Shashank Verma spotlights the “intergenerational resilience” of postcolonial India

Spending two months in the spiritual city of Varanasi, the photographer lays bear the beauty and steadfastness of India’s cultural heritage.

20 February 2024

The foundation for Shashank Verma’s Traces of Survivance series was created by an unsuspecting object – a familial archive box. Discovered during a trip to Bombay in 2022, the box enclosed a handful of letters between his grandmother and mother, written in 1987. When reading the letters, Shashank found himself drawn closer to the emotions associated with cultural heritage and identity in postcolonial India, and he gained a greater understanding of why Varanasi, a city in the north of the country, is celebrated as the spiritual capital of the world. “It led me to converse with authentic stories of people and communities intertwined with history and landscape, evolving into a project focused on representing postcolonial India,” the photographer begins.

This gravitation to telling stories with his camera is inspired by Shashank’s exposure to the craft during childhood; his father was a photojournalist for a local newspaper. “I grew up seeing him in the darkroom, developing and hand-printing stories around various socio-political themes,” says Shashank. “That's one of my reasons to practise analogue because it reminds me of that time, those people and mainly my father’s perspectives that led and evolved me as a visual artist.” Inspired by his father, for the past six years, Shashank has been honing the documentary format, immersing himself in communities, compelling individual experiences, and following “historical footprints”.


Shashank Verma: Traces of Survivance (Copyright © Shashank Verma, 2023)

The series takes its name from the survivance theory developed by the writer and scholar Gerald Vizenor in relation to native communities. A cross between survival and resistance, the theory posits the idea that the passing on of symbols, identities and cultures goes beyond mere survival – “it emphasises the dynamic, creative, and affirmative aspects of native existence,” Shashank says. Shashank’s series applies this theory to Varanasi, exploring intergenerational resilience throughout centuries of colonialism, and subsequent displacement and marginalisation.

Shashank’s two-month trip to Varanasi was split into two parts; through the first he uncovered the intricate details of the landscape, and during the second he delved deeper into the narratives of people, and their close-knit communities. On his travels, one of the ceremonies Shashank captured was mundan, the process by which hair is shaved off and sacrificed before prayer – common among practitioners of Hinduism. “Hair is seen as a matter of pride and arrogance, thus it is believed that shaving off one’s hair is a symbol of gratitude and devotion to the Lord,” says Shashank. In one image the photographer captures the ceremony in process. Lit by a warm sun the image shows heads in various stages of shaving, those doing the shaving deep in concentration. On the scene, Shashak says, “the act of sacrificing hair becomes a communal event, reinforcing a sense of unity and shared devotion among the participants.”

GalleryShashank Verma: Traces of Survivance (Copyright © Shashank Verma, 2023)

Other moments Shashank remembers for individual encounters. One day, he found himself at the funeral prayers at Manikarnika Ghat, a space in which countless bodies are cremated every day. Shashank explains that in Hinduism, death serves as a “portal to a new existence”, dictated by your accumulated karma. “The belief holds that the soul achieves moksha, breaking free from the relentless cycle of rebirth when consigned to the funeral pyres at the Manikarnika Ghat.” During the visit the photographer was musing on the many different ways people perceive death, before locking eyes with a boy who was in the process of bidding farewell to a loved one. “His smile felt like a sense of hope and serenity amid the solemnity of the event,” says Shashank. “We held eye contact for about 20 seconds before I aimed my lens at him. I will never forget those eyes.”

Having lived in London since 2021, Shashank now feels the sense of belonging he feels toward his country of birth has only grown deeper. The series is an attempt to honour this homeland, to help people to “reassess” misconceptions and stereotypes, seeing India as simply a place of culinary excellence or the hub of yoga. It beautifully uncovers the layers of history and tradition that have created such a resilient country, overflowing with rich culture and ancient practices passed down between generations – a cycle that, with visual artefacts like Traces of Survivance, will continue to flourish.

GalleryShashank Verma: Traces of Survivance (Copyright © Shashank Verma, 2023)

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Shashank Verma: Traces of Survivance (Copyright © Shashank Verma, 2023)

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About the Author

Olivia Hingley

Olivia (she/her) joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in November 2021 and soon became staff writer. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh with a degree in English literature and history, she’s particularly interested in photography, publications and type design.

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