Varanasi: Struggling between modernity, tradition

Varanasi is struggling between modernity and tradition. Old voices are crying that we must preserve, new voices are saying we must change. Will the city find a mid path is the question

If there is a place that attracts people in life and death, it’s Varanasi. The sacred geography of the city that invites people for pilgrimage and activities within it provides a life time opportunity. The city is certainly a mix of paradoxes and contradictions but abuzz with activities. The traffic and roads are lousy but that does not deter the pilgrims who visit the city every day. The question is do we look at Varanasi just as a pilgrimage site. Certainly not.

A believer takes away so much from the place. From life to death, pilgrims travel along sacred routes and finally achieve the last resort. This is not symbolic. It has its own concrete expression. Varanasi is and has sacred geography and sacred performances. People do argue that the city has several facets. It has a holy river Ganges; it has Kashi Vishwanath and Sankat Mochan Temple just to name a few. What is important is that it is a ’sacred city’. Everything that belongs here is still considered sacred and holy. However, the city is much more than religious beliefs and sacredness. It can boast of literature, singers, musicians and vedic experts in one breath. But, is the city losing  its charm as a seat of learning, a cultural heritage?

Varanasi is known as the temple city. If one moves around the city one comes across a place which is bestowed with culture, literature and festivities. Kashi Vishwanath temple, Sankat Mochan temple and more than eighty ghats and not to forget the Ganges and the Banaras Hindu University which is the life line of the city. The city wakes up with morning aarti at Anand Kannan and finishes with the rituals at Assi Ghat at night; but it does not end there. Thousands of people throng the two famous temples Kashi Vishwanath and SankatMochan temple everyday.

But sadly the tradition is decaying and modernity is taking precedence. The city that boasted a rich heritage in literature, music and even in astrology is fast losing its halo. The people who have been associated with the city and have witnessed its rise and fall now complain. Professor Vishambhar Nath Mishra of Sankat Mochan foundation says that   “Varanasi had a rich cultural history, be it literature, music or religion.But that is decaying and the standard is falling. There was a time when people from here flourished in all these fields. What we are trying to do is to turn Varanasi into a modern city and we are forgetting that it’s an old city with culture and tradition. In the past the city could boast of names and they were unparalleled. We have not been able to maintain the tradition. We have not been able to replace the people and it’s a dangerous situation.

People are not being replaced and this is not going to happen in a day. This is going to take years; we need to wake up now. What we are witnessing is complete disaster and we need to stop it”. But he argues that not everything is lost. Even if the city is growing and modernity is fast approaching, he says “I am not saying that everything is over but we need to bring it back. Shahnai is almost over in the city, singers are leaving the city for greener pastures with the few exceptions like Chhannulal Mishra. We have not done anything to promote art and culture. It’s a fact that the family of Bismillah Khan is living in penury and we have failed to help them. These are interlinked. We are talking about high tech city and modernity. Varanasi is not known for them”

One cannot bring people from outside and establish them in the city. There are very few names which still inhabit the place like Padma awardees Chhannulal Mishra and Girija Devi. Many have either left the city or have departed for their heavenly abode. But what is unique about Varanasi is that it’s an old but living city. It is not just about relics and old traditions. Traditions are being kept and maintained. One can argue and disagree with them but people of Varanasi are for them. One of the prominent citizens Chhannulal Mishra says that “indeed there is a lack of cultural activities and artists are fading away. Tradition has to be carried in the family. When I came here, we used to sing and play together. Keshav Maharaj, Bismillah Khan and I, and other musicians sat in a line and performed. The soul of the music is imagination but what is being served today in the name of music is what I call paper music. Which is anything but music.”

But not everyone is pessimistic. They are saying that efforts are being made and it is yielding results. The mayor of the city Ram Gopal Mohale says that he is at it to the save the culture and heritage of the city. He recounts the forty three day long Surya Ganga program. He called it a historical event though it did not get the kind of coverage it deserved. He calls Varanasi ‘a moody city’. He says that “Varanasi is a different city. Literature and music is what it is known for. Art is dying today. After Bismillah Khan there is no exponent of Shahnai today. We need to revive tradition today and we are working on it.”

The city struggles. Alleys are in chaos. Men fight with women, women fight with bullocks and kids make their way through, narrowly avoiding these fights. Modernity has brought misery for the city. Roads are dug up and it takes you more than ten minutes to travel a kilometer. But the spirit of the city lives on. These lines by Professor U K Choudhary, a retired professor of BHU and currently the Director of Mahamana Madan Mohan Malaviya Institute of Ganga Management sum it up best.

He says “people of Varanasi are vibrant. No matter what they do during the day but ultimately at the end of the day they go visit Kashi Vishwanath temple and deposit everything there.Ultimately people drink tea and bhang and carry on. Life is not beyond that”.

For the people of Varanasi, life has not changed beyond alleys and for pilgrims too. This could have once been a city for Hindus to find enlightenment butis fast fading away. As the old generation of Varanasi laments, complains and seeks a rejuvenation of art, history and culture, modernity mustfind a place too.

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