A cascading effect of events unravels in the ghats and lanes of Banaras. Myriad lanes emerge like an umbilical cord out of the ghats to the womb of the sacred geography, to the infinite spots where the believers pause to experience the divine. Its waterfront, a grid of stairs leading one’s vision up so that the eye meets a world that is frantic of the mundane and magnum opus, and a scene that appears chaotic yet in sync.
In Banaras: Of Gods, Humans and Stories, authors Nilosree Biswas and Irfan Nabi discern the engaging narrative of a unique chromosome that makes Banaras. Traversing within the maze, its sacred topography, craft traditions and gastronomic plethora, the book examines the tenets of the city’s weave. There is a singular, unified and unstoppable momentum to all this — akin to the unfolding of a scroll of a painting.
According to Nilosree, who is also a filmmaker, Banaras: Of Gods, Humans and Stories is a book that tries to trace the chromosome of an unique, complex, lived-in space called Banaras.
Irfan informs us that the duo had started thinking of three books that would revolve around three cities/places/cultures/histories enhanced by images way back in 2012. “While Banaras was one of the cities, we also worked on Kashmir and Ladakh” he adds. “Our book on Kashmir was published in 2017 and now the Banaras book is out. Unfortunately, the book on Ladakh got delayed due to the pandemic though we hope it’ll be out in 2022.”
Banaras: Of Gods, Humans and Stories accounts for its key tenets like history, mythology and traditions as it weaves an interconnecting narrative stylised as personal yet evidenced.
Leaving a mark
Spread over chapters on “Sacred Geography”, “Ganges”, “Handcrafted Traditions” and more, the book bases itself on intense research and extensively shot images.
Nilosree believes that inhabited places of ancient origin need to be relooked at, from time to time. “And this is true for all such ancient cities across the world like Banaras, Jerusalem, Rome, Beijing, Cairo, etc. Antiquity of these places resemble palimpsests; stories get created, forgotten and recreated with each era and regime,” adds the filmmaker, whose documentary Broken Memory, Shining Dust: Loss and Hope in the Land of Disappeared has been archived by Oscar Library, also called The Margaret Herrick Library, located in Beverly Hills. Incidentally, the author duos’ earlier book Alluring Kashmir: The Inner Spirit has found a home in the Library of Congress — the research library that officially serves the United States Congress and is the de facto national library of the USA.
Irfan tells us he is drawn to places of relic and heritage. “After having shot Kashmir and Ladakh extensively for the past few years, it was time to change the region and mood of my compositions. Banaras is a storyteller’s heaven, antd the local residents have imbibed this fascinating quality. Everybody knows a story and is willing to share one, at the very first meeting. This proved to be a trigger to document Banaras, and its way of life,” he adds.
To which, Nilosree adds, “What could be more interesting as a documentarian than to unearth these stories? I felt Banaras deserves a deep dive in these millennial times.”
The draw of these places
Nilosree and Irfan have been travelling to Banaras since late ’90s. “Sometimes, with a purpose (as an assistant director for international documentaries) and sometimes like a Banarasi, wandering. Later when the book idea got formalised, I started visiting Banaras intermittently over three years, staying for a chunkier time on each visit,” says Nilosree.
While filming for the Banaras book, Irfan says he learnt to pause, become more meditative, study people, culture and faith and their overlaps for hours. “Consequently, I wasn’t rushing to get my desired frames but slowed down, relishing what I observed. My shoots resulted in nuanced compositions, often minimal over themes and sub-themes depicting layers of life. And some days, I would not shoot at all. I learnt that there would be days of zero capture, but the wait was worth it.”
Ray’s film Joy Baba Felunath, aka The Elephant King, was Nilosree’s earliest trigger as kid for Banaras. “Thereafter, the interest grew over years as a researcher, filmmaker and later as an author,” says Nilosree, whose next is a book on food stories during British rule in India.
Meanwhile, Irfan is working on a book on Ladakh, which he has been working on for quite some time. “I may also get back to writing more often than I have been lately,” he says.
Characters are the people and pulse of Banaras; the stories are about them. “They are all real people, alive and kicking with whom one has spent hours and days. Fictional characters can`t make a nonfiction book,” says Nilosree.
Anecdotes that come back
“Innumerable, including random but engaging conversations with strangers over evening cups of chai, thandais (famous in Banaras) to more coherent discussions when meeting veteran master artisans and younger practitioners of Hindustani classical music and dance. A memorable one happened while having cups of tea in the same room where Ustad Bismiallah Khan used to spend his leisure hours, as I listened to some of personal stories from his son Nazim. They all would surely remain one of the most treasurable anecdotes of Banaras,” says Irfan.
“A master artisan of Banarasi sarees and a second-generation weaver, Jagannath’s story is deeply connected to the history of arts in Banaras that somewhere converge on the complex chequered story of artisans and weavers of this city at large,” says Nilosree.