In moments of stillness

by Gabriella Sonabend

We arrive at Assi Ghat at 6.30am, Navneet, Petra, Kyle, Amber, Sam and I. Norman is already there, he is wrapped in a navy blue shawl and he sits staring at the river. I am carrying a suitcase filled with my drawings. We take a long white line of rope and tie it around the orange poles on the ghat. Together we remove the works from the suitcase and hang them with bulldog clips along the white rope; it is a dull grey morning. There is a light cold wind and very few people present. We have arrived early to install my works during the morning puja, (as this is the time when usually one sees the largest congregation of women on the ghats), but the cold has kept people in their beds and there are no women in sight.

As we hang the works and they begin to stretch further and further across the ghat people begin to emerge and curiously crowd around, they offer to help and want to advise me on where to hang each piece. They excitedly point out gaps to me and tell me what they think would look best where, this is very typical behaviour – no matter what I do at what time of day, in every location it seems there are men present to provide me with their opinions and advise about absolutely everything!

The men and boys continue to accumulate and stand around watching and commenting, as they gather a woman sweeps the steps of the ghat, she does not notice the drawings of the women hanging above her, she is committed to her work; she does not have time to waste lingering. More men appear. A group of women approach, they head for the Ganges to perform their morning rituals, they walk through a gap in the installation; they do not notice the work and continue with their activities. A cow soon follows behind.

I stand back and watch the scene and I am immediately struck by its absurd poignancy. I have created an installation of images of women in moments of stillness and calm; and of course there are no women present to witness this gesture. I have brought a body of faces to the Ganges in moments of stillness to stand in for the real women who rarely have the time to stop and pause.

One of the girls in my drawings is sitting on the road that leads to the ghat; she is a beggar and sits cross legged and shivering between her mother and footless man, in front of her is a metal bowl for collecting money. I leave the installation and walk over to invite her to see her portrait, when I arrive she is gone but her little sister is there and sits in an oversized sweater vest and a woolen hat, she stares up at me as I approach. I crouch down on the floor before her and her mother and I try to explain that I am looking for her sister and that I have something to show her, of course she does not understand, she is very small (only four years old) but she remembers me and her mother encourages her to follow me. The little girl stands up and the enormous vest drags at her ankles, she waddles along as if walking inside a sack and I slow my pace to walk beside her, she is neither scared nor excited. We arrive at the ghat and I show her the drawings, her eyes widen and seem to stretch out across her tiny face, her mouth hangs open and she stares at the drawings hanging above, I guide her to the drawing of her sister and a local Indian boy translates as I explain who it is. She immediately understands and excitedly waddles back to the line of beggars, I watch as the oversized sweater shrinks in the distance. Meanwhile, more people have gathered and everyone is asking questions and commenting on the works, a boy selling flowers tells me ‘These drawings are very nice, I will buy one from you, but not today, one day when I have some more money’. A man wrapped in a red shawl smiles an enormous beaming smile and shakes his head from side to side in joyous appreciation ‘Oh, this is very nice, very nice, very nice’ he says, he seems so overjoyed that I can’t help myself from laughing, his joy is infectious and I can’t quite believe how taken he is.

The little girl has returned and she is holding her sister’s hand, she guides her to her portrait and Ligoty stares up at the image of her own face speechless. As people come and go and early rising tourists keenly try to work out what is going on, Ligoty and her little sister remain where they are simply staring in awe. They watch the people moving around the work and they stand and smile. They remain with me for hours, slowly looking at every drawing, every women blowing in the light morning wind.

Payal arrives at the ghat, she runs the local laundry in Assi and it was she who helped me to stitch the fabric panels, on which the portraits have been mounted. She is wrapped in a turquoise shawl, which matches the colour that I have painted around her portrait, it is a wonderful coincidence and she smiles shyly as she approaches her drawing. Payal wraps her arms around me and squeezes me tight, she is very sleepy and cold, her hair which is usually tied in a tight bun hangs loose at her waist, it falls out of the bottom of her shawl like a thick black tail. I take her under my arm and walk her along the line of drawings, I tell her about each woman, every drawing has an anecdote and she listens and laughs and points out her favourites. We look at the faces together and Payal interprets their expressions, their humour, their shame, their joy and their sorrow.

I call over the local chai vendor and we all stand around shivering, drinking chai from small clay bowls, Ligoty and her sister shyly join us and wrap their tiny hands around the bowls staring up at the group in amazement. They can’t believe they are being included in such a scene; it is not common for beggars to be invited to join in the same activities as tourists.

Eventually the other artists leave with Navneet and I remain on the ghat with Norman and the images, Payal goes to work and only the beggar girls remain still staring up at the drawings -mesmerised.

I am still processing this experience and its significance. Everything I have written about to date, every observation and emotion seemed to culminate in these cold morning hours. They were loaded with my personal struggles and my desperate need to communicate. The cold, grey loneliness of the morning could not have been more fitting – as if the setting were summoned to intensify the message of the work. I am trying to articulate something; I do not feel that my language is clear. On the morning of the 20th December 2013, the faces of 40 women spoke for themselves in stillness and in silence. One more great Indian paradox.