Kashi Labh: Rajat Nayyar's film draws a compelling portrait of those who breathe their last in Varanasi

Rajat Nayyar spent years documenting the dying and the dead in Kashi. Despite its presence in recent films, this is a place that perpetually intrigues — and in the hands of an insider, even fascinates. Nayyar's Kashi Labh is an arresting ethnographic study of death and its process. Director Nayyar spoke to Firstpost about why popular cinema still skims the surface of Kashi, what turned him into an insider, how Varanasi stays untouched by perpetual sadness, and the difficulty of pointing a camera at the dying.

You were born in Delhi. How did your association with Varanasi begin? What were your initial days in the city like?

My association with Kashi began through stories I’d hear from my grandmother. I arrived in the city in 2011 with a new camera and the urge to make observational films. At the same time I was introduced to filmmakers like Dziga Vertov and Jean Rouch. My relationship with the city grew stronger when I immersed myself in the carefree, eccentric and fearless mass culture of the city, i.e, Banarasipan. Within a few days, during a casual conversation about death at a chai shop, I was invited by Vishal Pandey (from the film) to document the 13 days of after-death rituals for his uncle. Accompanying the family during these rituals at Tulsi ghat with a camera made me more aware of my own physical presence. I set out to make an observational film, but ended up observing myself.

I realised the importance of working on my body, if I wanted to be a better filmmaker. Listening, immersing and staying ‘there’ were challenges that had to be overcome in order to avoid witnessing my own nervousness that was evident in the footage. For me, filmmaking still remains a self-reflexive project. Kashi Labh took more than seven years of sense-making and research that started with after-death rituals, and then before-death rituals in Kashi.

The city, some would say, is overdone. Masaan and Mukti Bhawan have already shown us a certain amount, not to mention the reportage on TV. What is it that Kashi Labh does differently or offer on an already painted canvas?

I will add Robert Gardener’s Forest of Bliss to the top of that list. Kashi Labh is an ethnographic film, it is not a work of fiction. I do not recreate the situations that the film shows, I participate in them, at times by assisting the family as they create the ‘last narrative’. I also stay within the social aesthetics of Kashi Labh Muktibhawan: the rules of the place, i.e, one can only be admitted if they are physiologically in the last stages of their life. There are two types of pilgrims who come to Kashi — Kashi vasis (those who come to live in Kashi at any age and devote themselves to the city) and Kashi labh (those who arrive at the very last stage for the ‘fruit’ of Kashi). My research involved engaging with the latter, especially the family members. In four years of research, I never came across a dying pilgrim who could make conversation and therefore my research looked at the ‘waiting period’ in which family members go through a ‘liminal phase’ and are made to contemplate their own moksha by the priests. I’d say Kashi Labh is a broader study of this unique hospice and the manner in which families stage the dying process.

 Kashi Labh: Rajat Nayyars film draws a compelling portrait of those who breathe their last in Varanasi

From the poster for Kashi Labh

I noticed that the film has a very personal eye. Was it difficult convincing people to talk to you while they were grieving — because let us not forget, this isn’t acting? What were some of the conversations you had with them?

Yes, in fact, I never use a tripod and believe that the camera is an extension of the body. The personal eye allows for my viewers to immerse (themselves) in the film and feel the bodily tension of the researcher, thus participating at an intimate level with the film. About 80 percent of the dying pilgrims passed away within a day of reaching Kashi Labh Muktibhawan. My research looked at families that stayed more than a day, in order to build a relationship.

Dying pilgrims, at times, go to sleep for days without speaking a word or even drinking any water. At this stage, family members may find themselves in a spiritual crisis. It was a general understanding that the waiting period is directly associated with past karmas of the dying pilgrim and their close family members: often they would say that there is something still lacking on their part and it makes them more prone to (following) advice from the priests, manager, local people of Kashi.

I’d accompany Shiv (from the film) for these tasks and walk the labyrinth-like network of by-lanes in the city and this made our friendship very strong. Like most seekers, Shiv never spoke of moksha as something to be achieved in another world, but it is to be lived throughout life. Shiv says that it is certain that ‘death’ comes. We would have conversations about death and he’d ask me not to overlook the fact that in order to be certain of death, we must always be certain of our own potentiality. He would also share very personal matters that were emerging in his very being during those days in Kashi. It was these conversations that helped me structure the film.

We have read and seen that death, in Varanasi, is celebrated. Can you explain what sets it apart from other cities in this particular context, Mukti Bhawan especially? And how it contrasts with our fear of talking about death in schools or within the family?

The 26th chapter (Kashi Khanda) of the Skanda Purana written in the 13th century, is dedicated to the city of Kashi. An excerpt, translated by Jonathan Parry from the sacred text, goes:

'All that existed was Brahman which cannot be apprehended by the mind or described by speech, and which is without shape, name or colour, or any physical attribute. This undivided one (advaita) desired to become two and accomplished this by his own divine play (lila). I [Shiva] am the material form of that immaterial Brahman. Oh Parvati, together we created the sacred area of Kashi.’

The religious scriptures talk of Kashi ('luminous' in Sanskrit) as a space where material meets the non-material and where duality ends. Complete devotion to this city is moksha. Historically, I am not sure when people actually started to arrive to the city to die/be cremated. It also has to do with Manikarnika (ghat) as the main reason why people say "it is always Satya Yuga" in Kashi.

Kashi scholars have noted that body and cosmos are governed by the same laws, are constituted out of the same five elements and everything that exists in the one must also exist in the other.  Body and cosmos are thus equated; and this would seem to imply a further equivalence between cremation and pralaya (end of time). Etymologically, pralaya is a ‘process (pra) of melting (laya) but it is generally represented as a two-phase destruction by fire and flood resulting in a return to a state of complete un-differentiation. In some of the Puranic texts, an individual death is classified as nitya (‘daily’ or ‘constant’) pralaya and therefore a corpse is similarly subjected to fire (through cremation) and water (through the immersion of the ashes) at Manikarnika ghat. Cosmic dissolution, however, is not only an end of the universe; it is also a beginning, a necessary prelude to a new world cycle and hence a renewal of time.  It is no coincidence, then, that the most celebrated cremation ground in India is also the scene of cosmogony where one constantly is at the beginning of time itself.

Bringing your dying parent to this hospice is a big decision that Shiv made. He drove 18 hours from Delhi with his son and his mother. In general, Shiv expressed his conflict with this constant urge to prolong death in hospitals. Often, people are put under ventilators and are given food through pipes. People who come here are usually looking for a place where they could all come to terms with the death and where the unit of care is still the family. I think it's a larger mechanism at work here. Death is a business that fuels not only the local economy of Kashi but also global. Maintaining the fear of death allows for insurance companies and hospitals to continue making money. Our folk stories are vast and offer much insight into dying and death. Our current education system does not embrace it and it is unfortunate that our students know nothing about dying and death, as a life process; rather it is now understood as a biological event — that can be prolonged — with monthly payments at an early age.

 You’ve mentioned in your methodology how people in Mukti Bhawan attempt to die ‘right’. Doesn’t it make everyone around them perpetually sad, then? What do the ones who aren’t on their deathbeds, or next to them, think about a place that constantly ruminates about death?

Local people are aware of Kashi Labh Muktibhawan and they often recommend it. It is still a preferred place to go for families because it provides a space for ‘bhojan’ and ‘bhajan’. In the larger context, we already see an increase in the number hospices and senior care facilities around the world. At the same time, we have scholars who are researching the role of families in the end of life care. I think it has been portrayed by mass media as a place that has seen 12,000 deaths and so on.

We end up thinking what are the lessons that we learn from this data. We must look at Kashi Labh Muktibhawan within the broader context of Kashi and pilgrimage studies. Like Shiv said to me, when we watched his mother burn, ‘I crossed a river today’.

Still from Kashi Labh. YouTube screengrab

Still from Kashi Labh. YouTube screengrab

How do you as an insider see Varanasi and how does it differ from its many manifestations in cinema, writing or art? What would you wish to see changed?

Kashi is in the heart of Kashi vasis. I enjoy every bit of work by Banarasi scholars, musicians and artists. Chakachak Banarasi, Vishwanath Mukherjee, Pt Lacchu Maharaj, Pt Vijay Choubey and so many more: they are my inspirations. I also enjoy reading the works of researchers (Diane Eck, Nandini Majumdar) who spend many years in the city studying one or the other aspect. They devote time (to the quest). I do not appreciate any work that is done without immersing in the city and is made with hearsay. This includes not only recent films and articles but also the current government. We recently saw how Kashi development plans are interfering with the heritage.

I’d give more attention to Banarasi people, the local talent. The state of artists is really pathetic at the moment. Only a few recognised faces are seen and only a few art forms of Kashi are presented. (Political) comedians must find a mention as well. Special attention should given to protection of this heritage and to Ganga ji, but this continues to remain a massive issue. We thought that this government would really step up to collaborative ways of finding a way, but it has failed to do so. Schools are in a pathetic condition, transport remains a problem, pollution continues to increase and the youth is being destroyed.

How difficult or unnerving is it to hold a camera to someone close to death? How has the experience affected you?

My love for film’s sensory evocation goes way back to my childhood, when viewing another person on film would generate a sensation of the character’s bodily existence that, for me, is beyond the film and its message. The particular use of the camera then, is not only an imprint of the moment of filming, but also a method to generate a sensation of that person’s bodily existence (and dying) in the body of the filmmaker and, subsequently, the viewer of the film. Being with someone who is dying is like looking into a very clear and detailed mirror of our own individual process. Moreover, the camera and the audiovisual material have helped me contemplate my own end.

Updated Date: Jun 27, 2018 14:38:35 IST