Photographer Sohrab Hura’s new book The Coast revolves around the character of Madhu, who has lost her head – literally. She has a lover, who gives her money and at times gifts. The other characters in Madhu’s story are a fortune-teller, who has promised to procure a new head for her, an idiot photographer, and a bird that has flown the cage.

This fantastical story is retold 12 times in the book. With each retelling, Hura tweaks the text – just a few words at a time – to tone down the violence and shift the agency to the protagonist. At a time when fake news is rife in India and propaganda is everywhere, The Coast serves a timely reminder – words can still be used as effective tools to counter violence.

The book, which is due for release in late April, is part of a larger video-cum-book work. The 119-minute video, titled The Lost Head & The Bird, was shown at the India Art Fair in February and retells the same story with slight variations in script, images and music. Together, they form an interesting study in pace and treatment of the same idea: how to make sense of our world today through visuals.

In his work, Hura uses “obvious stereotypical points to exaggerate a certain system that exists”. “[Early on], Madhu is very dependent on the fortune-teller,” he said. “There is a hierarchy. I am hinting that Madhu is a woman, in terms of gender.” Hura, an associate with the celebrated cooperative Magnum Photos, is also part of the book as the “idiot photographer who comes in [and is] as much part of the violence as anyone else. Because I also want to acknowledge my role as someone trying to make sense of this”.

WhatsApp aggression

Around 2013, Hura noticed that WhatsApp messages to his parents were becoming increasingly political. As they were sent by family and friends, his parents often took the messages at face value. “There was credibility attached to them...this was before we had realised how political this is – and how entrenched.”

The language of the messages prompted Hura to think about the underlying sense of violence in our world. Growing up in India in the 1980s and ’90s, Hura had lived through the assassinations of two Indian prime ministers, some of the bloodiest riots since Partition, cross-border hostilities and regime changes. Yet, something about the diffused aggression in the messages bothered him. He decided to start a new project to explore this feeling further.

In the initial stages, Hura says, it was his intuition that guided him. “All my works try and have certain parameters in mind,” he said. “In this case, The Coast for me is kind of the edge. The margins...I was looking at a physical landscape to talk about something psychological…. Traditionally, for me, going this particular landscape...was a sort of [a] point of relief.”

Hura made trips to the coast and back inland to Delhi several times. This jagged contact – coming in and out of his mise en scene influenced the way Hura would make and display his photographs. For example, he relied mainly on smaller digital cameras because they allowed him to “move differently...move faster”. Many of the photographs, as a result, have a fly-on-the-wall quality, an intimacy that might not have been possible with a bigger, more intrusive camera.

The process of making pictures, he says, “was more aggressive in terms of the image-making as well…It was more in your face, with the flash and certain kinds of colours”.

Procession of images

In The Lost Head, Hura mixes his own pictures with found and researched images. The end credits run into 100 sources, ranging from the 1980s film Mr India to footage of Lord Mountbatten and Jawaharlal Nehru from historical archives, and a YouTube compilation of cows trying – and failing – to copulate. The music, by Hannes d’Hoine and Sjoerd Bruil, hurries along the procession of images throughout the video – except when it stops midway, in acts three and nine (“the more violent ones”), before resuming with even greater frenzy.

“It [the work] is more precise with the music,” said Hura. “With the [exhibition] space, the music, the video, there’s a certain funnelling. I can get you into a space, with the funnelling, and when you get out, then the looseness can come....”

The book reads differently. Without the images from history and the internet, it feels less frenzied, more deliberate. It is easier to appreciate the subtle change in script across the 12 versions in the book. “With each retelling of the story, the empathy shifts away from Madhu,” said Hura. “The first story says Madhu’s head had been stolen by her obsessive lover and she was also being taken advantage of by the fortune-teller. Towards the end, it was her distraught lover, not her obsessed lover, who had borrowed it, and the fortune-teller had advised her, not warned her, but she had continued to ignore the advice.... There’s a certain violence that is also reducing. It’s a kind of Chinese whispers of how we are also tuning and fine-tuning each subsequent retelling of it.”

According to Hura, “propaganda has always been there”. “It’s just that now it’s building up at a high rate,” he said. “For me, it was also important to go back to the past in that sense.”

The 12 acts in his video will likely resonate with anyone who grew up in India in the 1980s, ’90s and 2000s. From the war scenes of Ramanand Sagar’s TV series Ramayan to the educational video Ek Chidiya, Anek Chidiyan on Doordarshan and popular YouTube videos, there are many pop culture references. They are, in a way, a vortex of images anchored in an age of rapid change.

“The 12 versions keep pulling in different directions,” said Hura. “Some of them go back into historical material. It’s trying to look at how we are existing. We are part of this larger network of information, which is continuously changing and continuously affecting us with each change. In its most ideal form, this video would have started and it would have continued infinitely, it would have morphed into its own thing beyond my control.”

In other words, if Hura could change one thing about the work, he would make it more inclusive by removing his own consciousness as the filter for selecting the images. If he could, he would build a sense of randomness into the work, so it could morph continuously, indefinitely. Much like how we are altered every day by a bombardment of visual stimulus.

All photos courtesy Sohrab Hura.