The hidden flourish
by Gabriella Sonabend
I sit at Assi Ghat and Usha sits opposite me smiling with shy eyes, shaking her head nervously. Her teeth are sparsely spread inside her red paan stained mouth, she licks her dry lips and fiddles with the edge of her sari pulling it further over her forehead, smoothing the folds on her lap as she shuffles on her crossed legs. She uncrosses and crosses them the other way. She rocks from side to side as she maneuvers herself. Another woman sits cross legged behind her on the wooden crate; she also rocks back and forth leaning over her friend’s shoulder trying to peer down at my page. They laugh and draw arcs with their hands in the air as they talk. A crowd of onlookers slowly begins to grow and a man stands over my shoulder commenting on every line I commit to paper. He gives me his opinion on how I should depict the woman sitting for me. I am by now used to these misogynist interventions but I am still highly irritated by them and I keep my mouth firmly shut smiling ahead at the nervous sitter. Usha is patient and excited but she can’t hold her head in one direction for more than a few seconds. I try to capture the feeling of her movement and the urgency in her eyes when they occasionally lock into mine. She tries to communicate with me and ask me questions. I understand that she is asking whether I am married, (this is always the first question I am asked by Indian women). I shake my head and she seems disappointed by my answer, I decide that the next time I am asked this question I will indulge my sitter with a little white lie.
When I have finished the drawing, as best as I can given my various constraints, I flip around the sketch book to show it to Usha. At first she smiles and looks overjoyed but as she grabs the book and inspects the image further she quickly grows angry and starts shaking her finger in my face, I feel terrible, I had certainly not wanted to cause offence and I can’t understand what I have done so horribly wrong. An onlooker translates, he explains that Usha is upset that I have drawn her teeth, I should have drawn her with a closed mouth, she was not happy with how her teeth had been drawn at all. A young man in his early twenties grabs my sketch book out my hand and starts to rub at the drawing with his fingers to erase the mouth. I am extremely aggravated by this behaviour, what had made this man think he had the right to snatch my work and alter it? I took back the book and thanked Usha. I apologised sincerely and tried to communicate my appreciation for her time but she was neither concerned nor interested by this point and was immersed in conversation with the woman who had been sitting behind her.
I stayed on the ghats for the rest of the day and whilst I was wandering and sketching. I bumped in a French man who I had met at the Ashram; he is in Varanasi to learn woodcarving and other traditional art forms. Together we meandered along and looked for subjects to sketch. I searched for stationary women, he drew strange surreal landscapes. At Jain Ghat I found a circle of elderly women at the top of the steep steps. Within the group one looked directly at me with eyes magnified to a cartoon-like scale through oval lenses. Her face was filled with both great wisdom and playful absurdity and I was drawn immediately to her. I crouched down in front of her on the floor and looked up at the face, which was now nodding from side to side curiously inspecting me and my sketchbook. As I began to draw she chuckled away at me, stroked my head and pinched my left cheek. She placed her hand on her heart and looked back and forth at the two women sitting either side of her, widening her enormous eyes as she turned to each. I drew fast and tried to capture her posture and intensity. When I drew her eyes I directed her face towards me and opened mine wide to show her what I was focusing on. She mirrored my gesture and held her eyes extremely wide open and stuck out her tongue involuntarily as a reflex, which completed the silly expression. I laughed hysterically as the moment caught me completely off guard and seeing that I had responded so positively to her behaviour she repeated the gesture again and again, smiling to her friends who smiled and rocked from side to side bumping into her and causing her to sway.
Meanwhile as I focused on my subject; children seemed to emerge in masses popping their heads through every available gap between my body, under my arms, around my waist. One child even tried to stand between my legs. They jumped up and down behind me to see the evolving image; they tugged at my dress to try to lower me for a better view. By the time I had reached the end of the drawing I was no longer holding my sketchbook, two children standing either side of me had appointed themselves as a human easel and they proudly held my book for me as I sketched away. I was unsure at what point they had arrived. I revealed the drawing and the large eyes widened to their full capacity. My subject, Ramlah, chuckled and patted my head. I thanked her and walked back down the water and for the remainder of the day I sat by Assi Ghat sketching the various goings on in front of me.
In the evening Navneet had arranged a boat to take him, his friend David, (a visiting professor), and his wife Sandy, down the river to see two of his favourite holy sites in the city. I was fortunate to be in Assi at the time the boat was expected and I joined the group on their journey. As the two young boatmen energetically rowed us downstream towards the main ghat, David spoke of his work in India studying forms of devotional practice. He explained that he and Sandy were currently living in a small town near Agra where the local people have developed a devotional practice centered on stones, there they adorn oversized pebbles with garlands, pigments and fabrics dressing them like deities and worshipping them in these elevated forms. He showed me some photographs of these dressed up stones, which closely resembled the sculptures found around the shrines in Varanasi, they had been attended to with the same devotion and care.
The boatmen turned the boat towards a jetty and we hopped off and climbed the ghat. At the top of the great stairs and through a series of narrow lanes in the old city we arrived at a low doorway, which led into a series of courtyards. These courtyards made up a serene temple complex, which provided a completely different space to that of the lanes outside. Having stepped off the lanes into a great building previously I was not surprised to discover this magnificent and quiet microcosm, but my lack of surprise did not deplete the sense of joy and satisfaction brought by walking through these cool, dark spaces, feeling the depth of the city. Each courtyard contained a shrine to a different deity, which was placed inside a small room contained by a barred metal door. We peered through these doorways at striking statues of Shiva, Devi, Vishnu and other deity forms. At the centre of each courtyard stone steps led down to a lowered square of ground where one could stand and contemplate the deities from below. Aside from a priest and a woman who sat absentmindedly in one of the courtyards, the temple was deserted. I walked on my own, circling each courtyard. In the walls were hollowed out spaces, which looked like decorative shelves, inside these, spiders had woven dense intricate webs, which trembled as the light wind pushed into them; each hollow become like a shrine of its own, decorated by the relentless spiders.
We returned to the boat and travelled further upstream to just beyond the main ghat. Here we were led to another hidden temple. We entered and sat around a central shiva linga, a priest entered the space and commenced the evening puja. Navneet seemed extremely excited to have arrived at this time; he told us that this particular priest performed the evening ritual in the most beautiful way he had ever seen. This was in fact no exaggeration. The priest sat crossed legged on a wooden platform on the floor, in front of him the ground was hollowed out into a stone pit at the centre of which was a shiva linga. This pit was surrounded by four low metal walls, and sat at the heart of the temple. Beside the priest were an assortment of objects, spices, pastes, flower garlands, a large water urn, a metal jug, candle holders and bells. The priest began his ritual by creating an orange paste with his fingers in a small mixing bowl. He then proceeded to rub the paste on his forehead, his forearms and his nose, he then rinsed his hands and poured water over the shiva linga attentively washing it down, rubbing the water over the protruding form. Next he took curd, water and honey and methodically dressed the linga in each smearing the creamy, honeyed substance over and around the linga, dousing it in water and allowing the mixture to run off into the gully beneath. He then used a metal cup to scoop up the mixture, which had formed a small pool at the bottom of the trough, he poured this concoction back into another container and an on-looking man proceeded to pour this into his mouth before uttering words of prayer. The linga was washed again before being covered in a bright orange paste, with his finger tips the priest drew swirls into the orange creating beautiful intricate patterns on the linga. It now looked like it was dressed in rippling orange water. From his pile of ceremonial paraphernalia the priest selected a large golden hoop, which had an arm extending from it forming a shade with a claw-like shape at its crest, this he placed over the circular bump of the linga, the hoop circled its base, it stood like a celestial crown. Next the priest began to take the garlands of flowers and place them around the golden hoop forming concentric rings of yellow, pink and orange with the linga sitting at the heart. With fast, light hands the priest worked meticulously creating the most beautiful and garish shrine I had ever seen, the performance, filled with dramatic flourishes and fitting sound effects from the priest, lasted over thirty minutes. He was utterly entranced by his own ritual and we watched like alien outsiders as the ceremony continued to unfold. Eventually the artist had completed his masterpiece and three other priests joined him cross-legged around the central shrine, they lit the candelabras and incense sticks and placed them around the linga, each priest took a golden bell and they sat at the four sides of the shrine and began to chant, ringing the bells to create a fast, shrill rhythm.
By the time the ritual had finished we had passed over an hour in the temple and I felt sick from the incense and the echo of the endless chants. I felt as though, yet again, I had been allowed a glimpse into another universe. I could not believe that these activities commenced every night of every day of every year passed in this temple. As I took a rickshaw back to Assi I thought about how many rituals were taking place in the world at that exact moment in time and was struck but the absurd intensity of superstitious ritualistic practice and the way that it dominates and controls so many human lives.