Backs of Banaras

The display of large photographic prints in the exhibition Backs of Banaras lines up many torsos along the ghats of the Ganges at Varanasi (Banaras).

Banaras is known as the city of Shiva, one of India’s most revered sites of Hindu ritual.

Selected from the complete series of 1008 photographs (an auspicious number for Hindus) that feature in The Banaras Back Book by Sydney Based photographer Terry Burrows, this parade of backs, mostly male and strangely impersonal, conveys much of the cultural wealth and contradiction that is contemporary India.

The subjects are draped in their personal cloth and form a visual essay in the textiles of the everyday. These photographs were taken during a five-month residency that Burrows completed in Varanasi in 2010/11. The contrast of traditional religious ritual amidst contemporary street life is intriguing and Burrows argues it is portrayed particularly prominently with Hinduism.

Burrows has been interested in the activities occurring along the Ghats, both secular and religious, since his first visit there in 2005. He has created an intriguing visual essay of people clandestinely photographed from behind, sitting on the Ghats along the banks of the river Ganges.

The photographs are also a form of anonymous portraiture yet reveal an experience of India across caste, class, religion and seasons, while avoiding the politics of photographing the face. Capturing the subject unawares, as Burrows has done with a small digital camera and by stealth, the photographer is also looking over and beyond the subject and into the landscape.

These photographs also offer the manifold ways of sitting and contemplating. The viewer is left to imagine what the subject is thinking about in their postures of idle sitting; everything from active devotional prayers to a range of emotions or quotidian thoughts. The overall effect is a moment of calm, a moment with the Ganges, the holy Mother river, and her tranquilising effect.




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