A Shashank Verma Photo Project Captures The Resilience Of Varanasi's Native Communities

'Survivance': Narratives of Native Presence in Contemporary India
'Survivance': Narratives of Native Presence in Contemporary IndiaShashank Verma

Shashank Verma is an Indian photographer who's worked with a whole host of publications including i-D and Rebel Mag. His latest photoseries offers a glimpse into the multifaceted interplay of culture, tradition and modernity in one of India's most spiritually significant cities — Varanasi. We caught up with Shashank recently in order to learn more about the themes, motifs and messages that he's exploring with his series — Traces of 'Survivance': Narratives of Native Presence in Contemporary India.

Tell us a little about this project.

‘Survivance’ is a term coined by Anishinaabe scholar Gerald Vizenor to describe the resistance and resilience of native communities in the face of colonialism and its legacy. In the context of modern Varanasi, a city in northern India with a rich and complex history of cultural exchange and political domination, ‘survivance’ takes on particular significance for the indigenous communities who have long called this region home. Survivance is not just about survival, but about the ability to thrive and maintain cultural and spiritual practices through generations in the face of historical oppression.

This captivating photographic series delves into the narratives of 'survivance' among the natives of Varanasi, navigating the complex interplay between colonialism and the contemporary Varanasi. It is also an exploration of the branches of ‘survivance’ in relation to the experiences of indigenous communities in Varanasi, examining the ways in which they have managed to maintain their cultural heritage and identities in the face of centuries of colonization, displacement, and marginalization. By juxtaposing the colonial era with the present, 'Traces of Survivance' invites viewers to reflect on the intergenerational resilience demonstrated by the locals in the face of historical injustices and the ongoing challenges of the modern world. It prompts contemplation on the complexities of identity, the impacts of cultural assimilation, and the power of heritage in fostering a sense of belonging and continuity.

The city, situated on the banks of the Ganges river, has been a centre of Hinduism since ancient times, attracting pilgrims and scholars from across the Indian subcontinent and beyond. However, the arrival of colonial powers in the 18th and 19th centuries brought new forms of domination, leading to the displacement and marginalization of many indigenous communities in the region. The project investigates the authenticity of people, their perspectives, and cultural metaphors of the social space. These investigations transform into a representation-oriented practice, drawing attention to ethnic identities that deserve a global presence.

The project was shot entirely using analogue processes.

Describe your creative process and the purpose with which you create.

My creative process is deeply rooted in storytelling and visual communication. Its intention is to get the viewers immerse in the narrative, similar to what music does to us. I draw inspiration from various sources, including my father's legacy, which instilled in me a passion for photography and a commitment to capturing authentic narratives. Additionally, my interest in cinema, adding a layer of cinematic narrative to my photographic work. Embracing analog processes in my photography is not just a stylistic choice but also a way to connect with the artistry of the past. I believe that the traditional methods of any craft builds a timeless and authentic connection as an artist and that reflects in its true sense even to the person absorbing an image.The purpose behind my creative endeavours is to inspire, provoke emotions, sometimes tickle the nostalgic nerves and foster connections with humanity. Photography is a really long journey and I always find my meeting point between documentary and intentional reforms in photography, it just happens naturally.

What are some of your biggest inspirations and influences over the course of your artistic career so far?

My biggest inspiration has been my father, who has been a photographer for the past 40 years. He used to work as a photojournalist for a local newspaper shooting social structures of both rural and urban landscapes. We had a darkroom space where he spent most of his time and that's the reason I am drawn to analog processes and shooting. As I grew up I developed my interest in cinema, especially the works of Mira Nair and Satyajit Ray. That diversified my approach to storytelling and sharpened my craft. My fascination with the artistry of the past compels me to delve into the world of photographers who crafted their masterpieces with limited techniques in bygone eras. Exploring the works of artists from the previous century, I have always been amazed by their ingenuity and language of photography. Along the process I came across artists like Mitch Epstein, Ian Howorth, Alec Soth, Vivian Maier, Steve McCurry, Bharat Sikka, Dayanita SIngh, Fred Herzog, Diane Arbus, Saul Leiter, William Eggleston, and many more.

What are some things you learned while putting this project together?

I think this world is an enormous landscape where we come across stories and conversation that amaze and confuse us (sometimes). Being raised in a small town near Mumbai, I was hesitant to define the meaning of simplicity and human ideologies. Spending time with my camera, loading and unloading rolls of films, listening to people so passionate about their beliefs within a social space like Banaras brought me closer to my craft. While shooting the project and spending more than two months in India, it exposed me to different perspectives of human life and the relationship we share with the landscape around us.

Who are some artists who are currently on your radar?

Sohrab Hura, Sanjay Tomar, Ashima Raizada, Kannagi Khanna, Naveed Hussain, Ronny Sen, Gayatri Ganju, Keerthana Kunnath, Gauri Gill, Arpita Shah, and Vinita Barretto are a few to name.

Tell us about a project you wish you were a part of.

I think I like to motivate myself by the projects and work I come across during my practice everyday. There are so many artists who have such a charming photographic language but to name a particular project it would be the Raw Mango campaigns, especially 'Heer'.

You can follow Shashank here.