Unravelling Varanasi: Vinayan's photographic exhibition 
- Padma Jayaraj, Thrissur 
e-mail: padmajayaraj@gmail.com

 June 4, 2009 

KR Vinayan’s photographic exhibition, Sublime to Ethereal, at Durbar Hall Art Gallery, Kochi, Kerala, brought Varanasi to those who could not make a pilgrimage to the holy city. For the past 3000 years the people of the subcontinent, have flocked its streets in search of life, knowledge, and nirvana. The sacred city is the ultimate pilgrimage destination for the devout Hindu even today. Vinayan’s camera travels from dawn to dusk, a photographic expedition through its different terrains absorbing its traditions, its life, its complexities, and contradictions. 
The very first shot introduces you to the poetry of Kasi. Silhouetted against the Ganga drenched in golden dawn, a crowd has gathered to perform ceremonial rituals. Most of them have come to perform the last rites to a dear departed one to ensure liberation. One is there to recite the Gayatri mantra, prayers to the Sun, life sustaining light and energy. Another perhaps to pay a tribute to the primordial waters, the source of all life. In the background a boat carrying pilgrims ply through its waters. Older than legends, older than traditions, Varanasi, one of the oldest cities in the world still retains its mystique.
The photographer takes a look at Varanasi in the Indo-Gangetic plains. Situated amidst the confluence of the two tributaries, Varun and Asi, the Ganga is the lifeline of Varanasi.  Two pictures of its banks, distinct and different from each other: one where the populous India bursts and the other deserted, yet filled with the golden showers of mustard fields in bloom, symbolize the persona of the country.
Sages of every hue dot the river banks amidst the devout from the East, amidst the curious from the West, amidst cows and dogs that search for food. Indeed from the time of the Rig Veda, down to Buddhist and Jain heydays, Varanasi attracted seekers of knowledge both spiritual and temporal. Even today it is the citadel of learning with Benares Hindu University where many foreigners pursue their studies. The place is still a seat of classical music and dance.
More than anything else, Death haunts the place. A series of pictures show the ever burning ghats, day in and day out. Jal-samadhi, watery burial, is another tradition cast for the sages and the poor. People from far off places bring the ashes of the dead to be immersed in its waters.
The hapless old walk into their sunset here. Traditionally the old sought nirvana at the feet of Kasi Viswanath. Changing time and tide has corrupted that practice. Many come as a last resort. That the old are pushed to the edge by the callous young is a sad commentary on the inhumanity practiced in the name of traditions.
The lens man documents lesser known rituals. It is the story of a mother from a village who promised to crawl all the way from her home to the River Ganga to take a dip, if and when her daughter got married. Indeed the River has bestowed boons from time immemorial. The mother takes the dip in its blessed waters as the newly wedded gaze on. 
The artist seems to be fascinated by the ethos of women. A forsaken old woman trying to accept her fate clinging on to her faith for strength is set against her younger counterpart from the West taking refuge in drugs: two figures etched on the banks of Ganga is a touching portrayal.
The artist captures bright moments as well. Bride and bridegroom, gaily decked come to the temples of the Ganga. The Ganga aarti is a spectacular sight: a symphony of whirling lights held by the priests, sounds of the drum and gong, temple instruments, and a chorus of age old chants reverberating twilight calm, and lighted diyas on leafy plates adrift on the river like a Milky Way. 
Cyclists over a floating bridge across the river, speaks of technological innovations inherited down the line. The picture of Muslim artisans at work, weaving the famous Benaras silk saris, completes a positive social reality in this troubled times of religious conflict in the subcontinent.
As you finish your round, you stand in front of the picture of Ustad Bismillah khan with his shehnai.

The show is curated in such a way that the first and the last photographs are juxtaposed to give a different dimension. The Ganga in her different moods forming the backdrop of each picture, implicitly or explicitly, is an ever present phenomenon. And the silhouetted figures acquire the dimension of characters in a shadow play that enact the eternal saga of human woes on the banks of primeval waters. Racial memories evoke the murmuring Ganga down the ages. Your spirit listens to the ethereal strains from shehnai, unheard songs of life, love, loss, and death. …

“’What is better than doing Riyas on the banks of the Ganga, watching the crowds of Benaras and having the prasad of the Viswanathji ka mandir…..’ - the words of Bismillah Khan, inspired me to visit Varanasi and prompted me to work there,” says the artist. And the show is dedicated to Ustad Bismillah khan, the living legend of Indian music. 

The photographs in different tones are natural without any touching for artistic effect. Vinayan whose passion is still photography is to receive an award from Kerala Lalithakala Academy this year. 

Padma Jayaraj is a freelance writer and a regular contributor to www.narthaki.com