Imagine having to see dead bodies when you wake up, or during a casual walk in the gallis or while eating breakfast. For photography students of Jawaharlal Nehru Architecture and Fine Arts University (JNAFAU), a trip to Varanasi in December ’14 was a life-changing one, thanks to such sights and more. These youngsters have now come up with Varanasi: City of Moksha, an exhibition of photographs and a video documentary at the University’s Nehru Art Gallery. On Friday, amidst the hustle bustle of students making a beeline to watch the documentary and glance at the photographs, the gallery had a surprise visitor — Tushar Gandhi, great-grandson of Mahatma Gandhi.
The team includes Koralji Ashish, P.Srinivas Rao, Tushar Kaushik, Vijay Kumar Bajaj and Akshay Anand (who didn’t travel to Varanasi but did the postproduction). An enthusiastic Vijay points out how students have been making repeated visits to the gallery to watch the film.
Varanasi has been the centre of attraction for years. Besides politicians, the city draws a sizeable number of artistes, filmmakers, musicians and foreigners to study, document, photograph or simply be a part of this holy city. This young group too was fascinated and wanted to experience the city. The team calls itself ‘Frameless’ and this is their second personal project; the first being on Vizag.
In Varanasi, while Ashish, Tushar and Vijay Kumar roamed around taking photographs, Srinivas shot the documentary. “I used to finish 32 gb memory every day,” smiles Srinivas. Armed with their Canon Ds, the youngsters were at the ghats and bhavans but were unsure as to how to circle the story. “We had already spent three days and were depressed since we didn’t know how to take the story forward; we wondered what could be a fresh perspective of the city that we could showcase,” states Tushar, who has penned the words and lent voice to the documentary. Finally they decided to focus on the concept of moksha. “It is believed that death in Varanasi leads to moksha. People come here in pursuit of a peaceful end to their lives and attain moksha. We try to bring in a different perspective and ask if moksha is what you attain only after death; or is it being at peace while living and that power to be peaceful lies in you,” explains Tushar.
In one of the scenes in the documentary, we see a family from Bihar with an ailing 90-plus old woman in a Mukti Bhavan. “She has stopped eating food for the past 10 days so we have come here,” says a family member pointing out that the old lady’s death is awaited. In another scene, a caretaker declares: “People come here to eat, sleep and even die. There have been instances where an ill person has gotten better after coming here and goes home.”
The group recalls spending New Year’s Eve at Varanasi, which was an overwhelming experience and very different from the regular celebrations back home. “Scenes of watching dead bodies being burnt are common. After a point, we lost count of those bodies. However New Year’s Eve was an amazing experience. That night we saw different rituals performed at adjacent ghats; there was Ganga aarthi amidst chants of Har Har Mahadev close to the ghats where bodies are burnt,” says the team.
The students did face a few challenges. “Our filters got covered due to fog. Also not finding right people to interview, we had to roam around at least 10 kilometres every day,” say Ashish, Srinivas and Vijay. Talking about the postproduction, Akshay states, “Although I was not part of the trip, I felt like I was there. The footage was coated with fog and I had to bring in new techniques to remove the fog. The audio was also imperfect, with too many sounds and it had to be enhanced.”
After the exhibition, the students plan to upload the documentary on YouTube. “Varanasi is about 3G – Ganga, galiyan and ghats. Every creative person has to go there once to experience the place,” affirms Vijay.