Banaras: The Luminous City


Banaras: The Luminous City highlights the historical, religious and cultural significance of this ancient spiritual center from traditional and modern viewpoints, and, through a unique high-tech feature, offers museumgoers a virtual visit to this phenomenal Indian city. Comprising nineteenth-century photographs from the Alkazi Collection of Photography and contemporary photographs, the first part of the show offers views of past and present Banaras. The second part, called "The Crossing: Living, Dying and Transformation in Banaras," is a multi-media presentation employing different forms of interactive technology as an exploration of this complex spiritual and social site.

The first part of the exhibition curated by Sepia International and The Alkazi Collection of Photography, includes black and white photographs documenting Banaras's rich past. The Alkazi Collection of Photography is a privately owned archive of primarily nineteenth-century photographs focusing on India and South Asia. The photographs, collected by Ebrahim Alkazi, include landscapes, architectural and archaeological views, portraits, sociological studies, scientific explorations, military campaigns and ceremonial events. Mr. Alkazi was among the first to collect photographic prints from these regions, often in the form of albums. 

The photographs on display encapsulate moments reflecting the timeless beauty of Banaras. The early photographs include images of pilgrims performing their rituals on the ghats at dawn, washermen doing laundry along the riverside at noon, the flickering flames of cremation pyres, the unforgettable sunset seen from barges on the Ganges, and many more sights. These are juxtaposed with contemporary photographs by Linda Connor, Edward Grazda, Graciela Iturbide, Richard Lannoy, Dayanita Singh, and Rosalind Solomon. These contemporary views present vignettes of the bustling, living city: rickshaw pullers ferrying people along the narrow crowded lanes of the city, the busy markets peopled with merchants selling a variety of wares ranging from silk brocades to betel-nut sweets, and the priests serving the needs of the many pilgrims at the various Shiva temples. Together, the photographs illustrate the manifold faces of the city and its occupants, all engaged in the unceasing drama of life and death. 

The second part of the exhibition, "The Crossing: Living, Dying and Transformation in Banaras" highlights the cultural and religious significance of Banaras through a novel synthesis of cutting-edge technology and traditional artworks. Using the latest interactive technology designed by researchers from the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), "The Crossing" transports visitors on a virtual pilgrimage to the city. High-tech components embedded within religious icons and decorative objects created by Indian craftsmen provide visitors with unique and enjoyable ways to interact with technology and use it as a vehicle to explore and discover both the physicality and spirituality of Banaras. The objects are housed in interactive installations evoking the rituals and spiritual purification undergone by pilgrims as they visit this sacred city. These stations offer a virtual experience of the multifaceted and vibrant daily life of Banaras with its bustling markets, serene riverbanks and holy sites. 

The E-Rickshaw, for example, is an interactive rickshaw that allows the visitor to navigate the city by moving its handlebars, projecting an image of the viewer's journey through the narrow alleyways lined with temples and shops. After touring the busy city streets visitors may experience the mysticism of one of Banaras's numerous Shiva temples and learn more about the myths related to this deity at the next installation. This features a range of handcrafted smart-touch objects such as atrishul or trident, which activate a variety of electronic lingams or iconic representations of Shiva, each offering a story about the presiding deity of the city. Another interactive piece is a 360-degree Tilty Wheel that enables visitors to enjoy a panoramic view of the river Ganges and its surroundings, which are central to the Banaras experience. By manipulating this wheel museumgoers may witness the fascinating scenery and activity along the banks of the river, including the city's medieval architecture, the serene early morning sunrise and the daily rituals performed on the ghats or riverbank steps. 

This component of the exhibition draws attention to both the transformation of individuals in the Indian belief system as well as the transformation of Indian culture today as it reconciles tradition with modernity in a seamless interface. Through the photographs of the past and the modern interactive installations, the exhibition presents a complete, holistic experience of the city of Banaras to a broad and diverse American audience. "The Crossing" was recently the recipient of an award of distinction for interactive art installation and design at the Prix Ars Electronica. 

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