Friday, 1 February 2013

Back Story | Widows of Varanasi

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy. All Rights Reserved

Working on my new fetish....The Digital Wet Plates...is giving me the impetus to work on another book which would group all these 50+ (and still growing) portraits, and add back stories to each. I have my notes from most of my trips, and it'd be easy to find a paragraph or two to accompany each photograph.

Diana Eck,  Professor of Comparative Religion and Indian Studies at Harvard University, accurately said that Varanasi (or Benares) is where “the atmosphere of devotion is improbable in its strength.” 

These two portraits were made a few years when I was documenting the plight of widows in Varanasi and Vrindavan...and although both cities are deemed to be sacred by Hindus, I certainly was more impressed by Varanasi, whose very ancient pores seemed to ooze spirituality and devotion.

These portraits, amongst many, were made in an ashram on the banks of the Ganges. The ashram is dedicated to harboring widows expelled from their family homes following the death of their husbands, and those who left of their own volition because of their sense of "uselessness", and to avoid being an extra mouth to feed.

The widows subsist on thin dahl and chapattis, and earn a few rupees by either chanting bhajan or by fashioning wicks for the oil lamps used during aartis on the banks of the holy river.

Getting access to the ashram wasn't easy because of Water, a film on the plight of the widows, had been scheduled to be filmed in Varanasi in 2002, but 2,000 protesters stormed the ghats where the set had been erected, and it had to continued elsewhere. Any mention of widows was viewed with suspicion, however my fixer was 'connected' as they say.

I produced White Shadows, an audio slideshow, depicting the widows' life in Vrindavan a couple of years ago.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy. All Rights Reserved