Visiting India was never something that was on Madeleine Graham Blake’s bucket list.
But, after spending about four months in the city of Banaras and its back streets during a series of visits, she’s more than glad she did.
“The experience was clearly enriching for me,” Blake says of her time getting to know, appreciate and admire the people of Banaras, one of the oldest continually-inhabited cities in the world.
Located on the Ganges River in northern India, Banaras, also known as Varanasi and Kashi, is one of the seven sacred cities of Hinduism. Mark Twain once described the city as “older than history, older than tradition, older even than the legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together.”
Just as visiting India was unexpected, so is what’s followed — a 210-page book of stunningly vivid, intimate color photographs that reveal everyday life in Banaras.
“I never had any intention of doing this as a book,” Blake says of “The Call of the Ganga: A Photographic Sojourn in Banaras.”
It came about when Blake joined her friend, Judith Jensen, who was traveling to Banaras to interview people to hear their stories. That initial visit was extended when Blake had unexpected medical problems that resulted in staying longer to recover. As she writes in the book, “I heard the call of vegetable sellers bringing the fresh produce to homebound housewives and I watched the antics of the ever-present monkeys.”
When healthy enough, the ever-curious Blake explored her surroundings.
“I was just walking around. I’m a photographer so I like to just wander around. I like to get lost. Taking photographs is my way to get involved in places I go to. I really did not know what I had,” she says of the thousands of “street images” showing people of all ages. “I never had any intention of doing this as a book. It’s magic.”
Magic is in her photography. The book includes street art from the old town and the riverfront and images of people living in conditions unfathomable to people in more affluent societies. A mother and daughter, men carrying rainbow colored dresses to market, a little boy with a mallet, a woman hanging a sheet while a cow wanders by, another woman sitting aside vegetables laid out for sale, a show seller. Colorfully garbed men and women doing chores, happy and sometimes pouty boys and girls being kids. The photos aren’t sanitized, with many showing streets, walkways and steps filthy and littered.
“I have dirty streets in there,” Blake says. As she explains. “For me it’s a very honest book. It shows the dignity if their lives and the poverty. They’re just people, beautiful people, living their lives in great dignity.”
Among the people she befriended during her prolonged medical recovery was a woman born into the lowest of low castes, a toilet cleaner. Like others Blake met, the woman accepted her fate, but her self-pride is evident in an illuminating portrait. “There are a lot of stories in the photographs. I like pictures that have questions. I wanted to show the difficulty of life along with the dignity. My book, it’s really about the streets.”
Another section of the book features “studio art,” photos focused on “the extraordinary colors and patterns of traditional clothing seen on the streets of India, photos taken during two residencies that followed her first, unexpected extended stay.
Included, too, are images of swastikas, which until Nazi Germany were symbols of “the sun, prosperity, good luck … a life affirming symbol.” As she tells in the book about an earlier visit to Tibet, “My stomach rolled and I could hardly breathe as my eyes encountered the large swastikas. My niece, with whom I was traveling, then told me that for Tibetans swastikas are an auspicious symbol. Indeed, they are regarded as the footprints of Buddha.”
Because of her thousands of photos, narrowing her choices for the book was challenging. During her return visits, Blake showed her then work-in-progress to people who had become friends, supporters and sometimes sponsors. “They told me they thought the book was really representational and not pretentious of their culture.”
Creating the book was challenging, from choosing images to selecting its format. Unknowingly, she chose quality paper made in Italy. It was printed in India, partly because of cost but also because, “It’s a book about a part of India, so that’s where it should be printed,” she explains.
Because the book is a compendium of untold stories, “It is not a one-time, thumb-through-it book. I find it a very contemplative book,” Blake says. “This is a book honoring a place where I feel like my life came together for me. The experience was clearly enriching for me.”