At Home In India During The Pandemic, Exploring The Fragility Of Family And Memory

May 11, 2020

In March, photographer Neha Hirve moved from Sweden back to her childhood home in Pune, India, where she had grown up with her grandparents. It had been more than a decade since she'd lived in the country of her birth.

Shortly after Hirve's arrival, as the coronavirus started to spread around the country, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced an unprecedented 21-day nationwide lockdown in the world's biggest democracy. Hirve says it was a "very unusual way to process a homecoming."

"Political tensions are high but largely invisible," the photographer says, and they have created a "pressure cooker of emotions."

"Meanwhile, in the gated community we live in, the world feels very quiet," she continues. "We know from the news about the crisis going on outside, the reports of police brutality, political tensions. But inside, we see very little of the chaos in the rest of the country."

Left: Fumigation is usually done for mosquitoes, but now it functions as a way to disinfect for the coronavirus as well. Right: Hirve's grandmother, Vimal, lights a candle in solidarity with the rest of the nation during the lockdown.
Neha Hirve

Her grandparents are in a high-risk group for COVID-19 — her grandmother is 89, and her grandfather is 90 — and living with them has been a challenge.

Hirve is a storyteller who's used to being away from home for her work. Now she must take on a new, unexpected role.

"I am faced with the fact that without any outside help, my grandparents are now dependent on me," she says.

Documenting life from the rooftop of the photographer's childhood home in Pune, India
Neha Hirve

Confined to her childhood home, Hirve decided to turn her camera lens inward, taking a closer look at her grandparents, at her family home and at her role as granddaughter and storyteller.

It's a contrast to her usual subject matter, which has ranged from environmental activists occupying an ancient forest in Germany to the storm chasers of America's Tornado Alley.

Left: A man fumigates the compound where Hirve and her family live. Right: Burning incense on Gudi Padwa, the traditional new year for Marathi and Konkani Hindus, on the first day of the lockdown, March 25.
Neha Hirve
Left: Hirve's grandmother combs her hair. Right: Documenting the area around her grandparents' house. "I couldn't see where the wire was coming from or leading to, but it felt like a thread of hope," Hirve says.
Neha Hirve

This new work, focused on domestic scenes, combines warm black-and-white imagery, low in contrast, with bright, color shots and gives the sense of seeing her grandparents through a warmer, softer lens.

By centering her grandparents in this latest work, Hirve examines them in the present in a way she has never done before. With her use of close-ups, color and brightness, her recent photos appear as if she is looking at her subjects in the present but through the lens of a time before the pandemic.

Left: A Gudi arrangement is used to ward off evil and invite prosperity into a house during the Marathi new year. It's usually created with neem leaves and a colorful flag, but curry leaves are used here, because that's what was available. Right: A parakeet in midflight.
Neha Hirve

"During the weeks of the lockdown, I began to feel the fragility of my grandparents and of my childhood memories of them. The pandemic has made me look at them in a different light and come to terms with their mortality," Hirve says.

"I think of all those who are staying away from their loved ones to protect them, and I feel lucky that I get to keep them close for now. This project comes from a place of trying to capture the fleetingness of the everyday."

The political tensions, while not directly present in this work, influenced the way she approached the photographs.

"I responded to the uneasiness and fear I felt by grasping onto signs and symbols," she says.

The close-ups and exploration of details serve as mementos of the family and home that once was and that now is: details of flowers, hands touching, a thermometer displaying a high temperature, her grandmother's eyes looking into the distance, birds flying free and nature continuing its march forward.

Left: A self-portrait. Right: Detail of a spiderweb at home.
Neha Hirve

"As I grapple with the ideas of coming home to a fragile family and country, I find myself spending much time on the balconies and in the small colony garden, documenting nature," she says.

She's focused on birds, which she says symbolize "an anchor in an ungrounded time, their flight, a promise of hope."

After so many years, as her grandparents age and their mortality now feels suddenly very real, Hirve says the birds she remembers from childhood seem to be "the only memory that remains unchanged during the lockdown."

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