Snow as seen by Sohrab Hura
On his first visit to Kashmir, its beauty blinded Hura. The experience sparked an ongoing project on the region shaped by the snow that engulfs it
Feature, British Journal of Photography — January 2020
Photo: Sohrab Hura
The notion of home is complex and notably so today in an era of mass migration and displacement. For the residents of Kashmir — a mountainous state positioned above India’s northern tip — their homeland’s identity remains contested. Since the partition of India in 1947, during which the independent dominions of India and Pakistan replaced the British Raj, both countries have clashed over ownership of the region. India controls most of Kashmir, with Pakistan and China governing smaller sections, and today, the state continues to be a heavily militarised zone.
In late 2019, the Indian government intensified tensions when they revoked the limited autonomy of Jammu and Kasmir, heightening the military presence and enforcing an internet blackout, which largely remains in place, to limit dissent. The move has paralysed the region, bringing many of its schools and businesses to a close, and further disempowering its residents, who have consistently fought for sovereignty in place of colonial occupation.
In spite of the volatile political situation, Kashmir’s landscape is spectacular: snow envelops its jagged mountain tops and, during the winter, extends beyond, carpeting its scenery in spotless white. Sohrab Hura was, by his own account, blinded by its beauty when, in 2015, he travelled to the touristic ski-resort of Gulmarg, a scenic hill station in the Indian section of the region, from his home in New Delhi. Hura, like the hordes of other tourists visiting Gulmarg, many hailing from India, had come to see the snow and, initially, he was overwhelmed by it and the kindness of the people who live there. But, returning home, he felt unsettled.
“When a place emotionally opens you, you start to look at it differently,” says Hura, who, following his visit, noted the lack of Kashmiris in Gulmarg especially when contrasted to the throngs of tourists, himself included. While he was there the snow’s allure had deceived him, its beauty preoccupying his mind, and distracting him from the underlying tensions at play, disguised beneath a powdery blanket of white. “The beauty of the place had fooled me; I realised that when you experience something beautiful you cannot see beyond it,” he says.
This deception forced Hura to confront his position as an outsider — an Indian tourist whose superficial understanding of the snow only stretched surface deep. He had been able to visit the region for its beauty, despite the wrongdoings committed by his country, and had initially perceived it in this way. A bias, Hura explains, which was the product of a childhood spent blinded by state propaganda that presented Kashmir as a violent and dangerous place while disguising India’s human rights violations there: mass rapes, disappearances, and torture. “For me, it was also realising how this bias, from the Indian perspective, was so ingrained in me, which is why I could go there so easily to see the snow,” he explains. “The work wasn’t just about my identity but my identity in context to Kashmir. The outsider being Indian.”
The realisation was stark. It made him restless and eager to return, and as is common with Hura’s work, a project unexpectedly emerged: Snow, which is ongoing since the photographer made his initial visit to Gulmarg, has many layers. Taking Kashmir’s impermeable white snow as its starting point, the series is a visual reflection on Hura’s relationship to the place, his identity as an outsider, an Indian, within it; and an attempt to “learn and unlearn,” as he puts it, a region whose complexities he realised could not be understood despite repeated visits.
“I knew early on that my position was not to comment on the land as much as to comment on my state of denial (or not) as an outsider when being Indian,” he explains in the catalogue for Homelands: Art from Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan, at Kettle’s Yard. The exhibition features 27 images by Hura, alongside work from 10 other contemporary artists, including a new photographic project by Munem Wasif, Spring Song. Collectively, the exhibiting artists’ work responds to the complexities of notions of home and nationality in the south-eastern region from which the practitioners come — a place still shuddering from the aftermath of the 1971 partition and contemporary migration.
On yearly visits to Kashmir, Hura observed the cultural importance of snow; the photographer’s initial ignorance of this further signifying his position as an outsider. “From my side, as an outsider, I was there to see the snow like everyone else,” he acknowledges, “whereas, in the place itself, the snow has a very important meaning”. In Kashmir, there are three distinct periods of winter: Chillai-kalan runs from 20 December to the end of January and is the longest and harshest phase; this is followed by chillai-khurd, which thaws into chillai-bache, or baby winter. Snow is central to Kashmir’s tourism industry, and also the livelihood of its farmers: heavy snowfall during chillai-kalan is essential for farmers to water their crops during the spring.
Snow became an anchor to Hura’s experience and his ongoing project. “It also became a metaphor for my mask of denial,” he explains, “as the snow started to melt, it began to reveal a reality that I did not recognise earlier or that I might have been denying”. The snow embodies Hura’s shifting perception of Kashmir: the cycle of melting and freezing akin to the photographer’s approach of learning and unlearning. “Every time I am there I look at everything I have seen in the past in a new way,” he continues, “the place reveals something different”.
Acknowledging his position as an outsider, Hura emptied himself of ideas and listened: allowing the words of residents to spread through him and dictate his perception. “The people I talk to are my eyes there,” he explains in the exhibition catalogue, “much of my work is built upon metaphors that I try to connect to people’s memories”. Over time, he realised that the metaphors relate to reality, and employed them to reference the violence that has ripped through Kashmir for decades; a reality he decided not to depict.
The photographer recounts the metaphor his friend, Sajad, employed when speaking about his childhood at the height of militancy in the country: “Yahan pe khoon ki dariyan behti thi”, or “Rivers of blood would flow here”. Initially, he thought the expression was abstract, but after he witnessed Bakr Eid, the Islamic festival of sacrifice, Hura realised it was literal: the crimson blood of animals darkening the waterways during the event. The statement took on additional significance following the intensification of violence across the region when human blood filled the rivers. Others spoke of the earth swallowing many secrets, a literal reference to the mass graves uncovered years earlier, while, “the bedding in the house becoming warm again” alludes to the army’s practice of checking homes for fugitives by feeling for body heat in beds seemingly uninhabited.
Visual references to the metaphors weave through the series: a muddy pothole replete with red water and a gushing stream coloured with crimson blood; a crumpled duvet tossed upon a mattress; and expanses of earth enveloped in snow, then mud, and grass. The work is ambiguous, but this is intentional. For Hura, making it has been a process of personal reflection, and he acknowledges that different people will read the series in distinct ways: Kashmiris may recognise the metaphors, while others, like Hura, are blinded by the beauty of the place. “I do not want to strangle my work by attempting to box it too specifically,” he says. What should come out is the passing of time, as the snow melts away revealing another Kashmir beneath. “In a way, I am not so worried about trying to put meaning into the work,” reflects Hura, “what I am trying to find is the right note, the right tone, and the right way in which the work can caress someone back”.