Today was magical. I got lost and ended up exactly where I wanted to be, but didn’t know it. Ah, Varanasi.
Awakened several times in the predawn morning by the din of monkeys frolicking on the roof accompanied by barking dogs, when I do get up, I am drowsy. In fact the lethargy is so bad that I can’t even bring myself to make coffee! However, I can’t indulge my torpor as there is much too much to do today.
First on the agenda is my initial photographic foray over to Homestay. Making friends with with Reena, the young Dalit woman who sweeps and cleans the toilets, is easier than I thought it would be. She is lovely, and of course shy around the camera, but that is no surprise. What is a surprise is how pleased she is to be included. I noticed her smiling at me with recognition when we were staying there last week, but today was really fun. I love the cooperative nature of this kind of work, and the opening it can provide for cross cultural communication.
Since the game plan has changed from my original idea of photographing the same seven people everyday, the pace of everything is much more natural…and a lot more fun for everyone involved. It was a challenge for me to renege on a project where others had already put in time, but it was to no one’s benefit to continue down a path of duty rather than inspiration.
Lisa, one of the resident artists here at Kriti, said that her first residency had some parallels. She fairly tightly planned her project, and then realized that it made sense when she was at home in Australia, but in Seoul, where she was at that time, it no longer was pertinent. So she too altered her direction and freed herself up to create an extraordinary sounding performance piece.
At Homestay, Malika and her house girls pose for a fairly formal portrait in the kitchen, and so far it looks to be a good image. I like the idea of combining an editorial image with some candid shots, so tomorrow I will return for the serving of breakfast. Hopefully the three Indian women with whom we shared dinner last night will be there. They were good company, and aside from feeling comfortable with them, I want to hear how their day excursion to Bhod Gaya was. Up and back in one day! Whew. Too much for me, of this there is no doubt. And they are not young.
The remainder of the day is primarily spent setting up the (perfect) poles that Chandu and Hari brought for my photo set, and getting the correct fabric for the screen portion. The muslin I got a couple of days ago is a bit too opaque and this morning I found a sheer cotton, but it is very white and will have to be dyed. The man who will see to the dying, the same man from whom we purchased the incredibly beautiful silk scarves last year, stopped by Kriti. I get on his motorcycle and we buzz down to the Khanda fabric store. He is sooooooo careful driving that it takes forever to get there.
And now for the magic of Varanasi. I decide to walk home. I follow Petra’s instructions, turning right after the second Petrol station. A couple hundred yards later, I realize that I don’t see much that is familiar, but it seems I can’t go too wrong, so I keep walking, hoping to find a primary boulevard. Pretty soon the street “T”s, and I turn right again, as per my instructions. After a while I find myself in a world of very small houses, and it seems I have found another realm, a quiet enclave within this bustling modern city. Tiny shops, but mostly homes band the dirt roadway like the decorative ribbon on the edges of many Indian garments.
There is a quality here that I like. Even so, a subtle cognition alerts me that I am outside the places where tourists venture and I must admit I am a bit lost. I know I will feel more comfortable if I have an exit plan so I look for my cell phone with the gps that will show where I am and also point me toward Kriti. But guess what! I don’t have it. Hmm.
Continuing down the road, I tuck my SLR into my bag. It just doesn’t seem like the right place to flaunt an expensive camera. Now I am just walking around looking, looking. The one story buildings are mostly painted bright colors, and many have people in front. Most of the people pay me no obvious heed, but I look to my left and see a woman smiling at me. I look again. It is Reena! At home. I cannot say how much I have thought about how to conclude my photo essay about Homestay by seeing where the people who work there live. And here is Reena. It really is amazing that in all of Varanasi, which is very big, I walk down her street.
Of course she is OK with me making images of her, even gracious…although most of the people here, especially the women, clearly don’t want me photographing them. They cover their faces or get up and leave if I point the camera with my gesture of asking permission. The exception is Reena’s neighbor. He hams it up to a point a little close to crazy. I obliged him with a few exposures and then am on my way after asking how to get out.
Moving forward in my peregrinations, I am greeted with a sight familiar from my Tibetan adventures. Cow dung patties. But here it seems building are made of them. I think every spare space is used for drying this fuel, and there is plenty of it as I have stumbled upon a “ranch.” Or actually several of them. Many cattle, mostly tethered, and barns. It is quite a surprise. Once again, the camera comes out and I get a couple of reference shots.
Upon reaching a busy commercial street, I wonder out to the traffic controller and try to pronounce Mahmoor Ganj. I don’t say it well, but he understands and points to the direction I should go. I walk a few steps and realize I am exactly where I started: at the fabric shop. Hilarious. I have just walked a huge circle.
I head out again and make a turn one block past the place I turned on my original endeavor, and I am on the right road. All is well and I am home in no time.
Back at the Gallery, I tell Petra about my day and she informs me that until about 15 years ago, the place where I found Reena had been a separate little village, surrounded by mango plantations. The house of her in-laws, right next to the gallery, was surrounded by groves as well.