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 hemisphere, in the hot and humid desert of Kachchh (Kutch) and the other in the extremely cold country of Canada, in the northern hemisphere. While in this technology-driven day, the presumed 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 of Sir Charles Spencer ‘Charlie’ Chaplin – in Adipur, a small town. Adipur is a compound word that consists of ‘first/ beginning’ (adi) and ‘town’ (pur). 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. 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 the Little Tramp persona of Chaplin, the thinker-actor. To quote Ashok Mitra, “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.”
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.” Replete with legendary stories and spaces, Kachchh, I 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.” As though 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.
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 researching 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 that too from the small town of Adipur. Significantly, he was a disciple of one of the great vocalists India has had, Pandit Omkarnath Thakur.
Around that time, professor and 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 sought my help with the research and production. While in Adipur, a friend Mr. Chiniara told me about Ashok Aswani, a medical herbalist, who was a staunch devotee of Chaplin. As a matter of fact, he even had a small temple in his dispensary where an image of Chaplin sat along with the Hindu god Krishna. He worshipped both of them every morning. That sounded fascinating. And soon the friend of mine organized a meeting with Ashok at his house. Ashok arrived after closing his dispensary that evening. 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. To my utter embarrassment he touched my feet, because, as he explained, I had visited Vevey (Switzerland), where Chaplin lived with his family. He also confessed his admiration for my introductory Gujarati book (Parichay Pustika) on Charlie Chaplin.
Since I had to inform Kathryn about this unique Chaplin of Adipur, I politely requested Ashok to show me his Chaplinesqueness, and he did so with full faith and gusto, leaving behind his physical limitations. There was no attempt made to mimic so much but to simply 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 that caught my eye! He drew an interesting analogy between Krishna and Chaplin. To me, that sounded hugely fascinating.
While in Mumbai, I also found a couple of other Chaplins and when Kathryn finally 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. 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 lived-experience as his schooling. He went to school for two years for architecture but eventually got into the computer industry; always finding time to take roles in community theatre at southsimcoetheatre.com. After being part of over a dozen musicals and a 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 the 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. And then stepped away from work as Chaplin to begin his family with his wife Barbara.
They married in 2009 and worked towards building their nest together. Performance and entertainment were put on hold for him until one day when Barbara asked if he was ever going to do Chaplin again. Although Jason’s answer was negative, 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 detract from the authenticity of the great icon.
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 to 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 like to honour his spirit.”
Jason Allin Discovering Kachchh and the Adipur Chaplin
In October 2013, Jason Allin was conducting some 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 portraying Chaplin. “I was intrigued and wondered why this boy seemed so passionate about 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. 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 get in touch 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 authenticity. Allin wanted to film his journey to Adipur in particular, and Kachchh at large.
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 crowdfunding 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 releases 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. An early disappointment, but then KickStarter went afoot. Funding was very slow at first, but once it was active, most of those same people did not mind 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,” revealed 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 fulfilled the promise of rewards for their pledges. “Rewards ranging from a simple ‘thank you’ to ‘frameable photograph’ of me as Chaplin in India, or 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 13th May 2014 late evening, when I was already there to help Ashok in the preparation of the open and closed-door events, and also with the foundation-stone-laying ceremony for our proposed Chaplin Bhavan, first of its kind in India, or perhaps in the world. On 16th May 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 running late, both of them agreed to head straight from Gandhidham railway station 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 of the Chaplinesque symbolism, e.g. his derby hat, baggy trousers, toothbrush moustache, bending stick, and the shabby shoes. 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 who met in this desert land of Kachchh. I contrasted it with the snowy ‘desert’ of Alaska in Gold Rush with this sandy ‘desert’ of the Kachchh, though we found no gold from the dug-up earth.
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 a moment of great significance. As usual, refreshments and soft drinks were served to all the participants but that day, the 125th birth anniversary of Charlie Chaplin in Adipur was different – with Jason Allin performing and talking to them in the presence of Sanjna Kapoor. Young ‘Chaplins’ narrated stories and sang songs. In the evening, during the indoor 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 a keen interest in the rehearsals and also trained some young actors on the way.
Mansi, a resident school for girls with mental disability
I feel 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. 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 spread across the faces of those girls; they were engaged with Jason’s quiet but eloquent ‘communication’.
Bhojay resident school for boys with mental disability
Bhojay is a village located in the further interiors, 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 around twenty-five boys with mental disability, who were all trained under ‘Adha’ and his dedicated team. Even in the uncomfortable and scorching heat of Kachchh, Jason’s positive energy was contagious. 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 boy from the school to a song from Taare Zameen Par. Ashok and ‘Adha’ gladly joined him. Each boy was so eager to perform with Jason, though none had the spoken language at their 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 experiences came in very handy. In the mid-1990s, I was a counselor at a similar facility 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 diagnoses 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 greater confidence when in these situations where one may have an unpredictable personality of behavior.”
Two ‘Chaplins’, Two ‘Hemispheres’ and an Epilogue
The six-day (13-18 May 2014) 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 if he would like to reflect upon his stay in India 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 agendas 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 was sparkling under the summer sun, awaiting the moonlit cool night and a Chaplin walking through it like the magnificent Flamingo….
 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 the Bengal partition.  Two Chaplins, Ashok Mitra, A Centenary Tribute by Nandan, West Bengal Film Centre, Calcutta, 16 April 1989. Chaplin’s 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, 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.  The Black Hills: Kutch in History and Legend, L.F. Rushbrook Williams, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1958.  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.  Chaplin: A Centenary Tribute, Nandan, West Bengal Film Centre, Calcutta, 16 April 1989. This also reminds me of Chaplin’s 1917 film The Immigrant.  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 Banaras 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.  Charlie Chaplin, Amrit Gangar, Parichay Pustika-1060, Ed. Chandrakant Shah, Parichay Trust, Mumbai, 2003. I had been to Zurich for curatorial work at the Museum of Design and also helped organise 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.  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.  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.  An interesting coincidence 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 one evening, my Paris-based daughter and her French boyfriend 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 closed shop, showing the flute-playing Krishna while Chaplin is overlooking him with a sense of awe. The painting was located in a Paris underground train compartment.  The film Boot Cake has these scenes incorporated.  The Auspicious One. Third God of the Hindu Trimurti or Triad, the other two being, Brahma, the ‘creator’ and Vishnu, the ‘preserver’.  Bhavanam, in Sanskrit means an abode, residence, dwelling, mansion as also ‘Being’ or existence.  Panchmahabhuta or the five basic elements are air, water, fire, earth, and akasa (ether/space).
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Amrit Gangar is a Mumbai-based author, film theoretician, historian and curator. He has authored and co-authored several publications in English and Gujarati, and has also lectured at several colleges and institutions in India and abroad. To his curatorial credit, are several retrospective programs for the Mumbai International Film Festival for Documentary, Short & Animation Films (MIFF), as also festivals and gallery shows in Europe and elsewhere.