Sebastian Cortes’ photographs focus on the ordinary and extraordinary character of Pondicherry

Sebastian Cortes’ pictures of Pondicherry are living memories of its past and present, hidden deep in the grid roads that form this once-French colonial town.

They offer glimpses into the homes and surroundings of traditional Pondicherians and often tell stories that have missed the public eye.

“I like opening doors,” says Sebastian, waving at his portraits, “I’m bored of the way people portray India because shooting things from the outside is too easy. I like to pry and uncover hidden areas. People in India like to share and my pictures are about private areas and the streets.”

Born in New York and having worked in the U.S. and in Europe, Sebastian came to Pondicherry 10 years ago to live in Auroville.

“It has such a Mediterranean presence in Pondicherry,” he exclaims, “and the town itself has so many layers — the ashram, old and new French quarters, the Tamil quarter and their geometric existence. I observe how they interact in such spaces and try to be surprised by the familiar. It’s easy to photograph the exotic but difficult to be curious about things you see everyday.”

A lot of Sebastian’s pictures are of old homes and decrypt spaces that once held much charm.

“It was rather tough to find the houses but once I did, their hospitality was warming. I had some help from the French Consulate and organisations such as INTACH. Then other people began suggesting as well. In all, I must have shot anywhere between 30 to 40 houses. I found a home that used to be the Ranga Pillai Palace, named after the dubash Ananda Ranga Pillai, who served the French East India Company. His house was once probably the grandest around and is now used as a warehouse. And those fading blue walls had a sense of mystery to it,” he says.

The homes that he has immortalised have a certain character to them; either an old-world aura with its peeling limestone walls and stained-glass windows and doors or the tall columns and ample verandas of the colonial bungalows.

“This work is inspired from Privacy, a collection of pictures on families in Kolkata by Dayanita Singh. I like her approach and how she jumps into India and brings out a side that you seldom see. I’m trying to break the stereotype you associate with Pondicherry and move inside the layering of history.”

There are glimpses of society too; religion, schools, bars, processions, events and religious places, where the subject is often not the first thing you notice. “I show the relationship with the sea, religion and so on. I photographed a lot of shade, which is very Pondicherry and even a brightly-lit room of a mosque in contrast to the shadows of a church. I try to bring out a different sense of what showing a space means; how people react to privacy. My photos also deal with memories — what do you take away from these things? Just as a family sells its old furniture to buy new ones,” he shrugs.

Sebastian explains that art and photographs are similar in their function; they are a record of an event and try to explain what is happening.

“Art has always tried to symbolise but you’ve to know its language, even if it is something as simple as the joy of looking at it. My photographs are similar; they will speak more if you understand the local context.”

Sebastian Cortes’ photo exhibition is on at Amethyst, Entrance Whites Road, Royapettah till January 12 from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.