On an assignment to Banaras, I had been struck not by the spiritual but by the worldly charms of this ancient city. I remember watching seers fleecing wide-eyed tourists with crystal balls, and water-buffaloes and devotees sharing the waters of a putrid river. I had heard the hoarse voices of sari and sweetmeat sellers drown the distant chime of temple bells. I had smelt an air that was rich with the scents of incense and cow-dung.
Sumit Basuís exhibition of black-and-white photographs (About Banaras, Gallery Gold, Aug 1-6), too, focuses on Kashiís mundane qualities. Manikarnikaís burning logs, pigeons, beggars, wrestlers and decrepit shops make their customary appearance to weave a pictorial narrative of every-day life in a city whose supposed mystical character has enchanted innumerable artists. Basuís photographs of the ordinariness of life on Banarasís street are thus an attempt to chip away at this mystical aura to reveal the city for what it is.
In this exhibition, the utilitarian aspect of faith is best exemplified by the photograph of a heap of discarded earthen lamps, which, from a distance, resemble a mound of dead leaves. Another image shows a mongrel foraging near a pool of dirty water on which the shrines seem to float. This not only furnishes evidence of Banarasís dismal civic services. It also celebrates the accommodating nature of a faith that allows pollution to co-exist with the notion of divine purity. As a photographer, Basu remains content to work within his limitations. The photographs will not be remembered for either technical acumen or the Decisive Moment. But some of the images do have the capacity to startle. One such is that of a white stallion that stares back at the camera from inside a stable that has a cycle parked in front of it. This is yet another reminder of the timelessness of Banaras that continues to protect the relics of an older way of life.
Basu often changes the settings to bring about corresponding changes in mood. There is violence on the streets ó we see a pickpocket being brutally assaulted by a crowd. Death, too, is treated with indignity. Two relatives await the demise of an old woman ó her mouth open as if she is in her last throes ó inside a dark, stifling room. But there is refuge in tranquillity. A poignant photograph captures a woman circumambulating, her hands folded in prayer, on a terrace overlooking the river (picture).
The intimacy of these minimalist portrayals is refreshing. But Basuís preoccupation with clichťd ideas, such as Banarasís complicated plural ethic, disappoints. His decision not to capture in detail the enchanting, but crumbling, ghats is surprising.