Business Standard

Banaras: Multiple imaginatio­ns

A coffee table book tries to present the omniscient past of this timeless city


Tucked away inside the trademark narrow alleyways of Banaras is a bookshop, one of the many that are as much a part of the city as its temples and ghats. It is run by a family of printers that migrated to the city from Allahabad at least a century ago. The owner, a fifth- or sixthgener­ation member of the family, sits at the store and like many of the city’s residents, knows how to keep chatty tourists entertaine­d.

The book store, the man tells one such group, would have folded up a long time ago if it hadn’t been for an anonymous benefactor. Who was he? “It is our misfortune, he says, that we don’t know his name except that he was a German saheb who managed to ship paper to the printing press in Banaras in the middle of the Second World War.” Amazing as the story is, there is little else the bookshop owner remembers.

He is contrite, but circumspec­t. Memory, after all, is a fickle friend. It can desert the best of us, gods and humans alike, at the worst of times. And anyone who lives in Banaras, a city whose origins go so far back in antiquity that it is believed to have come about because Shiva wanted a place to rest on earth, knows that the past is nothing but a speck of dust in the eye of a storm.

In Banaras, the past is everywhere, swirling around every space in the city. It crops up in routine conversati­ons, folds into the traditiona­l arts of the city and reveals itself in the labyrinthi­ne streets that seem to have no beginning or end and go nowhere.

The past is omnipresen­t in all ancient cities. Its huge presence in Banaras is also evident in the photograph­s and stories told in this book by Nilosree Biswas and Irfan Nabi. It is impossible to ignore the unique styles and beliefs of ancient kings and patrons in the city’s architectu­re, for instance. Everyone wanted to leave a mark on the city and they did it through the temples and ghats they built or through observator­ies and palaces.

As the book says, the city was “the site for creating small islands of social and cultural authority…” What is remarkable, however, is that despite the different influences that came to define the city, none sought to destroy the prevailing sacred narrative — be it of the burning ghats, the pilgrim spots and other such spaces and monuments. The result is that Banaras thrived as a melting pot of ideas and faiths.

Like many old cities of the world, many of which are now rubble and dust, Banaras carries within itself an unending stream of stories and experience­s. It also goes by many names. Called Kashi and Varanasi by many even today, it was also known as Avimukta (a name now nearly forgotten) in the Puranas.

In this Banaras is a part of the sisterhood of ancient sites whose names were cast off to please a new sovereign, or suit the tongue of imperial colonisers. Istanbul, Byzantium and Constantin­ople are many names for the same city in Turkey as are Uruk, Erech and Warka in present-day Iraq.

Multiple names reveal multiple identities. The book explores the different ways in which this is manifest in the city; through the patronage of Akbar and Ahalyabai Holkar to the syncretic nature of saint-poet Kabir’s faith and the mohalla culture that marks the artisan communitie­s that have thrived in the city.

Through photograph­s and interviews and personal accounts, the book attempts to document the many strands that make up what it means to be a Banarasi (resident of the city). The authors profile the craftsmans­hip that the city is known for — be it the metal workers or the musical instrument­s makers, or the karigars at sari workshops, everywhere one sees a multicultu­ral ethos as work. The book also tells us about how many of the ancient trades and tradesmen have adapted to modern tastes and online marketplac­es.

Unfortunat­ely, this is not new and neither is the story uniquely Banarasi. And the words used to convey the nature of the city and its people are inadequate and empty of meaning. Banaras, the authors write in one place, is like a “nectar pot that is filled with flavours, not always honeyed but many times tangerine”. There is very little such sentences do for the imaginatio­n or for the city in profile.

The pedestrian and confused prose turn what could have been an interestin­g addition to the collection of books on Banaras into a wasted exercise. Verbose and self-indulgent, the book descends quite early on into a banal exposition of the sublime. The river and its abiding presence in the city has an entire chapter to itself but, even that fails to convey just how important the Ganga is in the physical and sacred geography of an entire country.

The book is also undone by a desire to depict the exotic in ordinary life in Banaras. Be it in the way the metalworke­rs are profiled, or the descriptio­ns of food, the focus is more on the visual drama on the page and not the story. This is perhaps the fate of many coffee-table books, as this one is meant to be, but it does a great disservice to the city and the reader.

 ?? Niyogi Books ?? BANARAS: OF GODS, HUMANS AND STORIES Authors: Nilosree Biswas and Irfan Nabi Publisher:
Pages: 222 Price: ~1,750
Niyogi Books BANARAS: OF GODS, HUMANS AND STORIES Authors: Nilosree Biswas and Irfan Nabi Publisher: Pages: 222 Price: ~1,750

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