The unrelenting summer heat sweeps across Sohrab Hura’s frames. It becomes the sun-bleached parched earth of the tropical imagination, whipped up by dust storms, before it settles down into the somnolence of afternoons in which a lone black dog wanders down an empty lane. It’s part of a familiar subconscious, which plays out every year across India. Shot in a tiny village in Madhya Pradesh, the images from The Song of Sparrows in a Hundred Days of Summer (2013-ongoing) reminds the photographer of Macondo, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s landscape in One Hundred Years of Solitude. “It was 50 degrees Celsius and I was trying to look for some magic in summer, in its oppressive hold over the land. It reminded me of the book, a favourite of mine, and the project spun off from there,” says Hura.
The black-and-white frames, with their grainy texture, appear like a book one has read several times. Hura, 32, a recent nominee of Magnum Photos, the international photographic co-operative co-founded by Henri Cartier Bresson, prefers his images to be raw and pulsing with emotion. “Sometimes, you can destroy a photograph by being a photographer, because you tend to sanitise your vision. For me, it is important not to be clinical, to feel doubtful about my work,” he says.
Hura’s approach involves a steady chipping away at an idea till it begins to take form. The camera becomes a mere implement, a tool that can change with projects. As with the plants that he grows in the garden of his Gurgaon house or the books that he finds “very difficult” to read because of his “inability to look beyond the details”, this wait for his work to evolve is a period of great vulnerability. “What importance do photographs have in today’s world? And can I say a little more with my photographs — become a poet, a novelist, or a short story writer, perhaps?” he asks.
The answer leads him away from the conventions of Indian photography, whose mainstay has been a political narrative. “I don’t care about photo-journalism, simply because its role has changed from the 1960s. Then, it was the prime source of documentation. With the arrival of television, there’s too much information and documentation all around; photographs die a daily death. From the way I look at it, photographs need to hit you hard in the gut. They need to be personal, because in the end, it is a question of, if you were to construct an universe, how would you do it.”
The thought has taken him from Raghu Rai’s lush frames to Raghubir Singh’s gypsy trails — “Raghu Rai made us love photography and once we became intellectuals, we turned to Raghubir Singh,” he says — to halt at unlikely inspirations: at artist Nasreen Mohamedi’s photographs and French polymath Boris Vian’s short stories, at conversations with photographers Swapan Parekh and Antoine D’Agata.
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It made him turn to his own life, which was abscessing ever since his mother had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in 1999. In a personal project called Sweet Life (2005-2014), he worked on a series of black-and-white images of his mother, their pet dog and faithful companion Elsa, the peeling paint on the walls, the insects that found their way into the clutter and disarray of life.
“I had been reading Milan Kundera’s Life is Elsewhere and I began finding similarities between Jaromil’s relationship with his mother and my life. My mom was unwell and I was angry and confused. We were both hiding from the world,” he says. He titled the series, which turned out to be the first chapter of the project, after the book. “The series appears disjointed, but they are fragments of my life — my friends, my home, my travels and the way I was looking at them,” he says. The next chapter of the project, Look, It’s Getting Sunny Outside!!! (2008/9-2014), came when his mother started healing. The images slowly move to colour, to bursts of insouciance that slip in where there is hope.
A graduate of the Delhi School of Economics, Delhi, Hura’s photographic sensibility started shaping up around 2005. “When I began photography in 2001, my dad was certain that I would end up with a studio for passport-size photos in the village near our house. He would stop my friends on the road and tell them to knock some sense in my head,” he says. With no formal training and with a customary trip to Varanasi to capture life on the ghats behind him, he drifted to Pati in Madhya Pradesh to assist economist Jean Dreze and document the effects of the Rozgar Adhikar Yatra.
That first exposure to rural India, to poverty and the quiet submission it wrings off people was excruciating, but the photographs and videos that came out of that experience were imbued with gentleness — emaciated toddlers with bellies bloated from malnutrition snuggle up to their fathers, an 80-year-old man ploughs the field to get what little money six days of assured work in a year will get him, a child no more than three balances a small basket of earth on his head as he pitches forward to help his family. “When I look at them now, these works lack finesse, but there is an honesty in them, an urgency that I am constantly trying to hold on to,” he says.
His selection as a Magnum nominee — the only other Indian member of the community is Rai — could be a turning point for a person who believes in doing his own thing, away from the pressure of popular demand.
When the call came to confirm his selection, Hura says he was overcome by nausea. “I threw up. I have been outside an establishment for so long, working on my own, it made me nervous to think that I might have to work in a particular way. Then several photographers from Magnum mailed, and some of them said I should not change and keep on doing what I do. I have forced myself to stop thinking about it now,” he says.
The selection, which entails two years of association with the co-op and a review at the end of it for further engagement, however, brought with it a memory from over a decade ago. At a Gurgaon supermarket, Hura once spotted a book on Magnum photographers, and confided in his mother that he wanted to see himself in that book one day. Unknown to him, she had picked it up later. When he told her about his nomineeship, she brought the book out. “She said it was well worth the Rs 2,000 she had invested in it,” he says.
This story appeared in print with the headline Ways of Seeing