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Two Hemispheres Halting In A Rann Kachchh And Jason Allin, The ‘Chaplin Guy’

Two ‘Chaplins’, Two ‘Hemispheres’ and a Prologue

It is a virtual-space-turned-the-real-space-time-story navigated through two ‘Chaplins’ living in two extreme ends of the world; one in the southern hemispherevery, in the hot and humid desert land of Kachchh (Kutch) and the other in the extremely chilly land of Canada, in the northern hemisphere. While, in our technological times, the so-called distances between humans and nations have shrunk, the geographical distances remain the same with travel costs at stake. Nevertheless, the two Chaplin spirits, Jason Allin from Toronto and Ashok Aswani from Adipur were fated to meet on 16th April 2014  – the 125th birth anniversary day of Sir Charles Spencer ‘Charlie’ Chaplin – in Adipur, a small town. Adipur literally means the first / beginning (adi), town (pur). But paradoxically, it is the town that was established by the Indian government to resettle the Sindhi refugees who came from the newly carved Pakistan after India was partitioned in 1947. Interestingly, Adipur has a temple of a newly imagined god Nirvasiteshvara, or the God of the Banished, of the Displaced.[1] As if the town was also fated to have a ‘nirvasit’ from Sindh (Pakistan), named Ashok Sukhumal Aswani in her fold; aptly a ‘Charlie Chaplin.’

Metaphorically, there were two ‘hemispheres’ inhabiting within the Little Tramp persona, within Chaplin, the thinker-actor. As Ashok Mitra wrote, “There is always this talk of two Chaplins. While the first Chaplin was supposedly the combatant, striking blow after blow against the heartlessness of capitalism, the other one was a total cynic – he had his eye on the main chance, and, in the manner of the king in the nursery rhyme, passed most of his time counting money in the counting house, that, when he was not busy transporting pubescent girls across State frontiers in violation of the Mann Act. The second Chaplin is largely the creation of those who hated the guts of the first one.”[2]

 

Kachchh, Mekan and the Little Tramp

Kachchh, where I have also spent several of my adolescent years, is special. As L.F. Rushbrook Williams describes it, “Even after India had become independent, the special character of Kutch was recognized: for eight years it was administered from the Centre as a separate charge. But during that period, Kutchi separatism has gone more and more by the board, so that for the first time in its history Kutch is now integrated with the larger whole from which it had been so long divided.”[3] Replete with legendary stories and spaces, Kachchh, I personally think, was to add yet another ‘legend’ like probably her maverick saint, Mekan, with his understanding companions, Lalio, the donkey and Motio, the dog. Mekan lived and worked 270 years ago, and he echoed Kabir, who said,”God is not the Other beyond the world. He is you.”[4] As if everyone of us is a nirvasit, and yet rooted somewhere, beyond nationalism! Chaplin envisioned a world without violence despite the threat of nuclear destruction hanging over humanity. And in that he combined the awareness of the adult with the naivety of the child – or the Saint. Chaplin was the ‘Universal Citizen,’ as Chidananda Dasgupta described him.[5]

 

My discovery of the Adipur Chaplin and the film

Let me tell you how I discovered and eventually met Ashok Aswani, the Chaplin of Nirvasiteshwara! I was doing research for a possible book on a Hindustani classical music vocalist the late Visanji Maroo from Adipur and was staying at his elderly widow’s house with her son and daughter-in-law in this town. Kuntal, my wife, had joined me in my self-funded research exercise, including going through the vocalist’s correspondences and other papers. Maroo was the only classically trained vocalist in the Jain trading community in the entire district of Kachchh and that too from a small town of Adipur. Significantly, he was a disciple of one of our great vocalists, Pandit Omkarnath Thakur.[6]

Around that time, professor and a filmmaker, Kathryn Millard from Sydney had also contacted me through our common friends Mark Gregory and Maree Delofski for her proposed documentary film on Chaplin’s influence on the world, including India. She wanted me to help her with the research and production. While in Adipur, a friend Mr Chiniara told me about Ashok Aswani, a doctor practicing in herbal medicines, who was a staunch devotee of Chaplin. As a matter of fact, he actuallyhad a small temple in his dispensary with a Chaplin image along with the Hindu god Krishna. He worshipped both of them every morning. That sounded fascinating. And soon the friend of mine had organized a meeting with Ashok at his house. It was evening, and Ashok arrived after closing his dispensary. I found him bulky and he was limping too, uncomfortably so, but his blue eyes and the gait had a certain spark reminiscent of the Little Tramp. He saw me and touched my feet to my embarrassment, because, as he explained, I had already visited Vevey (Switzerland) where Chaplin lived with his family. I had also written an introductory book (Parichay Pustika) in Gujarati on Charlie Chaplin and Ashok had liked it immensely.[7]

Since I had to inform Kathryn in Australia about the unique Chaplin find in Adipur with my opinion, I politely requested Ashok to show me his Chaplinesqueness, and he did with full faith and gusto, with his physical limitation forgotten.[8]There was no attempt to mimic so much but to evoke the Chaplin conscience. I found him neither an imitator nor an impersonator of Chaplin’s; there, however, was a certain philosophical undercurrent in whatever he was doing or speaking and I personally liked that.[9] He drew an interesting analogy between Krishna and Chaplin.

To me personally, that sounded hugely fascinating.[10] I reported it to Kathryn and she also liked the idea, I also told her about the land of Kachchh and the uniqueness of the Adipur town, et al. While in Mumbai, I also found a couple of other Chaplins and when Kathryn arrived, I took her to various places, including some Iranian bakeries and old herbalists, who could help us make the shoes ‘straight from Gold Rush’. It was a fascinating research journey that began about a dozen years ago.[11] The idea about the Chaplin procession / parade in Adipur was initiated by me, and Ashok had not only accepted it so generously but implemented it when the film was being shot (it is part of the film). And the tradition has continued for over a decade, and well, Adipur has now become a globally known ‘Chaplin Town’.

Jason Allin and the Evolution of the Little Fellow

Jason Allin began his acting career as an amateur theatre actor in Broadway style musicals. Never attending school to train as an actor, he decided to take practical experience as his schooling. He went to school for two years for architecture but eventually got into the computer industry giving up architecture; always finding time to take roles in community theatre at southsimcoetheatre.com. After being part of over a dozen musicals and few plays, he was noticed by a professional theatre company (www.tift.ca)  in the city of Barrie and was asked to be one of their actors and perform professionally. He did a handful of shows before being commissioned to write and perform his one-man, one-act play about Charles Chaplin, titled Chaplin: About Face. He performed his play in 2006 and it was chosen to be included in another professional theatre company in Hamilton, Ontario. He remounted the Theatre Aquarius there in January 2009. After that he stepped away from work as Chaplin to begin his family with his wife Barbara.

They married in 2009 and worked toward building their nest together. Performance and entertaining was put on hold for him until one day Barbara asked if he was ever going to do Chaplin again. Jason’s answer was in negative but she pursued him to plunge into Chaplin with new vigour and rigour. “I began slowly getting Chaplin back into my body,” says Jason. He did some appearances as Chaplin and was feeling his way around and finding his place again as a Chaplin performer. However, he was a bit bothered by Chaplin impersonators who use the image of the Tramp character and perform parlour tricks such as juggling acts that he believes detracts from the authenticity of a great icon such as Charlie Chaplin.

Then, we might ask, what is Jason Allin’s approach to Chaplin? “My approach to my offering of Chaplin is to bring forward the magic that he embodied with the best of my abilities. Anything less is a disservice in my opinion as a professional performer. I do, however, appreciate those who admire the image of Chaplin and feel compelled to dress similar to honour his spirit.” By now, he has been working to write a second act to his play and begin touring it around North America and the world.

Photo by David Allin

Jason Allin Discovering Kachchh and the Adipur Chaplin

In October 2013, Jason Allin was doing some random research on Chaplin’s birthday and stumbled upon a video on YouTube that showed young Tallin (14) and his little brother Bhavishya (5), both Ashok Aswani’s grand-children (daughter’s sons) portraying Chaplin. “I was intrigued and wondered why this boy seemed so passionate with portraying Chaplin. Why is he even familiar with Chaplin at all? As I searched deeper, I found coverage of Dr Ashok Aswani and  immediately wanted to learn more,” says Jason, whose family name ‘Allin’ so beautifully rhymes with “T-Allin”, which in Sanskrit also alludes to Siva or Sankara.[12] Guided by the Googleshwara or the God Google, Allin, wrote to the President of the town’s Lions Club, explaining who he was and what he did and how eager he was to make contact with Ashok. Incidentally, before Jason could contact Ashok, the latter had already touched base with him. “After a few brief messages back and forth, he invited me to take part in the festivities in Adipur,” adds Jason.

At around the same time, Jason Allin’s thoughts shifted toward ideas of making films in the strict style of Chaplin films. Taking the challenge, he created his first film that was used as an entry for a competition. He was filming and editing his first ‘authentic’ Chaplin stylized film titled Chaplin: Home, Sweet Home. Allin writes, films, acts and edits his own films to control their development and retain the authenticity. Allin wanted to film his journey to Adipur in particular, and Kachchh at large.

 

Photo by Harish Thacker

Three Obstacles and Reaching the Rann Through the Mirage

Besides the money, familial practicalities were not so easy to resolve, as Jason told me, both he and his wife Barbara understood that the trip was very important but really knew very little about it. “I guess we both decided to take a leap of faith and were prepared to go into debt for it. I wanted to document my journey and wanted to have Barbara come with me as my camera person but we had a bit of trouble figuring out child care while we were away. We also felt uncomfortable leaving our children without one of us for a week at their age (2, 3 and 9 years).”

Eventually, Jason decided to ask his older brother’s 17-year-old high-school son David to join him. David, who had no experience of photography instantly agreed. But now they had to organize money for the equipment, besides the tickets (2000 Canadian Dollars per person). Jason thought of tapping into crowd funding through KickStarter.com. “I did just that, I created a video for my KickStarter campaign and figured out rewards for people’s pledges. Supporters could pledge $1 to $1000 or more and would receive rewards in return based on their amount.”

Prior to that, Jason attempted to alert the local media in Canada and send press release to over 300 newspapers and local television stations. However, only two responded and some said that it wasn’t something they would cover because other performers would wonder why they couldn’t get press on projects they might be performing. A disappointment but then KickStarter went afoot. Funding was very slow at first and a little disheartening as Jason was encouraged to get this campaign up and running by many Chaplin fans online. However, once it was active, most of those same people did not bother putting funds forward. The campaign needed to meet or exceed the amount that Jason had set at $4000. “If it did not reach that goal I would get nothing and any pledges would not be chafed to the supporter’s credit cards. The campaign deadline was 16th April 2014, Chaplin’s birth date. The campaign was a success and climbed slightly over Jason’s $4000 goal. It was funded by fifteen people in total that have pledged varying amounts,” reveals Jason.

These fifteen consisted of family and friends, known fans of his from Facebook, and complete strangers who perhaps ‘felt compelled to pledge for their own reasons.’ While feeling completely humbled and grateful for finding these people who banded together and felt it a worthy project to help fund. Jason is now working on following through with fulfilling the promise of rewards for their pledges. “Rewards range from a simple ‘thank you’ to ‘frameable photograph’ of me as Chaplin in India to a hardcover bound photo journal book of the entire trip. Part of my campaign was a promise to film my journey and create a document of it. I now have all the footage I need thanks to my nephew David and have begun going through all the raw footage to start making that happen.”

 

Kachchh, Adipur, People and the Footage

Jason and David Allin landed at Bhuj (capital city of Kachchh) airport on 13 May 2014 late evening, when I was already there to help Ashok in the preparation of the open and closed-door events, as also foundation-stone-laying ceremony for our proposed Chaplin Bhavan, first of its kind in India, or perhaps in the world.[13] On 16th Mary 2014 morning, our chief guest, the well known theatre personality and the co-founder of Junoon, Sanjna Kapoor was in Adipur, travelling long hours by train from Bombay. Jawahar Patel, our friend and a civil engineer had boarded the same train from Surat and since the train was very late, both of them agreed to head straight from Gandhidham railway station straight to the location where the Chaplin Bhavan would come up. Both the Chaplins were ready with spades and kumbha, the auspicious pitcher. We had painted the panchamahabhuta or the five elements the Chaplinesque symbolism, e.g. his derby hat, baggy trousers, tooth brush moustache, bending stick, and the shabby shoes.[14] No priest, no chanting of the mantras, no rituals. Sanjna placed the auspicious kumbha into the pit dug by the Chaplin duo from two different hemispheres – that met together in this desert land of Kachchh. I contrasted it with the snowy ‘desert’ of Alaska inGold Rush with this sandy ‘desert’ of the Kachchh, though we found no gold from the dug up earth – both Chaplins were turned in to being great archaeologists, fathoming the Chaplin spirit in its multifaceted forms.

The previous two days were occupied with the preparations of the unique Chaplin procession having over fifty young and old, male and female, Chaplin impersonators, along with camel carts and the band, walking through the main thoroughfare of the town under the blazing sun and ending at the Gandhi Samadhi (tomb). After Rajghat in Delhi, this is the only place in India that has Gandhi’s ashes. It should be interesting to know that after Partition, Bhai Pratap Dialdas had brought some of Gandhi’s ashes to Adipur soon after his assassination on 30 January 1948 in Delhi. Bhai Pratap was a staunch Gandhian from Sindh province in Pakistan who had migrated to India after Partition. All the Adipur Chaplins, headed by Ashok Aswani and Jason Allin, gathering at the Gandhi Samadhi was of great significance. As usual, refreshments and soft drinks were served to all the participants but today, the 125th birth anniversary of Charlie Chaplin in Adipur was different – with Jason Allin performing and talking to them, and Sanjna Kapoor too. Young ‘Chaplins’ narrated stories and sang songs. In the evening indoors program at Tolani College’s Prabhu Darshan Auditorium, both Jason Allin and Ashok Aswani performed mimes and pantomimes, besides other young participants paying their ‘acting’ tributes to the Little Tramp. Jason had taken keen interest in the rehearsals and also trained some young actors on the way.

 

Mansi, resident school for the mentally challenged girls

For me personally, Jason’s presence at this unique school close to the village of Bidada and not far from the port town of Mandvi was also very precious. The campus, dotted with over 2, 000 Neem trees, is calm and soothing, and all specially designed habitats are colour coded.  Jason, David, Ashok, Tallin and I left our hotel at Gandhidham (Gandhidham and Adipur are almost like twin-towns) at about 6am and reached this school around 8.30am, where we were treated with delicious breakfast by Ms Geeta Gala, the Director and her colleagues. Both Jason and Ashok performed before a group of around 20 mentally challenged girls, mainly from poor families across Kachchh. Through his supple body and agile eyes, the way Jason mutely ‘spoke’ with the girls was just amazing. I saw beautiful smiles on the faces of those girls; they were engaged with Jason’s quiet but eloquent ‘communication’. And as later Geeta, who has dedicated her life to this school, told me, the experience was unforgettable.

 

Bhojay resident school for the mentally challenged boys

Bhojay is quite an interior village and by the time we reached there it was almost noon but the man behind the establishment of these two schools, Mr Liladhar Gada, popularly known as ‘Adha’ (Father) was waiting for us along with his boys, around twenty-five of them, all mentally challenged but trained under ‘Adha’ and his dedicated team.  Even in the scorching heat of Kachchh, the man from the cold Northern Hemisphere was in full form, very fresh, energetic and inspired. Here the performance space was larger and Jason came out with other imaginative participative pantomime numbers from his rich repertoire. He danced with a young mentally challenged boy who danced to a song from the Hindi film, Tarey Zamin Par. Ashok and ‘Adha’ joined him. Each boy was so eager to perform with Jason, though none had the tool of a spoken language at his disposal. What a great tribute to Charlie Chaplin!!

Later Jason expressed his inner feelings about his visit to these two places. He said, “My visit to both facilities for girls and boys was quick to appear, but I seem to work best under these conditions. As I had little time to prepare, my previous occupations and experience came in very handy. In the mid 1990s, I was a counselor at a similar facility here in Canada for over four years. I was working directly with people who had mental disabilities and who were dual diagnosed, meaning they were to have two separate diagnosis of mental illness to be considered part of this program, i.e. schizophrenia, autism, etc. My work there enabled me to have a better understanding of these people that I believe I would otherwise not have. I feel more comfortable interacting closely with people in this area that are widely misunderstood by most. And I have a greater confidence when in these situations where one may have an unpredictable personality of behavior.”

 

Koday, the Kashi of Kachchh

We wanted to make the most of the limited time at our disposal. And Jason Allin (with young and ebullient David) was ready to visit any place that I proposed him – over to the village of Koday, where my wife Kuntal had spent her younger days. Mr Shah, her uncle (father’s older brother), treated us with refreshing tea. This over-hundred-year old house is so special in its cross-ventilation that it remains comfortably cool even in the mid-summer heat. Almost devoid of any inhabitant (most of them have migrated to Mumbai or other places in India or to the USA), the village looked empty; while it’s old ramshackle houses would cry for company. Walking through the desolate streets, I could sense Jason listening to those cries. He fell in love with this village and its environs and took David for several photographic sessions before the walls, doors and facades – Charlie Chaplin in Koday was yet another event to commemorate. The village of Koday was once called the Kashi (Benaras / Varanasi) of Kachchh, the seat of learning. From this village, some gentlemen had gone to Benaras to learn Sanskrit, Ardhmagadhi and ancient texts of Jainism, Buddhism and Hinduism. Kuntal’s great great grandfather, Prof Ravji Devraj was one of them, who had studied the Jain texts and also translated some of the important texts into Gujarati.[15]

 

Mundra, the Paris of Kachchh

Mundra is a coastal town 60km from Bhuj. Once this quaint  port town was called the Paris of Kachchh by the local people for its architecture and planning. It was established in the time of Rao Bhojraj ji (1633-1645) by his Minister Vardhman Shah. The town’s high fortified wall was built out of massive blocks taken from the vast ruins of the sacred Jain town of Bhadreshwar, not far away. It is known for its tie-and-dye fabrics. On our way back to Adipur, we stopped over at Mundra, to Jason’s excitement. And today (17 May 2014) is his last day in Kachchh! Jason Allin, in his semi-Chaplinesque dresse navigated the so-called “Parisian” streets with hordes of people looking at him, smiling at him, inviting him to have photos with him! Having emoted with Chaplin, I could see no sign of culture shock on his face, in his eyes or in his body language. He was empathetically amused to see people so warm and friendly here.

 

Two ‘Chaplins’, Two ‘Hemispheres’ and an Epilogue

The six-day (13-18 May 2014, actually four days since Jason and David arrived in the late evening of 13th May and left in the afternoon of 18th May) tour came to an end more quickly than we had imagined, and more hectically so. I saw tears in the eyes of both the Chaplins as the moment of departure came closer at the Bhuj airport. David, I presume, had shot footage of over a couple of hundred hours at different locations where no tourists would generally go. I asked Jason to reflect his mind back and he said, “My feelings and emotions were surely moved in directions and distances my psyche is not accustomed to while on this trip to India. Immediately I felt a sobering change in the way people relate to each other. I only know Western culture and while Canada is well known for its multi-cultural landscape and diverse population, it is certainly nothing more than Western. I feel as though I may have noticed something in my very short stay, but when faced with the differences so immediately as they were presented to me, it seems that people in India put quite an amount of personal energy into relating to other humans and less into material objects and possessions. My culture seems to use that same energy to ensure appearances and possessions are maintained over interpersonal relationships. Relating to others around us seems to be much less of a priority while material objects and personal agenda are paramount. I’m sure I have much to learn from India and its people but I am certainly affected by my new experiences.”

The ‘white desert’ of Kachchh is sparking under the summer sun, awaiting the moonlit cool night and a Chaplin walks through it like the magnificent Flamingo….

 

 



[1] Nirvasit is a person who has been banished from her or his country; ishvara is a theological concept in Hinduism translating to ‘lord’, applied to the ‘Supreme Being’ or God in the monotheistic sense. Monier-Williams Sanskrit-English lexicon defines Ishvara as the ‘Supreme Being’. Nirvas = leaving one’s home, expulsion from, banishment, Nirvasita = expelled, banished, dismissed. To my mind, the word evokes the memory of Ritwik Ghatak’s films filled with the sorrows of Bengal partition.

[2] Two Chaplins, Ashok Mitra, A Centenary Tribute by Nandan, West Bengal Film Centre, Calcutta, 16 April 1989. Chaplin centenary in 1989 drew considerable attention, not least in his native country. The event was commemorated in a season of television screenings on Channel 4 and an exhibition, The Worlds of Charlie Chaplin, at London’s Museum of the Moving Image. In India, to my knowledge and information, Calcutta was the only city that celebrated the Charlie Chaplin centenary. And perhaps Adipur was the only small town in Kachchh / India that celebrated his 125th birth centenary in India on 16 April 2014, with Chaplin parade and other programs, in which Jason Allin participated.

[3] The Black Hills: Kutch in History and Legend, L.F. Rushbrook Williams, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1958.

[4] Mekan, the maverick saint of Kutch, Amrit Gangar, The Speaking Tree, The Times of India, 29 December 1997. The triumvirate of Mekan, Lalio and Motio would go across the desolate Rann of Kachchh to help any suffering in need. The word ‘Rann’ means ‘desert’ but the Great Rann of Kachchh defies the classical perception of a sandy desert; it is a seasonal salt marsh located in the Thar in the Kachchh and the Sind province of Pakistan.

[5] Chaplin: A Centenary Tribute, Nandan, West Bengal Film Centre, Calcutta, 16 April 1989. This also reminds me of Chaplin’s 1917 film The Immigrant.

[6] Belonging to the Gwalior gharana, Omkarnath Thakur (1897-1967) was an influential Indian musicologist, vocalist and educator. A disciple of classical singer Vishnu Digambar Paluskar of the Gwalior gharana, he became the Principal of Gandharva Mahavidyalaya, Lahore, and later went on to become the first Dean of the music faculty of the Beneras Hindu University. The word ‘gharana’ comes from the Hindi word ‘ghar’, which means ‘family’ or ‘house’. It typically refers to the place where the musical ideology originated; for example, some of the gharanas well known for singing khyals are: Agra, Gwalior, Indore, Jaipur, Kirana, and Patiala.

[7] Charlie Chaplin, Amrit Gangar, Parichay Pustika-1060, Ed. Chandrakant Shah, Parichay Trust, Mumbai, 2003. I had been to Zurich for a curatorial work at the Museum of Design and also helped organized a workshop by the Bollywood billboard painters from Bombay there. One day, finding some spare time, I had taken a train going towards Italy, to Vevey, because that was the only destination I had to reach while in Switzerland.

[8] Unfortunately, he had met with a serious road accident that incapacitated him and he had to sleep in a seating position for nine long years; during this time, he had never slept flat on bed, or changed sides. During this harrowing time, his wife Asha nursed him patiently and he kept worshipping Charlie Chaplin with his undaunted faith.

[9] A distinction must be drawn between Chaplin’s ‘imitators’ and ‘impersonators’. The former copied his style and appearance with no apparent claim, or stated intent, to deceive; the latter presented a facsimile of the sort designed to convince the public that Chaplin was genuinely on show, as with the lookalikes.

[10] An interesting co-incidence happened in Paris. In 2011, i was invited by the George Pompidou Centre to present a curatorial program  around my theoretical concept of Cinema of Prayoga, and on one evening, my Paris-based daughter and her French boy-friend invited me for dinner. As we were walking on a footpath in front of the Louvre Museum, my attention was drawn to a framed painting in a shop (closed) showing the flute-playing Krishna while Chaplin is overlooking him with a sense of owe. The painting was located in a Paris underground train compartment.

[11] The film Boot Cake has these scenes incorporated.

[12] The Auspicious One. Third God of the Hindu Trimurti or Triad, the other two being, Brahma, the ‘creator’ and Vishnu, the ‘preserver’.

[13] Bhavanam, in Sanskrit means an abode, residence, dwelling, mansion as also ‘Being’ or existence.

[14] Panchmahabhuta or the five basic elements are air, water, fire, earth and akasa (ether / space).

[15] Buddhist texts were written in Pali, the Jain texts were written in Ardhamagadhi language.

 

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