Lit for Life

A pictorial odyssey

Seated on a corner stone bench, gazing at the perfect symmetry of Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi — this is where Sebastian Cortes is one winter afternoon when I call to speak to him about his upcoming exhibition in Chennai.

A collateral event at The Hindu Lit for Life festival, ‘Sidhpur: Time Present Time Past’, to be exhibited in the city for the first time, is a journey through the lanes and mansions of the Bohra community of Sidhpur, Gujarat.

Cortes, American by birth and Italian and Spanish-Peruvian by descent, has for long loved the legacy of the past, and spent a lifetime unveiling the lost landscapes of diminishing cultures around the world. “I was born in New York, raised in Florida and Mexico, and influenced by the twin cultures I inherited. My earliest inspiration was my mother, a portrait and fashion photographer for whom I often modelled as a child, and a lingering memory of those years was the smell of the dark room,” says Cortes, 56.

After graduating from New York University film school, he worked as a fashion photographer, in production and advertising, looking at the industry from both sides of the lens.

Then, on a visit to his mother’s home country, Italy, Cortes found his calling as an art photographer with his first project, ‘Luoghi Poetici’ (Poetic Places), intimate portraits of 21 Italian poets. “I used the camera as an instrument for recording the layering of time and the sense of place — discovering the poet in the space he recognises himself. The book set me on the path of discovering art photography,” he says.

“Engaging with the image itself is not difficult, which is why photojournalism doesn’t draw me in. In art photography, one engages with the sociological aspect that becomes a metaphor for what one sees. There are layers that push the viewer to discover his moment of epiphany.”

Having found his passion, Cortes stepped away from photographing high-street fashion and turned his lens on pastoral landscapes, sunlit villas and “areas of the world that have been pushed out of visual perception because of progress”. When he moved to India with his family in 2004 (“my wife was a yoga teacher who was keen on coming to Pondicherry, and my career needed a break”), it helped him refine his search for places that had fallen off the map — forgotten cities and towns whose fast-disappearing ways of life he was compelled to capture before they were lost forever. “I came here with a sense of curiosity, and India helped me find a serenity that translated to beauty.”

Influenced by the work of iconic photographer Raghubir Singh, Cortes worked on a heritage book on Puducherry, which got an honourable mention at the International Photography Awards. With articles by several noted French and Indian writers, the book, “was a leitmotif to look at India inwardly”, says Cortes, who lectures at the Sri Aurobindo Centre for Arts and Communication.

It also led him to Sidhpur, a town in Gujarat’s Patan district on the banks of the river Sarasvati. A place that once saw glory under the Solanki Rajputs, it is now known for the grand old mansions built by the Dawoodi Bohras, who made this city home. Centuries ago, when the Bohras left Yemen, perched on the cutting-edge of the Arabian peninsula, for the gentler shores of Gujarat, they brought with them their love for latticed balconies and tiled courtyards. “An editor of a magazine, a Bohra herself, suggested I visit the town. When I saw the houses — in shades of fuchsia, teal and aquamarine — it took me only an instant to fall in love with its mythic quality.”

Cortes spent a month in Sidhpur with a cook, a guide and his Canon digital camera, capturing images that ranged from eye-catchingly barren to soothingly grandiose. “It took me two-and-a-half years to edit and work on this project that is the first in-depth photographic exploration of this community to date. It is published as a book by Tasveer, with text by Rosalyn D’Mello,” says Cortes, whose descriptions of the houses tumble forth with alacrity. It’s an enthusiasm that is reflected in the 48 pictures that go on show.

Shards of light illumine grand chandeliers, latticed stairways, tiled walls, lonely four-poster beds, carpeted hallways, fluted pillars and colonnaded verandahs. The fading colours and empty rooms are a side glance into the history of these people, before commerce took them elsewhere. “Sidhpur is an exquisite theatre set that its lead actors have deserted. History has a way of making the dust settle and lending a place melancholy. These buildings, influenced by colonial architecture, reflect a sense of loss that appeals to me, which is why most of the pictures are of the spaces. The people in it are just brushstrokes of colour.”

Cortes, who is now photographing the palaces of Chettinad and Palladian architecture around the globe, says that in a world where everyone looks forward, he “prefers to look the other way”.

“If my work creates a crumb of awareness, if it could save our past, I’d be happy. I like the engagement with nostalgia these forgotten places bring. For, if you’ve chopped the tree, what use are the roots?”

Tasveer hosts ‘Sidhpur: Time Present Time Past’, an exhibition of Sebastian Cortes’ works. It will open on January 15, 7.30 p.m. at the Folly, Amethyst, Royapettah. The preview will feature a walkthrough with the photographer, followed by an interactive session. The exhibition continues till January 31 (11 a.m. to 7.30 p.m.). For details, call 4599 1631/32.

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Printable version | Dec 4, 2021 9:54:01 PM |

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