Each to his own, but yours to mine…

by Gabriella Sonabend

Today started with homemade yogurt, the antidote to any strange and delicious (but potentially disruptive) Indian dish.

It is quite remarkable how many vegetables, fruits, herbs and spices can be found here, many I have never previously tasted and some never even seen before arriving in Varanasi and how many wonderfully imaginative ways these can be thrown together to create meals so foreign to those I have previously experienced. I have fallen in love with Shinta’s home cooking and I worry that I will never be able to enjoy Indian food in London again!

Phyllis had some time to kill this morning and I had made no plans so we decided to call her driver and go to the other side of Varanasi, (my sense of geography is extremely distorted and I have little concept of which direction we travelled in), to visit a textile company, which Navneet ensured us had some of the finest fabrics in Varanasi. Through the air-conditioned car’s windows we took snapshots of the bustling streets and watched the city morph from one area to the next. Along the way we saw cycle rickshaws laden with stacks of cardboard; women carrying large canvas bundles on their heads; men urinating against brick walls; pigs sorting through heaps of rubbish for scraps of anything edible; school girls walking hand in hand to school; women cloaked in black cloth from head to toe; temples adorned with garlands of flowers and deep red silks draped over their entrances. We watched as children struggled to cross the hectic roads and motorbikes crashed into the cars halting in front of them.

As the car drove on, the streets became less domestic; there were fewer clothes and shoe shops and barely any food stalls or shelters selling ceremonial garlands and incense sticks. The stalls became increasingly industrial and we passed rows of tyre shops, carpenters, metal workers and scrap workshops. We saw streets backed up with rubbish trucks and shelters filled entirely with refuse. The dress of the people we saw also seemed to change as we drove further and I noticed more women in hijabs and full burqas; men with fairer skins who had not adopted traditional Hindi dress. When we arrived at the textile company it was quickly evident that we were in a predominantly Muslim area. I can’t exactly describe how, but this area felt very different.

A man came to meet us at our car and led us through backstreets to a building where we were guided into a padded white room and asked to remove our shoes. We sat on the cushioned floor against cushioned walls and a beautifully spoken man sat in front of us and began to talk about the textiles they produced. He then proceeded to take out a large stack of fabrics whilst two other men busied themselves bringing more and more piles of colour into the room, slowly unraveling each before us.

The fabrics, which had all been hand-woven in a traditional weave, were truly impressive. The detail of each design and the vibrancy of the colour combinations produced textiles so striking and of such high quality that it was strange to imagine them being created in these dirty backstreets. We sat on the floor and enjoyed the performance as fabrics flew all over the room, unraveled in every direction. We tried each different style against our skin and Phyllis wrapped shawls around herself, after an hour of unravelling, every piece of fabric had been opened and lay in a mound on the floor. The salesman looked at us eagerly but I had never intended to come to buy and years of travel experience had taught Phyllis that what may look good on an Indian floor would not necessarily look good on her 92 year old mother; who was unlikely to care about the story of how it was found and subsequently transported back to New Jersey.

We apologised for not buying anything and causing such a mess and asked if we could be taken to see the weavers at work. We were led around more back alleys and soon could hear the loud clicking of the looms. In small holes in the crumbling walls young men sat at giant weaves in almost total darkness. Dressed in cotton vests and trousers they quickly moved threads through the loom and bent their backs over their work, they looked up blank faced as we gazed in at them. Eighty people were employed this way, hidden in walls throughout this part of the city, I asked what hours they worked and if they got a lunch break. The response was mumbled, heading shaking (meaning yes) and dismissive. I could not help but wonder if the small amount of money they would be paid for their painstaking work was enough to justify the long term damage which would be inflicted upon them by their working conditions. Alas, this is no anomaly in India and the same questions could be asked of most of the work carried out here on a daily basis.

Seeing the workers did not encourage me to buy any fabrics and we jumped back in the car to return to the residency for lunch. By this point, although all I had done was climb into and out of car and look at some fabrics and some weavers; I was utterly exhausted. One day in Varanasi is like 10 years in any other place, going out two days in a row is like having a 20 year outings in a strangely colourful but poorly organised theme park where all the rides are broken and every item has the wrong price tag on it.

I gave into my exhaustion and retreated to my room where instead of working or watching one of the insightful Indian documentaries I had been given to watch, I watched 2 episodes of the Sopranos and fell asleep worrying about Tony Soprano’s health and how he was going to get out of his most recent pickle. When I woke up it was time to get dressed up in my finest Indian dress for the opening of Jessie’s exhibition in the Kriti Gallery.

A quick note on Jessie’s work

Jessie specifically describes herself as ‘not an artist’ after studying architecture for 5 years she participated in a trip around parts of Northern India, which passed through Varanasi. In Varanasi she became fascinated by the ghats, which she decided to draw meticulously in true architectural form. The result is a 7+ metre long line drawing which is currently being displayed around the three white walls of the Kriti Gallery. The work is an absolute feat and depicts every visible building along the water front from Assi Ghat in the south of the city to the northern most ghat. I can’t imagine what would have possessed Jessie to embark on this mad project but I must admit I am incredibly impressed by her tenacity and the final result. In the 1920s an artist sketched the full length of the water front but the drawings were subsequently destroyed. Jessie’s drawing is therefore now the only existing effort to document the ghats ‘in line’.

For the occasion of the gallery opening Navneet had organised a traditional street food stall inside the gallery grounds, (cooked with filter water and ‘safe’ ingredients), and had invited 400 guests from Varanasi and surrounding areas. As Terry had told me the other day the audience for contemporary art in Varanasi is virtually non-existent, Navneet’s determination to hold exhibitions and events at the gallery is both absurd and incredibly admirable. By 6.30pm there was a reasonable crowd floating around the space and indulging in the fantastic food. Jessie had been cornered by the local press (who are extremely keen to feature a story on international artists) and I had found a series of rather self-important men to speak to who all seemed to have opinions on my work (about which they had neither seen nor heard). Navneet casually mentioned that I wanted to make work about women in Varanasi and before I knew it I had three men lecturing me on how I should go about doing this, they obviously were not aware of the irony weighing down upon their every word and gesture.

Of course, as one of the men said, (in a strangely British accent), ‘each to his own, each to his own’ after quickly adding ‘but this is what I would do’. A strangely quiet but dominating man began to tell me that he himself was an artist; he worked in graphics and then he proceeded to tell me how to make a film; how to find a subject; that I must first find something I was interested in and that I had to do some research, and then once I had found a topic and researched it, then I would have to find a way of communicating this… His lecture continued for almost ten minutes and I stood with exceptional restraint as he essentially spoke a whole lot of nothing with a practiced pomposity and his wife rather embarrassedly tried to look the other way and busied herself with her food and her mobile phone.

Aside from the opinionated men there was a friendly crowd of people who gathered to look at Jessie’s immense drawing. Given the lack of people interested in contemporary art in Varanasi there seemed to be quite a healthy turn out. I spent most of my time trying the various street dishes and talking to Navneet’s niece about traditional miniature paintings. She has now promised to show me how to make traditional paints and has also agreed to help me find a series of women to interview for potential filming.

After staying a respectable length of time at the opening, I slipped away up to my room where I fell onto my bed and here I remain. Tomorrow promises more adventuring with Terry and any number of strange events and activities. For now I must sleep, I feel virtually brain dead.