Rituals and Bodies in Spatial Reconstruction of Past
The increasing displacements of populations between nations, and the changing distributions of racial and ethnic populations within nations have created a search for a new identity. Old maps of identity- national, cultural and individual are being re-drawn. Soja in ‘Postmodern Geographies’ writes about Los Angeles being a theme park of World Space, “There is a Boston in Los Angeles, a Lower Manhattan and a South Bronx, a Sao Paulo and a Singapore.”(Soja, 1989). This seems to be a result of nostalgia arising from estrangement or alienation. If we look at the phenomenon of the search of a lost identity, recreation of the past, reconstruction of a recognizable environment based on a nostalgic past, we find that it is not true for the contemporary city alone. Being nostalgic is a part of human nature and hence we find its reflection spatially, in some of our very old cities too. Varanasi in India, a city two thousand five hundred years old, is such an example. Here residents construct their Lord’s city every year, based on a 16th century text, through rituals. During the performance residents in a liminal phase, inhabit a reconstructed environment, where they remake their identities and find linkages with their past. This environment becomes a ground where the city of the past and present coincide. It becomes a metaphor for the textual city. Contrary to this we evidence a more politically driven nostalgia leading towards a borrowing of image driven and traditional architectural forms. In this process of ‘re-construction of past’, the focus is totally on visual surface, creating instant urbanscapes lacking in depth, memory and ritual. Pronounced visual character is an important aspect of such spaces. Their design relies on the visibility of people and things and whatever is contained in them. “We build on the basis of papers and plans. We buy on the basis of images. Sight and seeing, which in western tradition once epitomized intelligibility, have turned into a trap: the means whereby, in social space, diversity maybe simulated”(Lefebvre, 1991, p. 75). Ritualized spaces, on the other hand, do not rely solely on vision. Here all senses are kept alive by total bodily participation. Ritual acts as a mediator in linking the body to the space not only physically but also at a metaphysical level. Because the space acquires a meaning due to the rituals, it is not the things which can be only seen in the space that matter, but what that space represents becomes crucial. This paper takes up an urban space in Varanasi and aims to see how the performance/ritual mediates between the textual and the physical space leading to a liminal phase in which the performers start experiencing the past environment. The physical space is nature, the existing built-up fabric. Textual space is the space as described in the text. Residents have the space imprinted in their minds by reading those texts and hence it can be termed as the space of the mind. Liminality is a phase in the performance, in which the spectators start believing themselves to inhabit the past environment because of the common spatial codes between the physical and textual space. It is here that the city of the past and the present collide.