Varanasi and Psychogeography

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The term flaneur, or gentleman stroller on the streets of a city, appears repeatedly in discussions about psychogeography. There are, as I had mentioned in the previous post, there are numerous blogs with the title “citywalks.com”. Walking around one’s neighbourhood and roaming afar has the status of the unannounced national pastime in the city of Banaras. Another activity that is equal in its importance and popularity in the city is to reach a spot (mostly a ghat) near one’s house and sit there through most part of the morning or evening, doing, what people popularly call “nothing”.

Ghat gazing is a central pastime of the city. Gali and street gazing are the other stationary forms of soaking in the city’s cultural air. There are many activities that are elements of doing “nothing” while ghat gazing. Some of them are diametrically opposite to each other, e.g. enjoying seclusion and the company of friends, imbibing nature’s sounds or those made by humans, entering the river or just watching it pass by, sitting with a crowd or alone etc. Ghat gazing becomes a habit with the passage of days and then, with the passage of years, it becomes an essential element of one’s character. A Banarsi can’t live without his ghats and his Mother: Ganga Maiya. There are reasons behind it that range from religious to socio-cultural to psychogeographical.

Muslims Chausatti Ghat

Psychogeography is defined as the study of the effect of geography of a place on an individual’s psyche, i.e. mind. Some key terms that recur in the discussions of the stream are derive, flaneur, drifting etc. These terms of psychogeography have something to do with movement. On the other end of the scale is motionless mental drifting indoors. The stream runs its course between the two extremes. Banarsis have been practising psychogeography long before the term was coined and was introduced in the urban lexicon. What else can one call the responses of a large number of individuals, even in this age of mechanization, to the geographical rhythms of their city? Without any attempt to over-essentialize or generalize, it can be said that the Banarsis breathe in their city and imbibe its vibes.

What does a city do to a man? To answer the question, another must be asked: What is a city? Is a city purely and solely definable in terms of geography or some other factors come into play? A city is the area of land on that exists materially. But it’s much more than that. It’s also its landmarks and buildings, e.g. just taking the name of the Eiffel Tower brings Paris to mind, or the Statue of Liberty, New York. There’s more. A city does not exist merely in space. It exists in time too. So, Paris of nineteenth century is not the same as Paris of twentieth or twenty-first century. The name of the city may remain the same, the city doesn’t. So, it can be said that cities are spatio-temporal entities. There definitely are constants across time in a city, but change is always at work in various ways.

So, a city is spatial and temporal. It is also socio-cultural. A city sans its citizens doesn’t remain the same. People are trhe life force of their city – the force that drives it forth in time. Places and people in  a city have a pattern of interacting with one another – a pattern that has been established and stabilized in time. If a city is a text, its various localities and “hot” spots are the pages and sections of that book, and human activities are the pigments of the ink with which history is written on those pages; poetry too.

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