Something’s Afoot in Varanasi

Here’s a translation of Chirag-e-Dair, meaning Temple Lamp, a Persian poem by Mirza Ghalib, celebrating the greatness of Kashi, later called Banaras, and now called Varanasi.

The grand city is a garden of peaceful greenery

Its springs are known throughout the world

When Banaras views its reflection in the Ganges

It becomes a symbol of beauty in itself


A thought about the city turning to radiance

Its fear of the evil eye rejected with abandon:

There is no grander painted place even in China

No city compares with Banaras


Spotted everywhere with red-flowered trees

Its spring lives even in its fields and gardens

Said I one day to a great scholar

Who knew the mysteries of the sky and earth


“It seems all is lost from the world

Faith, courtesy, love and kindness 

Religion remains only in name

Nothing is left but deceit and cheating everywhere


“Fathers are thirsty for their sons’ blood,

And sons are their fathers’ enemies.

Brothers are fighting one another now,

Companionship and love are diminishing every day


“These are all signs of cosmic doom”, I said

“So why isn’t that doom appearing soon?  

At any time can the conch-shell of destruction blow

But why hasn’t that destruction happened yet?”


The wise man smiled, and pointing towards Kashi, said

“This city has stopped destruction till now

Because the truth lies somewhere in there

Even the Lord doesn’t want to destroy this place


“The Divine Architect”, he said, “is fond of this city

As such, there is colour in its life

He would not like it to fail and perish”

But that was over 150 years ago. What’s the scene today?

Today, there’s a certain hit-or-miss chaos in traffic, and there’s aimlessness in the city’s planning. And yet, the place is clean and colourful. Most importantly, it sends out feel-good vibrations to the visitor. Varanasi has close to a hundred ghats, meaning venues which have steps going down to the Ganges. Many of these are privately owned, and a couple, like Manikarnika Ghat and Harishchandra Ghat, are only for cremations.

Two months ago, in late November 2018, it was film actor Anil Kapoor who fell in love with the city’s beauty, its roads and clean ghats, a fact that he tweeted. A month later, it was actress Hema Malini’s turn to tweet: “Visiting Banaras after many years. I find visible & remarkable changes everywhere. The whole place is definitely cleaner & one can see the fruits of the efforts put in to restore the undeniable glory of this holy land”.

This coming week, there surely will be many more tweets coming out to eulogize Varanasi, because something big is afoot there. Significant people are going to be visiting the city for multiple awards events, all part of the Pravasi Bharati Divas which is now held in January every other year in a different Indian city, and which addresses a different theme every time. Started by the Ministry of External Affairs in conjunction with the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI)—along with a few other outfits in active collaboration—the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman award recognizes the contributions of the overseas Indian. The President of India gives this award to honour people who have made exceptional contributions in their field of endeavour. This year’s theme is “The Role of Indian Diaspora in building a New India”, while previous themes include, “Apna Bharat, Apna Gaurav”, and “Redefining Engagement with the Indian Diaspora”. This celebration has been held in places like Jaipur, Kochi and Bangalore.

There’s a specific award for women too, and it is here that the mark of the Indian woman abroad is being felt most strongly. The Beti and Shiksha Foundation award called “She The Change—Nari Udhyami” seeks to celebrate Indian women achievers. This year these awards are arranged from January 21st to 23rd; the next day these achievers are welcome to witness the Ardh Kumbh Mela at Prayagraj (Allahabad), three hours away by road, and the next day yet to be in Delhi for the Republic Day Parade on 26th January. Not bad at all.

Curious recently to know who these lucky women were going to be this year, and keen to get a peek preview of their area of excellence, I explored a bit. It wasn’t long before I identified one outfit featuring two women. Chaiti, a Shanghai-based Cultural Arts Festival promotes the Indian performing arts in China and is run by Madhumita Bhuyan and Soudamini Bose, along with their husbands. Started in 2013, this group has grown exponentially in such a short time. Here’s what Ms Bose tells me:

“Chaiti Arts festival is an effort to showcase the rich musical and cultural heritage of India. China and India are gold mines of Art and Culture. It is of the essence that efforts are made to allow arts and culture to play a role in creating community cohesion, and for instilling mutual respect. During an orchestral recital or concert, the audience becomes united in their mutual appreciation, in their understanding of the story being told, and in their acknowledgement of excellence. That is because music and more broadly, the arts, have the power and ability to stir the senses, bring people together, trigger the emotions and transcend the boundaries of hearts and minds.  Music and dance is harmony; they are a universal public good that knows no boundaries. Chaiti Arts Festival celebrates this spirit and the ability of the arts to bring people together over and above geography, culture and language, through the theme ‘Harmony for Humanity’.”

On closer examination, I find that over just 6 years, these enterprising ladies have invited for performance many Indian artistes, and wowed audiences, which are mainly Chinese people. Clearly, they’re on a happy mission, and one feels the award will help them in their journey.

Consider who all have been called to regale audiences over these last 6 years: sitar virtuoso Ustad Shujaat Husain Khan, tabla nawaz Vijay Ghate, sitar player Niladri Kumar, Hindustani classical vocalist Sarathi Chatterjee, sarod players Amaan Ali Bangash and Ayaan Ali Bangash, flautist Rupak Kulkarni, and sitar player Purbayan Chatterjee. As for the Bangash brothers, so happy were they playing their sarod for Chaiti that they are performing for them again this year, but this time they are making sure they take their illustrious father and mentor with them. That would be Ustad Amjad Ali Khan.

Meantime, the Indian Government is helping too. The Chaiti Arts Festival is held under the aegis of the Embassy of India in Beijing, and the Consulates-General of India in Shanghai and Guangzhou.

Many such enterprising ladies will be toasted with this award, and we can only endorse such recognitions. Giving the awards has always been a wonderful way of recognizing achievers and inspiring others to excel, never mind if sometimes the wrong people get honoured, or the right ones are missed out. Sins of omission and commission are the smaller part of the story. But in light of the recent award wapasi developments, this writer feels that from now on, all such awards must have both the giver and recipient make one declaration: that the award will neither be recalled by the government nor be returned by the recipient, for any reason whatsoever. Our times call for dignity, even for the award itself.


Originally published in DNA Jaipur on 20th January 2019 page 13