Published in The Hindu, September 2017

Hura brings to light what is not visible to the naked eye - flowering shrubs turn to fiery lace

Sohrab Hura’s grainy black-and-white works and the occasional blanched image draw you into the cloistered and claustrophobic, yet tender and loving world of his mother, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and her pet dog, who died of old age some time ago.

Hura, born in 1981, joined Magnum Photos, an international photographic cooperative founded in 1947 by such legends as Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson, as a nominee, a rare honour for an Indian photographer, Raghu Rai being the only other.

Hura’s exhibition, Sweet Life, is now on at Experimenter in Kolkata (till November 10). It is a document of his growth as a human being and a photographer. But there is no obvious sign of trauma or violence here. It is as if Hura is recollecting insanity in tranquility. We see the aftermath of the storm. Not the outburst itself.

Hura, an unbelievably gentle and sensitive young man who has stuck to film, has three installations of his photographs in the gallery and his mother appears in all three, she being the “anchor” of his life and creativity - “My relationship with the world is defined by her,” he says.

A video of his photographs, many of them in colour, is also projected on the gallery wall. The video takes its name from the title of the exhibition, and it is set to a three-movement piece of electronic music titled A Proposition for Departure, a sonata he has created using an online synthesiser. He scanned the images from left to right, and there is a choice of different combinations.

Important to have fun

He manipulated the photographs to balance sounds, and the whiter the points within the image, the higher the peak of the sound extracted. He is “not sure it has finesse” but it is a “good departure point”. “It dips most when she (his mother) is not well,” he explains, adding that this experimentation was “just to have fun”.

Fun defines much of his activity as a photographer. He does not mind using a plastic camera to take underwater shots of a girl swimming and even uses lenses made of toilet paper rolls. “It is important to have fun. I have to last out my whole lifetime,” he adds.

As in his installations, Hura’s images are not suggestive of his mother’s illness. He had earlier made a book of them titled Life is Elsewhere. Shot over several harsh Delhi winters, she could be any woman seeking the comfort of her quilt, with the dog, Elsa, her companion for 13 years.

The only hint of illness is in the shot of her palm with the medicine cradled in it, and also probably the anarchy of her bed, quite as chaotic as English artist Tracey Emin’s My Bed, but without the suggestion of either sexual escapades or abjection for which the latter had gained notoriety. Like the peeling walls, his mother’s dishevelled bed could be a metaphor for her unsettled mind.

There are other clues. Hura uses the flash with great panache, and the ageing dog’s large, round soulful eyes become ghoulish as they glow like burning coal. It is the same with his pack of street dogs with their feral glare. Hura brings to light what is not visible to the naked eye - flowering shrubs turn into fiery lace, a face dissolves like reflections in water. Another turns into a trail of light similar to the spectral bodies one associates with séances.

Drops of splattered water and raindrops become white hot molten lead. Vrindavan’s Holi colours are transformed into a haze that engulfs the devotees. And Hura himself ignites into a giant, dancing flame. A flower is transformed into a noctilucent presence similar to the waves of the sea at night - haunting images that seem to float in a dream.

There are a couple of disturbing colour images - a close-up of the bleeding tumour that killed the dog, drops of blood on the floor, and the mass of flesh in his mother’s hand that is meant to feed the dog. About his switch to colour he says “I was not feeling connected. The magic was lost. I get bored easily. Black and white is formal. Colour is straightforward.” But they could result in images of great beauty. His mother’s face has become puffy, yet there are traces of loveliness in the contours. This becomes pronounced in a portrait taken in semi-darkness where her elegant features are traced out by shadows.

Hura had to pay a heavy price to earn his equipoise. The installations are accompanied by his jottings in which he pours his heart out. In 1999, when his mother’s illness was diagnosed, he returned from boarding school to confront the diabolical stranger his mother had become. When there was some relief from this prolonged nightmare, his father gave him a camera and Hura accompanied a photographer to the mountains. At that stage he had no plans of becoming a photographer; it was “happening too soon”. The world outside was “magical” and he saw his “role as someone who makes images.” He was shy initially but today he is a “lot more direct.”

His own story

Hura has a masters in Economics from Delhi University, and in 2005 he travelled across rural India. One of his stops was Pati in Madhya Pradesh where people struggled against the extreme heat and barren land to make a living. It is difficult to label Hura’s style, for the earlier journalistic recording of life in this poverty-ridden village is at variance with the intensely personal style he has developed over the years.

“It is important to tell stories,” he says, and that documentation phase was related to his studies and the Rozgar Adhikar Yatra he had undertaken. Thereafter, he started “looking inwards”, feeling “uncomfortable to tell other people’s stories”. There was “enough shit in my own life and that’s what photography became.”

In his show, Hura tries out the “infinite possibilities of sound extraction”, and the excitement of experimenting with new mediums is clearly buoying him up.

Published in The Hindu, September 2017
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