Amenaben Calcuttawala in residence. Copyright: Sebastian Cortes / Courtesy Tasveer
Baitul Tarbiyat (Orphanage for Girls). Copyright: Sebastian Cortes / Courtesy Tasveer
Lady of the house at Roshanbhai Haharwala house. Copyright: Sebastian Cortes / Courtesy Tasveer
Sakina Chatriwala at her residence. Copyright: Sebastian Cortes / Courtesy Tasveer
Lady at Bed Chamber Abbas Vagh House. Copyright: Sebastian Cortes / Courtesy Tasveer
Copyright: Sebastian Cortes / Courtesy Tasveer
Internal stairway of Abbas Vagh House. Copyright: Sebastian Cortes / Courtesy Tasveer
Roshan Hararwala House 2. Copyright: Sebastian Cortes / Courtesy Tasveer
Musafirkhana (The Guesthouse). Copyright: Sebastian Cortes / Courtesy Tasveer
The Art of Living: inside Sidhpur's stunning Bohra homes
Chancing upon Sidhpur in Gujarat while on commission for a magazine, Sebastian Cortes was intrigued by its rich heritage and distinctive vernacular architecture.
And then he encountered the stunning homes of the intimate Bohra community, and set out to explore - photographically - life behind these gilded doors.
Building from the ideas explored in his previous book, Pondicherry, this series of images - that Cortes titled Sidhpur - Time Present Time Past - is an insightful dive into the community's way of life, using their spaces to shed light on their otherwise veiled existence.
Priyata Brajabasi from the Catch photo team talked to the photographer about this rare documentation of very private spaces:
You mentioned that you chanced upon Sidhpur and the Bohra community while on a project. Why did it capture your interest?
Cortes: I have always been attracted to cities or towns that have, for some historic, social or economic reason, fallen off the map.
Sidphur emanates the same kind of atmosphere that you find in abandoned mining towns in the American west, or cities in southern Italy that once had great commercial importance, then history moved on and left them drifting in the indifference of time.
But Sidphur has an added element that fascinates me even more and that is the layering of visual, architectural and symbolic elements that seem to linger in the homes like so many ghosts.
The psychological and metaphorical importance of rooms and what they silently describe, holds my attention and I want to draw the viewer in to the pathos of discovery. The vibration of the empty rooms and all the surface information speaks to us about a people and their need to express themselves.
How did it differ from anything you had seen before in your travels across India?
Cortes: The town of Sidhpur was almost always empty and the sense of other-worldliness was extreme.
The other Indian towns that I have visited, however small, always gave off a vibrant and chaotic rumble. Sidhpur however has a dormant, sad sense of being forgotten, left to share its beauty and legacy with a select group of curios observers.
The Bohras seem a highly private community. Were they open to their lives being documented in this way?
Cortes: It was a mix of experiences.
Many owners of the houses where not present, I was often let in by a watchman or neighbor.
Other houses were jealously kept in order and dusted by fastidious women, who prepared the house for my arrival. On several occasions, I was simply let in and became part of the day's routine, the family going on with their daily life.
The situations were many and often different but I would certainly say that the level of acceptance of my photographic process was akin to that which I have experienced in many Indian households where once you have been presented by a respected member of the community, you are an honored guest, who can almost do anything.
What was the most interesting facet you learned about the Bohras while shooting the series? How do they perceive themselves as a community?
Cortes: I am neither an anthropologist nor a photojournalist, so my interest is often more about the aesthetic metaphor that the whole project suggests, regarding concepts related to history, heritage and the perception of iconographic elements- stories that linger, which each viewer perceives.
This community has suffered a decline and the houses speak of past glories that need to be preserved.
The more delicate aspects of the political and social reality of the community today are not a mystery to me but they are not essential to my approach.
You said "the inhabitants of most of the homes seem to have a rather distant relationship with the homes and the content." Why do you think that is?
Cortes: Few people could really give me any clear explanation or offer details about the architecture or the detailing.
It's important to remember that the key members of the household were often in other cities, I often met older members of the family or the poorer cousins.
This disconnect, which is similar to what I found in doing other projects, is part of my research; I hope to have translated this into my images.
The more clinical reality is that the new generations are pivoted on other aspects of life, caught up with the noise of modernity, the challenges of an over-burdening religious hierarchy and many other deadening aspects.
You have done a similar series in Pondicherry, what is it about these places, people and architecture that specifically made you document them?
Cortes: I want to find a balance between the obvious sadness of the contemporary reality of these towns and the magical past which the rooms and buildings suggest. This balance between time past and time present is my overriding theme.
I want to capture this in a literary sense, similar to the way the writers Ohran Phamuk and Max Sebald have suggested by their very unique approach to time.
I share their unease with modernity and that sense of loss, which is probably inherent in our more accelerated age and certainly very relevant to a quickly changing India, which may benefit from the eye of an outsider who takes the time to unveil small narratives.
How was the Sidhpur series different or similar from Pondicherry in terms of the idea, the shooting and the research?
Cortes: Pondicherry was probably more lyrical and closer to a documentary type of approach as a project, including text comments from noted writers. Sidphur is much more 'straight photography' with a clinical aesthetic approach.
The shooting process of Pondicherry was protracted over time and Sidhpur was more concentrated.
For both projects, I did very little research and moved more in the direction of visual absorption of reality, unconditioned by knowledge specific to the place but more a philosophical and artistic intent.
Do you have plans to document similar works in India in the future?
Cortes: Yes, I have just finished a new project that is now being edited and will soon begin to take shape.it's very similar in approach as it deals again with a lost epoch of grandeur but it will articulate the visual reality in another way.
And a few technical questions about the shoot itself: what medium did you use and why?
Digital. Film for me for color images is finished, maybe still interesting in BW. I believe in and accept the new aesthetics of digital, which, if post-produced correctly, is equal if not better to the best of the films I used to use and love in the past.
What kind of thought went into choosing to keep the colors desaturated?
Cortes: I approached the project and my work in general with an aesthetic thought pattern that is simply poetic/ artistic freedom and personal style.
Do you use film for any of your projects?
Cortes: Yes, in my first book. Poetic Places.
Did you have a fixer to provide you with access?
Cortes: Yes..but more of a community member then a professional fixer.
Sebastian Cortes - Sidhpur: Time Present Time Past was organised by Tasveer as part of the gallery's 9th season of exhibitions.
All images: Sebastian Cortes; text: Priyata Brajabasi