Akshay Bhoan’s photographic project, Vrindavan: Grey Notebooks (2012), narrates the different journeys of Hindu widows residing in Vrindavan, through the black and white medium, dealing with the personal loss in their lives and their anticipation of release (moksha) from the cycle of mortal life and individual identity by discovering ‘faith’ through their devotion to lord Krishna. He does this by contextualising the widows’ relationship with the old town of Vrindavan. By capturing their everyday life within the town’s old architectural dwellings, performing rituals in temples and on ghats, their relationships with other fellow women and life in the streets of Vrindavan (in general), Akshay depicts the physical setting and spirituality of the women protagonists. Interestingly, out of all the imprints of history engraved in the landscape of Vrindavan, widows are the oldest link accessible between Vrindavan’s written history and of what remains today in the city.
Vraja-Vrindavan, a mythological birth place of god Krishna, is currently located in Uttar Pradesh, 150kms from Delhi. From time immemorial, this place has attracted travellers who travelled to Mathura district (UP) in search of finding a pilgrimage destination called Vrindavan. It was only in 16th century, when a Bengali sage, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, had a vision of a city-the childhood refuge of Krishna–that he made a journey to Vrindavan from Jagannatha Puri. On his visit, he consecrated icons, temples and re-created a town by the same name, ten kilometers away from Mathura, as one of the important Hindu pilgrimage sites.
Today, thousands of visitors make pilgrimage to this holy city every year which is now home to four thousand temples and some five thousand Hindu widows. Since time immemorial, widows disposed by their families, travelled to Vrindavan to find solace in the devotion and worship of Krishna both as a God and as a divine husband. In return for their services to temples, like Bhajan, devotional songs and menial jobs, Vrindavan provides widows with a community of women with the same plight, recognisable living and supply of basic amenities. Most of the women live in ashrams and only a few are able to afford housing of their own. Slowly, widows in Vrindavan have withdrawn themselves from the worldly affairs by immersing into religion to escape marginalisation, personal loss and to find an emotional space by establishing their relationship with god Krishna.
In the Vrindavan: Grey Notebooks series, although a work in progress, photographs not just provide context for the widowhood experience in Vrindavan but rather invite viewers to explore the ‘inner sanctuaries and entanglements of loss and faith’. In fact, attempts have been made by the photographer not to exoticise the subjects and landscapes of Vrindavan but rather to understand the people, location and spaces they inhabit, before capturing them on the camera lens. Introduced to Vrindavan through family fables and mythological stories, Bhoan, through documentation of his subjects, tries to set on a journey which starts with physical exploration of a location on a map but ‘actually veers towards a spiritual Vrindavan which is deep within the realm of our inner consciousness.’
Akshay Bhoan is a documentary and editorial photographer based in New Delhi. Highly inspired by classical art, his work explores domains of beauty, loss and the transient nature of life. Educated as an engineer and self-trained as an artist, his images study the delicate balance of visual aesthetics and technical understanding of the medium. Currently he’s also involved with developing content for Lomography India.