Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Sons Of Ganga - Exhibition Invitation

Sons of Ganga chronicles life unfolding on the banks of the Ganges in the city of Varanasi, India.
In late 2008, WA photographer, Seng Mah, spent a period of time in Varanasi while on a journey through northern India. Drawn by the significance of the city for Hindus and visions of Varanasi from images by the likes of Magnum photographer Michael Ackerman, Mah felt a desire to experience Varanasi himself and to document his experiences in a body of work that forms Sons of Ganga.

The Ganges River is the most holy of rivers in India. She is Ganga, the mother goddess, said to flow from the toe of Vishnu, the Provider.
In Varanasi, the ancient city on the banks of the Ganges, the river is an intrinsic part of spiritual life for Hindus - bathing in the Mother allows one to wash away the sins of lifetimes. The dead are cremated on its ghats, their ashes returned to Mother Ganga, their souls released from moksha, the cycle of rebirth.

There are also more pragmatic purposes to the Ganges - its water is used by countless dhobi wallahs who launder on its banks; boatmen ply its surface taking pilgrims and tourists from ghat to ghat, the locals wash, bathe and swim in her, and, ultimately, she becomes the repository for every piece of refuse, sewage and waste that comes from human and animal habitation of the city.

The Ganges at Varanasi is so heavily polluted that its waters are septic. Data collected reveals that there are 1.5 million faecal coliform bacteria per 100ml of water, where the amount for safe bathing should be less than 500. Undeterred by such facts, the people of Varanasi continue to bathe in the Ganges, to devote their prayers to her, and to use her banks and her ghats in prayer. Mysteriously, Ganges water is mysteriously rich in dissolved oxygen - a remarkable phenomenon given its pollution.

In visiting Varanasi, Mah was immediately struck by its contrasts. The images in Sons of Ganga show these contrasts and explore the seamless intersection of what people in the West often deem to be a division between the religious and secular. In Varanasi, this distinction is blurred, often to the confusion and, sometimes, revulsion, of visitors from the West:
“When you stand on the ghats overlooking the Ganges, a tremendous sense of calm and serenity settles upon you,” he says. “Yet, just metres ahead, men and women splash in the turbid waters of the river, seeking to cleanse themselves of physical and spiritual stains. Behind, large cattle low and defecate on the steps, while touts linger within earshot. The air is heavy with the acrid scent of funeral pyres on the cremation ghats. The hubbub of life by the river is suddenly broken by the ringing of bells and chanting as another corpse, swathed in marigold, is borne towards the pyre, where it will be immersed in the Ganges before it is ceremonially immolated before the burned remains are returned to the river.”

Mah found himself responding on a quietly instinctive level to this confusing and complex kaleidoscope of the spiritual and unsanitary. As a visitor and tourist, it was impossible for him to understand the centuries of cultural and religious tradition that normalised life on the banks of the Ganges. Instead, driven by a desire to create his own understanding of life on the Ganges, Mah found himself entering spaces usually occupied by the people of Varanasi:
“I walked the ghats and explored the alleyways of the old city. I sat down, waited and was invited to photograph inside akharas (wrestling arenas/gyms) on the banks of the river. I conversed with a retired banker on an evening stroll by the river, a boatman who lived in a shack on the ghat, children who wanted to be photograph and then asked for baksheesh (donation) in recompense, Shaivites who prayed and bathed in the river and a band of young men who washed in the river, exercised in the akhara before heading out to their work in various IT and business companies in the city.”
Mah’s photographs in Sons of Ganga show his exploration of these spaces.
Sons of Ganga is a FotoFreo 2010 Fringe Festival exhibition (www.fotofreo.com)

Exhibition will run at Behind the Monkey from 13th March - 30th March 2010.

No comments: