OUTTAKES
THE HAUNTING CITY
LIFE AND DEATH IN BENARAS
Spring 1994
Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark


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India has been dominant in my work since my first trip in the late sixties. It has been the source for three of my books, Falkland Road (1980), Mother Theresa's Missions Charity (1985), and Indian Circus (1993). Last year I produced a documentary film photographed and directed by my husband, Martin Bell, The Amazing Plastic Lady, about a traveling circus in South India.

India is the country that fascinates me most‑the country that draws me back to complete projects started many years ago. Benaras is one of them. For me it is the most haunting city in India, full of mystery and passion. It is a city of life. It is a city of death.

The demands of my professional life in New York are difficult and stressful. At such times I imagine myself in Benaras, pretending I am on a boat floating down the Ganges. It is late afternoon. As my boat travels past the ghats, the stairway leading to the river, I imagine songs, chants, ringing bells, prayers and lowing cows. Twilight fades into the darkness and slowly lights appear from the ancient buildings along the edge. The glimmering candles bobbing on the water give the early evening atmosphere a ghostly and eerie quality. I'm suffused by the smell of jasmine garlands. All is peace. There is no place I would rather be.

The photographs in this portfolio were taken over a quarter of a century. Benaras is visually rich and yields images of wide-ranging subject matter. There are photographs of hippies of the 'sixties' who visited the city in their search for spiritualism and drugs. I photographed real sadhus and fake sadhus, body builders, blind children and even a maharajah. I see these not merely as reflections of an exotic country, but photographs that cross cultural boundaries and reflect the universality of human experience. As in all my work, I aim for design, atmosphere, spontaneity, but most important to me is developing person photographic intimacy with my subjects.


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Benaras is most famous for the daily bathing and cremation rituals along the river ghats. I not only photographed that lively activity, but the more private workings of the people and the city. I made pictures at the Mani Karam Burning Ghat which is an essential aspect of life in Benaras. I also tried to show these people performing the rituals that accompany the death ceremony. In some cases, I photographed people just before death in their hospice‑like dwellings in the city.

This is an incomplete body of work. I dream of returning to Benaras for an extended time to finish it and eventually produce a book. Five years ago, on my final day of photographing in Benaras, I said goodbye to one of the woodcutters at the Mani Karam Burning Ghat. "Nice to meet you," he said. "Be sure and come back here when you die."


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