Monday, August 09, 2010

The Indian river

NEW DELHI: The Ganges holds a special place in a billion Indian hearts. But a Melbourne-born artist has become the first to paint the river from source to mouth.

Kevin Pearsh travelled by foot, boat and land vehicle, from the river's source waters in the Himalayan ice cave of Gaumukh to the sprawling delta where the Ganges flows out into the Bay of Bengal, to create an acclaimed series of 21 oils on canvas.

The painter, who lives in France, completed his journey in three stages in 2006 and 2007, keeping a comprehensive travel diary of sketches, notes, photographs and watercolours - all painted with Ganges water.

A Varanasi boatman called Deepak, who accompanied Pearsh for the entire journey, acting as interpreter and assistant, suggested he do 21 paintings because it was an auspicious number in Hindu astrology.

For centuries, the Ganges has provided the inspiration for epics ( Rajaji’s version of the Mahabharat starts with the words : “ “You must marry me whoever you are”. Thus spoke King Santanu to the River Ganges”) and poetry and..painting.

Here is an almost poetic description of the river in a weekly journal called “ All the year round” edited by Charles Dickens. No less. It appears in the edition of Sep 25, 1869 – page 392.

Like the Australian painter above, the writer starts from the source of the river and takes the reader through to the point where it meets the sea.

It opens with this paragraph:

From the mountains covered with eternal snow to the ocean basking in the rays of the tropical sun flows Gunga, the river. By Mahommedan mosque and palace; by Hindoo temple and serai; by European factory and English guardhouse; while all around is ever shifting; while men and manners come and go ; while those that to-day cool their parched throats, or lave their weary limbs, or sport in idleness in its cool and limpid stream, tomorrow float helpless on its bosom, hewn down by the sword of the invading warrior, or victims of a cruel superstition ; unchanged since history began, the river flows on unchanging still. Now bearing the rich goods of nature's Eastern storehouse; now made subservient to the machinery of Western civilisation; stained with the dye of indigo, or red with the blood of the slaughtered ; laughing with tiny ripple in the warm sunshine, or rough and tempest-tossed by the wild cyclone ; now creeping gently in the middle of its bed far away from the banks its course has worn away in the lapse of centuries; now roaring and rushing on, like a second deluge, and covering all around at the same time with fertility and desolation; now gleaming with the rude weapons, the gaudy trappings of some proud Mahommedan prince; now giving passage to a conquering band of fair-haired, white-skinned warriors ; slave of many masters, bestowing its inestimable favours on all; thus flows Gunga, pre-eminently The River.

And ends with this paragraph:

The western branch, or Hooghly, after passing its point of junction with the Bhagirathi, and until it reaches the southern extremity of Calcutta, presents an animated and lively picture, full of all the action and the thousand sights and sounds that surround the seat of government…... On, past private houses, factories, and native huts; past horrible burning-ghats, where the smoke and stench rise continually from funeral pyres; past crowded and dirty wharves, where piles of goods await removal to the ship, the train, or the warehouse; past lines of crowded shipping, with labouring crews and shouting coolies: past the ghat of the East Indian Railway Company, whose busy little steamer puffs backwards and forwards continually, conveying passengers between Calcutta and the train. On again, past English counting-houses and merchants1 offices ; on, past the Esplanade, with its public gardens and promenades, and its pretty line of East Indiamen that might well be mistaken for men of war, moored close to the bank ; on, past Fort William, past the Maidan, and Calcutta's Rotten-row,the Strand. On, past lines of shipping again; past Kidderpore Docks; past Allcypore, with its villa houses peacefully reposing in beautiful grounds; past Garden Reach, fallen from its suburban celebrity, contaminated by the presence of the ex-King of Uude ; past the Botanical gardens and Bishop's College; on, past Calcutta, native, mercantile, civil, and military ; on, past all signs of human habitation, once more alone with the swiftly-flowing stream. Then, the river widening, and retiring with its mud and jungle covered banks to the verge of the horizon, no other objects meet our gaze but lighthouses and telegraphic stations, until at length the lightship at the Sandheads rises into view, and we remember that the Ganges is no longer with us, but is merged in the boundless sea.

That lyrical prose makes you feel as if you are travelling on the river in a steam boat, doesn't it?

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