Stubbly chin. Blood red mouth. Vermilion squint-eyed stone deity. A blue butterfly tattooed on a woman’s breast. Men, women, children, seemingly in a trance, bathe in the frothing and foaming inky sea: they wash off the identities they had assumed for the festive rituals in the dark night. A woman in a garish red nightie stands grinning outside a cabin. A man’s head emerges from behind her torso. A bawdy house? A hand is about to unhook a blouse. A cross-dressed young man lies on his back gazing straight at the camera. His top is orange. The wall is blue. A boy is about to strike another with a stone. A tear rolls down the cheek of a woman. A man wields a blood-stained machete. A boy turns incandescent. A blood-stained head — sure it’s not tomato purée? A man polishes a curved, wall-to-wall mirror. His reflection is warped on its shiny surface.
The lurid colours, the glaring flash and mise en scène are a far cry from photographer and filmmaker Sohrab Hura’s earlier relentless investigations of mental illness and abject poverty at Pati, the dust bowl of Madhya Pradesh, in searing black and white. These violently contrasting images mark Sohrab Hura’s ongoing exhibition, ‘Spill’, at Kolkata’s Experimenter gallery. Like the waves of the sea, Hura’s images spill over the confines of fact till they mingle with fiction.
The meaning of images can change radically when the context shifts even slightly. And this is what Hura explores in this exhibition. He explains this in his video, The Lost Head & The Bird, a long-term project, where myriad found footage is stirred and shaken with his garish colour photographs. Hura takes this conceit to its logical conclusion as he creates the illusion (on a mobile phone screen) of water decanting into a container going in the reverse direction in the concluding section of the exhibition. ‘Spill’ covers Hura’s 15-year practice as a photographer; he is the first Indian to become a member of Magnum Photos, the international cooperative owned by its photographer members.
“I started with colour and then moved to black-and-white to focus on the compositional part,” says the masked Hura, as he mounts the exhibition. “I learn at my own pace. I experiment. Try. Fail. And make a vocabulary in the process. In the colour pictures I am playing with context. I don’t know what is real and what is not. It’s a grey area. There exists a larger system of creating narratives. Stories mean power. During elections, the government is tweaking narratives according to the narrative we want. Riots break out. But it’s too late when discovered.”
Hura explains that he used vertical frames for these images so that they look claustrophobic; a horizontal frame gives more breathing space. “I am making a vocabulary that makes you want to trust it more. A horizontal frame looks well composed. Here I am striking a fine balance of doubt. One can’t be sure that it is real.”
Between 2013 and 2014, Hura’s parents, still new to WhatsApp, would forward messages, including fake news, which they took at face value. Back then, people were not used to the idea of fake news. There is a sea of images out there that is being circulated ceaselessly. These are very different from the images one encounters in the art world. “My work,” says Hura, “is a bait for viewers to move to this sea of images.” So he juxtaposes his work with the vortex of found footage; the “vocabulary is hyper-realistic, saturated in energy”. As he explains, there is no space for iconic images here, only viral images exist for one moment and then they die out.
Hura plays the part of the “idiot photographer” because, as he explains, “I’m also part of the violence in image-making as the larger system that I am looking at. Hence the self-reference. But the idiot photographer is also the audience. Because all of those who are spectators to the goings-on of the world are as culpable.”
There is a striking contrast between Hura’s earlier and new works. The documentary style of ‘Land of a Thousand Struggles’ that began in 2005 followed by ‘Pati’ were records of the 50-day bus journey Hura undertook in North India’s rural belt after completing university along with economist and social scientist Jean Drèze and others who were part of the ‘Right to Food’ movement. The objectivity and photojournalistic style of these underwent a transformation when he shifted to his personal world. Hura’s camera examined with unflinching honesty and tenderness his mother’s schizophrenia and the mortal illness of her pet dog in Bittersweet (2019). In The Coast (2020), where masquerading devotees take a dip in the ocean at night, they are washing off their masks, so to speak. It’s a throwback to the Modi wave masks of the 2019 elections. “The coastline is a metaphor for something that will burst. The night stands for evil... unsocial behaviour.”
Hura had said in an earlier Magnum interview: “There is a sort of new language of photography coming into existence. Because of the looseness of social media. It’s weird, it’s surprising, it’s ugly, it’s beautiful, it’s voyeuristic, it’s narcissistic, it’s ordinary, it’s precise, it’s misleading, it’s a lot of contradictions put together. Yet it somehow makes sense to me.” The viewer will take time to unravel this.
ON SHOW: Spill by Sohrab Hura; Experimenter, Kolkata; till January 2, 2021.
The writer focuses on Kolkata’s vanishing heritage and culture.