How Kirti Kumari captured the fantastical world of India's Jaunsari people on camera

Her series 'One day at night' won the runner-up prize at Vantage Point Sharjah

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A long-maned white horse stands on a forested hill, almost spectral in the fog. There is no horn jutting out of its forehead, but there’s a mythical glow to the creature nonetheless.

Look at Kirti Kumari’s photograph long enough, however, and the horse’s lustre begins to pale. The eye wanders in between the leafy, slender-barked trees, becoming fixated instead on the sunlight frosted in the mist.

The setting as a whole is imbued with a fantastical hue as Kumari skilfully manipulates light and colour to communicate the otherworldliness of this place and, in other photographs in the series, the mystical relationship its inhabitants have with the land.

Kirti Kumari with her photographs that are on display at the 10th edition of Sharjah Art Foundation’s annual photography exhibition Vantage Point Sharjah. Pawan Singh / The National

The series, titled Ek Din Raat Ko (One Day at Night), won the runner-up prize at Vantage Point Sharjah and documents some of the Jaunsari people’s daily rituals.

Insulated in the north-west area of Uttarkhand for centuries, the community had formed unique tribal beliefs in their "land of magical spells".

The Jaunsari, Kumari said, provided an alternative way of seeing and living within the environment.

“Most of their beliefs are wrapped around nature,” she said, during the opening of Vantage Point Sharjah. “They have stories of spirits in the forest, and these gods and goddesses who possess people.”

The photography project had started as part of Kumari’s graduation studies. The artist had been looking into pre-modern ways of life as a way of grappling with contemporary questions of sustainability and progress when she came across the Jaunsari people. Soon, she felt so drawn towards them that she began living with them.

“I spent a lot of time with the community,” she said. “I just wanted to be there, document and archive these stories. It seems like a fictional narrative, but actually all of this was happening there.”

One Day At Night chronicles the rituals, folklore and belief systems of the Jaunsari. The photographs are almost exclusively centred on women.

“The women in the community also practice polygamy, which is not common in India,” she said.

One photograph shows a woman meditatively submerged in a natural pool of water. The image would not be striking if she were not fully dressed. Another shows a woman's profile. The slender barks of the forest trees are out of focus behind her and give the feeling that there is no end to these woods. Again, the muted colours of the photograph evoke a dreamlike quality.

Kumari's image was selected as a runner-up from works by 66 artists. The photographer who won the first-place prize was Md Fazla Rabbi Fatiq, while the three other runners-up were Hady Barry, Morteza Niknahad and Neec Nonso.

Vantage Point Sharjah is now celebrating its 10th year. The annual event is running until December 11 at the Sharjah Art Foundation’s Al Hamriyah Studios.

The open call invited works that showcase visual storytelling and the art form's ability to capture social realities from many perspectives. The foundation said it received more than 450 applications.

Vantage Point Sharjah returns and showcases pieces from 66 artists — in pictures

Updated: October 13, 2022, 4:58 AM