South India meets south of France

Apr 08, 2012, 03:47 IST | Kareena Gianan

The most charming parts of Pondicherry don't have to try to too hard to be seen. Photographer Sebastian Cortes' new book on the city shows you where the warmth is and where magic lies, writes Kareena N Gianani

As someone whose paycheck revolved around “finding the right model and shooting something that will disappear after six months,” fashion photographer Sebastian Cortés, 53, was — to put it mildly — sick of the exotic and chic.

Outside the Kennai Kullam temple. Pondicherry, according to Cortés, displays a rare eagerness to preserve all its faiths and customs related to them

Ten years ago, he packed his bags and moved from Milan to Pondicherry with his wife and two daughters. Cortés made Auroville ashram home, but if you go flip through his new book, Pondicherry, you’ll know that his gaze travels way beyond that foreigner-who-made-the-ashram-his-home.

A fisherwoman at Goubert market. For a place that can safely be termed ‘touristy’, Pondicherry hasn’t lost the beauty in the mundane, feels Cortés. The photographs are his way of saying, ‘Look what you can pull out of a place so exploited by tourism.’

Cortés’ Pondicherry is intimate and individualistic — there are snapshots, for instance, of unassuming residents in large bungalows with French architecture and a rather animated fisherwoman (who, you can be sure, will sell all her catch). Pondy is quite classy and tolerant, too, if you go by how locals celebrate festivals of all faiths.

As much as he loves heritage and old architecture, Cortés says he also wants to be a man of the times, much like Pondicherry itself

“There is an India that is neither booming, nor poor — something in between and often forgotten because of that. That’s the Pondicherry I want to capture,” says Cortés.

He doesn’t mean that in terms of the number of tourists that flock to the tiny city. “It is famous yes, but I wanted to capture the Pondicherry that lies between the bustle of the ashram and its tourists.”

The VOC College at Pondicherry

Cortés worked on the book over the past five years, in between other assignments, and often went to people’s homes with a camera, an assistant, letters of permission and a smile (always works well with Pondy’s locals). “Some locals just wouldn’t let me leave.

People pray at the Muvahidiya Mosque. In Pondicherry, the mix of people, architecture and religion, writes Cortés, is unlike any other

Then there would be that one little girl somewhere who knew all about her neighbourhood. The voyeur in me had so much fun,” he says. On a good day, Cortés visited five homes in a day, chatted with its residents and even wrote down their stories. “Knowing more isn’t always better, but I believe it brings empathy to your work. A photographer is as much as he feels.”

Old, grand homes in Pondicherry are often left unrestored by the younger generation who “do not really know what to do with all that heritage”, says Cortés. It happens everywhere, he adds, from Pondicherry to Colaba — brothers inherit their parents’ homes lush with architecture and heritage but sell it off at the right price

The grandeur of Pondicherry, says Cortés, can be overwhelming at times. “You see some streets, or some homes and they may as well have been in Paris,” he says. However, many locals with nuclear families don’t really know what to do with them anymore. There was, however, a Tamilian who had amassed a fortune by helping the French and built a home with a beautiful blend of Tamilian and French architecture. “His home revealed so much about him — it was proud of its achievements and wild in its design.”

The mix you get in India is unlike anywhere else, he adds. “No wonder Columbus sought India, Alexander was curious about this place…” But, he adds, not all changes are necessarily for the better. Sounds like globalisation. “Exactly! That horrible word that some twist to indicate that old must be brought down to make place for new. It’s a deranged economic chase all over again. The photographs will tell you it doesn’t work every time. The past has its place.”
The only thing Cortés’ regrets is the politicians’ lack of vision to make Pondicherry a cultural hub — something that doesn’t involve malls and multiplexes. “If we don’t watch out, Pondicherry may just become another sorry little place instead of teeming with culture and visiting artistes.”

Sebastian Cortés,
Roli Books,
Rs 1,495 

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