Sohrab Hura

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An excerpt from a conversation (July 2019) with Devika Singh in connection to her curated show Homelandsat Kettlesyard, UK is below:

DS: The first time we worked together I exhibited photographs from Sweet Life - Look it is getting sunny outside!!!, a deeply personal series about your mother who suffers from schizophrenia and her relationship with those around her, including her pet dog. In your recent work on Kashmir, you turn to a region that has been a cornerstone of Indian history since Partition in 1947. Ongoing conflict in Kashmir remains at the centre of India-Pakistan politics. What took you to Kashmir and how has it been to work there as someone who is not from the region?

SH: For me there isn’t a separation between the two works besides both being in different spaces. With both I try to find my own position within those specific existences, be it at home or in Kashmir. This insertion into spaces or situation is my method of working. That is what leads my photography and not the other way around, which is why to me, both the works that you mention, even if different on the surface/language are in fact rooted together. Language is not so much about the form but more about the intent, in my case. Using photography this way is my way of negotiating the world; a bit like moving with my arms stretched out, grazing my hands along the walls and making sense of a room in the dark. It gives me a better sense of the room and how I am able to move in it, rather than having the lights switched on and the room simply being visible to me.

I started my work in Kashmir at the beginning of 2015 in the winter of that year when I had visited the region on holiday. Kashmir has always been known for its fabled beauty and Indian tourists throng Kashmir - especially Gulmarg - to experience snowfall. Kashmir as a place of paradise, has been sold to us right from the beginning and tourism is encouraged as it allows the Indian government to softly stake claim on a land that is also the most militarized zone in the world while also making the local economy heavily dependent on the influx of Indian tourists and therefore on India. What we are left with in the end is a complex and in fact very often, a complicated insider-outsider relationship in the Kashmir valley. A clear demarcation of identities, mine as an Indian and that of a Kashmiri local made me realize my own position as an outsider. It also made me realize how an emotional response to the generosity of the people and the beauty of the land covered in magic snow had blinded me completely. It was only in the echoes of my first journey there, that I was able to make sense of how, until then no matter how much I might have read or researched on the conflict in Kashmir from a distance, I’d still never be able to fathom the complexities that exist there. I still am not able to. I knew early on that my position was not to comment on the land as much as to comment on my own state of denial (or not) as an outsider when being Indian and given the current political fervor, I’m expected to claim Kashmir as my own, more than ever before. Perhaps my work on Kashmir might reveal more about India than Kashmir itself.DS: You told me you were in Kashmir in February 2019 during the attack in Pulwama that led to a near state of war between India and Pakistan. How was it being in the region at that time of acute tension?

SH: The Pulwana incident occurred right before I was to leave Kashmir for New Delhi so I had already returned to Srinagar from where I had been working. The immediate reaction that I felt around me was one of dismay People seemed exhausted of being caught in the crossfire and nervous about what might come their way in terms of a state response. But you see, the part of Srinagar where I was in – where most visitors stay - is also cocooned from most of Kashmir so I can’t take for granted what I saw as being reflective of a general sentiment within Kashmir.  By next day there was an added shock to hear about all that was happening in neighbouring Jammu and other parts of India where Kashmiri students and traders were being attacked by mobs who wanted Kashmiris to go back to Pakistan in retaliation to the attack. We are living in a time of rabid nationalism in India when even if one doesn’t agree with a majoritarian sentiment, one is immediately directed to go to Pakistan. As an Indian I have never felt more welcomed and safer as I have amongst Kashmiris, so it was painful to hear about what was happening in India with Kashmiris. By the time the noise around Pulwana gave way to chest thumping across over the retaliatory attack under the cover of clouds in Balakot (Pakistan) I had started to hear of scores of people being rounded up and taken for interrogation. Things now appear to be relatively settled there compared to February but this silence can give way at any moment.

DS: You have photographed in the region for several years now, how has your relationship to Kashmir and its representation evolved? Was it a conscious decision not to take any frontal images of violence?

SH: People I talk to are my eyes there. Much of my work is built upon metaphors that I try to connect to people’s memories.  Most people I met talked about existence; an existence that was not theirs but one imposed upon them by India. Conflict is just one manifestation of that permanent state of being. In my work especially in the latter half, I constantly allude not to the event of conflict but its traces in the aftermath. For example: In 2016 there had been an uprising because Burhan Wani, a young militant commander had been killed by the army extrajudicially. Kashmiris considered him a martyr and they revolted against the state and to quell those protests the police had resorted to indiscriminate firing using pellet. As a result many people including children were blinded. This event of the state blinding people is just one of many situations/incidents that I constantly invoke in the latter half of my work my work.

Yahan pe khoon ki dariyan behti thi (Rivers of blood would flow here), my friend Sajad would say to me when he talk about his childhood at the height of militancy; which I’d always take simply as an expression till he invited me forBakr Id. The streams in the village would literally be bloodied red with animal sacrifices. He, like others had grown up seeing what would later become expressions of the sacrifices of people that the state would make. I was also told that the earth in Kashmir has swallowed many secrets in reference to enforced disappearances and mass graves; I was told that the beddings in homes have again started to get warm again. At the height of militancy in the 90’s, the army while searching people’s homes for fugitives would always check to see if any of the extra rolled up beddings in the house had any warmth to them. That would signal to them that someone unaccounted for, might have spent the night in that house. They would then take family members in for interrogation. The more time I spend in Kashmir, the more I realize that what I had thought to be a poetic allusion has in fact always been straight-forward reality to the people there. 

Being in Kashmir involves a constant process of learning and unlearning; mostly unlearning. A lot of it is thanks to triggers introduced by Sajad, Nadia, Zuhaib. Major and so many other people who gave me time and shared their personal histories. I was aware of the prevalence of images of full - frontal violence that you bring up, before I visited Kashmir for the first time. I still see them and it is a constant reminder of the fallacy of nationhood that comes at the cost of people who are themselves supposed to comprise the idea of that nation and who in fact do not even consider themselves part of that idea to begin with. But for me to be able to take responsibility for my own work, I needed to be sure of my own reasons to be working there and images of conflict were never part of that reason. These images of violence, together with the political discourse around Kashmir (everyone in India has an opinion on Kahsmir) make for a lot of noise, even if important. It would have been pointless for me, to have brought in my own share of noise, when my knowledge on Kashmir is still by far incomplete. More than occupation or conflict, which is a starting point in the work, I guess coming to terms with realizing that I myself am that ‘occupier’ and it is not only some abstract entity of a government is where the work lies. The situation has been the way it has for so many decades, not just because it was just a government policy with regards to Kashmir. It was also about realizing that violence occupied the everydayness of life here and wasn’t just in events such as stone pelting as is projected to us here in India. Through my childhood an incomplete picture of Kashmir was fed to my entire generation as it is continued to be done even today. As a child I heard of militancy in Kashmir and that word later changed to terrorism. I was able to read about the exodus of Kashmiri Pundits, but I had never heard of Kunan-Poshpora or people who had been made to ‘disappear’ until I reached University when one would actively seek out more information. I think returning to Kashmir over these years has made me realise how some of that brainwashing still had its roots inside me no matter how conscious and informed I might have assumed myself to be. I can only imagine what effect that might have had on the rest of my generation and also those who came after me and how a lot of that noise might be a result of the denial borne out of those formative years.

DS: Tell me about the humour and irony that you deploy in your work.

SH:I like to believe that my audience will always be very skeptical of me. Humour can be a powerful act to bring those guards down. The work on my mother and her dog ends in a long drawn out sequence around the death of Elsa, the dog. How could I have manage to keep the audience leaning in to engage with something difficult such as death - for example, Elsa, the dog in Look It’s Getting Sunny Outside!!! - if I didn’t give them something like humour to hold on to? But I don’t think humour can be of a fixed kind nor can I use it in isolation. It needs to serve its purpose, as does irony and they are both two of many other tools that, when used in different combinations, might construct a whole range of tones within my work, much like music. I think of my work as a conversation and the range of tones affects how a person might experience it.

DS: You’re a self-taught photographer. How did you build your curriculum? Who are the figures that have influenced you?

SH: I took to photography as therapy to cope with my mum being diagnosed with schizophrenia. I was a good student but my grades suffered badly because I had to hospitalize her and my focus drifted away from academics because of it. At the age of seventeen, being in India where examination results are paramount in a highly competitive environment, I felt like I had lost the world.

The first photographs I made at that time were of landscapes. I’d be extremely embarrassed to look at them now, but the person at the local film processing lab told me that my photographs were beautiful and that he was touched by them. Hearing that made me feel good. It made me feel like I existed. I hadn’t felt that way in ages. Ever since then photography became a need more than anything else. I felt glad that this is how I found photography. I feel that starting from a point where I had nothing to lose might have made it a little easier for me to take risks today. Learning everything on my own also made conversations a big part of my curriculum.

I constantly fall back on that initial impetus in my work today. Over the years I’ve developed a method of constantly questioning and challenging past works of mine. The repeated breaking down and rebuilding of my process keeps taking me back to a point of vulnerability from where I have to start afresh and I find that very productive. It is here that I’m able to experience chance and find directions that I hadn’t expected before.

The larger part of photographic history, that is also unfortunately predominantly white and male, initially made me believe that as a photographer one needed to explore the world and that world always lay elsewhere. But today I believe that there is something meaningful to find in every situation, no matter how big or small and that I only have to keep trying to find the pulse wherever I am. This is also the reason why I’m as comfortable working at home as I am in Kashmir. For me both streams of work are rooted in the same place. I had never thought of going to Kashmir proactively to photograph the conflict, yet when I was there by chance, I felt a pulse of my own brief existence to which I needed to respond and that led to the work that is being exhibited here in Kettle’s Yard. This constant ricocheting among the different positions that I find myself in, has also expanded my expectations from photography. In fact today I’d rather think in terms of an image where an image can be still, moving, text, sound, sculpture. The possibilities of the image are infinite for me today even though the core of my work might start in the still image.  And in the structure of the bodies of work that I make, I find more resonance in film making and writing because of the continuity in flow that they allow.

DS: Finally, you recently completed a series in the Mississipi as part of a trip you did with other photographers from Magnum. How was it to turn your eyes to a part of the world whose visual history has been so central to photography?

SH: My father had once travelled in a ship up the Mississippi river to New Orleans. That was part of his last voyage at sea, working on a container ship for the Merchant Navy. This was in early 2016 and news back home in India was rife with violence around the Trump election campaign. Due to the immigration rules he was not allowed to leave the ship. All he could see of America lay between the two levees on either side of the river. He would send me images of life on the river along with messages explaining them. But he could never see what lay beyond the levees.

A couple of months later I went on a road trip down the Mississippi to the point that my father had come to. I photographed all that he could not see on the other side of the levee. My father was on water and could not step on to land, I was on land and could barely touch the edge of the river. My father and I have a complicated relationship and there is a sort of a levee between us too. My work that comprised photographs and messages by my father and photographs and maps drawn by me, ended up being a look at America through a relationship between a father and a son, both being outsiders to the land. While my father imagined a hostile land because of news that would trickle down to him, the America that I found was unexpectedly tender.

My immediate feeling working in America was one of burden being lifted off me. I also realized how elements of space and environment affected the way I worked. In India, because of the complicated structures and and divisions that each of us finds ourselves boxed into, I feel this need to address as many layers as possible in my work. In America I sensed a lot more directness in people there, and allowing a singular and more direct perspective in my work felt powerful in its immediacy.

Now when I think of the history of photography in America, it makes a lot more sense. The expansive landscapes, the importance of signs and typography, the biblical references, the light, the slowness…  In 2010 I had the opportunity to go through contact sheets William Gedney’s visits to India between 1969-71. They revealed a far more chaotic and cluttered sense of being than one encounters in his carefully considered images of India that have been revealed to public viewing. In the contact sheets he seemed to be more reactive and I could imagine his movement with his camera to be more urgent and even chaotic. But in his photographs that he had sharply edited he seemed more in alignment with his larger works that had been made in America that was far more familiar. For me this was an important discovery because many years later I experienced a reversal of response being in America where I could exist in pauses a lot more than I might have managed to do so in India. I think photography can be a means to insert oneself in a space or a situation and for me this insertion is far more important than the photographs themselves. The photographs are just the residue of that insertion.
A look at Kashmir through the prism of the arrival and departure of the three phases of winter. Mesmerised and deceived by snow at first, as it starts to melt, so does the mask of denial start to slip off my face and I, the outsider, start to come to terms with the land that I find myself in.