In The Brick Kilns
Photographs and Story by Rajesh Kr Singh
The name rings with an excess of nostalgia and memories of my youth, which I spent as a student at Banaras Hindu University. There could not have been a better place for me than Varanasi during my formative years as a student of photography.
Varanasi gave me the insight and perspective to follow my passion by way of an intuitive twist of fate, a twist that remains as inexplicable now as it always has. I had chosen to study photography, despite stiff opposition from my family, and though I don't know what initially drove me toward this city since I had never visited it. The desire was so strong that I even chose to risk being disowned by my family by choosing to study here.
Kasi, Banaras, or Varanasi are its three names, which have changed over the centuries, beginning as far back as the era from which the ancient Vedic texts up to and through the Mughal period and, then the period of Colonial rule. Strangely, it has never lost a sincere correspondence with its past and has retained its old-world charm, even as it has adapted to the forward compulsions of modernity. For over 4000 years of its existence, it has remained a mysterious place with a seeming will to accommodate constant change, and yet it retains its ancient aura and serves as a place of pilgrimage and as an inspiration to many returning pilgrims like me.
Title. Double click me.
All photographs ©2023 Rajesh Kr Singh Click on image to expand
Title. Double click me.
Part of my inspiration to photograph the kiln workers derived from the fact that, when I learned of the remnants of Varanasi—the pottery and artifacts that had been unearthed from as far back as 800 BC in the area known as Rajghat—there was evidence of ancient settlements.
The city has given me a unique vantage point and photography itself—the means to document the world around me. I have attempted to reflect on the frailty of my imagination set against the stark reality of the workers' lives and also tried to interpret their faces and gestures through the façade framed by the odds set against them. They may be the ignored, overlooked, or underprivileged creations of the same creator as my own. Still, perhaps they have chosen to reinvigorate their belief in the power of human resilience and patience through the sheer difficulties thrown at them and their power to overcome these difficulties with élan and dignity.
I have consciously sensitized my audience to their great privileges compared to this more significant—yet ignored—part of society and made a silent appeal at a subconscious level to arouse their feelings. I feel satisfied if my photographs stir positive emotions towards these marginalized people in Indian society. I am attempting to say that their hidden stories and struggles live through the only elixir of life available to them: faith. I have chosen the brick kiln environment as a subject because of my earthbound connection to the idea of land as a mother and soil as a nurturer of those who live on it.
The kilns, for me, have always been a signifying element in the Indian rural landscape. I was curious about them and wanted to understand what these chimneys meant in the world and the primitive process of digging and carrying of soil by children. I wanted to know the final journey that this soil took, which had robbed children of their childhood, women of their femininity, and animals of their sturdiness, in building a home for someone.
It was a heartbreaking revelation to know that most brick kiln workers die at an early age due to lung-related illnesses—as an everyday occupational hazard. I also found that the journey was one of inanimate objects and materials, as the soil became brick, and to build homes that were consecrated by people who were homeless, it, therefore, became a journey of helplessness, one which had brought these migrants—as they searched for a better future; though they would, in the end, become enslaved by the very destiny they wanted to change.
— Rajesh Kr Singh