The Painted Ghatscape of Varanasi

Prinsep Dasaswamedh

Dashaswamedh Ghat (From James Prinsep’s Benares Illustrated)

James Prinsep had come to Banaras in the nineteenth century. He was drawn towards the ghatscape of Kasi like many other Europeans who had come to the city before him, and many others who later became like him, in liking the ghatscape and then painting or sketching it. The sketch above was made nearly two centuries ago and the tall houses in the centre can be seen dominating that section of the ghatscape even today.

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Other than the house in the centre, the ghatscape near Munshi/Ahilyabai Ghat has changed a lot. The same is true about the ghatscape near Panchganga Ghat. The two images below are of the same ghatscape, albeit made a couple of centuries apart.

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Towards Panchganga Ghat (From James Prinsep’s Benares Illustrated)

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Towards Darbhanga Ghat (Landscape from a contemporary artist of Banaras)

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Towards Panchganga Ghat (Landscape from a contemporary artist of Banaras)

They sell those painted ghatscapes right on the steps of ghats. It’s a comparatively recent phenomenon: the appearance of the painted ghatscapes stalls there. Some of the paintings and sketches are anonymous and many are signed. They look similar, at least to a pair of untrained eyes like mine, and similarly attractive. There’s something about the city, and specially about the ghatscape that makes it look beautiful even on the snaps taken by a photographer only by virtue of having a camera. So, it naturally looks beautiful on those sketches and paintings: both masterly and mediocre.

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Looking at the Ghatscape for Sale at Darbhanga Ghat

I had seen one name appearing frequently on the sketches on this trip of mine. I was also curious to know about those who capture the beauty of my ghats on the canvass. So, I stopped by one such stall one afternoon and started communicating with the person selling them. He called himself Vikrant, a student of the Faculty of Fine Arts, Banaras Hindu University. He also assented to pose by his paintings for my camera.

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Vikrant Selling his Paintings near Munshi Ghat

There was another shop selling the paintings , this time at Kshemeshwar Ghat near Mansarovar Ghat. The person running the shop told me that he was not the artist, but was only the seller. He sits there the whole day, so he must be earning his bread through the shop. I have seen another person making and preparing such sketches at Chet Singh Ghat. I have not spent enough time at Assi or Dasashwamedh ghats in my recent trips but I believe that the same business must be thriving there too. Earlier they used to sell such things in the shops that catered generally to the demands of foreigners only. Even today, as Vikrant had told me, they don’t aim at Indian buyers.

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Another Shop Selling Painted Ghatscape at Kshemeshwar Ghat

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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