There’s something special about Benares. It may be the spiritual side of the place, which dates back to several centuries, or the richly saturated image of the Ganges at dusk; it may be the lively, colourful ghats or the many artists who hail from this holy city. Whatever it may be — it has magic and intrigue — some of it captured in November Noon’s latest campaign Doab. Here, we handpick a list of the books, artists, and films (in no particular order) that capture its high-octane spirit.
The Romantics :
By Pankaj Mishra
A critic-turned-novelist, Pankaj Mishra is famous in the literary world for signing authors like Arundhati Roy and Raj Kamal Jha. Mishra’s book, The Romantics, revolves around Samar, a young Brahmin boy who has come to Benares to finish his education. The book paints a nuanced portrait of the city through its characters: Samar who lives between its many customs and rituals, Miss West who is living here as a means of escape from the material world, and Rajesh — a mystical, sometimes violent student leader.
The Monkey Bridge :
By Rafe Martin & Fahimeh Amiri
Exquisitely rendered with watercolour and gouache Indian and Persian miniatures, The Monkey Bridge is a children’s book that creates a distinct sense of Benares and the banks of the river Ganges through its illustrations. This Buddhist Jataka tale gives essential lessons on the true ilk of nobility and leadership; nature and human beings.
Eternal Light :
By Kenro Izu
Kenro Izu’s monochromatic images in Eternal Light are a poignant exploration of the joy, suffering, and hope related to the afterlife. In this photo book, he gives an ode to Indian spirituality through the lens of the many festivals, rituals, and cremations taking place in Benares. Born in Japan, Izu is an award-winning photographer based in the United States.
Ravi Shankar :
Sitar Player & Musician
The sitar virtuoso and composer Ravi Shankar is a key cultural figure from Benares. He has created a passion for the rhythmically vital, melodically flowing ragas of classical Indian music around the globe. His work is so influential — it even had an impact on George Harrison of the Beatles. Harrison started learning the sitar from Shankar and even composed "Norwegian Wood" using the instrument.
An influential post-independence figure in the arts, Bismillah Khan is an Indian music legend who enthralled many generations with his shehnai. His father was a court musician for the king of Bhojpur, and both his grandfathers were also musicians. He lived an austere life — most of which was spent in Benares — while creating music for seven decades.
Indian Classical Singer
She’s known as the queen of thumri. Through her work, she explored the various facets of love — divine, maternal or interpersonal. The result of her experiments and innovations was that thumri, which had lost its earlier contour, went through a renaissance. Girija Devi was awarded the Padma Shri for her contribution to music in 1972. In 1989, she was bestowed with the Padma Bhushan and the Padma Vibhushan in 2016, just a year before her death.
Birju Maharaj :
Birju Maharaj is a classical Indian dance virtuoso revered for Kathak — one of India’s most significant dance traditions. His eyes, mouth, arm gestures, and footwork were part of his enigmatic skills. He also choreographed for films like Satyajit Ray’s The Chess Players (1977) and some of the iconic songs in Bollywood movies like Devdas (2002) and Dedh Ishqiya (2014).
By Deepa Mehta
Set in 1938, Benares, Water follows the story of an 8-year-old widow shunned by society. The film was the nominee for the best foreign-language film at the Academy Awards ceremony in 2007. Water was the third film in a trilogy about India by Mehta, whose Earth (1998) turned towards the partition of India and Pakistan, and whose Fire (1996) turned the lens toward two traditional Indian women in love. What makes Water stand apart was how the film brought deep psychological insight into the lives of its characters.
By Neeraj Ghaywan
An account of hope and redemption, this film captures the cultural nuances of Manikarnika ghat in Benares. The title ‘masaan’ takes from the colloquial word for ‘shamshaan’ and, the movie captures the push-and-pull between the time-worn and new, traditional and modern, and how technology has brought about a seismic shift in the lives of the people in this 5000-year-old city. The protagonists are brought to life by Richa Chadha, who plays the role of Devi, and Vicky Kaushal, who plays the role of Deepak. The story unravels with Devi grappling with tragedy and blackmail and Deepak’s love story shadowed by caste.
Mukti Bhawan :
By Shubhashish Bhutiani
The film follows the story of a man who wants to check in to Mukti Bhawan, a hotel that exists in Benares, where people check-in to die to achieve salvation. The film brings out the endearing relationship between a father and son, and it is sprinkled with skepticism and humor. However, more than anything, Mukti Bhawan is a heightened culmination of Benares, a last leap of faith for the unwavering believer.
By The River:
By Dan Braga Ulvestad
The debut documentary by Dan Braga Ulvestad is an exploration of what death hotels mean in Benares. The short film sheds light on the rituals and beliefs around death. Some of these places are at the heart of why many people travel to Benares. Many of them stay for as long as 40 years. By the River poignantly observes these traditions.