by Gabriella Sonabend
I have been unable to write over the past few days, my creative energy has been entirely devoted to the women I find on the ghats; the bathers, the washers, the mothers, sisters and daughters. At first it was a struggle to find them, to convince them to sit for me, to explain that I am only interested in depicting women, but after a few days of walking along the riverfront with my sketchbook in hand, it was no longer an effort. Now people recognise me as the woman who draws women, they see me approaching with my enormous strides and they come to me and ask to be drawn. I arrive on a near empty ghat where there are only men in sight. I sit down and suddenly as if by magic a group of women arrives in moments and encircles me, sitting for me one at a time, eagerly awaiting their turn. I have drawn entire families, a mother, three daughters and their own baby daughters. Some have sat with uncontrollable smiles that crease the corner of their eyes and raise their full or sallow cheeks. Some have sat with faces forlorn and gazed off into the distance, their eyes have seemed sunken and empty and yet they allow me to capture them in this state and they do not complain when I turn the drawing towards them and it is filled with their pain. Some have posed for me with great composure and dignity, they have held their heads high and pouted their lips; they have stared dreamily towards the glistening water. Each sitter has brought with her a different emotion and conveyed a different need or desire to me, but all have chosen to be drawn and all are completely trusting.
One smiling woman pinches my chin and then kisses her hand, another takes my hand and holds it against her heart, one woman presses my cheeks together and kisses my head. I am showered in affection and delight, I have never experienced such gratitude for my work and I understand that they are thanking me for selecting them, for outlining their beauty, for immortalising them and for treating them like individuals. In this action there is no notion of hierarchy, every woman is drawn to the same scale, is given the same amount of time and there is no consideration for age, cast or appearance, all are given equal attention. They wait patiently for their turn watching over my shoulder as I draw.
Every time a new woman sits for me I am flushed with excitement, every face is so bold, so striking, filled with emotion and rawness. A bald nun, a fidgeting baby girl with enormous eyes, a spectacled old lady, pock marks, chewed lips, faded facial tattoos, bindis, coal lined eyes, light soft saris, tangled wet hair, pierced noses and heavy hung earrings – each thinking thoughts I will never know, sitting intently across from me – somehow this work feels like a duty.
I have put all else aside, there can’t be space for this and other creative endeavours in my life. When I return from the ghats with my new drawings each day I surround them with bright block colour backgrounds and tack them to my stark white wall. I lie on my daybed and stare at the accumulating wall of faces and daydream about each, trying to remember their personal gestures and flourishes.
At night I spend time with the other residents or walk along the ghats. I continue to watch cremations, sometimes I am transfixed by their beauty, and sometimes I am oddly numb and unresponsive. Yesterday I saw a woman being placed on the funeral pyre, her face was uncovered, it had been sprinkled with bright purple and pink pigment, her body was wrapped in a white shroud and sprinkled with flowers. They covered her in piles of wooden logs, her feet dangled off the end of the pyre, they were green and limp. She might have been one of the women that I sat with on the ghats, perhaps we had shared a moment before she passed away and been carried to the river. She was not old and her toenails were painted.