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A house on Ananda Rangapillai Street. Photograph by Sebastian Cortes/courtesy Tasveer

A house on Ananda Rangapillai Street. Photograph by Sebastian Cortes/courtesy Tasveer

Framing the Quiet

Framing the Quiet

There are words that popular psyche has bestowed upon India such as “chaotic" and “noisy bubble", but when American photographer Sebastian Cortes started out wanting to frame the subcontinent in 2008, he chose an atypical one: quiet.

A house on Ananda Rangapillai Street. Photograph by Sebastian Cortes/courtesy Tasveer

Yet this is not an exercise in documentary photography or “telling the India story", says Cortes, who moved to India in 2002 and lives in Auroville, a commune situated about 8km from Puducherry. For this primarily lifestyle and fashion photographer, the quest is essentially aesthetic, driven by a sense of personal inquiry to find his own interpretation of this “small city stuck between the past, present and the future", as he calls it.

Puducherry, he says, is a very “Indian-non-Indian place": a space of many divides—white town, black town (“India, otherwise, is a lot more open," he says); the Tamils, the Muslims, the Catholics, the ashram of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother; French colonial architecture and the Tamil one (which resembles the architecture of south Italy, he says). And yet, they all coexist. “It has a way of being silent: There are areas with very few people, there are certain times of the day or afternoon when the white town (the French quarter) is empty. Only 10 minutes away is the Tamil part, the noisy, bubbling India," says Cortes.


He goes behind these walls, literally walking into people’s homes, to see what lies behind the divisions. A house on Anna Street in the Tamil quarter (“black town", as it is popularly called) is exquisitely captured in a few frames: most noticeable is the frame, also Cortes’ favourite, where the present-day inhabitants are sitting on chairs, surrounded by three generations of objects they no longer have any connection to. A blue plastic bag is a jarring offset to the pristine background. “The two characters in the photo seem to have no relationship to the aesthetics of their environment that their grandparents or great grandparents would have built," says Cortes.

In another one of his images, the head of the Hindu god Hanuman lies in a botanical garden looking decapitated because the body seems to be buried underground—staring out eerily amid the greenery. Yet another image is of a police constable with a crowd, wearing a red kepi (top hat): the legacy of the French, who ruled Puducherry till 1962, when it was declared a Union Territory. “They freed themselves from all things French, yet kept the red kepi," Cortes says.

The ashram is also a space that Cortes managed to penetrate. In one photograph of the ashram clinic (La Clinque), thousands of tiny medicine bottles are lined up on shelves. This is Cortes’ comment on the almost-bureaucratic level of order at the ashram that has seeped into the city. As in several other images, there is a haunting quiet about this photo.

Puducherry conjures up a lot of images—to a French child living in Paris, it’s a city his or her forefathers would have colonized and one he has no connection with; to an Indian, it is a European legacy—but whether they’ve visited it or not, everyone has an image of Puducherry, says Cortes. “There’s nothing very impressive here—it’s not Rajasthan, you won’t really go ‘wow’—but there is something about this place that stays with you once you come here; it lingers."

Pondicherry by Sebastian Cortes, presented by Tasveer, will be on from 29 April-20 May at the Alliance Française de Delhi, 72, Lodhi Estate, New Delhi. The works will be on sale. Prices start at 35,000.


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