Banaras: An ancient timeless wonder

Dubai - Author and filmmaker Nilosree Biswas and ace photographer Irfan Nabi have evocatively captured the surreal feel of the Indian city on the Ganges in a photobook


Joydeep Sengupta

Published: Wed 3 Nov 2021, 2:35 PM

Last updated: Wed 3 Nov 2021, 4:35 PM

Banaras or Varanasi, like Rome, Cairo, Beijing, Damascus and Baghdad has a timeless feel of an ancient world city. It is the cradle of Indian civilisation, which has stood the test of time. Author and filmmaker Nilosree Biswas and ace photographer Irfan Nabi have evocatively captured the surreal feel of the city in their recent photo book — Banaras: Of Gods, Humans And Stories — published by Niyogi Publications.

The book is a layered exposition of the historic and cultural blend of Banaras, which have been chronicled by several travellers, including Europeans, through the centuries. Religion meets trade, its homegrown arts and crafts and the contribution of various regimes in nurturing the city as a confluence of diverse cultural influences. wknd. caught up with Nilosree about the backstory of her latest book. Edited excerpts from the interview:

How did you get attracted to Banaras?

Banaras pulls you in. It’s a city which is ancient and rich in history, and invariably has its magnetic field. As a kid, Indian auteur Satyajit Ray’s Joy Baba Felunath (The Elephant God), set in Banaras, thrilled me. Later, in the mid-1990s, I found myself as part of a filmmaking unit, and spent prolonged schedules there.

I think this was the phase of active attraction. I, as a documentarian, fell for the storyteller city. Every nook and corner of Banaras had something to tell. Its ghats (embankments) along the river Ganges, its narrow alleys, where thousands throng for their pious journeys or even for a little pit stop.

Banaras, therefore, is a rebus of religious textual prescriptions, informed imagination, a state of mind both learnt and acquired, lots of antiquity, and much of commonplace lived-in spaces. Elaborate this layered thought.

Banaras is one, and it’s many. It’s the literal living city as well as a notion that can be interpreted and perceived by each individual. The puranic (ancient) texts describe it as a microcosm of the Indian way of life. It’s a prescribed city to die leading to the liberation of the soul from its earthly bindings.

On a mundane level, it is a lived-in space. It’s a historical city ruled by kings and nobilities from ancient days. A bustling, thriving, prosperous trade hub on the eastern Gangetic plains, a city that was even visited by early travellers like Xuanzang, popularly known as Hiuen Tsang, a Chinese Buddhist monk in the 7th century of the Common Era, to later visitors like Matthew Arnold Sherring or Mark Twain or Thomas and William Daniell, who travelled across India in the 18th century. And then there is a Banaras that anyone who knows of the city or of India may have imagined, even before visiting it. Stories get accumulated, and finally a narrative is built. Beyond its nerve centre of faith, it is also connected to the famed drape of the Banarasi saree, as the city of melodious Hindustani classical music, kathak dance and an incredible range of quirky and delicious edibles. Of wrestlers and akharas (wrestling pits), of gigantic bells in each temple and the rides on the Ganges. Isn’t all of these put together layered enough?

How long did it take you to research before you got down to writing?

To grapple with Banaras as a built-in space at one go is not possible. There are too many elements to look into. There are unceasing activities going on round the clock and I have mentioned this in the book.

Intense research over four years included multiple field trips, countless meetings. There were days when one has walked for long hours relentlessly taking down notes of what led to a question or interest, observing what locals do. And then there is the attempt to connect all of that present to the past. Data collection from secondary material had begun much earlier, though.

Tell us a couple of interesting anecdotes that you came across while researching this book.

Everyone in Banaras has a story to tell and if you don’t pay attention to their stories, they invariably get sentimental. So, my interviews always ended up in additional information, often quirky ones that had become folklore.

On one occasion, I heard from Jagannath Prasad, a master weaver, the fascinating experiments he did with Banarasi silk, making tents for a delegation at the behest of Pupul Jayakar, a doyen of Indian handicrafts and handlooms. There were instances of chatting with Bharat Ratna awardee Ustad Bismillah Khan’s son on his father’s love for the city, kachori ( a deep-fried snack) of his daily shahanāii (clarinet) practices.

But most fascinating was the story of a funny and sporty face-fist competition where any Banarasi male could participate and which was called Durga Ghati Mushti (Mushti = fist, Durga Ghati = from Durga Ghat), where the referee invariably was knocked out first as the two players went freestyle. The competition doesn’t happen anymore, though.

There have been several books written on Varanasi — some by Indians and others by Westerners. Wasn’t it a challenge to tackle a subject that has been done many times over?

The existing literature on Banaras can be overwhelming for anyone writing about it afresh. I decided that my book would be about my notion and understanding of the city with its basic tenets intact and I have written a narrative non-fiction that would be accessible for all, a mix of history, culture, mythology, the city’s handcrafted traditions and its sights and sounds. It’s another matter that the volume of data I had acquired over my field trips was sometimes difficult to accommodate. Perhaps one can’t write a single book on Banaras!

How was the collaborative process with Irfan Nabi?

Irfan Nabi is a photographer par excellence. The way he has shot Banaras for this book is distinct. His brilliance lies in the compositions of his frames that had hardly been seen or filmed earlier. Irfan’s images are poised and ooze a meditative calmness even when he is filming in the busiest of ghats or streets. His careful study of humane moments, especially during the Dev Deepavali (festival of lights that takes place a few days after Diwali) festival, is incredible.

Is the Indian market ready for a lavish book like this?

I think yes, such lavish, photograph-rich books are much loved now. People do buy such books. In fact, they make great individual gifts. And also, such books have a much savoured wide audience depending on their availability.

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