Belonging is a story about two sisters, about two aunts, it’s about a run-down house in the suburbs of Kolkata, India. It’s about rejection, frustration, and confinement. It’s about all those things, but more than anything, it is about love; the love the sisters feel for each other, the support they have given each other over the entirety of their lives, and the love the photographer feels for them.
The two sisters are called Gayatri and Swati Goswami and they have lived together for most of their adult life. They have studied and worked, but neither of them ever married due to their albinism. Instead they have created a home that is a sanctuary from the outside world, a world that can be cruel and spiteful to those who are different in some way.
The photographer is their nephew, Debsuddha Bannerjee (and as a statement of interest, I first saw these images when Debsuddha was a mentee of mine on the Catalyst Programme). As a child his aunts took care of him and tended to his child’s view, now as an adult he photographs the sisters in the confines of their home and beyond.
There is a tenderness in the images. It’s a tenderness that comes through the togetherness of the sisters. Swati is stronger and more outgoing. She looks after Gayatri at times, but they both find solace in each other’s company, whether it’s reading the newspaper or watching TV. There is also a tenderness in their gesture and touch; the lean of Gayatri’s head on Swati’s shoulders, the linking of hands against the blue-painted wall, the tilt of Swati’s arm on the bannisters on the stairs.
There is also a thoughtfulness in the images that comes from the thoughtfulness in the sisters’ eyes. Swati looks out of a window in her house and you wonder at what she makes of the world beyond, at what that division between the private and the public means to her and her sister. She opens her eyes, she closes her eyes, she performs for her nephew’s camera, but you always feel that the performance is hers, that you are being led into a world that is her world. And because of this, the images reach outside the frame into the sisters’ imaginations. It’s a performance, but a performance perhaps of the self they cannot be in the outside world, one where their creative and artistic impulses are given free rein, where their hands, their arms, their bodies glide over the interior in which they are (in part at least) confined.
If the sisters are performing, their stage is the home they live in. It’s a place of damp doorways and curtained windows, where stacks of old papers face blue and green-painted walls. The marks of creativity are everywhere, in fragments of art, in the knitting the sisters sit to pass the time, in the coloured textiles that pile up on the cupboard shelves.
It’s a house from the past, with a roof terrace where the sisters can look out on the world, and it’s a little bit worse for wear. The plaster is falling off the wall in places, the stairs seem rickety, there are cracks in the ceiling, and you can feel the dampness coming out of the darker corners, but at the same time, it’s a space of warmth, it’s a home that is lived in and loved.
That feeling of being lived in, of warmth, of a personal and familial history is also evident in the images. Photography projects can be warm, they can be cold, they can have an emotional intelligence, a kindness, an understanding embedded within them of the rigours, the pains, the humiliations, the defeats, the victories, the celebrations, and the joys of life.
That is what these pictures have. They cut across space and time to the totality of life. They are beautiful, they are creative, they are joyful, but at the same time they are also a little bit sad. Which is what life is. Every time I look at these images, that is what I return to, the spirit and the soul of Swati and Gayatri, two sisters who inhabit one of the most beautiful photo series I have ever seen.
By Colin Pantall
Colin Pantall is a writer, photographer and lecturer based in Bath, England. His photography is about childhood and the mythologies of family identity.
The project has developed with the support of National Geographic grant.