It’s hard for French photographer Laurent Goldstein to recall exactly what made him fall in love with Varanasi. Was it looking at the pictures of boats on the Ganges in Varanasi with his mother as a child in France? Or was it when he roamed about the streets of the ancient city when he got here about 12 years ago?
“Few people in France know the reality of India. I use photography as an opportunity to show them,” says Goldstein. The photographer, who has taken over hundreds of photographs of the city and its people over more than a decade, has churned out a series on pehelwans (wrestlers) in and around Varanasi. He would be exhibiting those in Paris in September, and later in the year in Varanasi.
Like most of his subjects — whom Goldstein has come to know over the years during his stay with his “adopted” family in Varanasi – “Pehlwan — The Indian wrestlers in Varanasi” came about when Goldstein visited akharas in Varanasi and on his way to Bodh Gaya. “I often go there during the training, and over time, I’ve understood that the akhara is not just about physical training, but has a deeper meaning,” says Goldstein, adding, “Sometimes, we sit together to have chai and we talk about all kinds of things. These guys come from all kinds of social background, young or old.”
Around 40 photographs are interesting portraits of the pehelwans in various stages of their training — dressed in loincloth in the middle of an exercise or receiving the perfunctory oil massage. The men in the photographs are everybody from the local kushti champion to the chai wallah, boatman, milkman, sari seller as well as a local fashion model. “I wanted to show them in something more than just the traditional way,” he says.
Goldstein, who was trained as an architect and later worked as a designer and art manager for several high fashion companies in Paris, London and Milan, however feels the need to put out a disclaimer for his photographs. “People who don’t know the sport may thing that something else is going on in the photographs. I just want to tell them that what they’re practicing is an ancient form and that the sensuality that the photos depict is completely unintentional,” he says.
Apart from photography, which he exhibits in Paris, Delhi and Varanasi once every year, Goldstein also makes films and is currently working on a few ambitious projects. Having worked on a documentary on Zangoora and the Kingdom of Dreams in 2012, he is set to work on a documentary on human trafficking, a French film being shot in India and a soap opera in Varanasi, among others.