Some background: Varanasi, India, is the world’s oldest living city. Humans have lived here consistently for over 3500 years. It is revered as an Earthly home to Lord Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction. The sacred river Ganga is the city’s lifeblood. Legend says that thousands of years ago Shiva lit the fire at the “burning ghat,” the riverside cremation site that forms the spiritual heart of the city. It is believed that to have your body burned in Varanasi means automatic liberation from the cycle of karma and rebirth.
Shiva in Varanasi was a first-of-its-kind event: an open-air art exhibition on the world famous ghats of Varanasi, with six days of live painting by Abhishek Singh, inspired by the energy of the city and the Ganges river. Best known as a graphic novel illustrator, Abhishek is increasingly celebrated for the paintings he’s exhibited at fine art galleries and events around the world. His work often depicts ancient Hindu mythology through a decidedly contemporary lens. The four paintings on show were of Shiva in his various aspects (read on for a better view of each piece below):
I met Abhishek in person on the day of the winter solstice. The sun was high in the sky and the air was warm. I arrived by boat with some friends and could see the artist already surrounded by spectators. Abhishek smiled and gave a friendly greeting as we approached, then returned to his painting. We moved on to view the works on display.
I’m not sure how the ancient Chinese oracle the I Ching made it out of my backpack…but it’s more than just a book, and acts as though it has its own intentions. One friend opened it to a random page and started reading, and we all read some lines in turn. Afterwards Abhishek asked which reading it was. I read it aloud again while he painted and listened. The page was Kuai/Breakthrough (Resoluteness), whose headline is “A breakthrough. Do not be drawn back into bad habits.” As with any oracle, the message can only be taken personally. I can’t guess what he heard. It was a potent moment regardless, speaking sacred words in a holy city, to an activated artist on the day of the solstice.
Many view Abhishek’s work as updating the iconography of Hinduism, which has become informally standardized over the last few hundred years. Abhishek understands this perception, and he doesn’t deny it, but insists it’s not his main intention. “I don’t do my work thinking that I need to change points of view,” he told me over chai. “It’s now an investigation. But at the same time, I want to absorb what’s happening around us. As an artist, as a person, that is my task for myself: can I express this flow of life around me?”
The exhibition was designed with spontaneity in mind. The location and schedule changed on the fly; the only way to track it down was to walk along the river until a boat displaying one of Abhi’s blown-up Shiva paintings came into view…
Anubhav Nath, director of Ojas Art, conceived the idea for Shiva in Varanasi after curating several innovative and successful exhibitions in India and Texas. “I thought there should be no structure to do this,” Anubhav told me on the morning of their final day. “There are galleries in Varanasi, but I didn’t want to do it in a gallery. It’s isolated, and the idea is to take it to the people. And especially the people who will not come into the gallery.”
Over six days, thousands of people saw Abhishek’s Shivas and watched him paint. I watched him shift seamlessly between meditative focus and spontaneous interaction with his audience, people of every age and background. He was approached by large student groups, all in uniform, young eyes lit up in wonder and inspiration; he engaged in deep discussion with old babas who had spent their lives in religious devotion; he expertly faffed with richly dressed dignitaries; and more than once he beckoned shy children closer so they could hold his brush with him as he painted. In contrast to India’s economically stratified society, this was truly a common ground event.
The painting born throughout the week is a 6’x15′ epic depicting “The Churning of the Ocean,” a well-known Hindu myth. In the story, Shiva takes a deadly poison from the world’s oceans and holds it in his throat, causing his throat and neck to turn blue. “Shiva cleaned the ocean. In my opinion he was the first environmentalist,” explained Abhishek. “It’s a very simple way of articulating why I am painting to an everyday man who’s just doing his everyday thing. He took the poison from the river and cleaned the oceans, so hence we should also clean the ocean and clean the rivers. And not only Ganga, but let’s start with Ganga. And not only clean the ocean outside, but clean the ocean inside.”
“That instigated a little bit of debate as well,” said Anubhav, “because, you know there were these guys who came and they said, ‘What you have drawn here does not correspond to the story.’ Varanasi is the litmus test for this kind of work…and Abhishek’s research is so strong. The average person from Varanasi knows a lot more about mythology than you think, even someone who has not had any formal education. But Abhi’s knowledge on mythology, especially relating to Shiva and Varanasi, is so high. He could give a scholar a run for their money.”
Through Abhishek’s paintings, viewers can encounter stories they’ve known since childhood in a new and contemporary way. He describes his work as building interfaces. “The first connection the person will make with this interface will be the story. The story that lives in him through culture, that lives in him through history. And then he indulges in the painting, and then he hopefully goes to a place which just explodes his sense of time and space, which just completely takes him into a state of imagination. Where he is free. I think we are most free as people when we are imagining.”
On the final evening the exhibition moved across the river to the sandy banks opposite the city. With a view of the ghats and the ever-burning funeral pyres, Abhishek put the final touches on his creation. I sat barefoot on the soft sand chatting with new friends, grateful for the sense of community I’d found halfway around the world. As the sun went lower the winds got higher, and started blowing the Shiva paintings off their stands. There was no damage done, but it was clearly time to go.
Boatmen gathered to carry the crowd and the artwork back to the city. I stood in stillness and watched the sunset, held there in awe of the moment. Prayer music floated across the river, and I could see priests lighting the candles for the nightly aarti. Abhishek was teaching tai chi to a smiling Gunjan, while Anubhav laughed with sardonic Alok. It was dark when the five of us boarded a row boat for a long, peaceful ride to the wrap party. While they sang Hindi songs in sync with the splashing water, I sat quietly, feeling the blessing of the Ganga and the pulsing life of that most ancient city which is itself an organism.
All the photos in this article were clicked by Vicky Roy and Mumbai-based videographer Venkat Damara will soon release a short film about the event. Special thanks also goes to Yogesh Agrawal and Shashi Kant Nag of Banaras Art Gallery for their instrumental work in organizing the event and their kindness to me while preparing this article.