Perfect Ghosts

Sebastian Cortés 18

The Bohras who built Sidhpur may have moved on, but Sebastian Cortés reads their dreams in the homes they have left behind

Sebastian Cortés chanced upon Sidhpur, an almost abandoned and now little-known Gujarati town with a rich heritage and a distinctive vernacular architecture. He began to photograph the traditional habitats and domestic spaces of a comparatively lesser-known Islamic community, the Bohras.

Like other migratory Indian trading communities, they continually reinvented their identity. Their complex cultural make-up is reflected in their entirely unique architecture, an amalgamation of Hindu, Islamic, Persian, European and Colonial styles.

Haunting and dreamlike, his images often challenge the veracity of photographs, capturing the residual memories, history and fragments of life that linger in the intricate architectural features of Bohra dwellings. Cortés told us that Sidhpur has an added element that fascinates him: “the layering of visual, architectural and symbolic elements that seem to linger in the homes like so many ghosts. The psychological and metaphorical importance of rooms and what they silently describe holds my attention, and I want to draw the viewer into the pathos of discovery.” As he put it, the vibrations of the vacant rooms speak of the Bohras’ need to express themselves, what he calls “the exteriorisation of the soul life or personal values”.

Cortés took up photography in 1980 while at New York University, and went on to earn international recognition as a fashion and lifestyle photographer, while also maintaining a firm commitment to fine art photography. He moved to India in 2004, where he has focused on uncovering the unique inner landscape of societies and cultures: the evocative, simpler realities created within the bubble of imposed cultural stereotypes, the “quiet India” that is often overlooked.

Internal stairway of Abbas Vagh House Photographs: © Sebastian Cortés | Courtesy Tasveer

Internal stairway of Abbas Vagh House
Photographs: © Sebastian Cortés | Courtesy Tasveer

Abbas Madraswala House

Abbas Madraswala House

Boy reclining at Abbas Hararwala House

Boy reclining at Abbas Hararwala House

Street of Islampura

Street of Islampura

Lady of the manor at Roshanbai Hararwala House

Lady of the manor at Roshanbai Hararwala House

Abbas Hararwala House

Abbas Hararwala House

Sebastian Corteś’s Sidhpur: Time Present Time Past is organised by Tasveer as part of its 9th season of exhibitions, in partnership with Vacheron Constantin. The exhibition tours India between 2014 and 2015.


 

Sebastian Cortés took up photography in 1980 while at the New York University film school. His work regularly appears in several leading international magazines. He moved to India in 2004. His critically acclaimed series Pondicherry, exhibited by Tasveer, was published as a photo-book by Roli Books in 2012.

18 Comments

  1. urooj July 21, 2014 at 4:39 pm - Reply

    Astonishing

  2. Taher F Raja July 22, 2014 at 9:17 am - Reply

    The lifestyle of the Dawoodi Bohras is unmatched anywhere in the world. Emperors and Kings lived flashy and lavish lives in palaces and domes but would never match up to or even come close to the life and living of the Dawoodi Bohras. The Bohras of Sidhpur may have moved for economic well being but Sidhpur resides in their hearts.

  3. Umesh Bahri July 22, 2014 at 1:19 pm - Reply

    Really lovely images. Kudos for a great effort.

  4. Sheela July 22, 2014 at 4:01 pm - Reply

    Nice pictures. Capture the essence.

  5. Shivangi Gupta July 22, 2014 at 4:50 pm - Reply

    Absolutely breathtaking… the idea of a quiet, unheard of India.

  6. Dr. Zarin July 23, 2014 at 1:19 am - Reply

    Born a Bohra, from Surat, enjoyed the tribute to the Bohras’ traditional lifestyle depiction. Have stayed in one such beautiful house, from birth to late teens.

  7. Zoyab A Kadi July 23, 2014 at 9:29 am - Reply

    I have had the occasion to document the heritage houses of Sidhpur and have published 2 books on the subject. Very little is known about these houses outside of Gujarat. Sadly, under pressure from a variety of factors many of these houses, many of these houses have been demolished over the last decade. My intention is bring them to the attention of a global audience and thereby instil some sense of pride amongst the owners to preserve the remaining stock.

  8. Ismail Talib July 25, 2014 at 10:24 pm - Reply

    Sidpur cannot be described but has to be seen to be felt. Every house is kingstyle. Self-contained in all aspects. A house where we feel we are in heaven. We have to save the legacy left behind by our ancestors. Concern for sidpur is in our heart but not in action.

  9. Mustafa Jodhpurwala July 26, 2014 at 5:10 am - Reply

    Great photography. Still lot to be explore in Glorious Sidhpur.

  10. Zoeb Surti July 26, 2014 at 3:29 pm - Reply

    Superb. Such Photographs I have never seen in my life.

  11. yusuf siamwala August 1, 2014 at 8:36 am - Reply

    The photographs are very interesting. Many houses with similar treatment are to be found in Surat, Gujarat also. If only plans of houses could also accompany interior photographs. It would give a more comprehensive idea of the lifestyle of the Bohra Community.

  12. Nuruddin August 2, 2014 at 1:40 am - Reply

    Wonderful work! Would love to be able to see the Pondicherry Portfolio.

  13. C A PARIKH August 7, 2014 at 3:52 pm - Reply

    Dear Hanif, I have seen many houses of Sidhpur Voharwad, and its construction as well as decorative work is spell bound. I also found similar type of houses in Voharwads of Godhra and Kapadwanj.

  14. sharifa roy August 7, 2014 at 5:05 pm - Reply

    The photographs are sheer nostalgia. Brought back memories of childhood, of holidays spent in the homes of relatives living in Surat and Ahmedabad. My daughter and I will be making a film soon on three generations of my mother, my daughter and I. Will make our home look like this.

  15. Dr Shaukat Mamujee August 13, 2014 at 6:01 pm - Reply

    Wonderful description of a remarkable heritage….Bohras all over the world should be proud of this review of their culture…

  16. zehra May 16, 2015 at 11:26 am - Reply

    Sidhpur is a quiet and a peaceful town where one can relax on a holiday. Beautiful homes add onto great memories. Sadly people have been pulling down these masterpieces and erecting buildings. Let us preserve whatever is left now.

  17. wayan April 3, 2017 at 12:24 pm - Reply

    Is there any bohra’s neighborhood with this kind of architecture in ahmedabad?

  18. Sadiq Lokhandwala August 30, 2019 at 4:12 pm - Reply

    Absolutely mind boggling heritage houses, hope they remain as they are for another century or more, the arti craft is not available at present times. Simply superb, have to see to believe

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