With its seafront promenade, wide boulevards, enduring pockets of French culture and architecture, Puducherry – whose name officially changed from Pondicherry in October 2006 – is unlike anywhere else in south India. The former French colony was settled in the early 18th century as a colonial enclave, and it retains a mildly Gallic air superimposed on a typical Indian background.
Pondicherry’s amalgamation cultural influences find expression in its architecture and streetscapes, in its people and visitors. In his latest book ‘Pondicherry’, photographer Sebastian Cortés explores the spaces and architecture of the southern Indian city.
The city design is based on the French grid pattern and features neat sectors and perpendicular streets. The town is divided into two sections: the French Quarter (Ville Blanche or ‘White town’) and the Indian quarter (Ville Noire or ‘Black Town’.) Many streets still retain their French names, and French style villas are a common sight. In the French quarter, the buildings are typically colonial style with long compounds and stately walls. The Indian quarter consists of houses lined with verandas and houses with large doors and grills.
“After seeing Sebastian’s photographs, one notices the predominant tonality of this town: the washed-out grey. It constitutes a web of harmonics and subtle shades, a clever compromise between the ancient and the new, the façades repainted white, the ochre or pastel tones of the houses, the burgundy floors, the vivid green of the palm trees and the wear-and-tear caused by the sea air, the climate and the monsoon-rains. The ashram of Aurobindo, by deciding to paint its buildings in sparkling grey, slightly uniform, slightly regimental, turns its back on what verily constitutes the charm and beauty of this place, this perpetually unresolved rivalry of colours and their myriad shades. This grey that sometimes veers to green or to blue lends to Pondicherry its poignant charm, a blend of languor and nostalgia. An invisible patina covers the most flaming things that seem to have become bygone even before coming out, to a point where they vanish into nothingness, suspended on the edge of the abyss. One gets a taste here of a time of quality, a taste of reminiscence, very different from the hurly-burly of big cities. Here the present seems already past, like a fugitive trail dimming away almost as soon as it has appeared.
Look at these interiors photographed by Sebastian, both empty and overloaded at once, filled with bric-à-brac of beds, clocks, lifeless lamps, sagging sofas set in chiaroscuro against flaky walls. They lead us on to another dimension. The tonality of this parallel world exudes a kind of soft, impalpable melancholy that evokes an idleness bordering on the miraculous. As if we had always lived in it and were returning home. Nothing is lost, nothing is to be regained, we are experiencing the satiny weft of time that flows on and strips us threadbare, makes of us eternal travelers condemned to transience. It is nothing very important or grandiose, just a heady perfume, a wink of light, a shuffling of naked feet, just the bare essence, a weightless enchantment that feels like joy.”
– Pascal Bruckner
These images come from a larger project ‘Pondicherry’, by Sebastian Cortés, and were part of a travelling exhibition organised by Tasveer which toured India in 2012.
Sebastian Cortés was born in New York and took up photography in 1980 while at the New York University film school, where he studied and collaborated with many of the best names in the industry. In 1985, he moved to Milan and pursued fashion and lifestyle photography assignments for many international magazines, as well as for commercial clients, while also concentrating on portraits and personal work. In 2004, Sebastian moved with his family to India. His award-winning photography is greatly appreciated and has enriched several book projects. Currently, he divides his time and energy between commercial, editorial, and artistic projects, both in India and Europe.