Uday Narayanan /India

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Artist Statement: Children of the River  
Hum paani ke jeev hain. We are creatures of water,” says 29-year-old Vishwakarma Sahni. Sahni belongs to Varanasi’s roughly 8,000-member-strong Mallah community whose lives are deeply bound to the Ganges—a river they hold in profound reverence. To them, the Ganges is not just a river; it is their lifeline, the source of their sustenance.   On its journey eastward from the Himalayas, the Ganges traverses over 2,500 kilometres before emptying into the Bay of Bengal. During its long voyage, the river flows through several regions, including the ancient city of Varanasi, also known by the names Kashi and Banaras. As a city, Varanasi has captivated the attention of historians, anthropologists, artists, and storytellers alike. Much has been written about the Ganges, the ghats, and the spiritual legacy of this ancient city. However, hidden behind the enchanting charms of Varanasi, are the lives of the city's boatmen, whose stories have largely remained untold.   The first time I visited Varanasi, I was captivated by the sight of boats cruising along the ghats as the golden sun dipped below the horizon. Like any typical tourist, I took a boat ride, an experience that sparked a candid conversation with the boatman and eventually unveiled to me the world of the Mallahs—a world far removed from the picture-perfect views of Varanasi.   The boatmen community has a long history of marginalization, having faced oppression not only during the colonial British rule but also enduring political and social subjugation under postcolonial state power and within a caste-stratified Hindu society, where they are relegated to the status of a "lower caste." Under British rule, the Mallahs were classified as "criminal castes," a characterization that was reflected in the many cautionary warnings I received from well-meaning locals. "Bach ke rahiyega. Be cautious of them," I was advised, as if the mere presence of the boatmen was fraught with suspicion and danger. The boatmen’s reputation for alcoholism only adds to the stigma, leading to the stereotype of an "unruly Mallah."   The most impoverished among the Mallahs are the gotakhors who have no boats of their own and instead sustain themselves by gathering coins from the riverbed. Renowned for their exceptional diving skills, gotakhors are often compelled by authorities to undertake the grim task of retrieving deceased bodies from the river. "You can't carry a corpse without numbing your senses. This is why we turn to drinking," said Shivnath Majhi, a 55-year-old gotakhor, during one of our conversations.   My experiences with the boatmen defied many misconceptions. As I immersed myself into their lives, I discovered a community of toiling people who, despite facing daunting challenges, strive for a future filled with dignity and hope. What also became evident was the pervasive influence of narratives in otherizing a community, how prejudices, often shaped by those in power, infiltrate the collective consciousness of a society, gradually solidifying into stereotypes that are hard to cast off.   “Children of the River” is a long-term visual project through which I aim to shift the focus away from the conventional depictions of Varanasi and instead shed light on the everyday lives and struggles of the Mallahs, who live and die by a river they revere as their mother.     

Curator’s Statement: Sandeep Biswas   
“Children of the River” is a series of multi-faceted moments within the lives of the Mallah community who work as boatmen in Varanasi, a city known as one of the oldest inhabited civilizations in the world. The Mallahs are nearly as much a part of the history of Varanasi as the city itself, tracing their origin from the boatman Khevat in the Ramayana. Khevat is mentioned to have ferried Lord Rama, Sita and Lakshmana across the river Ganges during their exile from Ayodhya. The community hails from a backward caste, traditionally fishermen and boatmen, they primarily ferry passengers across the river Ganges, ever since they have existed in Varanasi.   Young and upcoming photographer Uday Narayanan became fascinated with the community and their world during his first visit to the city in 2022. He decided to become their voice by giving us a deeper insight into the inconspicuous aspects of these lives and their struggle to cope up in the present and quick changing world, through his photographic visual narratives.   Uday thoroughly immerses himself in their day-to-day activities, family lives and occasional celebrations depicting customary, joyous and poignant moments to engross his audience about the world of the Mallahs, presenting visually captivating and emotive imagery.   

About Me:  
I'm a self-taught photographer and a qualified engineer based in India. I began exploring photography in 2013, balancing it with my full-time IT job. It wasn't until 2021 that I decided to leave my decade-long corporate career behind to fully dedicate myself to photography. I've always been captivated by the intricacies of life and am particularly drawn to observing everyday people navigating through their daily routines, often amidst challenging circumstances. Photography offers me the privilege to explore, travel, and engage with individuals whom I might never have encountered otherwise. This passion for photography culminated in my first personal project, "Children of the River," where I documented the lives of the Mallahs, a community of boatmen living along the River Ganges in Varanasi. I have been mentored by photographer and curator Sandeep Biswas for nearly a year on this project.

Uday Narayanan