A Film Critique of Robert Gardner’s Video Ethnography: Forest of Bliss
As a video ethnography, Robert Gardner's Forest of Bliss presents the viewer with a rich visual context of Hindu life that is both mysterious and compelling. Gardner's use of film as his ethnographic medium imparts the Hindu world in a visual language of image and sound that is universal, allowing the viewer to embrace a Hindu notion that seeing is knowing. Gardner, by omitting any oral narrative to explain what is happening in the film, cleverly invites the viewer to explore the Hindu world of sense and image by delivering a visual context that forces the viewer to ask questions such as, "What is happening?" and "What does this mean?" Gardner demands that the student of Hinduism lift one's eye from the printed page and engage the film's visual text, placing the viewer in an almost experiential realm where seeing is not passive, but rather, in engaging the mind to touch the Hindu tradition through sight and sound.
What is most striking about Gardner's video ethnography is its metaphorical portrayal of the Hindu concept of samsara. Using the context of one day in Hindu life on the banks of the Ganges, Gardiner neatly frames his film with a symbolic birth-the dawning of the day. His video portrays Hindu life on the Ganges until sunset-symbolizing death and ending his film with the dawning of yet another day-the symbolic rebirth.
Gardner's film opens with the birth of a new day in a formless grey mist in which he conveys the mysteriousness of Hindu life. In the mist, one hears the sound of chopping wood and a tree falling, followed by a number of ambiguous images and sounds-a boat emerging from the mist carrying chopped wood, stone steps and a weigh scale. Gardner leaves the viewer wondering about their purpose and symbolic meaning, and further teases his viewers by alluding to his ethnography's theme, with images of feral dogs scavenging and cackling carrion crows and a quote from the Upanishads, "In this world is eater or eaten, the seed is food and fire is eater", signifying the ceaseless cycle of action and reaction, birth, death and rebirth.
Gardner delivers several vignettes of Hindu culture illustrating how Indian life is permeated with religious symbolism and devotional activities. The character is that of an old man laboriously making his daily pilgrimage to the banks of the Ganges (tirtha), where he takes his purifying morning ritual bath along with numerous other people in morning devotion (puja) at the sacred river. Gardner follows this old man's return to his home where he maintains a shrine-we find him pouring the sacred water of the Ganges on several lingas and making food offerings, which he places on top of each linga. Diana Eck's article, Darsan, Seeing the Divine Image in India, was very helpful and important for recognizing and understanding many of the puja activities taking place throughout the film.
As the film's plot progresses, Gardner introduces the viewer to several labour intensive occupations, such as wood cutting and splitting, labourers loading boats with heavy burdens of wood logs, marigold farming and ladder making. The importance of such activities remains unclear until the viewer is introduced the slothful untouchable, Dom Raja, an overseer at the cremation pits on the banks of the Ganges. It is here at the cremation pits, that Gardner illuminates for his viewers the nature of this video ethnography-the Hindu death ritual.
Alex Michaels' article, "Hinduism: Past and Present" was not only a necessary primer to understanding the structure of the Hindu death ritual (samskara), but also immensely helped in recognizing certain features of the death ritual. Gardner's film follows the days prior to the person's expected death with images of water being poured into the mouth of the dying person, while relatives sing and pray. Gardner gives his viewers first hand coverage of the day of death; how the corpse is wrapped in a pink satin shroud and adorned with marigold garlands and carried feet first on a wooden ladder down o the cremation grounds. The viewer now understands why Gardner focuses on ladder making-it is not for climbing but, for carrying the dead. Furthermore, Gardner's scenes of wooden boats filled with logs, rowing endlessly with sound of squeaking oar guards to the cremation pits, now makes sense-it's wood for the funeral pyre. The image of the empty weigh scale reveals its purpose-it waits for another customer whose end of life is valued in the weight of wood. Other recognizable features of the death ritual included smashing the skull of the corpse with a bamboo rod, marking the ritual time of death and period of impurity for the family; and the breaking of an earthenware pot (another important rite at the cremation grounds). As night descends, the viewer can see several funeral fires along the banks of the Ganges. In another scene bodies were being thrown into the river without the ritual of cremation. Thanks to the article by Michaels, we know this is a ritual reserved for children, ascetics, lepers and bodies that had succumbed to various diseases.
One of the most notable visual features of Gardner's film were the images of dogs eating corpses, carrion crows landing on corpses floating in the river, and dead animals being hauled through the streets to the river. What was fascinating about these images were the reactions of the people in the various scenes-indifference. Gardner visually captured the Hindu idea of detachment from the daily struggles of life and death. This detachment was further amplified by the many scenes of deity devotion and ritual puja that seem to signify the Hindu quest for liberation (moksa). Moreover, this perception of detachment is reiterated by Gardner's interjection of scenes detached from the death ritual, which shows children playing and flying kites while bodies float in the Ganges, a man who builds ladders for carrying bodies taking a moment to enjoy a cigarette, the woman who carries her bundle of marigolds to market, and the family threading marigolds while a playful puppy eats marigolds destined for puja and funeral rites.
In summary, the main theme of Gardner's Forest of Bliss may be that of the death ritual, but its underlying message shows an intertwining Hindu culture, like the roots of a Banyan tree, living blissfully detached, despite the myriad of death that exists all around, seeking escape (moksha) through puja and devotion (bhakti).
Eck, Diana L. 1996, Darsan: Seeing the Divine of Image in India. Pennsylvania: Anima Books. 3-55
Gardner, Robert. 1986. Forest of Bliss. USA
Michaels, Axe. 2004. Hinduism Past and Present. Princeton University Press. 71-157