This is Part 5. Follows on from ‘The 50th Birthday of Sri Sathya Sai Baba’ on August the 5th.
The following day – the birthday celebrations ran over a number of days – among the things which Baba was scheduled to do (at least according to the official program which seemed seldom to bear much relation to the facts) was to deliver an address in the huge covered hall in the ashram. Just when this address was to take place was not very clear. My Producer, Naseem, thought it would be just after lunch, around 2pm. Others weren’t so sure. And frankly, none of us had much reason for thinking any time was more or less likely than any other.
I needed to film this address, so I was in a dilemma. If I took the unit to the hall and Baba failed to turn up, then even if someone were then to give me a reliable guide as to where he was, getting to that place, carrying all our heavy gear through the crushing thousands was going to be problematic and likely, impossible.
There was no way I could take into account all the possibilities of where he might be at 2pm. But two places seemed much more likely than any other. The first was, of course, the main hall. The other was that area around the building in which he lived – a building known as Prasanthi Nilayam – about which I’ve written before and which, the previous day, had been the scene of Baba’s helicopter jaunt and my near-demise.
I decided to split the unit in two. We had two cameras and enough gear, lenses etc. to service both at any point in time. I took one camera and half the unit to the hall to wait there. I sent Toby the cameraman with the second camera and the other half of the unit to the area just around Prasanthi Nilayam.
I and my half of the unit struggled through the crush and arrived at the hall. It was totally empty. I got through to Naseem on the radio and asked her if she had any up-to-date news. She was completely stuck in the fast-accumulating crowds and simply couldn’t move. She had no more idea now of his intentions than she’d had an hour previously. I spoke to Toby. The area around Prasanthi Nilayam was apparently becoming gridlocked with people. But no-one knew where Baba was or where he would appear next.
And still, in the hall, there was nothing and nobody. I had to do something and it was clear that no outside help was forthcoming. I remember thinking that there’s no logical way of going about this. So what else is there? Something then took hold of me. I stood still and just looked at the floor. I can see that image in my head very clearly even now – just an area of very large, grey rectangles of some sort of local stone. I cleared my head of every thought I had and just stood there looking down.
Suddenly – and I was aware of no obvious thought process leading me – I said to the camera assistant, “Pick up the gear. Let’s’ go.” “Where to?” he asked. ” Prasanthi Nilayam.” We picked up the gear and I grabbed two stewards who, fortunately, were standing on the edge of the milling crowds outside the hall. I told them I needed to be at Prasanthi Nilayam as quickly as they could possibly make it.
They literally shoved and pushed people out of the way – sometimes quite cavalierly it seemed, but none of those shoved ever complained – to get the four of us and the gear through the throng. How long it took us I have no idea. I just remember the sensation of complete chaos and the sense that we were going ever deeper into an unimaginable crush of people and wondering what on earth I’d done – we, like Naseem, might well get completely stalled. The stewards however had done this before. They cajoled and battered their way through with us in tow and eventually we turned up, wilting with the heat and the weight of the equipment, outside the door of Prasanthi Nilayam. Toby and his men, camera poised, were standing, waiting and wondering.
We had been there probably no more than thirty seconds – before Toby and I had had time to exchange any words other than ‘Hello’ or whatever – when the door of Prasanthi Nilayam suddenly started to open. Instinctively I called to Toby, “Turn over!” (i.e.switch the camera on). He did so, spun round and pointed the camera at the still-opening door. Baba emerged right in front of the lens, in close-up. I was flabbergasted. We let him get a few metres ahead, then the pair of us, along with the camera assistant, followed behind.
He led us round the building and into the great open area at the side. Now this, remember, is about the size of a football pitch. It is surrounded on three sides by the then new accommodation blocks. The whole place is a solid, seething mass of humanity. The ground, from one side to another, is totally covered with people sitting cross-legged, the women in their wonderfully coloured garments, many of the men in white. The accommodation blocks, two stories high are also almost invisible beneath people. They are filling every window space (no glazing yet in the windows), they are up to the gunwales of every balcony and they have completely taken over every square inch of space on every flat roof and are standing up there, shoulder to shoulder, with no retaining walls in the most precarious way.
Through the masses sitting on the ground, a narrow pathway has been left which runs just to the centre of the ‘football pitch’. Baba suddenly appears around the corner of Prasanthi Nilayam – alone, barefoot, in saffron robe and with his great shock of jet-black frizzy hair. A total, utter silence descends. I have experienced nothing like it. And as Baba walked ahead of us the only sound audible in that great wide space was that of his feet and ours on the gravel. Along with the occasional cry from the ever-present crows. Two hundred and fifty-thousand people utterly silent, the hands and arms of those in and on the accommodation blocks raised to the skies. It was an overwhelming experience. Baba continued slowly on along the pathway through those on the ground, saying nothing, just doing that strange circular motion with one hand, as though it was some sort of antenna picking up signals.
The film-maker in me now started to think, ‘OK, that’s enough of this shot of his back. I need to see him now from the front.’ However, when a quarter of a million people are packed around you – people from every corner of the world and from every nook and cranny of the sub-continent to whom this man is – literally – God, you think twice about just running on ahead, spinning around and putting the camera in his face – it might seem to be putting it between him and his adoring followers. I struggled with this as we followed him.
Then quite suddenly, he stopped, turned around to us, and with a big sweep of his hand and arm gestured for us to go ahead of him. “Go front. Go front,” he said, in that rather strange, slightly high-pitched voice. I had, once again, that spooky sense that he’d been aware of what had been going on in my head. We did as we were bidden – hurried on ahead with the result that we got a wonderful long, head-and-shoulders rearward tracking shot of him as he walked through the crowd.
His unhurried walk through those massed crowds was the most impressive show of power I have ever seen. No shouts, no Hosannas, no ecstatic hullabaloo. Just – silence as they hung on his every move, and the sound of his bare feet on the gravel. Whatever this man was – and I’m aware of some of the heinous things he’s been accused of – he had a power the like of which I had never before seen, nor have done since. The best sense that I could make of it – for I was as aware of this power as much as anyone else – was that he was a major conduit for some awesome (and I mean the word in its true sense) force in which perhaps we all share, but of which each of us more or less ordinary individuals has only a minuscule portion.
He then addressed the crowds, from a position standing in their midst. A microphone and speakers had been rigged up for him. I have no memory of his words on that occasion, though it’s quite likely that in some book – for there are many written about him – a transcript exists. ‘But,’ you may say, ‘you were filming him. Surely you have his words recorded on film.’ We did. But the fate of the film – which, as per the original intention, was transmitted at least once on the US public service network – is just one of those strange things that happened in this man’s presence. Neither I nor anyone else who was involved in the production, knows now of the whereabouts of a single copy. Which is as he – Baba – said it would be before we even started filming. But more of that later.