The Changed Face of Varanasi

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Over two decades ago there used to be a very huge slope of red bricks where the stone steps and the base of the red building stand in the picture above. How do I remember it? I had once climbed up the slope and had then found it impossible to slide or climb it down. Why? Plain old acrophobia. No, it was and is not vertigo. I don’t feel any physiological dizziness etc. I simply feel very very uneasy at heights and my instinct for self-preservation goes overtime in yelling at me. How did I come down then? Don’t remember.

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So, I came down the slope. Ergo, there was one in the first place! Now, that slope gave way to the newer structures above. They are not bad. They are simply new and different from the older one. What’s more, the Hanuman Temple above the ghat, the temple where my grandmother used to take me for darshans and kirtans, is also not there anymore. They are constructing a concrete temple in place of the old stone one.

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My urballaghophobia is not just skin deep. It has some links with my internal self and the continuously running strain of thanatophobia ever present there. Any bulwark against change doubles as the same against the ravages of time, and finally, death. Change in the old order, shape, state or feel of the things is indicative of the end of life. In death we unite as it is the end of all living things. From death to change: the shift is not metaphorical but symbolic in my case. The fear of change, then, is natural in all sentient mortals (and I think I’m both!).

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So, the new, and at present ugly, temple at a changed ghat was a shocking and sad sight the first time. In all the following visits, it remained sad only. Why change something so closely associated to my life, and that of many others? But, do those others have time to respond to or even think about the change?

Math near Lali Ghat

The huge math between Lali Ghat and Vijaynagram Ghat is a real eyesore. In its present form it’s not more than a decade old.

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Darbhanga Ghat Lift

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Rani Ghat building

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Gauri Kund Revisited

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This is my second post on Gauri Kund. It seems I will keep coming back for more. The first post with the key words Gauri Kund and Kedareshwar had received some confused and, in the beginning confusing, heavy traffic just after the Uttaranchal Kedar Temple tragedy. It then sank back to its habitual seclusion. The images of the kund show the quadrangular stone steps leading to the bottom of the kund. That was a long time after the flooded Gangaji had receded. The images of the kund in this post are different because it’s still full of the water of Gangaji left behind.

Why do I keep coming back here? Because the Kedar-Vijaynagram Ghat area of the riverfront happens to be the place where I was introduced to the ghats and temples of Kasi. My grandparents, like many other religious people of Kedar khand, used to go for their daily dip in Gangaji, followed by a darshan in the temple that has lent its name to Kedar Ghat. My grandfather would then proceed to Baba Vishwanath’s temple but my grandmother usually returned after her darshan at Kedarji.

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The image above shows the entrance of the famous temple from the side of the ghats. I remember how I loathed walking bare feet on the wet, slippery and partly filthy stretches of galis and streets for the various visits to Vishwanath Temple. So, although my grandparents used to leave their slippers at home, I used to wear them at least up to Kedar Temple. My grandparents had acquaintances at Karpatriji’s Math and at a couple of shops at the main entrance to Kedarnath Temple. I’d open my slippers at one of those places and then enter the long corridor (Bum Bhola) leading to Vijaynagram Ghat.

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After taking an occasional dip in Gangaji I’d then climb the endless series of stone steps leading to the riverside entrance of the temple. There are numerous smaller shrines and shivlings on the steps, in the left and right corners. My grandmother and other devotees would offer Gangajal, bael leaves and flowers to the various manifestations of Baba.

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Ye Mera Deewanapan Hai Remix

I feel duty-bound to write this post. It’s going to be one of those rare posts that don’t have Kasi/Varanasi/Banaras as their site of origin. I love watching movies and listening to their songs. Among the male playback singers of Hindi film industry, I love the voices of Rafi Saab, Kishoreda and, some times, Mukeshji. I love Hemantada’s voice from his Bangla film songs. Among the females, there’s Lataji. Always. So, I am biased. Yes I am totally biased towards a certain range and type of human singing voices. Moreover, I have been socioculturally programmed to like a certain variety of music too. But that does not disqualify me from comparing the recent renderings of the classics of Hindi film songs with their originals, does it?

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(Source: meraevents.com)

My first serious experience of old-converted-to-new songs was with Nitin Bali’s “Neele Neele Ambar Pe”. Then came many versions of “Gulabi Ankhen” by Raghav Sachar (versatile musician/singer), Atif Aslam (great voice quality), and by so many lesser and better known names. One catchy attempt was made in Student of the Year too. The most recent remixes I studied were Susheela Raman’s “Ye Mera Deewanapan Hai” and Suman Sridhar’s “Hawa Hawai” and “Khoya Khoya Chand” (differently accented than the originals and with a tangy accompanying music). There are many other remixes etc. but their ephemeral nature forces me not to  consider them here.

I start with “Ye Mera Deewanapan” because in its newer version it transforms the original at two levels, despite having used the same lyrics. The background music is definitely and refreshingly original, and the way the words are pronounced, with a definite, natural and conspicuous accent, make the song totally new. It’s good to listen to. I should not compare it with the 1958 one. No, they oughtn’t be compared at all. Why do I keep replaying the song anyway? The novelty in accent and music may be one reason. How long will I listen to it? Now, that’s another question.

I had thought to skip talking about the original, but my mind, fingers and music conscience won’t allow me to. So, the Mukesh-Shankar Jaikishan-Shailendra original from Yahudi must be mentioned here. My first encounter with the song that had happened a long time ago had left me baffled. The central problem to me was: How does one manage the transition of notes from the first two lines to the main song (similar to the mid-way technical transition in Rafi saab’s “Chand Mera Dil”, or Kishoreda’s yodeling in “Thandi Hawa Ye Chandni Suhani”)? The great Shailendraji’s lyrics, the original composer duo of Hindi films: Shankar-Jaikishan, and the delicious feel of Mukeshji’s voice going down the ears: an exquisite experience it is, listening to the original.

Sridhar has definitely sung “Hawa Hawai” in a more interesting manner than Krishnamurthy in the original score, and I like the music in the new score better too. The problem to the objectivity of my critical analysis is her “Khoya Khoya Chand”. Before we launch into the details, it must be mentioned here that Sridhar has sung the song well. My one thought was: “Ah, had there been no predecessors!” after listening to the song. I love Rafi Saab’s voice, remember? Add my favourite composer Shri S. D. Burman to the list of the creators of song-magic. What else can one ask for? Interestingly enough, and coincidentally, in Kala Bazar, too,just like in Yahudi,Shailendraji was the lyricist.

The new “Khoya Khoya Chand” from the movie Shaitan has the same lyrics, but a different background music and a decidedly and definitely different voice singing it. The two later changes change the overall psychological and musicological impact of the song. When I replay the Rafi Saab classic, there’s nothing left of that being-the-Devil’s-Advocate strain in me. Why did they have to even touch that song? Can’t they leave some of the good old things untouched and unsoiled? The soothing, mellifluous voice of Rafi Saab in the song, juxtaposed with the way Sridhar has sung it, provides a study in contrast.

R.D. Burman had composed the songs of The Train that was released in 1970. “Gulabi Ankhen”, its song we are interested in, was sung by none other than Rafi Saab. It’s one of his later years songs. Burman’s music, timeless and with strong guitar and drum elements, is just as popular today as it was then. So, another remix of a Burman song is not at all surprising. There are around ten available versions of this song on youtube. Atif Aslam’s rendering of the song has given birth to the question: “How can a singer with such a beautiful voice, sing a classic song so badly that one is forced to stop listening and start wondering”? Raghav Sachar has done justice to the song. What’s more he’s even embellished the song. His harmonica touch at the end is highly creative and positive, and his voice suits the song.

Nitin Bali had re-done Kalyanji-Anandji-Kishore Kumar’s “Neele Neele Ambar Pe” from Kalakar.I won’t make any attempt at comparing the voices or the music. The new song had some good music I must say.

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The Kasi Meta-Narrative II

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Through a long process of cumulative essentialization, Kasi has been converted from a city into an idea, and de facto theories of a kasicentric world have been formulated. Non-residents find it very difficult to reconcile the ideal city with the material-real one. I have read account after account expressing shock, anger or frustration of the visitors to the city over this failure in reconciling the ideal city with the real one. There’s only one villain in the story: the evolutionarily ingrained impulse to essentialize in the mind of those with vested interests in propagating and adding to the city’s myth.

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The Kasi Meta-Narrative

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“what forgiveness” said T. S. Eliot, “After such knowledge”? Theory tarnishes (or, according to a softer view: informs) permanently. Unlearning mayn’t be complete in most of the cases. That is definite and true in my case. While thinking about my city, I stumbled upon what I recognized instantly as a grand narrative, rather, the Grand Narrative of Banaras.

I value my city only because it’s mine. There are other people and their cities too. I don’t claim any objective kind of superiority for my city. Yet, subjectively, I do. It’s my right to hold and uphold my views. Isn’t it? Someone has said, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” (wasn’t it Voltaire?). So, I’m sure others will defend to death my right to say it, even when they disapprove of whatever I say!

In a more sober and serious vein, why do people attempt to lend objectivity to their subjective observations and views? Why is there one whole section of Skand Puran on the grandness and significance of the city called Kasi (Kasi Khand)? Why do the Hindus (I’m one too) of at least India look at the city as holy? Why do they need it? And, one of the more important questions: what came first, the central position of the city or its various minor mahatmyas in their sung, written or printed forms? I can’t even attempt to answer any of these questions, except the first one.

Legitimation is the technical word for the product of the process that lends objectivity to subjective observations. So, people feel the need to convert the abstract into concrete, because then it can be looked upon and held with a self-assuring certainty. Be it a geocentric solar system or a Kasicentric world, the basic idea behind the creation of the centrality must have been the same: to give sense, security and certainty to the otherwise chaotic and indecipherable world. No, I’m not attempting any epistemic re-visioning here, but question I must.

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I am trying to question the absolute kind of essentialization that my city has been subjected to, through ages. I don’t have any objection to its centrality. I have problem only with the kind of centrality gained through, what I call, a soft deceit. It’s due to the insidious process of essentializing propaganda that the image has now obscured reality for most of the people looking at or towards the city.

I have read about my city, have heard about it from others and, most importantly for me, have spent nearly seventy-four percent of my life there. For me, it is the only place where I have been successful in finding peace, even if for few moments. So, imagination and the metaphorical band may be stretched long enough to call it anandvan. Strangely, Lord Shiva, his son Skanda/ Kartikeya and the sage Agastya: Kasi is literally anandvan for them, as the Kasi Khand of Skand Puran says. The puran infuses the element of divinity into the idea of the city of Varanasi, thus raising it above the material plane into the realm of ideas and abstractions.

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Leisure Less Life

It was a long time ago, in some other time/place/life/existence of mine, when I used to have ample leisure time for rumination and plain stationary movement around the world. From around eleven in the morning till eight in the evening, I could be located with accuracy and predictability at various locii between Prabhu and Raja Ghats, lying at the curvilinear ghatscape of Kasi. Some of my favourite haunts are in the images below.

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Chowki Ghat

What would I do there? Simply sit and let the mind roam freely wherever it wanted to. Time was not measured in hours back then: those were the days of the infancy of mobile telephone and I wasn’t a regular wearer of wrist watches. So, I’d simply sit at one locus for as long as I felt comfortable there. As my level of comfort depended (and depends) on the emptiness of the place, so, it plummeted rapidly with the entry of people on the scene. When I felt that the number of people present had crossed a certain threshold, I’d move to another spot.

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Kedar-Vijaynagram Ghats

The ghat nearest to my place in the galis was Karnatak State Ghat. Prabhu/Shivala/Chet Singh and Vijaynagram/Kedar/Chowki Ghats were at a very convenient proximity too. So, my normal range of movement was from Prabhu Ghat to Chowki Ghat. The cremation ghat (Harishchandra Ghat) is between Karnatak State and Lali Ghats. It’s special. No, it used to be special back then, because occasional passers-by, pilgrims and tourists used to avoid passing through that ghat. It’s not very inviting anyway, with its smell of burning human flesh and the sight of pyres and burning corpses. Sitting anywhere on the space available on the steps or benches on that ghat was simply out of question for them back then. My observation regarding the visitors and occupiers of space even on Harishchandra Ghat isn’t valid anymore.

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Vijaynagram Ghat

So, I’d occupy my secluded spot upon a rusted railing, stone step or rotten wood bench and look at the slow flow of water, or of the people on the ghats: more at the water and less at the people, or vice-versa, depending on my mood of the day. After spending some time at a point, especially on crowded days, I’d move on, generally towards Dashashwamedh Ghat, and occasionally towards Assi Ghat. Why only occasionally towards Assi? Because, although interesting they are, neither the ghatscape nor the galis of that direction are as interesting and varied as that of the comparatively older quarters of the city.

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Near Lali Ghat

In Banaras, the ras or the essence/extract of the spirit of the place is concentrated in the older quarters: as far as I have known and experienced. In fact, whatever they call as Banarsi is found either solely or in its most concentrated and purest form in the older part of the city that is close to the river and lies between Raj Ghat and Dashawamedh Ghat. It used to take me around fifteen to twenty minutes on feet from Karnatak State Ghat to either Assi or Dashashwamedh Ghat, and around fifty minutes to either the Fort at Ram Nagar (across the pontoon bridge) or to Raj Ghat.

Karnatak State Ghat Steps

Karnatak State Ghat

The steps of this ghat aren’t clean. How can they be, with cows, dogs and goats excreting regularly anywhere and any time they feel like it? People who sit on the steps don’t pay attention to the possible excretory history of the spot. They exist in the now-and-here kind of moment. The maximum they (can) do in the direction of cleaning before they sit is blowing hard so that dust/sand etc. is removed and then they sit.

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Chet Singh Ghat

Not only did I use to sit on the steps of the ghats, I also used to lie down at two places: on the broad wooden at Kedar Ghat and on the niche under any of the arches by the entrance to the palace below. The bench at Kedar Ghat is only six to eight steps away from water, and the palace entrance is much higher than that. The closer it is to noon, the emptier the ghats are, especially one hour before and after that point of time. It was in that range of time that I remember having been to the ghats and having enjoyed long and nearly uninterrupted hours of solitude.

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Palace Gates at Chet Singh Ghat

Having to do nothing, and just ruminating sans time constraints is a kind of bliss that those ignorant of it can’t understand. The leisure to (apparently) waste one’s leisure time is the purest of all the ways of its uses, and closest to the definition of the word. The pressure of producing results at the end of a process is a modern, post-industrialization/mechanization invention. Why is the result important? Can’t the process itself be put at the centre instead? I knew somebody once who used to do it every day, and he lived long and well enough to share his story: the story of his golden years, on this blog. Why leisure? Because the best element of the good old days and the element missing from his present leisure less life is pure, unrationed, uncontrolled  and unadulterated leisure.

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