I was drawn to live in Banaras India as a continuation of family history, moving across the divide of time and culture to the place where my grandparents met and where my mother was born.
As a U.S. based artist of mixed Indian American ethnicity, I had been dreaming of living in India longer term, of staying long enough to bypass the sticky alienation of quick trips and tourism. In 2014 I applied for a Fulbright-Nehru research grant and was completely thrilled and blown away when I received the funding. My project was sprawling, and many times derailed, but culminated in the design on a series of saris, which I call the River Saris.
They are an homage to the Ganga river, and a gesture towards both the awe and distress felt while studying the river and the many ways in which it is seen. Their design grew out of the richness of the eight months I spent living in Banaras, each element of the sari’s pattern inspired by a personal experience of the river’s mythology and the ways that mythology permeated daily life in Banaras.
RIVER SARI / BODY
As many will already know, the Ganga river supports millions in both spiritual and daily life. As Ganga Ma, she is revered by Hindus as a living goddess, the embodied divine, capable of washing away sin and carrying the soul to Moksha. To others the river is agriculture, development, industry, a vehicle for shipping, or the answer to India’s growing energy demands.
Seen as both a space of spiritual purity and material pollution, this is a river understood by some as a divine entity beyond the actions of humanity and by others as vulnerable to catastrophic contamination, a dying river choked with industrial and sewage effluent.
There are many eyes and many view points.
My eyes have been split, looking both out at the meeting of paradigms and in at my own conditioning, one eye relishing the beauty of belief and the other tormented by images of degradation.
THE GHATS/ BORDER
At the river’s edge an old woman faces the water, murmuring prayers and mantras, her sari clinging to her back, vertebrae shining through the wet cloth. A foot away stands a man waste deep, scraping his toothless mouth out with Ganga water, coughing up phlegm covered remnants of the hot summer Banarsi dust and hollering when the aunties’ granddaughter jumps in off of the pillar next to them. To their right a middle aged couple hold each other as they submerge over and over, arms drawing ripples around them, their dunking surrender to Ganga Ma. We are two ghats downstream from the Harishandra cremation ghat where bodies are bathed and ashes submerged.
As it has been for centuries, all the action is framed by the beautiful, interlocking geometry of the Ghats, the rough concrete steps that shape peoples descent to the Ganga, herself envisioned as the sacred staircase of the three realms. From the ghats I watch and think about Banaras’ raw performance of public space, continually overwhelmed by how the same water is used both to cleanse the dead and to do laundry.
MAKARA CURRENTS / PALLU
Shortly after arriving in Banaras I came face to face with my own “western” pre-conceptions about the environmental damage to the river, and the thick grasp of my concept of pollution. It became essential to me to expand my vision, to define truth as the expansion of sight. I began to ask, again and again, what opening myself to the belief in the Ganga’s transcendent meanings could teach me. I attempted to embrace the supple belief in the Ganga’s sacredness as I have learned to tie a sari: folding, pinning, wrapping, failing, unwrapping, unpinning, tangling, watching a how to video, asking an auntie, pinning, draping and folding again.
The rolling waves of Ganga’s water are intense, and the sharp teeth of her mythical mount, the Makara, drip with viscous bewilderment. What can be done in the face of rapid development, pollution, the physical suffering of those made sick by waterborne disease and yet, simultaneously, the deep existential faith of a culture reminding itself of the sacredness underlying everything, the challenge to let go of disgust and aversion, and an ideal of total forgiveness?
CITY OF INSIGHT / DIVIDER
In Banaras, the unfaltering gaze of the Hindu deities follow everywhere as they sit exalted behind the bars of their numberless shrines. To me their eyes speak to the long history of saints, mystics, gurus, poets and scholars, be they Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Christian or other, who have flowed though the city’s gullies in search of insight.
Many of these eyes have to be passed in the maze leading to the family home of Hasin Mohammad, by whose master weaving shop the river saris were brought into life. In their own parallel historical stream, Hasin bhai’s family has been weaving traditional Banarsi silk saris for generations. Their textiles grace museum collections as well as the closets of political and Bollywood celebrities alike. To say the least, working with them in the creation of these saris was an incredible honor and privilege. The river saris were woven in a traditional handloom style with pure silk, a process that should be witnessed by everyone in this age where we are surrounded by the cheap, synthetic and dispensable.
I offer an enormous thank you to the Hasin bhai and his family, as well as Navneet and Petra of Kriti Gallery. Without their their support and collaboration this project would not have been possible.
With these Sari’s I say my prayer for the river and what it represents, and hope that I am able to share them with people for whom this attempt has meaning.
– Kanchan Richardson
Kanchan Richardson is an interdisciplinary artist currently based in Los Angeles.