As the Banaras Utsav opens in Varanasi this Thursday, its chief organiser Gaurav Kapoor speaks about the aim of the festival

Varanasi, the city that attracts millions for its mythology, its Ganga ghats, its handicrafts and its history — all these ingredients put together germinating an abiding mystique, whatever the current poverty and pollution-tarnished reality — is now being promoted in a more contemporary avatar. Starting this Thursday is the Banaras Utsav, which features a range of arts, including literature, theatre, music, crafts and popular culture.

Among the well known names slated to perform are Pandit Rajan and Pandit Sajan Mishra of the Banaras gharana, whose concert will take place on the Assi Ghat, followed by the evening arti there. There will also be an audio-visual lecture, “Importance of courtesans in classical music” by Vikram Sampath who intends to focus on the Banaras gharana and Gauhar Jaan. The inaugural evening also features “Ram ji ki Shakti Puja”, a play based on the poem by Nirala, by Varanasi-based writer Vyomesh Shukla and group.

Beyond these obvious Varanasi connections, the festival boasts an eclectic line-up that includes a performance by Swarathma, the Bengaluru-based Rock band, a lecture demonstration by eminent photographer Avinash Pasricha on “Photography through the ages” with special emphasis on photography in the digital age, a painting exhibition accompanied by a talk by veteran painter Jatin Das on the subject “Indian Art Through the Ages” , as well as a panel discussion on “The Emergence of English Writing in India”. Gulzar’s play “Paansa” and another panel discussion on the link between literature and cinema are also on the cards, as is a mushaira.

The Banaras Utsav, then, seems more a festival that seeks to bring the artistic approaches of the wider world to the Varanasi residents, rather than showcasing the city for the rest of the world. Gaurav Kapoor, Organiser Secretary of the Banaras Utsav committee, says it is both. “We want to showcase Banaras, the best of what the city has to offer, and juxtapose it with the best that is happening in the rest of the world.”

Any mention of the best of this ancient city brings to mind its rich handicraft heritage. “We are going to be displaying the silk saris, zari, zardosi, carpets, black pottery from Jaunpur,” says Kapoor. “The world’s largest glass making company” is also representing its kundan work, he says, adding this group is also the principal sponsor. Besides, The metal craft — gold and silver plated works — and wooden toys will be on display and can be bought directly from the artisans. “We are not charging any money,” he states.

It is often acknowledged that the makers of the exquisite Banarasi saris that sell for tens of thousands of rupees are themselves forced to live hand-to-mouth. Does the Utsav hope to address such issues too?

Kapoor, whose line of business is home furnishings, points out that he finds Banaras saris and Banaras fabric are “in revival” due to various projects, including a greater number of power looms. “But on purpose we tied up with an NGO (Human Welfare Association) that protects the interests of the artisans and promotes Varanasi as well. They were a natural choice.”

Since, as Kapoor points out, religion is a big part of the city’s life, day three of the festival features a talk by reputed author and journalist M.J. Akbar on the topic “Should religion be included in school curriculum in India?”

On whether the festival can be said to have a binding theme at all, Kapoor says, “Banaras the city — there is a masti in the air of Banaras, be it any part of culture, jab paan bhi khaaya jaata hai to wo bhi badi masti ke saath.” He says in putting together this “massive multi-dimensional event” the aim was to “celebrate what is best about our city and also what’s happening outside.” That justifies the inclusion of artists like Gulzar, about whom Kapoor says, “I guess Banaras was unfortunate that Gulzar sahib wasn’t born here.” He also points out that Varanasi is a centre of learning. “There are different colleges and a lot of big schools here. So people need to be inspired as well.”

He remarks, “If a student 15 years from now says I was inspired by this festival — I think we will have succeeded.”