KUMBH MELA — Nell’s Story- A Cinematic Exploration of Spiritual Legacy and Cultural Contrasts in India

Uday Dandavate
5 min readFeb 1, 2024

Summary:

Explore the cinematic journey of “KUMBH MELA — Nell’s Story,” a documentary by Behroze Gandhy, as it delves into the profound religious ethos of India. The film captures the essence of the Kumbh Mela through the lens of Nell, a Scottish visitor, offering a unique perspective on the cultural richness and inclusiveness of this spiritual gathering. The screening event, marked by the significance of the recently opened Ram Temple in Ayodhya, has become a platform for reclaiming Hindu ethos free from political influence. The narrative unfolds against the backdrop of contrasting emotions witnessed during the euphoria of January 22nd, prompting a reflective comparison between the spiritual celebration of the Kumbh Mela and orchestrated fanaticism. This insightful exploration prompts a deeper understanding of India’s spiritual curiosity and a hope for a future marked by compassion, inclusiveness, and spontaneous playfulness.

Last week, I had the opportunity to attend the screening of a documentary film, “KUMBH MELA — Nell’s Story,” organized by a Mumbai-based film club, Brief Encounters. The film is produced by my friend Behroze Gandhy, a UK-based filmmaker. The Scottish part of the film was directed by Late Shafeeq Vellani.

Aparajita Sinha, was the initiator who’s desire to follow in the footsteps of her father — set the whole project in motion and was the director of the part of the film shot in Kumbh.

Aparajita set the tone of the screening event by pointing out the significance of the event. The film, depicting the deeply rooted religious ethos of India, was screened just a week after the opening of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya. Both Aparajita and Behroze were wearing saffron-colored sarees — a color that signifies the religious ethos of Hindus. Aparajita made it clear in her introductory remarks that they were both wearing the saffron color to reclaim their Hindu ethos and free it from the politics of Hindutvavadis. Incidentally, Aparajita is the daughter of the legendary feature film maker Bimal Roy, whose films have remained etched in India’s memory forever.

The evening began with the screening of an 11-minute-long film, “Images of Kumbh Mela,” shot by the Late Bimal Roy himself in Black and White and edited by his son Joy Bimal Roy. Joy did a wonderful job of adding the songs from old films made by his father as background music for the montage that depicts a day in the life of Kumbh Mela. The power of imagery and music was such that the film set an atmosphere of placid nostalgia in the audience.

Next, we were immersed in the most delightful experience of watching the film “Kumbh Mela: Nell’s Story.” The film was made in 2004. Behroze Gandhy, Aparajita Sinha, Nell Keay, and cinematographer Rego visited Ardh Kumbh of Ujjain, as guests of His Holiness Mauni Baba. While staying in his Ashram, they wandered around the Mela meeting Indian pilgrims, sadhus, and tourists of all nationalities and religions. Since the film was to be first telecast on Channel 4 in the UK, it was a good choice made by the team to focus the camera on Nell, a native of Scotland, and capture her curiosities, impressions, and reactions as they wandered around the Mela. Throughout these ethnographic explorations, the Indian member of the fieldwork team acted as the co-creator of the video documentation project by engaging in conversations with Nell about the culture, practices, personas, and rituals she was witnessing. They sometimes even nudged her outside of her comfort zone by prompting her to ask questions that she may have felt hesitant to ask as an outsider, such as: “I am not a Hindu and am not interested in becoming one, but is it okay for me to attend this religious congregation?” The answer from a sadhu, “Everyone is welcome here,” was a delightful expression of a traditional Indian inclusive ethos.

As I watched the film, the profound meaning of what Aparajita said in her opening remarks about reclaiming her Hindu ethos and freeing it from the politics of Hindu nationalism began to sink in.

I began to compare the images I saw on the screen that day with the images of the euphoria in Ayodhya and in the streets of Mumbai on January 22nd.

To me, the Kumbh Mela felt like a spiritual celebration of a mammoth crowd with playfulness, a welcoming heart, and spontaneity. On the other hand, the emotion I witnessed in the euphoria of January 22nd felt arrogant, aggressive, assertive, parochial, and orchestrated. Several people said on screen they came to Kumbh for atonement. I doubt if atonement was even at the back of the mind of the congregation that was celebrating the construction of a temple at the “crime site,” as stated in the Supreme Court verdict in the Babri Masjid case. At Kumbh I could feel an atmosphere of surrender whereas in Ayodhya a jubilation over conquering the enemy.

I know Behroze as the daughter of liberal, secular, and Gandhian parents. I was curious about what motivated her to visit the Kumb Mela. She pointed out that since her childhood, she had heard about the Kumbh Mela, how many people congregated there, and how many even drowned while taking a dip in the river Ganga. This memory was entrenched in her until she had the opportunity to experience what she had only imagined during her childhood.

Behroze’s response triggered a new realization in me. Like her, I am also born to liberal, secular, and Gandhian parents. Like her, the images of Kumbha Mela have remained etched in my memory. I consider myself an atheist who has an ethnographic curiosity for the influence of god, religion, and spirituality on social imagination. However, I have never had the curiosity to visit Kumb Mela. Even watching this movie did not evoke such an urge in me. However, what it did for me was it brought me clarity about the spiritual ethos of India and the orchestrated fanaticism for manipulation of the mind by those who have used the Babri Masjid and Ram Janmabhumi movement to stoke Taliban-like emotions in people.

I really hope that one day, India will wake up to a realization that at the heart of our legacy of spiritual curiosity is compassion, inclusiveness, and spontaneous playfulness.

Thank you, Behroze, for inviting me for the screening of your film.

--

--

Uday Dandavate

A design activist and ethnographer of social imagination.