With the introduction by documentary screenwriter Geoffrey C Ward, Raghu Rai’s Varanasi is a book that will keep you riveted till the last page. Through the pictures of the streets, the ghats and people, one can feel the magnetism and charm of the city. This book of photographs, offering a unique perspective into an artist’s Banaras journey, is meant to be savoured slowly.
Rai’s first visit to Varanasi in 1975 is depicted in the black and white section of the book and shows the old Banaras: the culture of the lanes, the sadhus, the boatmen, the priests, the widows and all that makes the warp and woof of this city-creature.
The lavish production is an experience by itself. The photos of Ravi Shankar on a bajra (houseboat) on the Ganga, tabla and shehnai maestros Kishan Maharaj and Bismillah Khan during Muharram have their own enchanting stories to tell. The few panoramic spreads in the book are truly amazing.
The colour section starts with the photographs of the last Maharaja of Banaras, the late Vibuti Narayan Singh and his daily routine in Ramnagar Fort. The pictures of the Naga sadhus, the immersion of the Durga idol in the Ganga and the evening aarti is mesmerising. In the final section, pictures of the Harischandra and Manikarnika cremation ghats encapsulate two most poignant things of all: our mortality and humanity.
Dipping into the book is like tasting lassi from a khullar — the malai-like black and white introduction, after which comes the full body of the experience to be enjoyed a sip at a time, and finally the remnants, diluted with water, washing things down. Only one complaint: even though there are brief write-ups with each section, each photograph should have had its accompanying caption.