Thursday, June 13, 2024
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Essentially Kashi

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In Varanasi, Syeda Hameed and Gunjan Veda meet a musical maestro and have other encounters

 THERE IS an abundance of cultural and creative wealth in Varanasi situated on the banks of the river Ganges. And yet, embedded in it, there is decay and squalor. Where the narrow alleys of the ancient town can lead into the home of shenai maestro, the late Ustad Bismillah Khan, they also make their way into Shivdaspur Mohalla, the red-light area, where disparate women and children are trying to find their place among all things pious.

     The glitter of the Benarasi sari; the soul-stirring music flowing from the shenai of Ustad Bismillah Khan; the muscular grace of the young pandas (priests) as they perform the Ganga arti; the mellifluous azaan of Gyanvyapi Masjid mingling with the sheer abandon of the devotees chanting prayers at the Kashi Viswanath temple next door. A few kilometres away, Sarnath reverberates with Buddhist incantation; the hurried feet of boys and girls, priests and devotees shuffle through narrow alleys while tiny shops reflect the glitter of rainbow chooris (bangles). And in the midst of all this life, colour, commerce and devotion is the barely audible whimper of a hungry Musahar boy, the sleep-deprived eyes of a carpet weaver holding her wasted child, the stone face of a battered sex worker…

     We saw an abundance of cultural and creative wealth, and yet, embedded in it, we also saw the decay – the same decay that was found all over, in the buildings and monuments of Varanasi. Life and death, skill and squalor, strange bedfellows! But in eastern UP, their union was complete.

     ‘Kehti thi Zainab, Biran Jaani kab tum rann se aao ge.’ The voice that sang these lines was very feeble and crackling slightly but its melody gripped our hearts. We looked straight into a pair of sparkling eyes set in a wrinkled face. We were sitting before Ustad Bismillah Khan. Earlier that morning we had threaded our way through narrow lanes to reach his modest ancestral home in the walled city. The maestro had lived in this simple three storey structure for ninety years. Climbing three flights of steep stairs, we reached his small terrace room. It was quite bare, with only a chair, a charpai (cot) and a fan. Clad in a baniyan (vest) and lungi (loincloth), with a small silver earring dangling from one ear, he looked happy to be in his world of music and music lover…

 That day we sat wonderstruck, listening to his rendition of the Nauha about Zainab, Prophet Mohammad’s granddaughter, wailing for her beloved brother, Husain. He had given us an extra special welcome because in the morning someone had read out to him an item that had appeared in the local newspaper. ‘To stand up for the rights of the weak is the deepest pilgrimage. May Allah reward you for interceding on the behalf of the girls of Shivdaspur Mohalla,’ he said placing his hands on our bowed heads.

      Shivdaspur Mohalla is the red-light area of this pious city, the biggest in Purvanchal (the eastern region of Uttar Pradesh). The organization which took us there was Guria. We had known about Guria for a while, but this was the first time we saw them at work. As we entered the kutchcha courtyard of the Guria centre, we saw about thirty-forty women sitting on the floor. Chairs were brought out for us and for the few state officials who had come along. Ajeet, the founder of Guria, was a young man with an intense manner.

      Rajpa, a black dupatta covering her head, was the first to speak. ‘I have been living here for the last forty years. See this,’ she said holding out her bruised arm. ‘The police hit me here and asked me to leave. But where do we go? This is our home.’

      Our eyes rested on an older woman in a worn-out sari, its faded white edge framing her face. She had the features of a Moghul begumaat (ladies); her name was Mumtaz, just right for that face. Clinging to her was a beautiful little boy. ‘This is my grandson, Shahrukh,’ Mumtaz wept, lightly patting the child. ‘The police won’t allow us customers. They enter our rooms and hit us with the lathis (sticks). How do I feed him? Guria has been feeding us for the last two months.’

      These women standing before us were terrified of the cops. It was their children from whom they were most concerned. They asked us to go upstairs to see them and the work of Guria. We went up a narrow flight of stairs. In sharp contrast to the despair downstairs, the classrooms were buzzing with excitement. Cheerful kids in the six-to twelve-years age-group were busy making clay toys; they showed us Mickey Mouse, Babar the elephant, birds, gods, goddesses and even Mahatma Gandhi! But the most popular toy was a mobile phone; everyone had made one. The children scruffy, wit runny noses and unwashed faces, but were bursting with energy, thanks to Guria’s hot midday meals at the cost of Rs 2 per child.

      Just before we were to leave, Ajeet told us of Guria’s plans. ‘We are planning to build a night shelter where the children can sleep while their mothers are working. We are not going to give up. Do you know, one of our children is working for WHO?’ ‘Do you really mean the World Health Organization? It is hard to believe!’ we exclaimed together. ‘Yes,’ he said, matter of fact. ‘Most people think that the children of sex workers will either end up joining the trade or grinding masalas (spices) and making achar (pickles). But we are changing that perception.’ (WFS)

 

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