All in a day’s work

by Gabriella Sonabend

Yesterday morning, I woke up and looked outside my window onto the flooded path below. The residency had been transformed into a swamp overnight as heavy rain had filled the many pot holes in the road outside and overflown into our hidden enclosure. Knowing that I had plenty of work to do inside, (I was then engaged in a fight against the internet trying desperately to upload a video to send to the Nirbhaya team), I doubted that I would leave my new home and would most likely spend another day within the safe walls of the gallery.

I decided to at least try to journey to the kitchen wading knee high in murky waters and was gratified with a large mug of coffee as soon as I reached the kitchen door, handed to me by Tiior, one of the other residents.

The Residents

There are currently 5 artists living here in Kriti Gallery in Varanasi. Myself, Phyllis, Tiior, Terry and another lovely Estonian woman whose name I can neither spell nor pronounce (for now I will refer to her as smiling mamma). Phyllis is a photographer from New York, a lecturer in photography and a specialist in tribal/cultural dress. Her career, which has spanned 3 decades, has taken her around the world photographing tribes, theatre groups, small villages and urban centres alike. Tiior is a very well-known and respected Estonian sculptor, I have not seen her work but so far I have been informed that she is brilliant and that she is used to walking hours every day, feeling somewhat frustrated with the terrible roads and slow pace of Varanasi. Terry is an Australian painter and photographer and professor of painting who is now staying in Kriti for his 3rd residency in 3 years. Smiling Mamma is an illustrator of children books; she is short, extremely warm and maternal and worried terribly when I came home late last night!

I am by far the youngest, least experienced and most seemingly anxious resident in Kriti but the other artists treat me as an equal and I am somewhat reassured by this!

After a coffee, a seemingly ant infested bowl of cereal and a chat with Tiior and Phyllis about their plans I waded back to my bedroom through the swampland. I was ready to get comfortable at my computer; I was considering writing a rather introverted and indulgent blog post when there was a knock at my door and in came Norman.

Who is Norman? Norman is somewhat an enigma and a celebrity in Kriti Gallery. Born in Chicago to a Japanese mother and an English father, Norman studied at a state university and then transferred to a Quaker university, which sent their students to different developing countries around the world to study and learn about other cultures. As a result of this unusual education by the age of 23 Norman had seen and engaged with more than most people do in a lifetime. The final destination his course sent him to was Varanasi where he had a challenging and off-putting time. Despite not particularly liking his time here when a few years later a friend offered him an apartment with a darkroom to live and work in in Varanasi he immediately accepted the offer and was drawn back into this incredible and mad city. With Varanasi he fell in love and he stayed for months photographing the streets and the ghats, transforming quickly from a tourist into a resident. Many years later after a marriage, 2 children, working in Iraq and various other places he returned to Varanasi and here he has settled.

Norman became a crucial element of Kriti after meeting Navneet at one of the gallery openings. He told him that he had some time to spare and would be happy to help him with the gallery, doing anything that was required. Since making that offer Norman has come to the gallery almost every single morning to help Navneet He has designed and built studios (including the one I am currently living in), refurbished the gallery, helped with the internet, the phone lines, the shows – everything he could possibly think of to help with the residency and with no desire for payment, reward or gratification. He is humble, loyal and devoted to Navneet and to the gallery. He is enthralled with his life in Varanasi and blissfully walks through the chaos here finding the most beautiful sights to observe and thoughts to articulate. I have never met anyone like Norman before.

Norman sits on my daybed and we talk about Varanasi. He tells me about how he came to live here; about the feeling of walking alone at night; about the incredible silence which can be felt on the Ganga in the early hours. He tells me about the wonderful music concerts which take place here, which can last for 5 consecutive days at which he has blissfully fallen asleep to the sound of the sitar and woken hours later to the wailing of traditional song. There is a knock on my door and Norman disappears as mysteriously as he arrived.

I return to my computer but within seconds there is another knock. This time it is Jessie, the artist who is showing at the gallery this week. She has been speaking with the Estonians who can’t bare the concept of being trapped inside all day surrendering to the swamp outside. They have decided to take a tuktuk into the centre and to visit an exhibition opening at the university. Jessie asks if I’d like to join them, I am currently losing my battle with the internet and so I grab my most water resistant shoes and follow the bold Estonians out of the gallery confines into the street outside.

The street now resembles a war ground. Cars have half sunk into the waterlogged holes in the road; cows lift sticky hooves and crash into rickshaws as they struggle to move forward. Street vendors fight to rescue upturned carts and wagons but unlike a battlefield the soldiers of Varanasi are all beaming with smiles and laughing as they struggle against the forces of nature and the terrible lack of infrastructure. Nothing is going to plan, but having a plan in somewhere like Varanasi is foolish, so no-one seems to notice or care!

After a few moments we manage to hail a seemingly stable tuktuk and ask the driver to head to the university. He shakes his head in approval and we clamber in. It is impossible to know if he has understood our request but he insists he knows where he is going and shoots off down the would-be road. His ability to reckon with the forces of nature, terrible civic neglect, oblivious cows and rubble mounds is actually rather astounding and I begin to wonder whether Indian drivers are the worst in the world (as many people claim) or if actually the best! I certainly couldn’t negotiate the multiple factors our rickshaw driver has to deal with!

We arrive somewhere. It is very hard to say where, but luckily Jessie knows Varanasi very well and seems to have a sense of where we are. The Estonians decide it will be best for us to split off and they wander off somewhere while Jessie and I begin to wind around the roads following Jessie’s natural sense of direction and our general curiosity. This is the first time that I have been with just another female walking around in India and I am amazed at how safe I feel. Perhaps it is because by Indian standards both Jessie and I are extremely tall (both around 5ft8 whereas the average Indian woman is probably 5ft3). Perhaps it is because I have not been to India since I was 19 and I have experienced a great deal since then. It is hard to say what has changed, whether it is the environment or my own mentality but I realise to my amazement that I feel incredibly comfortable and relaxed.

It is amazing how much places can change with each visit. It is also amazing how much an individual can change over a relatively short period of time, 4 years is not particularly long but it has evidently been long enough to show me a new face to this wonderful city. After a few hours of winding around back streets, past temples and ceremonies; past food stalls and silk shops, bookshops and riverside cafes I feel I have shed a layer of London anxiety and pressure already. Jessie and I drink tea, peruse books and meander around the maze of Varanasi with no pressures, no commitments, no judgments and no expectations. We allow ourselves to fall into the rhythm of the street; I stop to talk to children who want their picture taken and vendors who are trying to sell me something.

I remember when I was in India in 2009 the stress I experienced as I walked through Indian cities and found myself surrounded by people trying to sell things to me. I remember being blunt and quick, trying to run away from crowds and putting my hands up to gesture that I was not interested and not to bother me. I remember becoming agitated and feeling a sense of relief when I was not surrounded by the mania of the streets. Now I felt completely different, I see every person as a storyteller; as someone to listen to and learn from. I am not frustrated with their urge to sell and exploit me as a foreigner; I acknowledge their need to do this. Last night I walked through Varanasi with fresh eyes and felt extremely excited about what I saw.

After hours of walking Jessie and I took a boat ride along the Ganges and watched as the funeral pyres burned and tourists gathered around to watch the ‘Ceremony of Life’. In the dark, the palaces that line the edges of the Ganges, (each built by a different King so that when his people came to Varanasi they would have somewhere to stay), formed bold imposing silhouettes. The city lights were reduced to the few candles placed along the various ghats. We watched all of this in silence and for the first time since arriving here I was confident that my decision to come here was the best decision I have made in a long time.

We hailed a tuktuk, dropped Jessie at her hotel and then I continued alone back to the residency. This was the first time I had been alone in India outside the residency and again I was shocked at how calm I felt.

When I returned Navneet and Petra greeted me with enormous relief. They had been worrying about where I had been, knowing that it was my first lone outing. I felt like somehow I had let down my own parents and felt terribly guilty for not having let them know my whereabouts. I suddenly realised that the residency was soon to become my new family and that families worry!

I went to bed exhausted, I tried to write but my brain was too saturated with the events of the day and the abrupt change in my own attitude and emotions.