There is a popular belief among the followers of Hinduism that bathing in the holy Ganga leads to remission of sins. It speeds up liberation from the cycle of life and death.
Ironically, its original water comprises only 15 per cent of total volume. The rest is a mix of sewage and sludge. Naturally, prime minister Narendra Modi’s pledge — while filing his nomination from Varanasi in April — to sanitise India’s most sacred river, struck a chord with millions.
The arduous (some claim impossible) mission has been assigned to union minister Uma Bharati, who has estimated it will take three years.
Italian portrait photographer Antonio di Canito was in Varanasi (translates as remover of sin) recently to photograph the holy city. Recipient of Arte Laguna Prize (2013-14), he first learnt of Varanasi and the Ganga through the vision of Pasolini’s (Pier Paolo) L’odore dell’India and Giorgio Manganelli’s Esperimento con l’India. “Giorgio’s book inspired me deeply,” he says. “When the opportunity to participate in a residency in India came my way, I knew it was Varanasi I’d explore. Rivers in India are considered Goddesses, and Ganga is regarded as mata.”
Encountering a culture he calls far removed from European traditions he has grown up around, but powerful enough to entice him, the 34-year-old decided he would make it the subject of his photo project.
If reclaiming the Ganga is necessary, he argues, so is the protection of women. “World over, we are witnessing violence against women. It upsets me.” Juxtaposing dangers that await women with preserving the sanctity of the river, he makes a connection that will be up for viewing at Ganga, a week-long exhibition that opens on Tuesday at Colaba’s Sakshi gallery. “A woman ‘outside’ leads a dangerous life, but immersed in water, she’s protected, safe,” he says of pictures, largely portraits of everyday women; their heads afloat over glistening blue-green waters. “The juxtaposition of women and water for me also represents birth, strength, power and love,” he says of the freeze frames. “If water is a symbol of love, and life is born from love, water also turns into a symbol of love.”