Anu Kumar reconnects with her hometown in India

View Gallery 7 Photos
Reading Time: 3 minutes

Growing up in Australia, Kumar was dismissive of her Indian heritage. ‘Ghar’ and ‘Nagar’ – meaning ‘home’ and ‘town’ in Hindi – are part of her ongoing efforts to re-discover her “Indianness”, as she puts it

Anu Kumar was born in 1990 in Ghaziabad, a city in northern India. When she was eight months old, her family emigrated to Australia. Growing up, she would go back to India every other year but she was “fixated on being ‘Australian’”, and felt disengaged. 

When Kumar was 21, she failed her second year of university and, “propelled into this scary unknown abyss”, she decided to go travelling in India and Nepal. Taking an entry-level DSLR for the trip, she suddenly found her medium, and applied to study photography at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology.

“I remember going to this corner internet cafe in Jaipur to find out if I got into the course,” she says. “It felt like it took 10 minutes for a single page to load. The suspense! When I got in it felt momentous, like this is what I should be doing.”

Ten years later, Kumar is soon publishing a monograph with Perimeter Editions, plus showing her work at the Centre for Contemporary Photography in Melbourne. Both the publisher and the institution are based in the city, which Kumar calls by its Aboriginal name, Naarm. 

The book and exhibition focus on work made in India, combining two series titled Ghar and Nagar. Nagar, which means ‘town’ in Hindi. Both are shot in Kumar’s birth town, Kavi Nagar, and are part of her ongoing effort to re-discover her “Indianness”, as she puts it.

From the series Nagar © Anu Kumar.
From the series Nagar © Anu Kumar.

“I spent my 20s attempting to reconnect to my heritage, and now at 31 I’m still on that journey,” she says. “It takes a great deal of unlearning. Australia in the 1990s was a place of a lot of new migrant groups… Assimilation, in my mind, was the only way to success and survival. It’s no wonder I was so dismissive of my heritage.”

Kumar started taking photographs in Kavi Nagar about seven years ago, picking out little eccentricities she spotted while out on daily walks with her aunts. Then in 2018, her much-loved Nana Ji (or ‘grandfather’) died. Kumar suddenly realised she didn’t have any images of him, despite having so many shots of strangers. It was a turning point, and she started photographing her own family shortly afterwards, starting the project Ghar.

From the series Ghar © Anu Kumar.

Her close ties with India also inform her aesthetic, which is characterised by soft, muted tones. Kumar says it’s inspired by her memories of India, where she always visited in winter. “During winter there’s a soft smog that diffuses the light, and everything takes on a kind of hazy feel,” she explains. “A lot of images I’d seen of India were so vibrant and to me that didn’t ring true of the India I had seen growing up… The colour palette in my work attempts to challenge this western depiction of India; moving away from the exotic gaze and othering, and towards images that feel soft, familial and intimate. There is such an abundance of amazing Indian photographers who do brilliant work in capturing India in a way that feels real – Bharat Sikka and Ashish Shah, to name a couple, are a constant source of inspiration for me.”

Kumar says it’s “hard to close the chapter” on her work in Kavi Nagar; it is deeply tied to her own sense of family, identity, and belonging. But she’s also shot projects in Australia, including a striking series titled Men of My Family, which she photographed in her aunt’s drawing room. She’s now making new images documenting Naarm’s Indian community, which she describes as small but emerging. 

“I feel part of a small group of Indians here but I wouldn’t say it’s as established as the Indian diaspora in the UK or the US,” she explains.  “It is something I’ve been craving lately, but I can feel we’re on the precipice of a subculture forming. I would say that a specific Indian-Australian hybrid culture is still in its early phases – there is something brewing but I’m not sure I can describe how it looks. I’m in the process of figuring that out.”

Anu Kumar is currently exhibiting as part of We, Us, Them: CCP x Belfast Exposed at the Centre for Contemporary Photography in Melbourne

Diane Smyth

Diane Smyth is a freelance journalist who contributes to publications such as The Guardian, The Observer, The FT Weekend Magazine, Creative Review, The Calvert Journal, Aperture, FOAM, IMA, Aesthetica and Apollo Magazine. Prior to going freelance, she wrote and edited at BJP for 15 years. She has also curated exhibitions for institutions such as The Photographers Gallery and Lianzhou Foto Festival. You can follow her on instagram @dismy