A photograph masks a thousand lies. Behind the sanitised photographs of the ancient city of Varanasi (usually of the evening aarti, boat rides and dreadlocked sadhus) churned out in millions by photographers, backpackers and pilgrims, hides a city in decay.
The assault of the incessant honking, traffic snarls, squalor and chaos can be overwhelming even for an Indian city-dweller used to the din. But instead of dismay, there is a lazy romanticising of the city, as if to ensure that nothing changes and the highly polluted Ganga continues to collect garbage from ghat to ghat.
Perhaps Narendra Modi, who won his election from here, can stem the rot. Or perhaps not. For the decay is not just physical, but also deeply cultural. Ten years ago, the Hindu orthodoxy ganged up to stop the filming of Deepa Mehta’s film Water. But, it began much earlier with the hardening of the Brahminical view of exclusion epitomised in the “Non-Hindus Not Allowed’’ sign on the walls of Kashi Vishwanath Temple. In an ironic twist, the keeper of the sacred fire, the Dom Raja, remains an untouchable.
The spirit of questioning that Kabir (born in a weavers’ family here) extolled, is forgotten in the city. However, Hinduism finds a way of cocking a snook at all things rigid and puritanical. Overlooking a ghat, barely frequented by pilgrims, is a temple that incorporates the idea of Hinduism like no other in Varanasi. It’s open to all and every aspect of life, including sex, is celebrated in its beautifully carved wooden sculptures.
Musicians are leaving the city to go to places where they earn more respect. Having nurtured musicians from Tansen to Pandit Ravi Shankar, Varanasi today, in the words of Haji Mehtab Hussain, eldest son of the late shehnai maestro Ustad Bismillah Khan, “has lost its music”.