I was born in Banaras. I have lived my life here, and now, I am quietly growing old here. And I will die in this place. This life is an exemplification of “sansthapans”, the desire to stay and build in one place — the stepbrother of displacement, of movement.
In the shopping mall of intellectual life, displacement and variety carry great value, and stability — a firm foundation — isn’t worth the soil it’s built on.
This stable life has robbed me of almost everything, except perhaps a modicum of confidence that I am a representative of a great culture and civilisation, and that my life’s work will be seen in its light. Let’s be clear, I have not earned this confidence, neither from talent nor effort. I am but a beneficiary of history, of a cultural tradition that long predates me. But the burden of history, let me tell you, is a weighty problem.
No matter what you do here, it’s been done before. There is no space left to lay new foundations. In just one lane of the Kabir Chaura area in Banaras, you can find Padma awardees at a wholesale rate. Sidheshwari Devi, Sitara Devi, Gopikrishan, Kishan Maharaj, Samta Prasad and Rajan-Sajan Mishra are neighbours. A little way away, you will find the legacy of Ravi Shankar, Bismillah Khan and Chhannulal Mishra. Behind the police thana, there’s Jayshankar ‘Prasad’ ki dukaan, and next door, Bhartendu Harishchandra’s haveli. If one spot is where Agha Hashar Kashmiri was born, close by you’ll find where Premchand died.
It’s a saving grace that my memory only stretches back a couple of hundred years, and not back to the 16th century, when Kabir and Tulsi stood on the balconies and looked down, and looked ahead.
I am always surrounded, enveloped, by the clouds of this great geography. But a culture doesn’t just touch great heights, it has its troughs and plateaus too. My life is one of those plateaus, and people like me are the khaad-paani (fodder) of this great heritage. But remember, there is more khaad-paani in Banaras than most places. Yes, in Banaras too, a genius like Kishan Maharaj is a once-in-a-generation tabla talent, but in its streets, talented, competent tabalchis are available in numbers and densities unparalleled anywhere else in the country. The same holds true for dance, the sitar, acting, painting and even the written word.
There are enough middling talents, yes. But they are the ones that create the city’s mahaul (ambience). If there are 10 houses in your neighbourhood where people are reciting the Vedas in the morning, rest assured that you will become a pandit, through the half-waking acoustic osmosis of those mornings. If someone’s elder brother is an aspiring singer, you can be sure you will pick up the tanpura and tabla while just hanging out at his place.
What is a facility in other places, is a majboori (compulsion) in Banaras. I still don’t know how or when I picked up the tabla hanging around the Durga Saptashati. Clearly, I had no choice in the matter. It was in this manner, in bits and pieces, that I learnt some things here, and did not learn many things. The hawa-paani (atmosphere) of a place are great teachers.
Living in Banaras is being in the midst of a confluence between the infinite (anant) and the path of tradition (sanathan) and no art is possible without these elements. Without this confluence, art is bound to the moment, its breath is brief and its sounds do not echo among the great domes. Yes, a momentary excitement, or tinge of nostalgia is possible, but true sublime joy is not. And without that joy, is it even art?
It is under this feverish fervour that I quit JNU and returned to Banaras. The poems and the poets I loved — Alok Dhanva, Pash and Cherabanda Raju — still love and will always love, they were the poets I came to appreciate over there. The same posters, the same wall writings, all the identical jholas, the same spectacles and a uniform worldview. I came from the city of seven days and nine festivals, and in JNU, everyone drew even the same breath.
(The writer is a poet, translator and theatre activist based in Varanasi. Edited excerpts from Hindi translated by Aakash Joshi)