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The article "Of Blinking Eyelids and Cinema Projectors: the Imagination is Learning" was submitted by Shirley Abraham from India for Category B --Written Article in the Asia-Pacific Film/Article Contest "Better Learning, Better Life," organized from 28 September to 4 November 2012 for the young people residing in Asia and the Pacific region.  It was highly commended by the Review Panel.   Download orginal submission

Of Blinking Eyelids and Cinema Projectors: the Imagination is Learning

By Shirley Abraham

The flourish of the dancer’s pose was crumpled in folds. The film strip hung from a crusty film reel. Armies of dusty film cans stood stacked together, as if guarding territory. I stood in the curious universe of Prakash Phuladi. 

Phuladi’s workshop is the busy back-end office of the travelling tent cinemas of Maharashtra. For maintenance, operations and repair. For regeneration, restoration and rebirth, a life force that has sustained these nomadic cinemas for seven decades and counting. While the cinemas journey to graveyards, fairgrounds, marketplaces and fairs, Phuladi’s workshop stands in a small shuttered space, and the wheels of the trucks often bring the damaged projectors to his workshop. 

Phuladi started out as a workshop mechanic, when, one day, big black beastly things called cinema machines arrived in his village. ‘And since then, this work has been chasing me,’ he reflected. Back then, he could not even imagine that the machines being carted on the dirt roads of his village from Bombay, had arrived to the port city from America, England, Japan, Italy, Germany, Switzerland and Sweden. 

‘How did you learn to find your way around the foreign projectors?’ 

‘The pea has borne fruit..It’s now been six days. Now the leaves will sprout. Such were the announcements. As we watched the silent films, someone would make an announcement to go with it. And for some fifteen twenty years, I dreamt of various ways in which they would have filmed the plant sprouting, growing as it does, within the belly of the earth.’ 

He had been a curious boy, I found it easy to deduce. He later told me of all those games the children played when he was small. Marbles, badminton, hu tu tu1 - games he did not feel drawn to. There was nothing to discover, to excavate, there. He was too busy with the workings of the world, his mind was a buzzing playground. 

1 A game played between two teams of seven players each. Players take turns to chase, to touch members of the opposite team, without being captured by them. 

I imagined a thin, wiry boy, tapping, chiselling, chipping away at the world. As wonderment took roots in him, he would scrape away - opening telephones, easing out the screws, as the innards of the phone uncoiled in his hands, unfolding like the boundaries of a complex map. 

‘Man must fly like only man can. Flappable wings did not help man to fly. When men tried to imitate the flight of birds, they fell to their death.’ 

Phuladi’s reflections were born of a peculiar, unique understanding of the world. In which the ideas of flying transcended the flight of birds. Thus spoke the man who had never journeyed out of his village. 

‘The mother never teaches her child to run. She only teaches him how to place one foot after another. He sprints by himself.’ 

A vivid imagination that leapt from everything he spoke. 

He had trained in the landscape of the imagination. Tapping, chiselling, chipping away at the world. It was the force of his bewilderment with the world, his creation, his poetry. Which enabled him to not just repair, but also Indianise, by creating homegrown parts-the projectors created by engineering geniuses around the world, rigorously trained minds and hands. But also, create a projector of his own, a marvel unto itself, it tailors its mechanical and projection functions to the needs of our people- how we perceive and run machines, and our mud, dust, grime, routine- where the projectors would be mounted. 

‘I named it Prakash. Prakash, that dispels darkness.’ 

The projector remains unsold. It did not find a buyer. Many of the travelling cinemas were folding up their tents when he finished moulding it. 

And yet, Phuladi believes that the projector and the creator, have shaped each other’s imagination. 

I believe it is this imagination, that will become the creative learning for young people in the future. In this age of hyper information, learning is often fuelled by the incessant and instant search to know more, and ask less. There is an urgency to fill in misty moments of silence, reflection and dreaming with dregs of solid information. I believe we need to return to the quiet freedom of quest, offered by the power of the imagination. 

I believe learning can, and must empower. And it will attempt to do so not by reposing in the finite or the known, but by daring to fuel the navigation of possibilities greater than, and beyond oneself. Learning must not aggressively attempt to provide the answers, but trigger a sense of wonder, a search for questions. I believe that education and learning would find their true manifesto in stimulating a curiosity born of such an imagination, instead of satisfying it. 

An imagination, that has no premise, seeks no hypothesis and generates no tangible results, but is just lived in the moment. Unfettered, not result oriented, not a function of the learning process, and yet, an urgent need. For, in that fleeting moment, it connects us to a power beyond us. 

It is tough to map concrete learning onto what springs from an imagination, for it is often shapeless, formless. And yet, I believe, this must guide the pursuits of our policy makers, teachers, cultural activists and educationists. This reconnection gives shape, form and life to a pursuit. To remould the world, like Phuladi’s quest, in his imagination, and with his imagination. To imagine, how our eyelids blink like the shutter of a cinema projector. In a moment, darkness falls on the screen, followed by light. And in that moment, is born, cinema. 

This pure imagination is what we must chase and pursue, across disciplines and age-groups. Only then will we look beyond standardising learning into set letters and alphabets, and fixed formulas and algorithms, but localise it for and across cultures and societies. Opening telephone at a time, building one toy plane at a time, dreaming about one cinema projector at a time. 

Phuladi attended school only until the tenth grade. 

The imagination was the promise. The imagination was his learning.