Banaras, says Nilosree Biswas, is timeless. It is perhaps as close and succinct a term one could use to sum up a city that, in many ways, defies definitions.

Also called Benares, Varanasi, or Kashi, this ancient city – a 6th century BCE reference describes the city as having uninterrupted habitation for more than 2,500 years – stands on the banks of the river Ganges in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. A magnet for Hindu pilgrims who arrive here in the hundreds every day to take a dip in its waters (considered by some to be the holiest water body in the country), this is a city deeply embedded in the psyche of people.

Banaras is also a city that is a repository of history and legends, myths and stories, remnants of which can still be seen in the maze of lanes and streets that wind through the place that are alive and throbbing at all hours.

Nilosree will attest to that. The author and documentary filmmaker remembers first visiting the city in the winter of 1996 as an assistant director for a documentary. "It is a city that truly never sleeps," she says, in a video interview from Kolkata, India. To say it captivated her would be an understatement. "It was intriguing, fascinating, overwhelming…"

So deeply did the city leave an impact on her that after the documentary shoot was over, she vowed she would return to do another project on the city and the river Ganges. "There were so many stories waiting to be told."

That opportunity would materialise in late 2017 when she would discuss an idea with acclaimed photographer Irfan Nabi, whose images have been exhibited in Amsterdam, Washington, Kolkata and New Delhi, among other cities across the world. Realising that they resonated deeply with places that have a rich history, the duo joined hands to work on the project. The result is the well-produced coffee table book, Banaras (Niyogi Books).

“Banaras” is a product of two wandering artists
Supplied

"Documentary filmmakers are, in a sense, wanderers," says Nilosree, whose works have been screened worldwide, including at the Cannes Film Festival, explaining how Banaras came about. "They are fond of scratching the surface and finding a story hidden there." During the long schedule in Benaras while shooting the documentary, the intrepid author would get plenty of opportunities to seek and find scores of hidden stories in the city’s bylanes and riverbanks; stories that would flow smoothly into Benaras.

"This is a city that is alive and bustling at all hours," she says. "You see priests going in and out of the temples, shopkeepers selling different kinds of wares, cows and oxen lazily wandering, people sitting and chatting on the ghats, crossing the river in boats, praying, ruminating…"

Although she grew up in Kolkata, some 700km away from Benaras, the city and the river Ganges grew on her and spurred her to return to it repeatedly to explore it and savour it in all its glory. "Benaras is a city theatrically revealing itself from dawn to dusk – on the long rows of stone steps, the ghats, the lanes that meander into the womb of the city," she says.

A meeting of like minds

It was serendipity that brought Nilosree and Irfan together to work on Banaras. "I was doing a documentary on Kashmir’s famous pashmina shawls when I got in touch with Irfan who hails from Kashmir and has a fabulous insider’s point of view," says the filmmaker whose documentary Broken Memory, Shining Dust has been archived by the prestigious Oscar Library, also known as The Margaret Herrick Library. If their affinity for telling stories through visuals brought them together to work on the documentary, they were keen to explore the possibility of "doing something on a broader canvas because in one documentary you cannot tell everything about a subject or a place".

Irfan agreed. Nilosree had just finished a documentary on Kashmir when they began exploring the possibility of working on a book on Kashmir that would include historical and heritage aspects of the place.

"I was working in the UAE at the time, but photography is my passion," he says, explaining why he decided to take a sabbatical and "pursue my creative and finer interests in life".

The Ganges is something that binds Benaras, says Nilosree. “It lives in every person who visits the city.”
Irfan Nabi

Nilosree, who has penned several insightful articles on classic Indian films, and Irfan were clear that books were an important choice to work as a creative vertical other than films. "Books have a very wide canvas and can reach a lot of people; books also have a sense of posterity to it," says Nilosree.

In 2012 the duo began discussing the cities to feature in books and zeroed in on three – Kashmir, Ladakh and Banaras. "The common thread that bound these three cities was a rich history of culture, antiquity and a sense of ancientness to them," says Irfan.

The book on Kashmir, co-authored with Irfan Nabi and titled Alluring Kashmir: The Inner Spirit, was published in 2016; the one on Ladakh is due early next year.

The idea, says Nilosree, was to attempt to tell readers that every city has a considerable volume of antiquity associated with it, several layers to it. "It has history, mythology, legends, folklore… we wanted to explore and detail people’s belief systems and the multifaceted nature of these cities."

This is clearly evident in the 230-page book on the city that is brilliantly illustrated with Irfan’s photographs. Digging deep to research into the history and culture, using primary and secondary sources, not to mention scores of interviews with residents, visitors and historians, and referencing colonial texts and accounts of European travellers, Nilosree helps transport readers to the heart of the city to experience it up close and personal…

To that end, she had "first-hand encounters" with artisans engaged in Banarasi-sari weaving, toy making, tabla making, dance, music... "I met with flower sellers, snack makers, long-time residents all of who have provided the most ‘real’ experiences for this book," says Nilosree.

One of the residents is Lakshmiarchana Bhatnagar who describes how she as a young girl had seen boats ferrying people from Gaodaulia to Dasashwamedha. A lot has changed over the decades and now to imagine an agile stream ferrying passengers from Gaodaulia is impossible, says Nilosree. "But even today, at the age of 91, Lakshmiarchana walks with the support of a cane from her house behind the Kashi Vishwanatha Temple to the Prayag Ghat, twice a week, to pay obeisance to the river."

Irfan believes in pausing frequently to absorb what is happening, so the essence of the moment is captured in the frame
Irfan Nabi

Among the people the author also meets is Jagannath Prasad, 80-plus, a master artisan of Banarasi saris and a second-generation weaver. His father was a farmer who trained himself in weaving and switched trades in late19th century. Jagannath picked up from his father and is today known for weaving splendid gold thread brocades. "The popularity of Banarasi silk saris," he tells her, "will never go down."

Today though, Abhishek, his 14-year-old grandson, seems to be more interested in cricket than weaving. Then, as though 
to comfort himself he says: "You see nothing is permanent. What we like, what we don’t, what we wish to see... all are driven by trends."

Perception of the city

From long-time residents, weavers, handicraft and sweetmeat makers, to wrestlers, musicians and shopkeepers, the duo wanted to highlight not just the rich heritage and arts of the city, but how it is perceived. But putting together the book that would cover all of these aspects and more was no easy task. For one, photographs had to harmoniously blend in with the text to tell the story effectively and captivatingly. Irfan remembers having multiple rounds of discussions with Nilosree before they agreed on the synopsis and the treatment. "Although we are fiercely independent of our own areas when working on the project, I also understood that the images need to blend seamlessly with the narrative and become an integral element rather than remain as a separate genre of creativity," says the photographer, who co-wrote the script for the book on Kashmir.

Since Banaras is a much-photographed city, were there moments when he felt he might end up capturing the stereotypical images of the place?

"Yes, I was aware of that," he admits. "So my gut instinct was to adopt a minimalist approach when capturing the city’s sights."

Another way was to avoid seeing a lot of visual imagery of the city before embarking on the shoot. Irfan believes in first visiting the place without a camera and spending several days just observing the goings on in the city. "I listen, observe the temperament of the place, the nuances of the city, the scents, the sounds, the mood, the language… I use all my senses to get a holistic feel of the place."

He also believes in pausing frequently to absorb what is happening so the essence of the moment is captured in the frame. Pausing frequently made him experience moments that were "very spiritual, soulful and humane" helping him create his own visual language to emerge in his works.

The devout at the Ganga Aarti
Irfan Nabi

"One of the good things about Banaras was that I saw several practices and rituals I was not familiar with," says Irfan. "That thrill of watching new things with a kind of bewilderment and a sense of awe – pausing to absorb and immerse yourself in before shooting – makes one realise that these are things that have been going on for perhaps centuries."

The cycle of life images

He mentions images such as those of pyres burning in the Manikarnika ghat, the Ganga arti (ritual) being performed on the banks of the river and prayers being chanted by the riverside that refuse to fade from his memory. "If in one area you see a pyre being lit, a little away you’ll see an infant undergoing a ritualistic tonsuring. Barely 100m away a newly married couple will be offering prayers to the river, while further away you’ll find children playing cricket on the banks of the river close to an elderly man who is deep in thought silently watching the Ganga flow by. Nearby, people will be feeding the fish, while some distance away little girls in brightly coloured skirts and tops play hopscotch on the steps leading to the river. In essence, the cycle of life is quite literally unfolding before your eyes," he says, describing the kaleidoscopic views that the city offers to a discerning onlooker.

The point is, he says, once you get away from the predicted and projected notions of the place you tend to see the sub layers and nuanced elements.

Nilosree agrees. "The Ganges," she says, "is something that binds Benaras. It lives in every person who visits the city."

Interviewing people for the book was a deep and richly fulfilling experience for author. She remembers meeting a family whose predecessors were provincial rulers of Maharashtra; artisan families whose forefathers had arrived in the city centuries ago; a family of highly acclaimed musicians; a weaver, winner of the Indian president’s medal for his craft, who told her about the traditional silk weaves that are now obsolete… "Those are moments I still cherish," she says.

Narrative historian and award-winning author, curator, William Dalrymple sums it up well when he says of the book: "...[V]aulting from mythology to history and back through the ancient scriptures and epics to the living landscape, this is a warmly affectionate love letter to the holiest of all Indian cities."

Banaras is available on Amazon.com and niyogibooks.com.

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