A notion of stillness

by Gabriella Sonabend

4 hours of sleep, but somehow I have awoken with a new lease of hope and energy. Throughout the night I have been working on mounting my series of drawings in panels of sari fabric, lined with bells and sparkles. This is agonising work; hand stitching delicate paper in low light, but this morning I woke, climbed down from the platform where I sleep to find what I created in my somewhat delirious and shaky state – I am shocked at my own productivity.

5 portraits delicately and lovingly framed. I know immediately why I must remain here and I remember without difficulty the beauty, which lives in Varanasi, which has kept me here so long, which has given me fuel to look past what ought to drag me down daily. These women, each face given to me with such honesty and intensity an interaction so authentic that even my uncertain pencil lines have managed to capture this. Their pictures lie across my daybed, my desk, my walls and my floor, I am surrounded by their smiles, their winces, their embarrassment, momentary joy – everything they have allowed me to glimpse.

I am hungry to share these moments, the overwhelming beauty of a half of society who normally can’t be looked at in this manner. Women do not look at men, they do not talk to foreigners, they do not seek to communicate, they are in a constant state of flux here, fulfilling their various duties – but in these drawings they have given me something incredibly rare and precious – their stillness.

I remember a thought, which compelled me when I was living and working in Israel in 2010. Back then I was using dance as a means of mapping out and understanding space. I danced in 44 different locations in Jerusalem Dance was an anthropological study, an action to repeat, which like sonar would send out a sound into the spaces I occupied and what returned to me was echoes of culture, of religion, of architecture, of different thoughts contained in a city of passion and conflict. At the time, I learned that my body represented a plethora of different images and signs to different groups of people; I learned that my actions were not defined by my intentions, but by what my surroundings dictated and understood of me.

I began to think about stillness and these questions arose: At what point does stillness become active? At what point does simply being present become a dance? At what point does this dance become an act of protest? Finally, at what point does an act of protest pose a threat (to the participant and/or the audience)?

These questions seem as pertinent to me now as I think about trying to find and capture these women in moments of calm and unusual stillness. I think about their implication of their freezing for me and giving me their time, time which is precious, time which in India is not linear – rather circular, hectic and unpredictable. I realise what they have given me is so much more than a half hour of emptiness – it is time that would be spent washing, cleaning, cooking, nurturing – completing every expected action of their lives.

With these thoughts I awake, and in these thoughts I am reveling. I am honoured, I am so fortunate I am completely overwhelmed. Perhaps a storm is brewing within me, but for the moment it has no need to erupt, I am still motivated and above all I have access to an insight, which is so personal and authentically beautiful I can’t shun it. I lovingly adorn each image; I want each picture to be perfect, to award these faces my time and my stillness, to give this work the time, which could be spent in tears and self-pity. I want to afford each woman the same positive attention, curiosity and love, which they afforded me in being my sitters.

Yes. There is work for me yet in Varanasi. I am living dialectic, a truly self-aware and simultaneously deluded product of this city. I find myself talking out loud, laughing and scorning my own words and thoughts. I prevail, those faces wait for me and I prevail for them alone.