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The Call of Varanasi

Varanasi is a powerful sense imprint. It mesmerizes, overwhelms, and in some sense, unhinges once from the moorings of time and space. A curlous medley of ever-changing with the ancient, the city is a mall of all experiences.


The call of Varanasi has been strident at times, and a low persistent one at others. This piece will do no justice and the incomplete, unfinished sense will prevail. The sense is the same for every seeker, unfinished incompleteness that the city fulfils briefly. It is a resting place, a base camp of sorts for an onward journey. I recently visited a fabulous exhibition of the paintings of Yashwant Shirwadkar at Jahangir Art Gallery. The theme was ‘Benaras’ and the pull became strident once more. Shirwadkar spends a month on the river and captures the ghats at different times of the day. He photographs, makes sketches and goes back year after year for more.  The city, the visitors to the ghats, the look of the ghats changes and the artist brings back his current impressions and paints different paintings. The season and time of the day are other variables. My work as a researcher is not unlike that of artist Shirwadkar. I tell stories of what I see and hear, and share these with my clients, building a kaleidoscopic picture, a mosaic based on discussions with consumers.  I heard the call with my first visit in 1999. It was a most fortuitous occurrence, a research that didn’t happen due to some unforeseen circumstances. And I got introduced to the river and the city like a tourist. It was a deep-dive into the sights, sounds and experiences that left me feeling heady, heavy, and overwhelmed. It was a medley, a sense of spiritualism, mixed-up mythology and history; awareness of my existence, mortality and destiny; and above all a great curiosity to get under the skin of the city and its people. Subsequently a friend with whom I share the Varanasi pull, gifted me with a wonderful CD titled ‘Soundwalk’ an audio guide to the first time traveler to Varanasi.  Varanasi is eternal and ephemeral all at the same time. It is made up of evolved spiritualism and mysticism combined with an intensely physical experience that assails every sense. Age-old educational institutions and trading institutions juxtaposed, traditional handicrafts with modern-day multipliers, Varanasi is as much about life’s endings as it is about beginnings. It is a city where black and white doesn’t blur into a gray. I came here first to study the banal and the very ‘this worldly’. It was a study of consumers in the context of their oral care habits, by exposing them to product formats and concepts. In talking with these housewives, their refinement, education, openness of mind, ability to think and to articulate, came as a big surprise.  These women might not have traveled much in physical terms, but they were exposed to thoughts and ideas. There was in them a maturity, wisdom and an ability to articulate, that a poet might attribute perhaps to the holy polluted water that flows and the muggy air over the city. The most recent visit took place 6 months ago. It was a little more broad-based this time. I was there to study girls between the ages of 13 and 24; to understand their routine, the high points, pain points and their drivers. I spoke with some ‘experts’ that made up of an educationist who influences the intangible and a dressmaker, who moulds and fashions visible aspirations of attire. Studying cross-current influences, changes in family social structures, the construct of relationships, and changes around them helped me get a little under their skin. The young girls appear to have a strong modern context that sits comfortably with the traditional. They are aware, aspiring, ambitious, and want to improve their lot and to live an ‘achchi zindagi, a good life’. This ‘good life’ means happiness for their parents and family, being financially independent, and being in a comfortable marriage. Love and romance are usually experienced under wraps, covertly through friends’ experiences, most of which are not happy. I heard tales of experimentation, making mistakes, feeling sorry for oneself, feeling misunderstood, guilty, and sadness, a sense of feeling ‘used’, and the huge emotional drain of keeping everyone in the family in the dark.  The women in Varanasi are more educated, and they read and write much more their counterparts in other cities. They are more comfortable with expression, using poetry and keeping a daily diary. The 13 – 16 year olds enjoy traditional arts as much as they enjoy using Paint on the computer. There is a higher emotional sensitivity and a heightened sense of perceptiveness in the 19 – 24 year old. This leads to greater dialogue and expression, and avenues to experience and to feel fulfilled.  The pretty dressmaker I spoke with chose to move back to Varanasi and live with her parents and maintain a long-distance marriage. Her daughter who is 11 converses with me in English, attired in a neat and smart skirt and blouse. The dressmaker has a small workshop at home and she needs to spend time looking at patterns on TV. She goes for a brisk morning walk every morning and is very conscious of staying trim. She walks down the lane that leads to Dasashwamedh Ghat browsing through the clothes and mannequins, absorbing styles and patterns. Her clientele makes specific demands and clothes have to have slimmer silhouettes, innovative backlines, interesting embroidery and cuts and blouses with more daring necklines. Everyone is moving ahead and on the treadmill of being modern and keeping with the times.  The city is changing at a blurring pace. Young girls today are training themselves for a career. The educationist I spoke with told me tales of parents who support their children’s ambitions. Curricular and co-curricular experiences are about giving the young girl an edge to help her succeed anywhere. The accent is on the flowering of individual talents, not restricted to academic achievements alone. Coaching classes are an enabler for socialization, celebrating birthday parties and picnics, as much as they are for exploring fashion and food, forging friendships, for building confidence and experiencing dreams and life. Mass media is the great leveler of experiences, and the male head of the household is no longer the ubiquitous patriarch. In the present-day knowledge economy, power and control come from being well-informed, in keeping with the times. Young people are getting a natural edge in familial relationships owing to being well-informed.  Varanasi as nucleus and magnet has enabled the flourishing of a confluence of cultures, attracting travelers from different worlds, with their unique and multifarious needs. It is both an enabler to settle as much as a launch-pad to move on, in real and in metaphysical terms. A unique city unlike another and this researcher’s favourite puzzle!

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