There are certain places that have such a magnetic charm to them that they remain important centres of faith and politics throughout history. Varanasi is certainly one of them. The city has attracted numerous artists, writers, and creatives, who have come seeking inspiration, and almost always, a successful dip into the holy river of creativity is guaranteed. Considered to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities of the world, Varanasi has long been a centre of Hinduism. Ash-smeared sadhus meditating on the ghats of the Ganges, numerous shrines and temples dotting the narrow lanes, the reverberations of chanting and temple bells ringing melodiously, Varanasi is unlike any other city in the world. The importance of Varanasi is attested not only through Hindu texts like the Vedas and Puranas, but also through Buddhist tales and Jaina texts. The Jatakas, expounding the previous lives of the Buddha also account the reputation of the rulers of Varanasi and the city itself. The city’s fame as a religious and commercial centre is attested by many travelers who visited the city over several centuries, like Hsuan Tsang, who left detailed accounts of his visit to India from China. The city served, and continues to serve as an evocative muse to artists, who have been trying to capture its essence in their work since eternity. Some of the most colourfully complicated examples of Varanasi in art come from traditional Indian styles of art, some of the most romantic pictures come from European traveler-artists, and some of the most personallised accounts were rendered by the Modernists.
The indigenous art forms of India weave together religious, ritual and utilitarian functions, that play a vital role in the socio-religious life of the people. Often painted on traditional materials such as textiles, various Indian art forms offer a deep connection between the artists, their faith, their geographical location, and the subject matter of the artwork. Indian artists often painted maps of important cities. These colourful maps were not entirely geographical markers, but captured the cultural landscape of the city as well. These paintings mapped the ecology of the cultural mind of the city, the essence of its soul rather than just its geography. An indicator of the sacred geography of the city, these maps permeated into the art and craft traditions of India, such as the Patachitra.
Perhaps one of the reasons why artists have always looked up to Varanasi is that the city serves for a utopia with its continuing tales and traditions. The early European traveler-artists painted for the purpose of documenting the country. Sometimes dejected by the pace of industrialisation in Europe, these Europeans looked at the orient through rose-tinted spectacles, and Varanasi with its religious and ritualistic fervour, provided the perfect backdrop to their paintings, which were sublime and romantic representations of the city. William Hodges, the first professional British artist to come to India, noted in his Travels in India (1793) that in Benaras, one could “contemplate the pure Hindoo manners, arts, buildings and customs… the manners and customs prevail amongst these people at this day, as the remotest period can be traced in history.”
The uncle-nephew travelling-artist duo, Thomas and William Daniell, created hundreds of sketches and watercolour paintings during 1786-1793, some of these were turned to aquatints upon their return to London, and 144 of these were published as ‘Oriental Scenery’. The duo travelled to Varanasi twice, once in 1788, and again in 1789. Various other European traveler-artists came to Varanasi, and attempted to capture the city through their romanticised brush.
The most important European perhaps to have visited Varanasi, whose contribution was manifold in his small lifespan was James Prinsep. He was a son of an English East-India Company merchant, and was employed in India. Prinsep was an architect-engineer-artist, all rolled into one. A true renaissance man, it was Prinsep who deciphered the two ancient Indian scripts – Brahmi and Kharoshthi. Remembered as the founder of modern Varanasi, Prinsep laid down the underground drainage system in the city. During his years in Varanasi, Prinsep documented the life, history, culture, and architecture of the city in his numerous drawings and diaries. Twenty-six of his finest illustrations were published in a volume, Benaras Illustrated, in the 19th century.
The purpose of documentation and of learning about a new country, prompted the British to establish local schools of art that trained Indians in European techniques and aesthetics. This brought down the cost of commissioning expensive European artists, and cultivated European taste in the Indian artistic imagination. The Indian artists trained at these new art schools, painted artworks that were known as Company Paintings. The Company Painters followed in the footsteps of the traveler-artists, and continued to capture the landscape, the customs, and the people of the country. Varanasi with its distinctive charm continued to attract the gaze of artists trained in the Company School as well.
Dismayed by fast-paced and often cruel city life, artists have often looked for holy inspiration and Varanasi with its centuries of tales and traditions is a pandora’s box of inspiration. Artists practicing during the pre-independent years like Benod Behari Mukherji and Nandalal Bose, who sought inspiration at the ghats of Varanasi on several occasions, viewed it as the utopic ideal of Indian culture. Benode Behari Mukherji suffered from a weak vision, and as his eyesight deteriorated, he moved his artistic focus to spiritual subjects, and the beginning of this move was made in Varanasi. His mentor, Nandalal Bose also came to the holy city, and made several sketches of the city.
The trajectory of Modern Indian art saw two masters changing their outlook towards their own art after a visit to Varanasi. These two artists were Ram Kumar and M.F. Husain. The revolutionary artist, M.F. Husain who was an early proponent of Indian modernism, constantly looked inward, and painted Indian subjects and themes. Varanasi provided a perfect backdrop for his art. Ram Kumar, who was a banker trained in Economics, was drawn to his creative side, and left his banking career to follow his calling and study art in Paris. In the 1960’s, Ram Kumar made his first trip to Varanasi, M.F. Husain accompanied him. For Ram Kumar, who had been briefly a member of the Communist Party, human suffering was at the centerstage of his works. During this period, Husain too, was creating deeply evocative paintings and was interested in the human condition. The charm of Varanasi is not only exotic to foreigners, but even to the people of India, it is an enchanting world. The city’s history, religious and ritual romance was enough to draw the two young artists, and a creative blessing was perhaps evoked as the duo stayed at the ancestral home of the doyen of Hindi literature, Munshi Prem Chand. The artists were deeply affected by what they saw. The city was an idea based on contrasts, a dip in the holy Ganges would ensure that the cycle of birth and rebirth remains intact, whereas the ashes of the dead if scattered in the river promised to ensure a ticket to heaven for the dead soul, freeing one from the cycle of reincarnation. The mysticism of the temples, rituals, and ascetics in the city moved Husain to create numerous works on the city.
Ram Kumar, who would visit the city over and over again, was completely taken in during his first visit. He created multiple drawings and sketches of the city, and then moved to capture the spirit of the city, achieved through figurative studies, but characteristically done in abstract style. Ram Kumar sensed the feeling of alienation in Varanasi, even though the city was bustling with people, the lonely existence of humans could not be ignored. The decline of the city, and the dilapidation of its ancient structures was evident, and the artist felt a deep sense of loss. Moved by the sights of the funeral pyres, the widows, and the hopelessness of existence, Ram Kumar sought to capture the emotional responses and the cycle of life. Post his visit to the city, there was a marked shift in his colour palette, which now began to incorporate hues such as aquamarine, ochre and viridian. Ram Kumar returned to Varanasi as a subject regularly and produced multiple works, including his very well-received blue and white Benaras series.
Speaking of their trip, Husain commented, “Twenty years since Ram Kumar and myself sailed silently close to the ghats of Varanasi, my fascination for the eternal city is ever growing….Every morning the proverbial Morn of Benaras (Subah-e-Benaras) would glow in gold and we would pass by many ghats without a word. Only later, we break our silence at a roadhouse Bengali coffeehouse..”(D. Nadkarni, Husain: Riding the Lighting)
Ganesh Haloi, another senior artist, who had migrated to West Bengal from East Pakistan (Bangladesh) during partition, was taken by the contradictory philosophy of life and death at Varanasi. Haloi painted a series on the city in 1999, and his works, rooted in his memory and experience of partition, merged human identity and its condition within the landscape to a point where the two would be inseparable.
Another artist enchanted by the charms of Varanasi is Manu Parekh. Unlike other artists, who visited the city to seek inspiration, Parekh first visited Varanasi was after his father’s death. The artist had always been drawn to nature and its relationship with human beings since the early days of his practice. In his art and life, his surroundings continuously inspired him. During his visit to Varanasi, the paradox of the city, swarming with pilgrims caught his attention immediately.
The romance of a city as old as time, practicing unbroken traditions of culture and religion, with the holiest river of the subcontinent flowing through it, Varanasi serves as perfect muse to the creative mind. Some of the finest creatives from the world have already taken a dip in its inspiring waters, and there can be no doubt that in the years to come, or for that matter, at this very moment, an artist is sitting with his sketch pad on the ghats of Benaras, creating a masterpiece.
Introduction by Surabhi Sharman