Wonder in Varanasi
Sculptor Natalie Guy works in a space of mixed media and modernist hybridity. In India for a three-month residency, she found inspiration in a city and its craftspeople.
Clutching a three-metre iron rod while on the back of a motorcycle on a dusty pot-holed road in a crush of cows, motorcycles, bicycles and rickshaws is not my usual way to get sample material to a supplier. But things are done a little differently in Varanasi. After surveying many of the metal workers in the iron district with Ajay Pandey, a consultant to Kriti Gallery and my helpful translator, we had found a blacksmith working out of a tiny roadside stand who was happy to bend iron rods to my designs. We delivered the sample safely (I had been a little worried about the low-slung power lines), keen to get him started on the rest, only to find out that the following day was the start of Vishwakarma, the ironworkers festival, which would last for five days. Another lesson on how Varanasi works.
In 2017, the Asia New Zealand Foundation called for proposals for a new arts residency based at Kriti Gallery in Varanasi, India. I first travelled to India in 2015, visiting Kerala, Rajasthan, Delhi and Agra in Uttar Pradesh. Varanasi was definitely on my radar, but time and distance meant it had to go on the ‘next time’ list. Being awarded the three-month residency was an amazing chance to immerse myself in India – and I was especially excited about staying through September, October and November in the holy city of Varanasi, which is known for being challenging as well as wondrous. As a sculptor, I was interested in how I could work with local artisans and suppliers and potentially work some of the wonder of Varanasi into a new project – a fusion of New Zealand modernism and Indian handcraft.
Varanasi, or Benares as it is traditionally known, is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world. For more than 2500 years the city has had a special place in Hindu religious culture, attracting pilgrims and seekers from all over India. It is said that the god Shiva makes Benares his permanent earthly home. Bathing in the Ganges – a river said to have fallen from heaven to earth – as it runs through Benares is a rite for locals and pilgrims to receive divine blessing.
The dying also come to bathe and to die here, where death is thought to be eternal liberation. Those who live in Benares are considered doubly lucky, for not only do they have access to the Ganga it is also likely that they will die here. Earlier in the century, they were extolled to break their feet with stones so as to be unable to walk any distance, in case they were tempted to travel and potentially die outside of the city.
Death is a recurring thread in this staunchly traditional city, with up to 80 bodies cremated each day on wood fires at the burning ghats of Manikarnika and Harishchandra on the edge of the river. The ashes, as well as the many ashes of the deceased that the pilgrims bring, join the bathers in the river along with the bodies of those who can’t be burned. Correspondingly, the old city streets are filled with processions and it is impossible to ignore the bodies being carried to and fro – the rites taking place at the ghats are a central feature of life here. Dawn is the best time to walk the seven-kilometre, ghat-lined stretch of the old city waterfront – a pleasure that I have often observed while staying here. Kashi, a name for the old city territory meaning ‘city of light’, is an apt term for this experience.
Varanasi in 2017 still feels extremely traditional, especially when compared to cities like Delhi or Kochi. Local inhabitants are proud of their adherence to tradition and the fact that every festival is celebrated here, many over several days or weeks. This traditional ethos extends to clothing and adherence to Hindi principles of observance. Varanasi is predominantly vegetarian and alcohol purchasing is limited (outside of a handful of male-only and tourist establishments). The streets smell like a mixture of cow dung, rubbish and – when stuck in traffic – exhaust fumes, so the new electric rickshaws are a very sensible addition. Every one honks. Loudly. Honking is the sound I go to sleep to, even though at Kriti we are set some way off the road.
Kriti Gallery, the only contemporary gallery in Varanasi, was established in 2006 by Navneet Raman, with Petra Manefeld joining him in 2008. Alongside the gallery is purpose-built accomodation in a modernist-meets-India style, for up to five visiting artists. Each apartment has a spacious studio and bedroom with a nice high stud and plenty of windows. Lunch and dinner is cooked on site and shared in the kitchen/dining room. The temperatures in my first month hovered around 33 degrees, with some extreme days up to 37 degrees. With the high humidity, the ceiling fans were definitely my friends. Late afternoons seem the most difficult, as the heat seems concentrated and the traffic is at its worst. The other artists with me in September were American, Australian and Austrian, with a mixture of artistic practices including photography, film, painting, installation and sound; and I will be the longest-staying inhabitant this autumn season. We normally eat together and that is a good time to catch up on their projects and to share the day’s experiences or frustrations.
Kriti is about three kilometres from the central city and depending on the time of day it takes 15 to 45 minutes to journey between the two in an auto rickshaw. There are also plenty of pedal rickshaws, which are slower; but the nicest way to get to town is walking in the very early morning, which takes about 40 minutes. The first month has been a whir of daily Hindi lessons (which I as an English-only speaker find quite difficult), yoga lessons at the local Yoga Academy just around the corner, attending as many festival events as possible, exploring the ghats and old city, and trying to find and coordinate local craftspeople to help realise my project aims. Some background research on Varanasi had led me to the production of muslin (traditionally used for shrouds) and to embroidered fabric decoration, often used for saris. As if time hasn’t changed in Varanasi, fine muslin fabric is still woven by hand but is no longer used for shrouds, now made of bright red and gold polyester. Handworked embroidery in both cotton and metallic thread is still employed however as decoration for quality saris and other fabrics.
About three weeks into the residency, I wonder if I am being too ambitious with my plans. I have finalised the designs (inspired by Gordon Walters prints) that I want to use on the fabric and designed the metal rod hanging components. I have ordered 40 metres of traditional muslin from a Khadi store (these stores sell handwoven cotton and silk from all over India) and have Hasin Mohd dyeing the fabric for me. I am also working with two embroiderers on samples of the design elements, while a tailor sews test banners. All of these people are in different parts of the city, so time management is important, especially with the city closing down so frequently for festivals. But as samples and designs are agreed on, communication is getting easier.
I look forward to October being a month of production (and more festivals, no doubt), as I become more at home in this city and the component pieces of the works come together.
Natalie Guy’s finished works from Varanasi will be exhibited at Then and Then again, Malcolm Smith Gallery, Howick, from 22 January to 24 February 2018.