Walter Benjamin called Paris “a labyrinth, whose passages are in continual movement”. Paris also taught him the “art of straying”. This imagery of a mobile maze is echoed when you stray in another flaneur’s paradise, Varanasi, which is a city of interlocked alleys juxtaposed by the linear, untangled, Ganga.
Varanasi is a forest of bliss where people come and wait for death. In an old Purana myth, Brahma and Vishnu were arguing about who was the greater god between them. They were skeptical when told that according to the Vedas, Shiva was the supreme god. As they stood in doubt and disbelief, a huge shaft of light that originated in Varanasi split the earth between them and pierced the sky, cleaving both hell and heaven.
Brahma mounted his goose and flew to the sky to investigate the source or extent of this light. Vishnu took the form of a boar and burrowed into the underworld. They kept searching for thousands of years, without success after which they returned
Here they saw Shiva emerge from that pillar of light. Vishnu acknowledged his greatness but Brahma mocked him. In anger, Shiva cut off one of the five heads of Brahma. Since killing a brahmin was considered the worst sin, the skull of Brahma stuck to Shiva’s hand. As Shiva wandered throughout the earth, the skull got unstuck from his hand only when he returned to Varanasi. This mythology established Varanasi as a sacred place where all sins could be redeemed.
Such mythologies and fictions give structure to this city. According to academician Mahesh Senagala, it’s not the physical structure of Varanasi with its ghats, temples, palaces, spires that is behind Varanasi’s magic but the way these physical structures are interwoven into the huge system of sacred fiction.
The fantastic elements of Varanasi did not escape the Nobel Prize winning Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges who was interested in the themes of infinity, time, mirrors and labyrinths. He was greatly interested in the fantastic, whose elements he had outlined: contamination of reality by dream; a work of art within a work of art; travel in time rather in space; and the presence of a doppelganger. Varanasi resonates with the dream-like riddle at the centre of Borges’s plots. In 1923, sitting in Buenos Aires, he wrote a poem called “Benares” without ever having visited the city. He imagined the copy of the city as “false and impenetrable/like a garden traced on a mirror” with its repeated houses, temples, dunghills and prisons and steps. He compared the “doubtful images” of this artificial city that had sprung from his imagination with the real city “which was “peopled like a dream/ with hospital and barracks/ and slow avenues of poplars/and men with rotting lips/who feel the cold in their teeth.” The real and imagined cities seem like doppelgangers, and equally illusory.
Unlike Borges, many other artists have visited the city in reality. The collective mythologies of death, liberation and sub-reality have pulled in many photographers, painters and writers, who come in search of epiphanies.
Many artists have transformed in this house of death. In 1962, the beat poet Allen Ginsberg visited Varanasi in search of the sacred. Watching corpses burning on the ghats, he wrote in his journals,it was “like burning away fear—I thought, burning the dross inside me”. In the same decade, painter Ram Kumar, one of the major figures of the Progressive Artists Group, also visited Varanasi for the first time. This visit liberated Kumar from figurative art of people’s faces to do abstract art of the landscape of Varanasi. He recalled his first impression of Varanasi in his diary in 1996, “I thought the city was inhabited by the dead and their dead souls. It looked like a haunted place and still remains the same.”
These photos try to capture this ghostliness. A lace of liminality covers most of the figures met in surreal encounters, disguising or concealing something. We can see them partially, hidden in the shadows, with their backs towards the viewer or with their face hooded with a cloth. In one image, we see the back of a man standing on the balcony of his house looking at the network of walls surrounding him. He gives an impression of facing the dead-end of a labyrinth. The walls seem to be closing on to him and the black windows look like Panopticon eyes of an invisible presence. Another image is of a young boy in a school uniform emerging from a narrow alley. His hand is in his pockets in an insouciant gesture but there is a frisson of fear on his face. At the end of the alley behind him a man stands and beyond him there is darkness. It feels that the boy has stumbled out of a frightening experience, which he is trying to hide by striking a carefree pose. Perhaps he just encountered his doppelgänger.
Anything is possible in this enchanting, shape-shifting labyrinth.
—By Shweta Upadhyay