Friday, April 01, 2016

Unusual occupations - Artist by the Riverside

AArtist by the Riverside

 Pyarelal and his cousins wash clothes by the Dhobi ghat every morning.  It was an occupation their fathers and forefathers have been doing for many generations. In the pilgrim city of Varanasi where the holy river Ganga flows peacefully from the south towards the north there are more than 84 river banks earmarked for various purposes. 

Dhobi ghat is where the launderers launder the clothes.  As in ancient times, many of traditional dhobis do not use soap or any other harsh chemicals to wash the soiled clothes.  A soiled cloth could well come out as a spotless piece of crisp white dhoti when it is washed with the sand,  silt and the clay deposited by the flowing river and beaten on a flat stone to wash off the dirt.   The clothes are then dried in the open sun by spreading them out on the dry steps that lead to the river. 

When Pyarelal is not laundering the clothes he sits by the steps or Ghats as it is called by the locals and sketches the scenic drawings in the various hues and colours of the River bank in this ancient city.   He has to his credit many mythological paintings, paintings of the different Ghats from different angles during different times of the year.  

Pyarelal aspired to go to college and then study fine arts.  He managed to join college but dropped out of the fine arts course.  Partially because of the financial constraints of his family but mainly because of the free spirited individual that he is, he refused to get tamed into the academic rigours required of a university course. 

His friends who graduated from the fine arts programmes have set up a gallery closer to the Ghats where there is better footfall of tourists and where there is good commercial opportunity to sell the sketches to the fascinated tourist to take home as memorabilia of this fascinating city.  

Pyarelal refuses to be drawn into competition and is content spreading out his paintings near the dhobi ghat for passersby to see and buy if they like.  Similar paintings in a souvenir shop could cost ten times more. And while the curious onlooker is taking a look at this collection, he is sketching yet another painting of the washer men at the Ghats in the morning. 

'There are not too many of them left now', he says referring to the washer men at the Dhobi ghat.  

The government will be leasing out the Ghats to private agencies to maintain and keep it clean. The traditional method of washing clothes with the river sand and silt has slowly been replaced by detergents and fabric conditioners that contain harmful chemicals that pollute the river.  With no fool proof method to regulate the usage of soaps and other chemicals the government has given notice to the dhobis who have been pursuing their occupation for many generations on this riverbank to go elsewhere and set up their Laundromats. Pyarelal’s family has now taken to ironing clothes and sheets that are handed out to them from the numerous guest houses that line the riverbank promising a Riverside view room to its guests. 

He is supportive of this drive by the government because he believes that if we did not save the River Ganga here and now, then it would be too late.  The population has grown leaps and bounds over the years and there is also a definite change in weather patterns over the years, he reminisces. The winters are not any more severe in Varanasi. This possibly means the ice caps atop the Himalayan Mountains are not that dense. When they melt during the summers to bring about fresh water along the 2500 kms long River Ganga alongside the plains there would not be much water flowing through the river all year long.  The receding water levels and their interconnectedness with the landslides and recent earthquakes in the Himalayan region are not lost out on the young man who has spent all his growing years watching the river swell and recede unfailingly every year with the change in seasons.

All that is etched in his memories and sketched beautifully in his paintings. His water colour drawings invariably have a hand sketched finish to them. It is a style he was told to shake off when he tried going to art school. 

I take a picture of him with his painting and explain to him about my blog on unusual occupations. In his usual understated and shy manner he says there is nothing much to write about him and if I were to look for artists  there are many commercially famous ones at the university or at the gallery near the Dashashwamedh ghat, the one which is a tourist hotspot. 

As for himself he started pursuing painting as a hobby. Now that his ancestral occupation is on the verge of being closed down he is trying to make a living selling his paintings to the tourists. 

He chooses to sit here, besides a small ancient shrine because the monk who tended to the  shrine is now old and too weak to come and light the evening lamp at the shrine at dusk.  He is living out his old age at one of the hospices situated at yet another ghat along the river.  He has informally handed over the responsibility of lighting the evening lamp at the shrine to Pyarelal. 

Duty bound, Pyarelal spends a couple of hours spreading out his paintings and sketches for the passerby tourist to look and see.  When it is time for sunset he would light the evening lamp at the shrine and head home which is situated in one of the stone cobbled alleyways about 300 meters horizontally above the steps leading to the Dhobi ghat.

 He would be heading homewards just around the same time when peak tourist footfall would congregate to watch the famous evening Ganga Arti, the spectacularly choreographed evening worship of the River Ganga. 

His friends from the fine arts college would have had their paintings spread out and would sell them to the tourists for attractive prices through young boys who are their middlemen selling the paintings. 

Pyarelal deliberately runs away from the trappings of this commercial opportunity and is content with the way his paintings are marketed (or the lack of it). 

For a couple of days he was not to be found at the usual place where he spreads his collection, when I went about looking. When I finally meet him on the third day, he says he was busy painting the exteriors of a nearby temple as they were getting it ready for the festivities lined up the week after.  The painting work he undertakes at the temple is community service and he probably gets a meal or two or just some good will in return for the day’s labour.        

As a man of principle he refuses to deal with middlemen and touts who are a dime a dozen across this tourist infested city.  Only a few weeks ago he was commissioned by a Swedish tourist who had stayed on for a few months by the river side hotel to paint for her a certain view of the riverbank that she fancied.  Her Visa would soon expire and she wanted to carry that memory with her as a painting when she left.

It was an ambitious piece of work commissioned by a genuine art lover and a relatively wealthy (by Pyarelal’s economic standards) patron of art. As Pyarelal got working on the painting, the manager of the hotel she was staying in and another acquaintance of his who actually introduced him to the tourist via the Hotel manager started negotiating the price of the painting and their respective commissions as soon as the commissioned piece of art would be delivered.  

Meanwhile Pyarelal sketched and painted a  gorgeous larger than life painting with a view in exactly the way the Swedish tourist had wanted it. He gifted it to her for free, in complete defiance to all commercial sense thus driving home his ‘no touts.. No commission’ message.

Did he burn his bridges with the middlemen who must think he is complete nuts to refuse top dollar money coming his way? I ask.  He laughs it off saying he doesn’t care. ‘It does not matter what they think of me. Standing by my principles is what defines who I am. We were all brought up to lead honest and contended lives in this sacred city. But the lure and greed of easy money entices many.   Anyway it is not so serious.  They know me well and I know them well too. 

These are people he grew up with and their kinship is beyond friendship and enmities.  At the end we have to attend the weddings and funerals in each other’s families, he laughs and remarks with a smirk.   

That is what sets Pyarelal apart from other artists of his caliber. He is rooted in his heritage, stands unflinchingly for the principles and teachings that he grew up learning, understands the modern day environmental challenges, and is humble, a quiet but stubborn rebel and more importantly a simple man aspiring to lead a contended life.  All this is the essence of his paintings and a true connoisseur of art would not miss these expressions when looking at this sketches and paintings.   


  1. Wow. Quite an amazing story... I love it that you are doing this. It goes beyond the challenge. Well written. I'll be back tomorrow :)

    @TarkabarkaHolgy from
    The Multicolored Diary

  2. He was a very interesting person to read about; funny that he didn't think there was much to write about him. I would have loved to see how the clothes came out clean from the river without the use of soap. Sad how times change, but reality that laundromats had to be created to keep the river clean.

    great start to the challenge!


  3. Excellent jaya. Well written. Pyarlal story is very artistic. U have taken his story very lively. Keep writing

  4. Excellent jaya. Well written. Pyarlal story is very artistic. U have taken his story very lively. Keep writing

  5. Anonymous12:28 PM

    A great story about an interesting person! A great start for the challenge!

  6. Loved the way pyarelal has been described. Indeed an unusual occupation and an unusual man

  7. Loved the way pyarelal has been described. Indeed an unusual occupation and an unusual man

  8. This is lovingly written and glad to see an artist who has such soul. Great to see more of his work hopefully.

  9. This was so interesting Jayanti. India is filled with so much talent and treasure, it is unbelievable! Pyarelal with his kind of skills elsewhere in the world might have gone places! Thanks for sharing this unusual occupation....your posts are going to one of a kind.....I'll be back!

  10. More power to you Jayanti and the man who adhere by such principles. It's difficult to find such souls who refuse to cow down to the power of capitalists. Great story to share and narrated in an engrossing manner:)

  11. I simply loved this story. Excellent Jayanti!

    1. Sowmya : Truth be told. When I met Pyarelal he reminded me of you. :)

  12. Amazing story Jayanthi... And you have some great clicks too...I have always wanted to visit Varanasi and still havent got a chance yet... Sigh!!

  13. Superb... next visit.. he is on my list

  14. Wow! I love his paintings. I come from a city that's just 90kms from Varanasi and when I first saw that picture after reading your blog on C, I was amazed to see how you have traveled the length and breadth of the country :) Great post!

  15. Vow Parelal is really the man of principle isn't he? I have returned to your blog after a bit of gap so will go down the 30 articles. as one of the other blogger/follower rightly mentioned that your blog is one of its kind, we get to read the awesome stuff.


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