The bird sitting on top of its cage in Mumbai – should I stay or should I go? – became a potent symbol for the British photographer Kalpesh Lathigra. His family had emigrated to London from Mumbai before he was born, but they remained Indians in Britain. When they visited family back on the subcontinent, however, they were firmly categorised as “Britishers”. Like the bird freed from its cage, but unsure about flight, they were caught between two lives, two cities.
Lathigra’s new book of photographs, Memoire Temporelle, explores that limbo without needing to resolve it. Lathigra made eight visits to Mumbai between 2016 and 2019, looking at it with an insider-outsider’s eye, going in search of images that seemed to conjure memories that he could not quite fathom. The project was originally provoked by Brexit. He had been working on a documentary in the lead up to the referendum that took him on a road trip from Calais to Glasgow. Speaking about that journey to the British Journal of Photography, he recalled a new atmosphere in his home country: “Visceral racism came to the fore,” he said. “People were happy to use racial slurs in my presence. I remember breathing a sigh of relief when I got back to London, but then I began to think, am I really ‘home’?”
The pictures in Memoire Temporelle are punctuated with extracts from the writings of India’s Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore and poems by Lathigra himself. Caged birds are a theme. In Tagore’s Two Birds, a captive bird in a gilded cage talks to a free bird in the forest. “The free bird said, ‘The sky is blue and bright,/ And nowhere do I feel fettered.’/ The captive bird said, ‘The cage is proper and right,/ See how I am perfectly sheltered.’” Those voices of “anywhere” and “somewhere” sound throughout Lathigra’s pictures; a yearning to belong, a yearning to escape.
Memoire Temporelle by Kalpesh Lathigra, edited by Emmanuelle Peri, is available for £28 plus p&p via kalpeshlathigra.com