Learning bansuri (Indian flute) in Benares (Varanassi) 1993.

Bansuri music. 1993.Bansuri music. Varanassi. 1993.Bansuri music. Varanassi. 1993.Bansuri music. Varanassi. 1993.Bansuri music. Varanassi. 1993.

(2015) I find it hard to believe that the only written record of going to Benares is these pages of bansuri ‘music’ practise. I guess it is fitting. Practise with my guru was exhausting and strict compared to my ‘free’ music tradition. He came daily to my little brick, building site, of a lodging. I would greet him with extreme respect and go and bring him a fresh glass of water. We would sit crossed legged on mats on the clay floor. I was not allowed to speak during the lesson and the bandis were to be learnt and played exactly as they had been written and played for thousands of years before. I did ask him if there was any tradition of jamming. He replied that only when one has learnt ALL the bandis and original ragas, and become a master, was it permitted to ‘play’ with their structure and make them ones own. He was sure it would take me at least ten years to reach that stage! I could not get on with the rigidity of this disciplined approach and, having collected many tips and techniques I was determined to use in my own music, I admitted defeat and let my guru go to work with more worthy pupils!

Mind memory pictures of Benares.

My lovely, unfinished, house-on-the-top-of-a-house in upriver, downtown, 15 minutes walk from Assi ghat. Opposite/under a massive banyan tree (which, as they always are, was also a shrine).

‘Grandma’ sitting with no sari blouse, topless under a gossamer sari, often needing adjusted as she ‘popped’ out when working. I was assured that, after a certain age, this was ‘allowed’, although it surprised me at the time, having understood all the rules of modesty attached to Hinduism.

Their young boy daily tending his water buffalo and sleeping on their backs in the hot afternoon.

Picking up, and learning to cook on, the dried buffalo poo off the sandy banks of the mighty Ganga.

Watching the father of the house risk life and limb to connect the electricity to my little house on top of theirs. Hanging off the main street pylon and cutting and connecting wires as sparks flew all around!

Sitting in sari, cross legged, bouncing one of the family’s babies on the trampoline formed by my sari. Sudden searing pain and a howling baby. She had clung onto my high ear piercing and fallen backwards, taking my earring with her! There was quite a lot of blood. I remember being quickly more concerned for the poor shocked baby than for my (still!) ragged ear. It is pretty neat actually…folk have even asked me where I got it done!? A permanent, physical reminder.

The never ending cycle of the dead. Funeral pyres burning day and night, on the ghats. Varanasi is ‘kashi’, meaning that, when one’s dead body is burnt there, the soul goes straight to the gods, without passing go. Hindus will travel for days with their dead loved ones to perform this ceremony there. I would often encounter taxi’s or cycle rickshaws where one passenger was wrapped from head to toe and going on his/her last journey in that body. Once I was very moved to see a young man, on a bicycle, holding his dead father between his arms as he headed through the busy town to the ghats. For the rich there might be huge processions with many family members, but for the poor it was another story.

The untouchables would bring their dead to the huge, sandy beaches on the other side of the mighty river, in the hope that would be close enough. These bodies were invariably swarmed over by the many vultures that waited, eerily in the scrub bush, for their next feast. They would fight over the remains and often the half mauled corpse would get dragged into the water. It was not unusual to see partially pecked corpses floating down stream.

I totally ignored warnings that it was not safe to swim or drink the water! Everywhere I went I could see devout Hindus bathing in and drinking the brown water that flowed through the veins of every true Hindu in India. This was the mother, the source of all life. And despite its gory carrion I would often see its famous, pink, river dolphins diving between the house boats. Faith alone cleansed the water. So I believed and swam daily and collected the holy water for my ritual prayers. I got to know many of the river orphans and spent many hours teaching them how to juggle (which I still cannot do very well!) and basking in their shining smiles when they retrieved a rupee thrown in for them to dive for. I never became unwell.

Wandering through the thousands of colourful pilgrims. A massive leveller. Rich and poor Hindus who had travelled, sometimes hundreds of miles, to bathe in the mighty Ganges, all sitting together, sharing food and chatting, up and down the stairs of the ghats.

The refreshing tang of a barrow-bought nimbo-pani (lemon water) in the suffocating heat of the day.

Going exploring in Christian Gagh and discovering the mission that my great-aunt had been at in the 1950s! Talking with a few of the missionaries there and realizing that they remembered her. Feeling very powerful connections with her, all those years previous and delighting in the missions evolution into an ashram open to all creeds and classes. ‘For Hindus who worship Christ.’ I wonder what she would have made of it all. It was difficult to imagine that tweedy, spinster aunt, known to us as Aunty Bully, out here in the colour and poverty, heat and smells. She would never talk with us about her years spent working in missions in India, except for the occasional horror story involving sticking your head too far out of train windows and what she had seen happen in India. That kind of thing.

And there was so much more.

I am finding these images very fresh in my mind and have no doubt that when this blog/record is complete I will return to Benares in my writing.


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