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Book of the Week: Selected by Brian Arnold

Book Review Ghar Photographs by Anu Kumar Reviewed by Brian Arnold "The Hindi word ghar (or in its traditional Devanagari script घर), is derived from Sanskrit and means home, and can refer to both a physical dwelling and a region. This is a lovely idea, connecting the micro and macro understanding of home in one word..."

Ghar. By Anu Kumar.
Photographs by Anu Kumar
Perimeter Editions, Melbourne, 2023. 136 pp., 5½x7".

The Hindi word ghar (or in its traditional Devanagari script घर), is derived from Sanskrit and means home, and can refer to both a physical dwelling and a region. This is a lovely idea, connecting the micro and macro understanding of home in one word. The notion of home feels so much more complicated to me today – with wars in raging in Gaza and Ukraine over the rights to a homeland – but always a notion deeply connected to our personal and cultural identities. The ancient Sanskrit word घर exists unchanged today in Hindi, perhaps because it is such an essential part of the human experience, constantly ebbing and flowing between nurture and trauma, providing us with our deepest sense of self but are also often sites of our greatest tragedies.

Without the gravity of the world’s wars, the notions of nurture and trauma provide an interesting entry point for the new book by Melbourne-based photographer Anu Kumar, Ghar. Published in September 2022 by Perimeter Editions, Ghar is a collection of photographs made in Kavi Negar, India, Kumar’s birthplace. The book is composed of archival portraits snatched from family albums juxtaposed with Kumar’s medium-format film pictures dating back to 2011 when she made her first journey as an adult.

There isn’t much text or explanation provided in Ghar, just a short letter dated June 18, 1997. It seems to be written by Kumar’s mother, Guddu, to her grandparents. The letter references a recent move from India to Melbourne, the daughter telling her parents about the remarkable challenges and burdens of being first-generation immigrants, leaving India to try and set up a new home and identity in Melbourne in hopes of providing greater educational and cultural opportunities for their children. I know Kumar lives in Melbourne today but have no idea at what age her family decided to relocate to Australia. Nevertheless, 14 years after the letter was written, she went back to Kavi Negar to try and see how much of herself she could see in the people and landscapes, a place for which she could only have minimal memories.

, the result of this inquiry, is really quite lovely, full of affection, beauty, longing, and humility. The pictures are quite simple, proving that once again photography is best when grounded in its most fundamental attribute of clarity. Composed concisely – the subject almost always in the middle of her square frame — but with a lyrical understanding of light and color. Each picture is grounded in just 1-2 clearly articulated colors and uses open and softly diffused light (not much shadow play to see here). The effect is moving, making the pictures feel both warm and inviting and also patient and considered. Her subjects are simple and mundane things — a recently washed bowl drying on a countertop, a woman washing her hair, streetside vendors, and people relaxing on a hot afternoon — but with a clear understanding that these are the things that define our lives; the people we share the most intimacy with are the ones we also share the most mundane parts of our days. The book is small, only 14 x 18 centimeters, printed on matte paper with a warm cloth binding, echoing the simplicity and humility found in the photographs.

After making the pictures in 2011, it took another 10 years for Kumar to make sense of them. The world grinding to a halt with the COVID pandemic forced all of us to reflect on the nature of our connections, communities, and families. Nurture and trauma were at the heart of all this, as each of us was required to retreat into our homes and find the sustenance to endure unprecedented chaos and catastrophe. This also provided Kumar the necessary backdrop to edit the pictures in Ghar, a lovely, poetic, and profound meditation on the meaning of family and place, or in a word, घर.

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Brian Arnold
is a photographer, writer, and translator based in Ithaca, NY. He has taught and exhibited his work around the world and published books, including A History of Photography in Indonesia, with Oxford University Press, Cornell University, Amsterdam University, and Afterhours Books. Brian is a two-time MacDowell Fellow and in 2014 received a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation/American Institute for Indonesian Studies.