Sunday, March 7, 2004

Cultural flavours of Varanasi
B.N. Goswamy

Figure of a winged deity, possibly Kama, 2nd century; Collection of the Jnana Pravaha Museum
Figure of a winged deity, possibly Kama, 2nd century; Collection of the Jnana Pravaha Museum

JUST a few weeks back, I found myself again in Benares – Varanasi now – and came face to face with that extraordinary mix of excitement, confusion, layering, spiritual quest and environmental squalor that has come to characterise this ancient city. I met men and women to whom little else mattered except the pursuit of learning, drove through streets that appeared as if they were last cleaned when Kabir lived here, found areas of the most wonderful quiet, saw traffic blocked for hours by screaming and dancing men who were taking an image for ritual immersion in the Ganga. It is an exasperating city, but I think I have found my way to deal with it: I see it now as a city of islands, each a world unto itself, connected only by the vast flow of humanity, and history that surrounds them.

One such island is an institution named Jnana Pravaha, a Centre for Cultural Studies, as it is officially designated. I had heard of Benares long before I visited it this time, and words spoken in its praise by well-regarded friends had stayed with me. I was being put up on the premises, and was looking forward to delivering a lecture in honour of Alice Boner, that great friend of India, who, coming from Switzerland, had made Benares her home till nearly her last days. But the long, unending ride to the place from the airport – it is tucked away in a corner on the very bank of the Ganga but far away from the Ghats – and the rattling sights and sounds that I heard and passed through on the way had bruised my enthusiasm somewhat. I was tired and on the point of becoming downcast by the time I arrived. Just entering the Jnana Pravaha complex, however, revived me. Candidly, I was not prepared for what I saw. On lush, undulating grounds that descended all the way to the Ganga, in the midst of comforting greenery, stood two buildings, slightly distanced as if to give each other breathing space: one a comfortable old-style residential complex, and the other a relatively new structure housing a museum, a conference hall, and the inevitable offices. The harsh sounds of the city were completely drowned in the quiet that seemed to prevail here. One could just stand and take in the wonderful sight of the garden and the manicured lawns, while glimpsing the Ganga that flows majestically by it; or one could enter the museum and become part of another world.

Of dreams & diverse images
February 22, 2004
Portrait of a photographer
February 8, 2004
The curling roots of time
January 25, 2004
Looking at medicine through art
January 11, 2004
The uncertain world of valuation
December 14, 2003
Seasons of longing
November 16, 2003
Greed in the land of antiques
November 2, 2003
Of elegant walks & sculpted silks
October 19, 2003
Pattern-drawers of Benares
October 5, 2003
Kaghaz ki kahani
September 21, 2003

Sacrificial fire

Jnana Pravaha, I was to discover, is a very Benares institution. It is not easy to describe that, but at least two things – sights and sounds – come quickly to my mind. I had yet to get into the museum, and the lecture was on the day following my arrival: I was therefore taken around the place first. At one end of the expansive lawns, stood a small open pavilion and as we neared it, my guide to the premises simply said: "This is a yajna-shala". It was completely unoccupied at this time: a few low platforms lay about; the ground was unpaved; and in one corner, from under a small rock, rose a thin wisp of smoke: the sacrificial fire of the yajnas that are performed here from time to time, I was told, is never allowed to go out. It keeps smouldering here, year long, till it is time to light from it the fire for the next yajna to be performed. Come that evening, the dusk settling in, I sensed some unfamiliar activity around the place, and enquired about it. "It is time for the Ganga aarti", I was quietly told. A priest had arrived to perform pooja of the sacred river, and, with due permission, I followed him. Standing at the edge of the enormous paved verandah at one level of this residential building, the priest went through his preparation, lit a lamp with several flames, sat down to recite from a text, and then got up, blew a conch, and began to wave the lamp with wonderfully rhythmic movements of the hand, all the while chanting a stotra-hymn. The sacred river was being offered homage. This goes on here every single day, all the year round, I was told.

But these – whether yajna or aarti – were ‘private’ events, instituted for themselves by the Poddar family that runs Jnana Pravaha. No one else is, at least needs to be, involved in them. For everyone else, there are all the formal, public activities that the institution funds, runs, and manages. In the gleaming new building designed by B.V. Doshi and named Pratichi, are held seminars and study courses that follow one upon another in quick succession – ranging in theme from ‘Early and Obscure Scripts’ and ‘Indian Terracottas’, to ‘Symbols in Art and Early Mughal Painting’, organised sometimes on its own by the institution, at others in collaboration with other national organizations; a Research Unit manages research projects, one of the more recent ones being the building of a database of sculptures that lie about in the city of Benares, many in private hands, most of them uncared for on street corners; an archival room houses slides and photographs; a bulletin is published with great regularity. For me, personally, it was the new museum/art gallery that held the greatest interest, for in it is now housed part of the Suresh Neotia collection of paintings, and there they all were: Jaina monks holding forth to assemblies, nayikas languishing on moonlit terraces, rulers out hawking with hunting dogs in tow, Radha turning her face away from Krishna in simulated anger. There also were old and beautiful terracottas that go back some 2000 years and come from the region, and designs for wall paintings that still adorn some of the havelis of Benares. Unlike the institution which is involved in far too many things perhaps – won’t some of them lose focus: research and publication, charities and homeopathic dispensaries, symposia and outreach programmes, all at the same time? – the museum has a manageable collection, not over-ambitious, but focused and inviting. One could spend a great, great deal of time there.

A lingering touch

As I was going around the gardens of Jnana Pravaha, we stopped in front of a tree that was still relatively small. "Do you know what this is?" my guide, the caretaker asked. I didn’t. "It is a darchini tree", he told me; cinnamon, in other words. I had never seen one. Then he took a few leaves, crushed them between his hands, and asked me to smell: the most wonderful fragrance – truly darchini – came out. Some of that fragrance lingers with me still.