Home again,
the perspective of distance

Back in New Zealand after a three-month Foundation residency in Varanasi, India, artist Elliot Collins reflects on how the city, the Ganges and the people have influenced him.

Ride through the streets of Varanasi

I have only been home for a week or so and already the norms of life in Aotearoa have begun to creep back in.

I do love it here, so I never fight the inevitable closing down of senses that occurs in your home surroundings, I enjoy the smaller world that drew me home, but I do find myself daydreaming of my time in Varanasi when a memory comes to mind, and I don’t fight that either.

It’s the everyday things of Varanasi that I have noticed lacking here, like standing at fruit stands outside dairies I miss the fresh juniper berries piled high smelling earthy and sweet, and at the same time savoury and aromatic. Missing are the jackfruit and the guava or coconut, freshly cut to enjoy the cooling liquid inside. I miss the commotion of small shops selling only padlocks or prayer mats or metal kitchenware.

I carry on down an urban Auckland street trying to smell for the hot coals placed in the chambers of antique clothes irons, working on business shirts being crisply starched after their wash in the river. No one stops to offer you chai with its sweet and spicy sugary kiss. No one is hanging around chatting or passing comment on the world that passes by, it’s as if everybody is too busy here to care about observing ourselves.

On the main streets, in tuk tuks or on the boats of Banaras* men sing to themselves, many different songs that I will never learn, their voices surprisingly good and betraying their weathered position in life; yet here, in Auckland, silence.

No ringing bells, or honking of horns, no calling out to tourists, Indian and Western, “where you going!?”, “Where you from?!” “Youwantboat?!” in a single word. Their nuanced language always beginning with hello was reinforced with a smile and open hand. Never in my life have I checked my privilege so regularly and been confronted with my own ignorance so frequently.

Elliott: "It was strange to be in a place that seemed to have nullified colonization so thoroughly yet also be so easy swayed by Western ideologies."

The young men and women of the city navigate the busy streets and narrow alleyways like fish in a stream, the young men with fresh haircuts and women with determined attitudes that have affected a drastic change in the community structure and power of women in contemporary Indian society.

Their Royal Enfield motorcycles line the streets as they participate in the abundant nightlife while they discuss the future of the city and country while streaming a news channel on their smartphones.

There is such a vast difference in wealth and income in the city that I could barely even brush the surface. But the growing middle class of India seems be embracing a Western world view with their desire for all things Western, clothes, style, food and technology which is quickly replacing ritual and customs and subduing identity.

It was strange to be in a place that seemed to have nullified colonisation so thoroughly yet also be so easy swayed by Western ideologies. As with anywhere I’ve travelled, people are aware of the way globalization creeps into the small sacred spaces of life and distorts it for its own purpose. Time will tell how capitalism and greed is combatted in this Hindu city.

Another pastime that I played with the other guests of Kriti Gallery artists in residence, was watching in awe sari-draped women riding side-saddle on the back of motorbikes as they wove through traffic and never once got snagged on one of the city’s many hazards - the loose wires, car parts, tree branches or other vehicles.

Auckland motorbikes seem boring now with only one passenger, don’t they know you can fit three or four people on one bike, you just have to hold on tighter.

I’ve since wandered along the Waikato, the region’s own sacred river. But there was no one there. Some tourists stopped to use the public restrooms and granted it was a Tuesday. But any day of the week the Ganges flows with souls, both living and dead.

There is life to be lived down by the river. Maybe this is the sign of contemporary life in Aotearoa, where nobody has time to keep the river company; maybe that’s why our rivers get sick or maybe this is why the river stays clean.


Elliott: "You cannot return from India unchanged. It altered something in me, something that, like the place itself, is hard to describe."

The Ganges is one of the most polluted rivers in the world, owed almost entirely to chemicals and pollutants from factories and agriculture as well as the cities struggling sewage treatment system, which looked more like a Wes Anderson set piece than a functioning facility. This did not deter sons and daughters in their mid-50s guiding their elderly parents to the water’s edge.

I watched their cautious steps across the submerged stones just under the water where they appear for a moment to walk upon the surface of the oily sun-licked ripples, and in this way every magical thing seemed ordinary. They bathed and washed away sin in the holy river that only a few meters away received the ashes of newly cremated bodies of the departed. All are blessed, all are made clean.

There is a warmth to the Indian way of being, yet sadly things are beginning to blur in my memory. Like I said, my real life is returning to me like waking from a dream.

You cannot return from India unchanged. It altered something in me, something that, like the place itself, is hard to describe.

I did not “discover myself” but maybe uncovered a part of myself in a place entirely new and exceptionally old, and this is where the real richness of the programme resides.

The opportunity of an extended period of time held within the relative safety of the city and the residence was an experience that is hard to describe or fathom in this writing, but one that will be long lasting and slow to reveal its true impact.

I swung from being overwhelmed and broken to being thoroughly at home and at peace, walking the small alleyways or dodging bikes on the main streets, holding quiet space in temples and laughing as a tuk tuk drivers tried, unsuccessfully, to double the price of a journey you’ve taken many times.

I followed the path of pilgrims and sat drinking chai while vendors fixed a bicycle under a swastika-like sign. I encountered the profound and ordinary all in one place, outside of time and within ceremonies in temples, shop floors and doorways.