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Big picture: Jumping for joy at the girls’ ashram From the Observer

T.As it turns north on the high banks of the Ganges, it is filled with ashrams on its way to the holy city of Varanasi. All but one were established by male gurus. The exception is the Ashram for Little Girls, which was created in the 1940s by a young mystic named Nirmala Chakraborty, called Anandamai (or “Pleasant”). Since then, 40 girls, ranging in age from six to 18, have studied in solitude at the ashram under the guidance of six senior students from Anandamai, who died in 1982.

The girls wake up at 4 a.m. for the first celebration of the first song of the day. They clean the courtyards and rooftops and cook over a coal fire. Beyond the annual boat trip to the Maharaja’s palace in Ramnagar, there is little contact with television or radio, the Internet or newspapers, and the outside world. Every day, from their rooftops over the river, the girls watch the thousands of pilgrims and tourists and the rites of burning funerals and wedding ceremonies.

Danita Singh In 1998, the first photographer was allowed to take pictures at the ashram. His cousin lived there. This photo in particular – part of a group exhibition, now online in Birmingham Icon Gallery – He caught her for what he saw. The young jumping girl is seen both in this world and above or beyond it. Singh is one of four sisters. Her father wanted one of his daughters to be admitted to the ashram, but her mother resisted, “I wonder how we, the girls of the city, would adapt in such a difficult life.” When, after his visit, he left the ashram, his cousin asked him: “So who do you think has a better life?” The Sangh felt unable to respond. When thinking of the title of his Varanasi photos, he used a well-known Anandamai phrase: “I am as I am.”

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