Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
From the publishers of THE HINDU
CITIES: AUGUST 12, 2001
The city as coral
I.To the Hindu, Varanasi is the holiest of cities, the centre of the world, a place of destruction and redemption that humankind has known by many names through the millennia: Banaras, Benares, Kashi, the City of Shiva, the City of Light. Richard Lannoy, the celebrated writer, photographer and painter, prefers to define it very simply and eloquently as "the last living sacred city in the world".
Lannoy's preoccupation with the City of Light dates back to the early 1950s, when he was drawn to its aura and lived in the "tirtha of tirthas" for several years, a generation before the Flower Children. This period marks the beginning of Lannoy's intense engagement with Indian society and civilisation, an engagement that would bear such fruit as his 1971 study, "The Speaking Tree", which ranks among the most imaginative and magisterial studies of Indian culture, and his empathetic and visionary record of Indian erotic sculpture, "The Eye of Love".
Lannoy returned to spend a month in Benares nearly four decades later, during February-March 1998, when he retraced his trails, allowing his camera to record the parallel lives of transaction and ritual, ordinary gesture and sacred rite, which unfold in the streets and on the ghats. These photographs have since been published in a book that he describes as his "life's work": Benares Seen From Within (1999). Parenthetically, it must be noted that Lannoy uses the colonial-style appellation, "Benares", not from any love of the colonial order, but for reasons of personal authenticity, since this is how he has always known and thought of the city which carries so great a significance to him. In deference to his sentiment, the usage is maintained throughout this article.
He experienced his return to Benares as both a homecoming and a shock. Deeply moved by the warmth of the support that he received, "at a time when most people of sensitivity admit that the city is in dire peril", he was nonetheless only too keenly aware that his beloved Benares had been wounded by the violence and endemic insecurity of the 1990s, the aggressive politics of the Hindu Right. Lannoy admires the city's ability to survive despite these adverse circumstances: he marvels at the paradox that its people should have preserved their traditional vitality in large measure, even as the architecture and street culture sink into decline or express chaotic new energies around them.
Manoj K. Jain
Imbued as he is with a deep love for forms and practices that have emerged from the churning of centuries, he cannot bear to see them trampled upon by a callous present. "The gardens and forests of Anandavana, Shiva and Parvati's earthly paradise, have been reduced to quagmires, the lakes have dried up or are choked with blue hyacinth, watchtowers and barricades disfigure the city's sacred centre," he laments. "But, at the same time, the community has not lost its cheerfulness, its cultivated idleness, its zest for life-affirmation, its unique combination of bhoga and yoga, joie de vivre and austere rectitude."
II.Spry, bright-eyed and silver-bearded, Lannoy at 73 resembles the Chinese sage of legend: his swift, precise movements bespeak a life in which the active and the contemplative have been woven effortlessly together. And one of the centres around which that life has been lived is a fascination with the sacred. Lannoy has been captivated, from as long ago as he can remember, by the mystery of that transcendental dimension which breathes at the edge of normality, and which inspires a reverence for the unknown as much as it does a tenderness for the familiar.
He picks a few photographs from a heap of recent images: a father giving his daughter an oil bath on the rampart of a temple jutting out over the Ganga; a woman reaching out to receive a bunch of flowers in the morning sun. The oblique yet burnished quality of the light and the solemnity of the gesture lift these fugitive moments from the flux of time and invest them with a grave, magical stillness. "As a foreigner, I have been excluded from the major rites," muses the scholar-photographer. "But I concentrate on the sacred drama of little events, the evanescent minutiae, the intimate acts of tenderness, communion and grace that form the texture of the everyday."
Benares began in the mind for Lannoy: he first became attracted to the mystique of the city during conversations with his friend, the poet Deben Bhattacharya, in London in the 1950s. Trained as a painter at the Heatherley School of Art, London, Lannoy was attracted to cultures beyond the rim of Europe, to the Levant and to South Asia. Benares seized him as a cosmic image of death and renewal, the sacred in its most paradoxical manifestation; he was also excited by the thought that he might understand something of the sentiment that had moved Bhattacharya's friend, the British poet and mystic Lewis Thompson, to settle in Benares.
Many of the themes of Lannoy's mature career originated here. Bhattacharya and Thompson had translated the songs of the mediaeval eastern Indian mystic, Chandidas, together; Thompson, who went on to become librarian and poet-in-residence at J. Krishnamurti's Rajghat School in Benares, had died young, of sunstroke, in the sacred city; Lannoy was to serve as librarian at Rajghat himself, and much later, in the 1980s, he edited and published a compilation of Thompson's writings as Mirror to the Light.
It is possible that Lannoy saw his own possible choices prefigured in Thompson's decision to renounce the West and live in India, and also his own ambivalent feelings about both cultures. "Thompson remained essentially Western as an artist," remarks Lannoy, "but slipped deeply into the stream of Indian spirituality." And so it was that, in 1953, Lannoy came out to India. But unlike the Beatniks and the Flower Children who were to make the same crossing within a decade, he came equipped with glimmerings of possibility rather than with blissful certitudes; his preoccupation with the sacred has always been tempered by a tough scepticism towards the excesses of religiosity.
And yet, it was in Benares, among the chanting and the cries of the boatmen, the blazing pyres and the temple bells, that he discovered and became fascinated by a compelling religious figure, whom he has memorialised in another of his books: Anandamayi. "In this complex, highly intricate society, I discovered a person who was the essence of simplicity," he recalls. "And she was not by any means unsophisticated - Anandamayi was a jnani, a bhakta, a Vedantin. But there was, about her, a complete absence of that ostentation which is such an alarming feature of religious cultures today. There were no caparisoned elephants or finery in her ethos at that time, no room for any kind of distraction. She had pared herself down to essentials, and she made others pare themselves down to essentials too."
III.Such a world-view was exactly what Lannoy needed to anchor him in that difficult time. "In the decade after World War II, photo-journalism had reached a crisis," he recounts. "Many of us were dissatisfied with the mainstream styles set by Life and National Geographic - some of us fell quiet, others developed a questing spirit." Against this backdrop of discontent, Lannoy had an argument with Cartier-Bresson, then already acknowledged as a master: "During a conversation that I had with him in 1955, he asserted his belief that a photographer from a Western culture could only remain detached in Asia. I disagreed."
Fatefully, that was the year in which the pioneering Cubist painter Braque transformed Cartier-Bresson's life by introducing him to Eugen Herrigel's legendary book, Zen and the Art of Archery. "After Cartier-Bresson discovered the Chinese and Japanese philosophies of perception, his pictures changed dramatically," chuckles Lannoy. "And around the same time, I discovered the Indian philosophies of perception and aesthetics."
In Benares, Lannoy also discovered a theme - that of the sacred realm and its relationship to everyday life - even as he realised that "the camera could capture something about the sacred culture that couldn't have been captured otherwise." Lannoy eventually spent three years, from 1957 to 1960, in Benares, joining a circle of brilliant individuals resident there, including the art historian Stella Kramrisch, the musicologist and mythologist Alain Danielou, the scholars Alice Boner and Blanca Schlamm, and Leopold Fischer, the Viennese who had embraced sanyasa under the name of Agehananda Bharati.
"These were the first pathfinders," recalls Lannoy. "And now, largely due to their efforts, Benares is an international crossroads for many scholars in many disciplines. It's a paradox, again, that while the city appears to be dying, these signs of vitality are visible as well." And during 1957-1958, when Lannoy worked at Krishnamurti's school, he came into occasional contact with that enigmatic teacher who was to spend a lifetime meditating on communication and silence, dialogue and encounter.
Precisely because his camera brings him into direct, unavoidable confrontation with his subject, Lannoy has evolved his own language of silent dialogue; he brings a luminosity to bear on the balancing act between intrusiveness and sensitivity that the photographer has to perform. "I close my eyes and indicate my asking for forgiveness," he says. "And in that way, the camera reaches beyond the surface, beyond the capturing of facts, and relates to the Other."
IV.Animated as he is by a concern for reverence and understanding in human relationships, Lannoy now senses the sharp odour of menace in the air of Benares. "The reverence for life at its most folkloric and best has been diminished substantially," he observes. "It still exists in little refuges and havens - not around the great temples, but around the smaller, older shrines, especially the tree shrines." Lannoy is deeply disturbed, also, by the inroads that a garish contemporaneity has made into the traditional patterns of living. "The elegant simplicity of costume has given way to loud chiffon, the young are losing the cultivated idleness of their sophisticated, cosmopolitan elders, an attitude that is sacred yet urbane," he says. "The death of these languages of expression marks the death of the subsoil from which the culture is renewed."
"Visually," maintains Lannoy, "Benares has become a disaster." The facades of the temples along the riverfront were traditionally honey-coloured or whitewashed: the animation of people's lives and clothes provided the colour, as did the rituals, whose colours could then burn against a neutral ground. Today, the facades have been painted "in hideous colours, bright green and yellow", and "every ghat has a great yellow sign in Devanagari and Roman, and is plastered with advertisements for yoga schools." Worse, the subtle play of light and shadow on the banks of the Ganga has been destroyed forever, with the advent of neon signs and the ubiquity of floodlit restaurants.
There is also, Lannoy remarks, an appreciable decline in the fervour and focus of the river-front rituals: "These are dispersed and afocal now, not gathered purposefully together into communion." And wherever the visitor goes, he continues sadly, "there are hundreds of hippies, degenerate scruffies who create their own unique corruption, attended by dubious masseurs, touts, money-changers and children who have learnt far too much, far too early." These, Lannoy recognises, are the costs to be paid for the city's "absorption into the world-system of globalisation".
Manoj K. Jain
Worst of all, in his view, is the fact that the heart of the city now resembles an Auschwitz, complete with security perimeters and armed patrols. The sacred centre of Benares is the Jnana Vapi or "Well of Knowledge", which marks the cosmic axis: it is situated between the widely venerated Kashi Vishwanath temple and the Aurangzeb Mosque. One could not have wished for a more striking or poignant symbol of post-colonial India's central crisis as a society and polity: the encounter of Hinduism and Islam, with all the possibilities of synthesis and perils of confrontation that this implies.
The symbolism acquires baleful embodiment as Lannoy describes the area, which - because the close proximity of a temple and a mosque renders the threat of possible riot or desecration very high - has become transformed into a zone of combat-readiness. "The most sacred inner circle of Benares, the city that is an image of the universe, is surrounded by a steel stockade of 25 ft high stakes with barbed wire at the top," says the writer. "The area is under surveillance from high watchtowers and rooftop sentry-posts, it swarms with hundreds of police, visitors are subjected to metal detectors and photography is forbidden." This unfortunate tension has poisoned the atmosphere as much as "the cynical philistinism and despair that are gnawing away at the Benaresi masti", rues Lannoy.
Despite this, what gives Lannoy hope for the future is the resilience with which Benares seems to meet every assault on its space and culture. "There is one kind of sacred city, which develops formally around a model of solar kingship, with an archetypal cross-and-circle plan," he reflects. "And there is another, like Benares, which grows in rhythm with the growth of the people who invest it with value. That kind of sacred city extends itself through its myriad local sites of worship, renews itself through its circuits of pilgrimage, developing through that vital sense of community which alone guarantees the longevity of the tradition. Benares is the tirtha of tirthas, inclusive and cosmopolitan, because all the regions of India are represented there. Such a city grows like coral, slowly, until it has become a microcosm of the world."
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