VARANASI GHATS: FROM DAWN TO DUSK
“Varanasi is older than history, older than tradition, older than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together” (Mark Twain). Wandering through the ghats of Varanasi, one soon realizes that no modernization has quite affected the ancient ambiance. The ghats, along with the activities of the multitudes – boat riding before sunrise, taking a holy bath in the Ganges, the morning and the evening aartis – have been a part of this city since the dawn of time. Though people come to this place in different capacities – some as a pilgrim, some as travelers, and some to seek salvation while dying, the ghats still sings in a coherent tone.
As the sun moves across the sky, the scenes keep on changing. The early-morning-meditating-sadhus are replaced by a highly energetic crowd of married women in vibrant sarees, taking a dip in the river before going into the temples. The same deserted spots where men do yoga early in the morning are trodden by hundreds of pilgrims and tourists. The same river that witnesses the funeral of a man, witnesses the holy ceremony of marriage of another, at the same moment. Men shave their heads and beards while a child tugs his mom’s saree at a distance, hinting to buy him his favorite snack. The ghats tell a story of chaos as well as synchronicity and have been telling it since the beginning of time.
There are a few hundred pictures of the evening aarti, and none of them did any justice to the actual event. One needs to sit there quietly and see with his/her own eyes all the hour-long preparation that goes in every day before the aarti even starts. One needs to stay back after the aarti and watch people wrap it up again. One needs to see the thousands of people who ride the boat to watch the aarti, as well as the small boys who move around with their faces painted as Indian Gods. One needs to see how coordinated all the priests are at every moment. One needs to smell the incense and hear the people chanting together. And as the day comes to an end, the ghats become empty and the boats stay back for the next day to begin.
SEEKING NOVELTY IN THE KNOWN
The translation of one of Rabindranath Tagore’s poem sounds like this: (Translated by Rajib Roy)
“I traveled miles, for many a year,
I spent a lot in lands afar,
I’ve gone to see the mountains,
The oceans I’ve been to view.
But I haven’t seen with these eyes
Just two steps from my home lies
On a corn of paddy grain,
A glistening drop of dew.”
For a very long time, I used the excuse of not being able to travel as the reason why I have not created good enough photos. Not until I was locked up in my room for 9 months, did I actually became curious to explore my neighborhood with my camera. And, I was heavily rewarded when I decelerated, reflected internally, and then pointed my camera.
I had probably visited this ghat a hundred times before the COVID-19 pandemic and I never noticed these scenes – such novelty in my neighborhood. A raw piece of nature. Either because it used to be way more crowded back in those days, or perhaps of my new-born interest in this place. I created this series over a span of just two weeks.
KUMARTULI: হাতের কাজ (HANDICRAFT)
The artisans here, in the narrow alleys of North Kolkata, are the makers of God. With the winds of autumn, as the whole of Bengal starts counting days to greet Goddess Durga, the artisans of Kumartuli (Locality Of Potters) start molding clay in their workshops.
These potters have been working in these dingy lanes for several generations in the dark studios, lined with the smell of mud, and crowded with gigantic Durga idols.
As hundreds of curious passers-by and enthusiastic photographers bend over for a glance of the idols, the artisans remain totally engrossed in skillfully
carving out the forms of the Divine, and installing life into the clay structure.
The auspicious idols in Kumartuli, which has emerged over the centuries as a hub of art, are made using the blessed soil from the courtyards of the prostitutes of Shovabazar.
Every bit of the idols, their forms, their jewelry is carefully crafted with the hands of the craftsmen over a period of about three months before autumn. Steeped in history, tradition, and heritage, these ‘kumaar(s)'(potters) silently keep lending shape and color to the Divine in their studios for centuries.
MULLICK GHAT FLOWER MARKET
On any given day, the Mullick Ghat Flower Market bursts with the crowd, from 6 o’clock in the morning to 9 o’clock in the night. Every inch of space is covered with shops selling flowers: red roses, pink lotuses, vermilion hibiscus, purple calotropis, and orange marigolds. The market trades fresh green leaves of several different varieties too.
What’s remarkable, this flower market provides the people with flower for every occasion: birthday ceremonies to funerals, marriages to religious festivities.
The aroma from the variety of flowers will follow you to every corner of the space that you go. Amidst the Chaos of customers bargaining with the vendors, the fragrance and the array of colors still lend a sense of freshness.
The noisy, busy, unkempt atmosphere may seem a little overwhelming in the beginning, but if you are after a feast for the senses, and want to feel the amazingly raw spirit of the people of Kolkata, these flower sellers’ alleys are the places to visit.
THE BEACHES OF CHENNAI
I took these photos during my visit to Tamil Nadu, India in December 2018. With the temperature being around 84 °F, hitting the beach was the obvious choice.
Marina is the longest natural urban beach of India, along the Bay of Bengal. A center for a variety of professions, like fishing, horse-riding, parrot astrology, merry-go-round riding, food vending, the beach is quite dynamic and is visited by thousands of locals and tourists every day.
The thing that stood out for me in this visit was the crowd near the water. Born and brought up in the busy old lanes of Kolkata, the young boys jumping into the ocean early morning, and swimming all day without much concern was rather tempting.
While I visited the beach, I would see the lazy locals in white lungi-s and colorful saree-s mindfully enjoying themselves and taking a dip with the small children in the sea. I used to take my seat under a nearby umbrella made of straw, and watch the locals bargain with peddlers in the morning as they bought flowers to wear in their hair, and then move on to eating idli for breakfast on the beach.
The beaches of Chennai are an authentic representation of the lives of the people there – slow yet crowded, simple yet very rich.
As we were returning to Chennai from Kanchipuram (Tamil Nadu) one day in our car, our driver decided to stop the car at a small beach near Chennai for a quick chai-break (tea-break). With a cup of tea in one hand and my camera in another, I was strolling through the sand as the sun cast a golden hue on the whole space. At that same time, I noticed these two small girls, with their shaved heads and bright smiles, playing in the water.
As I approached them with my camera, much to my surprise, none of them shied away. Rather, they started running around me, splashed water from the sea, and kept posing energetically till I was done taking their photos.
PAINTINGS & ILLUSTRATIONS
This series was created during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Amidst all the stressors around me, I kept dissociating constantly. ‘Playing’ with acrylic paints was a grounding activity. This series was not intentional, but in hindsight, my coping mechanism gave rise to this body of work.
Running my fingers through the smooth creamy texture of the paint on crisp white paper while listening to music was as effective in grounding me as breathing exercises or meditation. I was able to process intense emotions and lay them out on paper and communicate them through colors.