“I have a compass which keeps spinning me into zones of conflict,” declares New Delhi documentarian Amar Kanwar in his masterly video essay A Season Outside (1998), and in a country like India he never has far to travel. V.S. Naipaul once called the partitioning of the subcontinent into Pakistan and India “as great a holocaust as that caused by Nazi Germany,” and tremors of ultranationalism, ethnic cleansing, and religious hysteria still radiate from that geopolitical fault line. The pacifist teachings of Mohandas Gandhi may have freed colonial India from Great Britain, but now India finds itself in a nuclear arms race with its neighbor to the northwest. The Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago is exhibiting three of Kanwar’s videos, and they show an artist whose imagistic vocabulary–in video, voice-over, and verse–articulates the tensions of the Indian subcontinent. Most galleries present video art in the familiar monitor-on-a-pedestal format, but the society has wisely divided its space into a miniplex, with each video running on a loop in its own darkened theater with seating.

A Season Outside, which runs 30 minutes, is the most impressive of the trio, a meditation on India’s endless spiral of violence for glory, defense, and revenge. Kanwar begins at the border crossing at the army outpost of Wagah, where strutting guards with plumed headgear open and close brightly painted gates in a peacocklike ritual that draws applause from tourists on either side. Ace cameraman Dilip Simeon peers at coiled razor wire, armed patrols, a pageant commemorating an ancient battle, and a festive circle of men who goad ribbon-festooned rams into butting matches.

“I may as well be a spectator to a conflict in ancient Jerusalem,” confides Kanwar, who is fascinated and vexed by aggression of all kinds. Frightening footage of soldiers brutalizing protesters is followed by a street theater reenactment of the same, signaled by the casual behavior of bystanders and a big smile from a self-conscious actor as he lands soft blows. The film is rich with spontaneous incidents too: in one shot, voracious magpies peck at a clumsy and defenseless puppy; in another, a little boy shoves another boy to the sidewalk.

The video was made for the Foundation for Universal Responsibility of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and in one sequence scenes of a refugee camp for Tibetan exiles are accompanied by Kanwar’s account of himself and an old monk debating the paradox of using nonviolence as a weapon. When the monk asks Kanwar where his journey began, the artist cites the gate ceremony at the border, “around which, every single evening, emerged a village of nowhere people. The faces change every day, but they always celebrate a strange ritual of separation.” For him the border represents all the issues of Indian culture, including the escalating fundamentalism of both Hindus and Muslims. “You could be armed with your truths,” he observes, “but what happens when you start arming your truth?”

The Renaissance Society commissioned Kanwar’s eight-minute To Remember, a silent impressionistic piece in which tourists jostle each other in the house where Gandhi was assassinated. Shot by Kanwar himself, it’s the weakest entry, as if the personal voice so forcefully visualized in A Season Outside has been lost in the chatter of other travelers. Much better is A Night of Prophecy (2002, 78 minutes), which was coproduced by the Renaissance Society and gives voice to a wide assortment of regional poets, singers, and musicians. These folk artists offer hymns to martyrs in Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Nagaland, and Kashmir, and their commentary ranges from the material (land, grain) to the political (human rights, contested homelands). Minimal titles identify the performers, their locations, and their works, and Simeon captures such telling details as gravestones listing people slain in past conflicts and armored personnel carriers rumbling past.

“Amar Kanwar: Of Poets and Prophecies” runs through February 23 at the Renaissance Society in the University of Chicago’s Cobb Hall, 5811 S. Ellis; Kanwar’s videos will be screened Tuesdays through Fridays from 10 AM to 5 PM and Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 5 PM. The legacy of religious strife in India is explored in two Bollywood dramas that Kanwar has selected for onetime screenings this week: M.S. Sathyu’s Garam Hawa (1973), showing Monday at 7:30, and Yash Chopra’s Dharmaputra (1961), showing Tuesday at 7:30. On Thursday at 7:30 the Renaissance Society will screen War and Peace (2002), Anand Patwardhan’s documentary about the Indo-Pakistani arms race. All three films are reviewed this week in Section Two; for more information on the screenings call 773-702-8596.