the Haryana government. Here was a man telling people who’d come here that Saraswati had been found and I’ve preserved it, but the government is not doing anything. The board (Haryana Saraswati Heritage Development Board) is in a spot because they can’t really grow a river.

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