Varanasi Musings

Chirodeep Chaudhuri is the author of the critically feted book ‘A Village In Bengal: Photographs and an Essay”, a result of his 13-year long engagement with his ancestral village in West Bengal and his family’s nearly two century old tradition of the Durga Puja. He was heading the Design and Photography departments of the international arts and culture magazine Time Out’s three India editions. His last assignment was as the Editor of Photography of National Geographic Traveler (India).

Chirodeep’s work documents the urban landscape and he has often been referred to as the “chronicler of Bombay”. During his career he has produced diverse documents of his home city in a range of projects like “Seeing Time: Public Clocks of Bombay”, “The One-Rupee Entrepreneur”, “The Commuters”, “In the City, a library” among others. His work has also been featured in important publications about the city like “Bombay: The Cities Within”, “Fort Walks”, “Anchoring a City Line”, “Bombay Then: Mumbai Now” and “Bombay, Meri Jaan” to name a few.

Chirodeep lives in Bombay and divides his time between his various teaching assignments and photographing subjects as diverse as the disappearing world of the typewriters to café visitors.

 

 

One morning a group of four men, bearing a corpse on their shoulders, were making their way through the famous narrow gullies of Varanasi. On spotting a tea stall, they halted, stopped chanting the name of Ram, propped the trussed-up body against a wall and sat down for a tea-break. Cows and people, I was told, didn’t stop in their tracks. This delightful story is courtesy my friend Jerry Pinto. Now, for those who know Mr Pinto this could be another of those wonderfully invented stories he regularly plucks out of his grand imagination. Since, I heard this story I have longed to visit Varanasi. My Varanasi dreams always had this image. I thought about what an interesting photograph it would have made and often said to myself, maybe corpse bearers in Varanasi do this all the time and that there is still a chance that I may encounter such a moment!

By the time I made a trip to Varanasi I had already been a photographer for 20 years. “What kind of photographer are you who hasn’t been to Varanasi?” people asked incredulously. On arriving I found myself as one more amongst the many others with a camera. There were foreigners with long telephoto lenses, young amateurs scurrying about for a picture to, perhaps, enter some competition, photographers soliciting business and offering instant pictures to pilgrims, some cell-phones and some i-pads (might there have been anyone at all who was without a camera?). And they all came out on my first evening during the Maha-arati on Dashashwamedh Ghat, which is; let’s not fool ourselves, really s much a spectacle for the benefit of the cameras as it is, perhaps, about devotion. I’ve never seen nattier looking young priests (all in colour co-ordinated attire and a few with stylish sideburns) nor have I seen priests more aware of the cameras.

I had always wanted to see Varanasi in the peak of winter through the north-Indian fog. My first impression of the city, I must admit, was just the way I had dreamt of it. So dense was the fog at 5.30 in the morning that one had to be mindful of sleeping dogs, cow dung and the unfamiliar steps. I could hear sounds but see little. I made my way to the water’s edge to discover that the city had already woken up. The ghats were bustling with devotees and bathers. It was amusing to see boatloads of foreigners gliding slowly through the dense fog coming close to the ghats and suddenly flashbulbs would pop and the boat would rock precariously as they frantically photographed the ladies and men bathing half naked in the freezing cold water egged on by their faith or stupidity, cocking a snook at pneumonia, I don’t know. The bathers didn’t seem to care about the cameras. As they emerged from the water, their bodies let off steam which gently merged with the fog. The fat around their midriffs shivered like jelly on a plate. The children squealed as they hugged their mothers for warmth. I was mistaken for a foreigner during those first 2 days and was not stopped while I shot the bathers near the water’s edge till I happened to casually mention I was from Bombay. The guy standing next to me, holding his mother’s slippers curtly told me “Aisi tasveerein lena uchit nahin hai…phir mat lijiyega…” (It’s not appropriate to shoot such scenes…don’t do it again).

I was traveling after a long time and I found my enthusiasm and reflexes peaking and dipping. I missed many pictures and did mostly routine ones. Varanasi interested me and yet the circus of exotica, spirituality and opportunism made me cringe. I thought of probing deeper but decided eventually to remain just the tourist and shoot the sort-of-obvious pictures, chasing which might distract me on future trips I hope to make.

Each morning from 6am till around lunch, I walked the bathing ghats in search of pictures till my calf muscles, after years of disuse thanks to the relatively sedentary life as a desk-bound picture-editor, felt as though they would explode with pain. And then I would sit down and take in the details of the dregs of small-town Indian aesthetics – the flex signs, the ugly coloured portions of the ghats (why would the tower of the pumping station be painted pink?), the printed nylon saris, the human and animal shit that sat baking in the sun and sometimes trampled by unwary feet, the thin plastic bags and tea cups carelessly tossed into the waters after use, the boats painted with advertising slogans for banks, cell phone and finance companies. I wondered what the place might have looked like in the days of James Princep before the sign painters had a field day (Princep’s etchings of the city are now sold in the shops as postcards). I recognised one of the priests from the Maha-arati, now in jeans and a t-shirt engaged in a kite fight with a young boy. I got to know a few of the photographers who produced prints out of their portable Epson printers after heckling the tourists to take pictures of them taking a dip. As has become routine since the advent of digital technology they too lamented about the drop in business and the competition that has resulted from an increase in the numbers of cellphone cameras. “The Bengalis are the stingiest,” I heard repeatedly “for they arrive here the last after doing Haridwar and Rishikesh” and by that time they have exhausted all their money and don’t want photos, they reasoned. They quizzed me about opportunities in Bombay and about upgrading their equipment. I briefly chatted with old Kashinath, who claimed to be Raghubir Singh’s boatman during his trips here. We never caught up again as I had hoped we would since I have only recently started warming up to the mastery of Singh. On other occasions I debated which of the names I preferred – Varanasi, Benaras or Kashi. Or even Rudravasa the sound of which I like the best.

Before I left Bombay, I had planned on spending time at Manikarnika Ghat – the burning ghat. I had never seen a dead body burn in an open fire and so on my third morning I made my way to the burning ghats. Finding a place to rest my bum was a task and I eventually found a vantage point above the chaos and filth. A drunken man offered to take me close to the fires and get me to shoot and “no one would object”. I wanted to take up the offer but eventually declined. Below me, a steady stream of bodies arrived; both pyres and bedis were lit with equal casualness, black smoke and fine soot rose up in my direction carried by the strong cold winds blowing in from the river. A young boy came and stood between me and the cow and chatted away. He introduced himself as the son of a “pujari”. On discovering I was from Bombay, he went on to tell me that Bal Thackerey’s cremation (like that of many other public figures before him) had been done at the ghats below! A man who had silently joined us corrected him saying it happened in Bombay and was televised live all over the country. The truth obviously wasn’t as interesting as the myth and the boy ignored the correction and continued chatting. He spoke about wanting to leave Varanasi when it would be time to earn a livelihood. After all what could he make of his life doing “this sort of work”, he told me. I was hearing this refrain, from the locals, about leaving Varanasi yet again…just as often as I heard many tourists tell me how much they would love to come and settle here in their search for spirituality.

That night as my friends and I walked back from dinner along the eerily beautiful empty ghats bathed in sodium vapour lights we met a young pony-tailed American tourist putting up a display of fire poi. A strange place to chance upon a Maori dance tradition but I wasn’t complaining after 2 days of shooting my own version of “already seen” pictures. I slept happily that night…it was the happiness brought about by the thought of a good photograph in the kitty.

I was getting used to the cold and tiring of the sameness of the foggy scenes that I had been photographing and so decided on retiring early on the fourth afternoon. On my walk back, a snatch of spoken Bengali caught my ear and looking in the direction the speakers were pointing saw a wedding party – the bride, the groom and an assortment of family members in festive fashion and make-up waiting on the steps of the ghats as an old bearded priest and his young leather jacket sporting assistant fussed about. The unsmiling groom was lost in his phone and I never got to see the brides face that was hidden behind her veil. In some time a few more such groups arrived. As I waited, anticipating some photographs the sun made an appearance, for the first time in 3 days. It seemed providential and the muted colours of the previous two days made way for deeply saturated ones. I was later informed that it is customary; for families to arrive here on the second day after a wedding once the bride comes to her new home, to seek the blessings of Ganga “for everlasting happiness in their family”. The next morning, I again saw similar scenes and improved on my earlier pictures. That day, my last morning, there was little fog and a bright sun shone on the city. The steps leading to the ghats had promptly been taken over by the washermen spreading out clothes to dry. Nails on the walls and stretched strings everywhere were soon holding up a backlog of washing. The boatmen snoozed in the sunshine on their gently bobbing boats.

I liked Varanasi, on the whole…even though I felt very cynical about the in-your-face exotica. I want to return to explore the gullies and to pursue the original plan I had when I left Bombay and the one I abandoned in my pursuit of the clichés. And that would require patience but that, perhaps, won’t be a problem since the touristy boxes have now been somewhat adequately ticked.

PS: At the airport bookshop I managed to get a copy of photographer Michael Ackerman’s acclaimed book “End Time City”. I’ve looked for it online for a whole year and all I found was “out of print” notices. There’s a wonderful interview with him in there which made me contemplate the approach I might adopt during the next trip. And this little find in the most unexpected of places satisfactorily rounded off my short first visit.

 

 

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