In Photos: The Magnificent Mansions of the Bohras of Sidhpur

These Gujarati households are straight out of a fairytale.

Sebastian Cortés’ lushly detailed photographs of Sidhpur, Gujarat seem anachronistic, capturing the Dawoodi Bohra trading community in a capsule outside the rush of time. Ornate interiors, rainbow-coloured facades, flowing ridas murmuring against fantastically intricate and symmetric architecture. His works were on display at the exhibition titled Sidhpur: Time Present Time Past at the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum in collaboration with Tasveer.

Sidhpur is an important pilgrimage centre for Shaivism and for Hindu devotees honouring maternal ancestors, but the sacred town is also known for its gorgeous European-influenced architecture built over a century ago in the Muslim neighbourhood. “I have always been attracted to places and towns that have fallen off the map, that have been forgotten by time and progress,” Cortes wrote in an email interview with National Geographic Traveller India. “Sidhpur has a very special quality, as it functions as a perfect metaphor for the questions I pose about the past, present and future. The glorious past, rich in influences, lingers, unsure of its present and future reality — a typical situation in the process of accelerated modernity. Each room photographed is an individual story, full of anecdotes and details of a broader tale.”

Cortés’ work is driven by a quest for the inherent nature of a place. “I always look for clear indications of domesticity, and I try to place myself within a perspective position that does not influence the viewer more than needed,” he wrote. “My desire is to document with intent, that which I find in front of me; allowing the image to present itself slowly, rather than capturing the ‘decisive moment’.”

The New York-born photographer moved with his family to Auroville, Puducherry in 2004, after nearly a decade of working from Milan, Italy. “I have been influenced by every place I have lived in,” the well-travelled photographer observed. “From America, where I was born and studied, I was particularly influenced by the American school of photography and the New Topographics, all approaches that dedicated special attention to the sense of place and the recognition of photography as an instrument of reflection on our current condition in the constant process of documenting the obvious and the domestic.”

Cortés’ earlier works include portraits of Italian poets in their homes for an exhibition and book titled Luoghi Poetici (Poetic Places), and a photo book titled Pondicherry. “Italy, a soul country for me, has taught me a chromatic language filled with the richness of its ageless art,” Cortés explained. “I also admire many Italian photographers who have recorded its territory and question the process of eroded heritage and slow parochialism filled with ‘non places’. India now offers me a very vast palette to work and learn from. My life and work are a constant learning process filled with more questions than answers.”

Step into the past with photos from Cortés’ exhibition.


    Saumya Ancheri is Assistant Web Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She loves places by the sea, and travels to shift her own boundaries. She tweets as @Saumya_Ancheri.

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