The Marigold Trail: A Study of Robert Gardner's Forest of Bliss (1985)



Robert Gardner's landmark film Forest of Bliss (1985) spawned much criticism and debate in the domain of visual anthropology, articulated through a spate of writing during the years 1988–89 in the Society for Visual Anthropology Newsletter. Two decades later, multiple possibilities of interpreting this film enliven it with the same questions and more, even as the timeless city of Banaras remains consistent in its visual vocabulary in an India of the 21st century. This essay explores the symbolic nature of materiality that imbues everyday living in the holy city, articulated in Gardner's ethnographic understanding through the visual narrative that it weaves. Several recurrent motifs, such as the marigold flower, saturate this visual document with points of entry that open pathways of reading and interpretation, confirming Gardner's pioneering initiative within methodology and technique in visual anthropology.

The answer is neither masochism or sadism, but true love. And what is the epistemological equivalent of true love? It is dialogue. Truth does not belong to the subject nor to the object, it is not a monologue from one to the other. Rather, truth emerges in dialogue and it is a product of this interchange.

Truth is there as an orienting concept… which is indispensable to a form of life which includes mutual criticism with reference to a “state of affairs.” The concept of reality is ineffable to this concept of truth, but nevertheless “reality” is indispensable to certain practice: that of the mutual adjustment of our cognitive orientation.

Tord Larsen (1992)

Karl Heider (1976) discusses the way that ethnographers “subscribe” to the truth, but do not necessarily “advocate” it. They can “comfortably take the artist's position so that they manipulate reality through a series of falsehoods in order to create a higher truth” (1976:11), thereby justifying their chosen (artistic) vocabularies as a means to a larger end. Larsen in his essay on “The Aesthetic Turn” has greater sympathy for the use of metaphors in the vocabulary of ethnographic film, and propagates that art inherently “produces the terrain it examines” (1992:17). Indeed, pioneers in alternative languages of ethnographic filming such as Robert Gardner have both comprehended and presented reality through metaphors, and have been questioned for their particular “cognitive orientation” that fit and misfit with that of recipient audiences. The following essay examines questions regarding the mutual exclusion or compatibility between ethnography and art in presenting truth value in anthropological practices, by considering the example of filmic devices used in Robert Gardner's much-critiqued film, Forest of Bliss (1985).

In full color and with a running time of 90 minutes, the film is structured to grant preeminence to pictorial representation, without subtitles, voice-over narration, or background score. It shows the sacred and profane aspects of life in the Indian city of Banaras as the sequence of frames appears to follow the activities of men, animals, and material objects in the span of a day from sunrise to sunset. Weaving together the routine activities of different characters are recurrent symbols—both as visual motifs and rhythmic sound—that recur to remind the viewers of the cyclical nature of life and death, and lend cogency to seemingly random events. What incites analysis is Gardner's fundamental approach to the ethnography of a much-studied city and culture, and the repercussions that his filmic style has had on the world of visual anthropology and cinema alike. Questions from several quarters regarding the validity, anthropological accuracy, or indeed the success of Gardner's work reach a crescendo with Forest of Bliss, feeding the debate that revolves around the possible complementary versus competitive relations between the film's aesthetic and informative agendas. The discussion widens to whether anthropological films at large must adhere to conventional vocabularies to be pedagogically efficacious or whether they should venture into the new terrain of “art” as part of the recent “aesthetic turn,” which emerged as one of the products of the crisis of representation (Larsen 1992). This essay attempts to examine whether symbolism and the language of aesthetics can facilitate entry into the ethnography of Banaras, and whether this approach can provide any catharsis to the challenges faced by anthropologists in receiving the film.

Robert Gardner's films, made during nearly two decades of a crucial period for the discipline of visual anthropology, significantly veered toward minimal use of verbal or textual language in their dialogue of truth. Dead Birds in 1963 began with textual inputs as well as voice-over narration, literally confirmed as such through an on-screen statement by the director as “a true story composed from footage of actual events” (Loizos 1993). The balance tilted in favor of the voices of the observed Hamar women in Rivers of Sand (1974), who appear to provide the main narrative structure for the body of the film, although Gardner seals its two ends with his own voice, outlining, as Loizos calls it, “a conceptual space” (1993:153). By the time Deep Hearts (1979) was made, subtitles were dispensed with for the songs that the Fulani of Niger sang during the Gerewol ceremony, and by Forest of Bliss (1985), there was a complete absence of subtitles, voice-over narration, or text, other than a line from the Upanisads1 introducing the metaphorical crux of the film at its beginning. Without simplistically deducing this as evolutionary progression in Gardner's work, analysis by anthropologists such as Chopra (1989), Loizos (1992, 1993), and Banks (2007) along with Akos Ostor (1989), the coworker with Gardner for Forest of Bliss, views it as the crystallization of a novel methodology that foregrounds symbolic modes of representation for truth presentation. Gardner had gradually moved toward privileging the visual in his films, and his quest culminated in the Forest of Bliss where the optical realm subsumed any directorial need for conventional dialogue—between maker and culture, maker and participants, or between subjects and viewers. The “dialogue of truth” chose an alternative language in this film, one that convinced Gardner of its efficacy to communicate what perhaps would have been incomplete, modified, or entirely lost through any other means.

Gardner has been questioned for never having learned the language of the people he filmed (Loizos 1993; Ruby 1989), although a more accurate evaluation of his work may perhaps be gauged from his fluency in the language of visuality and the ability to discern and conceive symbols in this film, which he employs to convey a universal message about the nature of life and death (Banks 2007; Loizos 1993; Ostor 1989).

Describing his chosen means of making sense of his subject matter, Gardner noted, “The only way I could see to get away from the visual noise of Banaras was to find refuge, almost literally, in the marigolds or the woods or something extremely simple yet somehow charged” (2001:45). I therefore seek to follow the marigold flower as it travels in the form of a visual motif through the city, spotted in its many habitats by Gardner's lens (Figure 1).

Figure 1.

 © Documentary Educational Resources.

I track the flower which is one among many symbols used to organize a subtle narrative, which in turn attempts to unravel the complexities embodied by Banaras itself. The flower is representative of those objects which are not “inert and mute, set in motion and animated, indeed knowable only by persons and their words” (Appadurai 1986:4). It is a self-energized, visible, and vocal medium—its presence and circulation weaves a narrative attracted by the camera, and then by the viewers of the film.

In a conversation with Akos Ostor, Gardner says with regard to the floral motif, “Here also is a new element: the simple marigold. Going after this flower has a great deal of quite specific intention behind it. (It is) an item that is supposed to bring us all closer to knowing what it feels like to be in the culture. Admittedly, this item, the lowly marigold, is pretty frail and slender. But as we have often discussed before by Akos, film seems to work best with simple motifs, with commonplaces … the idea in this film was to look for some quite ordinary realities, such as dogs, wood, kites, marigolds, etcetera, and to plunge into them, trusting that they will provide an evocative journey into their meaning” (Gardner and Ostor 2001:44).

Indeed, the flower travels through variegated spaces in the city—from interior ritual spaces to public places that accumulate refuse; transcending time, mourning, and celebration by accompanying death and prayer alike; and participating in the cyclical engagements of Banaras by scarcely lasting beyond a day at any one place. The ethnography of a day in the city of Banaras is thus encapsulated in the marigold, which, through constant resurfacing in front of Gardner's lens, weaves a narrative that beckons the visual decoding of a silent language.

On River, Deity, and Body

Within the first few minutes of the film, an old priest (Mithai Lal) is seen bathing in the river and offering marigolds in a pot of water eastward at the sun, invoking the holy Ganges and the goddesses he worships (Figure 2).

Figure 2.

 © Documentary Educational Resources.

From water to ether, the flower is transferred thereafter to the principle male deity (Shiva) in the lingam shrines (Figure 3) and subsequently onto feminine idols within the dark chamber of a temple where Mithai Lal stations himself (Figure 4). There is thus a sacred network established through the flower, used to commonly revere masculine and feminine deities of the Hindu pantheon inhabiting locations of ritual activity at the temples and the river ghats of the city. Between these two loci, the two synonyms of Banaras stand explained. One, which pertains to the temple, is Anandvana (meaning “Forest of Bliss”), which refers to the proliferation of lingams (the symbols for Lord Shiva, creator and destroyer of the universe) that arise from the sheer bliss (ananda) of creation; the other refers to the funerary ghats that form the other name of Banaras's Mahashamshan—the Great Cremation Ground (Chopra 1989). The easy oscillation in filming Banaras as a ritual site as both Anandvana and Mahashamshan appears in contrast to the poignancy of the content noted by Colette Piault (1989) and Marc Piault (1989). The former clearly states that the public nature of ritual events and their outdoor occurrence aids the filmmaker in being nonintrusive and perhaps distant or detached, for the “players are so involved in what they are doing that they do not take notice of our filming” (1989:16). Yet this apparent ease of method does not translate into transparency of the ritual's meaning to an uninformed viewer. Having realized this, Gardner grants all power of communication to the visual realm, abstaining from any “voice of God” narration that may dilute or deflect the truth, or indeed render superficial the reading of a rather intense phenomenon (Banks 2007).

Figure 3.

 © Documentary Educational Resources.

Figure 4.

 © Documentary Educational Resources.

The city's nomenclature as Mahashamshan, the center for death rituals, requires explanation, for on its return journey from the first scenes with Mithai Lal, the marigold comes back to the river, adorning the corpses of the dead in the second half of the film. Two out of the 180 holy ghats of Banaras are used for the purpose of cremation, and Gardner selects Manikarnika ghat over Harishchandra ghat for his investigation. The initial part of the film has shots of corpses floating in the river waters or lying wrapped up in cloth at Manikarnika ghat, ready to be cremated or submerged wholly into the waters. In the absence of the marigold in several shots, the sights of the bodies have evoked responses of revulsion. Moore (1988), for example, criticized the sight of bodies being secretively slipped into the water, violating the basic rules of sanitation and health (Figure 5).

Figure 5.

 © Documentary Educational Resources.

Parry dispels Moore's perplexity by clarifying that it is not the unaffordability of a funeral that leads to the submergence of bodies in whole, but belief in the case of “bad deaths” (that may be untimely—akal mrityu, or of body stricken by leprosy or smallpox) of not allowing bodies for the “last sacrifice” of offering “the self to the gods through the fires of cremation” (1988:6). Parry sympathizes with Moore and other viewers of the film who cannot possibly “know” the significance of these visual presentations from the narrative without deep ethnographic knowledge of Indian rituals, coming out horrified or confused instead of being more informed about the anthropology of the city's activities.

Both Parry and Moore fail to trust viewers to link the journeys that a select number of elements undertake in the film—corpses, like marigolds, are shown at their points of origin in an unfolding, although nonlinear narrative before they arrive at their site of cremation or disposal. It is as if Gardner poses a set of questions for the viewers at the beginning of the film through a supposedly random montage of ghats, bodies, cremation or its absence, and then leads them through the camera's eye to uncover answers, piece together a puzzle, and evolve a story. Hence in the interiors of a hospice with a verandah shown in the middle of the film, the two names of Banaras—Anandvana and Mahashamshan—finally overlap and we see the marigold adorning deities and the dead alike, confirming Chopra's observation that “in Banaras, death is bliss” (1989:2). Parry explains this hospice as a place where the ailing and aged come to spend their last days so that they may die in the holy city with the name of god on their lips and sacred water in their mouths to attain salvation or moksha—freedom from the cycle of birth and death (Figures 6 and 7). Visually, Gardner captures in great detail the sequence of life as it ebbs away to give way to eternal bliss by recording the anticipation of death among the inmates of the hospice, subsequent preparation of the corpse for cremation, and its final journey to the ghats for the last rites. The marigold, identified for its sacred nature earlier in the film through the activities of Mithai Lal, confers sacred status to the surface on which it is laid, qualifying the bodies for elaborate rituals—burning on the pyre, circumambulation, immersion of ashes, and collection of bones (asthi). The flower decorates boats that in themselves also parallel the bodies as they are “launched into the River Ganga in what are almost physically similar movements” (Chopra 1989:3; Figure 8). As such, Gardner is “trying to burn the colour of marigolds into people's minds” (Gardner and Ostor 2001:347) early in the film, so as to initiate them on a journey, to understand a language that decodes meanings visually rather than with the aid of subtitles or voice-over.

Figure 6.

 Documentary Educational Resources.

Figure 7.

 Documentary Educational Resources.

Figure 8.

 Documentary Educational Resources.

Collected, Purchased, and Transported

Following the flower intensifies one's perception of the oscillations between beginnings and ends as Gardner shoots a marigold field (actually located in Sarnath on the outskirts of Banaras) where the blossoms are collected and later transformed into garlands in the hands of women (Figure 9). Significant in this sequence is the loud thudding sound that the plucking of the florets emanates—caught and amplified by Gardner to heighten sensorial reception of an otherwise mundane activity. Sound plays both an unconventional and contentious role in the film, for it does not occur in the expected fashion to explain through dialogue or voice-over narration any words or actions on the screen. Neither is there any background score created to veer viewers into being listeners for meanings not captured in visual narrative. At first instance, it seems that Gardner, in his commitment to observational cinema, has not undertaken any directorial initiative to explore the possibilities of sound, yet closer examination reveals his sensitivity to a naturally originating score and indeed a carefully selected rhythm. Almost every scene has a repetitive sound that paces the visuals, for instance sounds of a squeaking oar, clanging bells, footsteps on stairs, repetitive barking, the snoring Dom Raja,2 washermen beating clothes on the ghat, or the chanting of prayers by priests, indicating that the film has within itself an internal, naturally built-in rhythm. Repetition of both sound and vision in fact provides this rhythm, establishes connections, and reasserts truth in the narrative through constant verification in similar scenes. Gardner's method seeks to coordinate recurrent sights with sounds in the course of a day. Hence scenes of bodies being carried to the ghats are numerous, and most are accompanied with the chorus of Ram Naam Satya Hai (“True Is the Name of God”), which in itself is a repetitive collective utterance. The splitting of wood and rowing of boats are also captured in multiple scenes with the same evenly paced sounds reverberating for the listening viewers. Gardner's film educates the audience to receive and understand filmic narrative through a novel, cyclical method of presentation that integrates vision and sound—both rich enough to not require verbal or textual explanation.

Figure 9.

 Documentary Educational Resources.

To return to the marigolds, one can see that they are silent accompaniments to a plethora of sounds, traveling across the cityscape—interiors, public spaces, and areas of celebration and mourning alike—to open up new visions of Banaras. Here I would like to turn to the most severe criticism of the film—its supposed lack of anthropological insight and overemphasis on the aesthetic (Moore 1988; Parry 1988; Ruby 1989). The argument that there are supposed “limitations” in the information that can be conveyed by visual images alone (Moore 1988) is in fact countered by Gardner's camera, which probes sociological facts even by significant exclusions from the visual realm, as much as it also does so by inclusion. The predominantly male role in performing Hindu death rituals is visually conveyed through the favorable camera time granted to the figures Mithai Lal and the Dom Raja. Women do appear as worshipping or mourning at a distance, although their presence in the company of these two men is in the shadows. This point is directly related to the one Heider (1976) raises about the absence or the overpowering presence of women in Gardner's previous films—Dead Birds (1963) and Rivers of Sand (1974), respectively. Their minimal appearance in Forest of Bliss is in fact a precise depiction of the patriarchal nature of Hindu socioreligious organization, in which much commercial transaction, and certainly the performance of death rites, are male functions. Playing their part in the commerce of religion, women are seen carrying baskets of marigolds on their heads and stringing them into garlands before sale. Gardner shows a female child skipping in slow motion through a game of hopscotch toward the end, providing some moments of catharsis from the intensity of the film. He notes that he deliberately wished for this shot to be seen as being different from all others, and amidst the frenzy of funerary activity on the ghats, this was a “singular statement of delight in play,” a confirmation of life beside death (Gardner and Ostor 2001:112).

The male protagonists of the film stand in strong contrast to each other. On the one hand, Mithai Lal labors in his chants “MaMa… ,” evocations to the goddess as he bathes and climbs steps. His renditions of the chants are sonorous and he repeatedly blows on the conch. On the other hand, the Dom Raja is inert during the morning as Mithai Lal is active—the only rhythm in the former's mornings being induced by his wife, who massages his back (Figure 10).

Figure 10.

 © Documentary Educational Resources.

The course of the Dom Raja's day is tempered by little movement. We see him on his feet only twice as he walks ahead of a group of men out of his house, and once again as he gets up in fury to drive away clients who cannot afford his price for a funeral. Moore's observations regarding the hospice managed by “lower caste minstrels” (1988:2) and the presence of social hierarchies in the film are hence indeed valid, although not at the point that he thought they were. Hierarchy is manifest through the gender relations where women serve Mithai Lal (at the ghat) or come to him for ritual treatment, and through systems of subjugated labor seen in the numerous persons who work for the Dom Raja—personal servants, wood cutters and carriers and boatmen. In this sense, the gluttony and slumber of the Dom Raja alludes to his life of leisure as compared with the physical trials of boatmen and wood carriers, repeatedly presented in Gardner's multiple montage format shots in the latter half of the film, directly slicing through a cross section of Indian social hierarchy (Figure 11).

Figure 11.

 © Documentary Educational Resources.

The commercial transactions of the Dom Raja—not always peaceful as in a very vocal scene between him and an invisible client—are part of the “business” of ritual and ceremony in Banaras. The commercial transaction of marigolds echoes this business.

Carried on heads, bicycles, and rickshaws, the flowers reach a point of transition through commercial transaction in the market—making a morbid parallel with the numerous bodies that travel the narrow lanes of the city on shoulders and autorickshaws—to undergo a permanent transition at a price determined by the Dom Raja (Figures 12 and 13).

Figure 12.

 © Documentary Educational Resources.

Figure 13.

 © Documentary Educational Resources.

Herein perhaps lies the explanation for Gardner's use of the line from the Upanisads, considered inadequate by Moore and inappropriate by Parry—that within the oppositions of life and death, “Everything in the world is eater or eaten. The seed is food and the fire is eater.”

Consumed, Discarded, and Forgotten

The essence of the marigold is its temporariness of function, in adornment, consecration, and imparting holiness to any surface. Its ultimate destination as captured by Gardner is in garbage dumps, the streets, or the river where it is left to degrade among the elements or be consumed by cows, a point which would make the likes of Moore question the contradiction between sacred notions of purity and sanitary concerns. Chopra (1989) explains this as a certain logic in the sanctity and not the sanitary qualities of sacred things, a certain “ritual” purity as a quality that stands apart from Western notions of cleanliness.

Gardner's will to complete the journey of the flower is apparent: “Even though it is a common thing to see in Benaras, I can remember having some difficulty finding a cow doing that. I can even remember carrying my old garlands with me to feed the cows so that I would be sure to get my shot” (2001:70; Figures 14 and 15).

Figure 14.

 © Documentary Educational Resources.

Figure 15.

 © Documentary Educational Resources.

On the point of consumption one may draw a parallel with other animals in the film—vultures and dogs, the latter of which are shown scavenging on human and animal flesh at different points in the film. For Moore (1988), this again is a disturbing and misleading image for North American and European audiences, who in their attachment with pets give them “personlike” identities, yet Chopra gives credit to the filmmaker as “death and its disposal are not played out behind the scenes, but are upfront in the imagery further highlighting the conjunction of life and death, mundane and sacred, work and ritual” 1989:3. Indeed, marigolds themselves enter the scene to transform the identity of a dog from scavenger to playmate in the middle of the film, when a puppy is shown playing with the flowers and finally falling asleep among them (Figure 16).

Figure 16.

 © Documentary Educational Resources.

While Gardner works to provide these intermittent moments of humor or relief from the otherwise graphic nature of the film, Parry critiques the film for being “lop-sided” (1988:5) and for not explicitly capturing the complex division of labor, or postcremation rites engaging the Hindu populace in the holy city, and hence giving a partial picture of reality. Later, he himself provides a reason for this balance by saying that he believes in Gardner's “deliberately calculated” decision to have dispensed with all explanation provided to him by locally available anthropological sources, so that his images speak for themselves (1988:7). Parry's deductions are indeed accurate with regard to Gardner's filmic choices, although he fails to grant audiences the capacity to extrapolate any meaning from them.

In conclusion one could refer back to Larsen's quote that opened this essay. Indeed, dialogue does exist in Gardner's film, between anthropologist and subject, anthropologist and culture, and subject and culture, as well as between all three and the recipients of the film. It is the mutual adjustment of “cognitive orientation” or the flexibility to learn and decode language within the film that falls behind, as reflected in the criticisms that Gardner's contemporaries have awarded his work. For them, reality is not acceptable if it speaks its own language, one through which it appears as itself, but only qualifies its existence if it simplifies itself, even if this means that reality compromises its truth to present an “imaginary ethnography” (Ostor 1989:4) in order to be falsely comprehensive.

The advantages of the absence of literal text, as highlighted by Chopra (1989), lie in the extension of viewer participation in the film, as active interpreters of meaning which may be open-ended or diverse, so as “not to quarantine one interpretation from another, nor give precedence to any single level of cognition” (1988:3). The same point addresses the apprehensions regarding the efficacy of the film as a pedagogical device. Gardner's filmic technique has pushed the disciplinary boundaries of anthropology by questioning rather than conforming to established norms. Opening the possibility of making the teaching of the subject more participatory rather than prescriptive, the film offers to activate scholarly interest in primary and secondary research pertaining to Banaras. The final concern for the director or for the viewer does not remain whether the film intrinsically is “anthropological” (see Ruby 1989), but whether any substance relevant to anthropology can be culled from it. In the end one can only regard Gardner's presentation of the incredible complexity of life and death in Banaras as having been approached with the humility of silence on his behalf, with aesthetics having done the talking and having provided insight. By choosing to represent only a single day in the life of the city, Gardner implicitly conveys its paradoxically unique and mundane nature, for this could be like every other day in Banaras when seen through the prism of anthropology, but could never be an exact replica of yesterday in its aesthetic detail.


  1. 1The Sanskrit term Upanisad literally means “sitting down beside.” They are part of the Vedas that form the Hindu scriptures, which primarily discuss philosophy, meditation, and the nature of God; they form the core spiritual thought of Vedantic Hinduism. Considered as mystic or spiritual contemplations of the Vedas, their putative end and essence, the Upanishads are known as Vedânta (“the end/culmination of the Vedas”). The Upanishads were composed over several centuries. The oldest have been dated to around the 18th century BC.

  2. 2Doms are the most prosperous family among the caste of untouchables who run the funerary operations at Manikarnika and Harishchandra ghats. Dom Raja in this film is stationed at Manikarnika ghat and collects taxes of substantial quantity on every funeral (Parry 1994).

Suryanandini Sinha is a graduate in Visual Anthropology from the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Oxford, UK, and in Art History from the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She is currently pursuing her doctoral studies from JNU, Delhi and the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta. She is a recipient of the ICSSR and INLAKS scholarship awards. Her interests lie in practices of visual culture and popular art, and her work concerns popular photography, printmaking, and painting studios in India.