The photographer and filmmaker’s new film The Coast (2020) captures scenes of the sea after religious festivities in Tamil Nadu. In this short story written to accompany the following film stills, Hura highlights humankind’s relationship with nature by calling into question binary ways of thinking about the world, and presents a protagonist in search of new states of being.
Snap! went my neck before the rough sand ripped the skin off my back as I was dragged back onto the beach. I forced myself up, exhausted but bent on not to be undone by the throbbing pain that had now started to hammer at my spine. I cupped the last shreds of skin that were still hanging off my waist and slapped them straight back into the bright red flesh that was by now all that was left of me. I wrapped my old lungi around my torso to be able to hold everything together and slowly wobbled back into the water to be among the other men. The land behind me had been lit with a frenzied rage that streaked the dark moonlit night with its embers. Processions of Nadaswaram and Urumi cutting and beating through the cold inward winds marked an incessant series of arrivals and departures on a day that had passed in paying obeisance to the descending gods. I had already gifted the last toe on my right foot that I had saved especially for this occasion. Others had gifted an eye, an ear or even a limb. Another man, a tongue. In return the celestial beings had embodied us for that day and had made us invincible and electric for that night of conquests. We had been preparing for this moment since we were young boys. The other men in the water beside me had now started to scream in anticipation. I started to feel the shifting sand beneath my feet and egged on by the voices behind us we started to wade further into the deep, shoulder first, to break that impending wall of water. Startled by an excited howl I had looked over my shoulder and found the remains of a skeleton, that by now had had the flesh entirely washed off its bones, bracing itself for its last clash with the waves. I felt the pull of currents swirl and grab on to my ankles as I listened to the rising growl of what was lurking ahead. The men beside me had disappeared and as I stood alone looking up at the shadow swallowing me, I could swear I felt sweat run down my leg beneath the waters. Darkness.
The water curls lovingly over my toes and kisses the back of my ankles before quietly retreating back into the open body of the sea. I can smell the salt in the air and listen to the foamy whiteness of sea spray in a distance. I open my eyes and look down at my feet, cushioned into the soft wet sand. Little crabs dart in and out of the sand during the interval before the water returns. Two other women have broken away from the crowd and have moved on to the wet sand beside me. I can recognise those wafts of jasmine that they have tied delicately onto the back of their hair in strings. Earlier in the day while we were making our way through the crowd to visit the temple, I had felt a hand rest on my shoulder. It was a frail but empathetic hand and it belonged to the oldest person I had ever seen. The sun bounced blindingly off her brilliant white hair and her eyes were liquid yellow compared to the rest of her beautiful, dark leathery skin. Her bright red saree almost camouflaged the vermillion that had rubbed off her smeared forehead. When I tried to push on ahead, she put her hand on my chest beckoning me to wait a moment. With her other hand she offered me a beautiful string of jasmine that she slipped into the front pocket of my office shirt and rested her palm back on my chest. We’ve been waiting long for you to arrive. Take off that mask, now will you? A body fell over to the side of a betel shop at the edge of the crowded lane leading to a commotion. When I turned my head back again, the old lady and her empathetic hand had disappeared.
The women beside me seem middle aged, like me, except every time the water reaches their feet, they break out into a peal of laughter like a gaggle of girls sharing a secret at the back of a school bus. They echo the faint but rapturous squeals that each wave carries back to us with it. In a distance beautiful bodies burst out of the darkness in the water. Women, children, the elderly. Each time we move forward into the last of the dark, their fingertips touch each other’s in nervous excitement as a wave flows past them. It is the sea that tickles in its playfulness. You see, we have all lifted our saris so that we can feel the currents all the way up to our thighs. Lost in my curiosity, before I realise it’s happening, the water swells before me and rolls me over in its embrace. I gasp upwards for a breath and cough out the water that had filled up my lungs. I reach at the back of my head and notice that the jasmine has been stolen by the currents and the wig has come undone. My wife had carefully fixed the flowers to my hair after helping me to tie my sari and fix the blouse. She had folded away my shirt and trousers neatly into an old plastic bag to protect them from the sand. I turn around and catch her looking at me. She is sitting on the beach with the old plastic bag on her lap, her smile now illuminated by the first sliver of daybreak. Nearby, I hear the splashing of footsteps in the shallows. I look up and find the oldest woman I’ve ever seen, her head thrown back in a chuckle. Her red saree drips a trail of vermillion behind her as she walks towards land. I watch the translucent sky with dimming stars as I lay back afloat and wait for the next wave to carry me further away in its embrace.
Sohrab Hura is a photographer based in New Delhi. His latest exhibition, Spill, is on view at Experimenter, Kolkata, through 2 January. Visit the online viewing room here.
All images: The Coast (stills), 2020, film, 17 min 27 sec. Courtesy the artist