FORMAT17 Festival: Images of exile and salvation

Two Indian photographers present powerful works at the FORMAT17 Festival


A ‘chhau’, a space of exile by the river, Nepal, 2016, both from ‘A Ritual Of Exile’. Photo: Courtesy Poulomi Basu/Magnum Emergency Fund
A ‘chhau’, a space of exile by the river, Nepal, 2016, both from ‘A Ritual Of Exile’. Photo: Courtesy Poulomi Basu/Magnum Emergency Fund

In a world where boundaries are redrawn constantly and habitats forcefully altered, the idea of place is more important than ever. This is true of photography as well, as more and more work is produced that assesses the impact of humankind on the environment. In line with this, FORMAT17, the UK’s largest photography festival, has decided on “Habitat” as its theme this year.

The FORMAT International Photography Festival, established in 2004, has used Derby’s public spaces and institutions as exhibit venues since the beginning. Directed by Louise Clements, FORMAT17, which started on Friday and will go on till 23 April, is being held at venues across 30 buildings and landmarks, including satellite venues in nearby cities.

Back home in India, photography has witnessed a sea change in the last five years, with independent projects and photo books on the rise. The flood of international photo festivals has provided a bigger platform for showcasing work. The Open Call (for entries) at FORMAT17 received 984 responses from 68 countries, 50% of the entries being from outside the UK. Two photographers from India made the cut to this highly competitive category. Poulomi Basu and Nishant Shukla are showing their photography projects, A Ritual Of Exile: Blood Speaks and Seeking Moksha respectively, at this year’s edition.

Radha Bishwa Karma, 16 years old, Surkhet district, Nepal, from ‘A Ritual Of Exile’. Photo: Courtesy Poulomi Basu/Magnum Emergency Fund.
Radha Bishwa Karma, 16 years old, Surkhet district, Nepal, from ‘A Ritual Of Exile’. Photo: Courtesy Poulomi Basu/Magnum Emergency Fund.

Both were awarded prestigious book grants for their projects. Basu received the FotoEvidence Book Award 2017 last month, while Shukla was awarded the Alkazi Photobook Grant last year to publish his debut book. Shukla’s book was launched last month, while Basu’s will be published in October. Basu has also been nominated for the 2017 MACK First Book Award for Centralia, and has been shortlisted for the 2017 CatchLight Fellowship.

"A few women secretly asked me, ‘Won’t you take my daughter? Take her to the city with you. Just take her and run.’ "- Poulomi Basu

Both photographers’ works adhere to the festival’s theme, but their content and execution is quite different. Basu’s A Ritual Of Exile is a disturbing reminder of the isolation and hardship that menstruating women in Nepal face owing to the Hindu ritual of chaupadi. “They are forced into spaces barely fit for animals, where they must spend the duration of their period on a restricted diet, with limited access to water to wash and no physical contact with the rest of their family. Women who have just given birth are also in exile, for 15 days or more, along with their baby,” Basu says of the custom she started photographing in 2013.

Saraswati, 16, in a closed room with her three-day old baby, Nepal, 2016. Photo: Courtesy Poulomi Basu/Magnum Emergency Fund
Saraswati, 16, in a closed room with her three-day old baby, Nepal, 2016. Photo: Courtesy Poulomi Basu/Magnum Emergency Fund

Access was difficult as Basu trekked to remote villages in Nepal, and meeting the women wasn’t a breeze either. “A few women secretly asked me, ‘Won’t you take my daughter? Take her to the city with you. Just take her and run,’” recalls Basu. Her photographs of the women and the spaces they are forced to shrink into (while in exile) are disturbing. The trauma of isolation and violence on their faces is stark. The pastoral beauty of the rural landscape assumes a nightmarish form once the human intervention of a forced, patriarchal ritual (in the form of huts built for exile) occupies its expanse. At FORMAT17, Basu simulates the claustrophobia faced by the women by using virtual reality —she worked with it in Nepal too. An immersive installation accompanies her photographs, taking the audience further into the normalized cycle of violence faced by the women in confinement.

In 2011, Nishant Shukla walked to the source of the Ganga in the Himalayas to collect water for his grandfather, a Hindu priest, who was on his deathbed. He hoped it would give him some connection to a place his grandfather had spoken of but never visited. By the time he returned, his grandfather had no memory of him.

‘Deity Swing’, Gangotri, 2012, from ‘Seeking Moksha’. Photo: Courtesy Nishant Shukla
‘Deity Swing’, Gangotri, 2012, from ‘Seeking Moksha’. Photo: Courtesy Nishant Shukla

Seeking Moksha explores habitat as physical geography and personal memory by way of an intimate portraiture of the places and people Shukla encountered on his journeys over six years. “Personally, the project represents a series of failures in which I attempt to share a landscape with my ailing grandfather but am unable to, followed by the fantasy of becoming a hermit, looking for a cave, and in the process encountering people who seemed more lost than found in the search for transcendence,” says Shukla. His portraits suggest a literal sense of calm in their depiction of landscapes and those found in them (including objects that he collected on his journey), as well as an unsettling force in the minds of people. “Neither they nor I can really say if we reach the point we are aiming for,” says Shukla of the quest for enlightenment. At FORMAT17, he is exhibiting his work as adhesive prints in the corridors of the University of Derby.

‘Nomi Giri’, Gangotri, 2013, from ‘Seeking Moksha’. Photo: Courtesy Nishant Shukla
‘Nomi Giri’, Gangotri, 2013, from ‘Seeking Moksha’. Photo: Courtesy Nishant Shukla

Both Basu and Shukla engage with a world that is outside of their immediate lives but well within the gamut of their personal concerns. They represent a generation of Indian photographers that are making their presence felt internationally. “The exciting work being produced by photographers in India has always been there—the infrastructure to offer access to this work is now being strengthened. For example, Aradhana Seth’s and Shivani Gupta’s photo projects, The Merchant Of Images and Thread Whispers, weren’t part of the Open Call but will be at FORMAT17 thanks to Here, There And Everywhere—an artistic collaboration between India and the UK, led by New Art Exchange in the UK,” says FORMAT17’s acting director, Monica Allende.

There’s more of India in Derby. Besides Anusha Yadav’s photo archive Indian Memory Project, there’s a site-specific, public engagement project put up by Blindboys (an independent webzine) in collaboration with the Delhi Photo Festival and Miniclick, UK. Called House Of Cards, it invites visitors to construct and adapt a giant cardboard structure made from a series of interlocking panels, printed with publicly sourced images.

As the festival brings together photographers to engage with an audience outside the traditional gallery experience, it’s a good time to capitalize on both sightseeing and photography in Derby to understand what built habitats can bring.

Paroma Mukherjee is an independent photographer and photo editor based in New Delhi.

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