In the world of photography, where emotions are captured through the lens, Mouli Paul delves deep into the complexities of migration and loss. Her latest project, 'Textures of Belonging revolves around the process of creating and awakening memories of home as a means to mend and find solace amidst the pain of loss and grief.
Can you share with me more about the inspiration behind ‘Textures of Belonging’ and how it evolved into a project based on memories of home and belonging?
There are several reasons however what inspired me to work on this project was my mother’s early demise and my quest for ‘home’. With her gone, I could call nothing as mine. Also, after her death, I moved out to live by myself in 2014. I did come back home occasionally to live with my father but never really loved being there as much as I did when she was alive. In 2021, I moved to the UK for my Masters and that was when that feeling of ‘not belonging’ hit hard. It was a new country, new people and extremely harsh weather which I was not ready for. In my personal relationships, I wasn't doing too well either. So, the lack of comfort, love and care along with being in a completely new place was quite difficult for me.
You mentioned that the project draws on notions of home, belonging, and memory. Could you elaborate on how these concepts play a central role in your work and the stories you’re trying to tell?
I was born in a village named Bhadreswar, around 2 hours away from the city of Kolkata, India. Life was slow yet peaceful. There was a kind and welcoming community, friendly people and that’s what I had always known as home. However, when I turned 11, my father planned to move to a big city for better career prospects and we had to move along with him. The thought of moving was very exciting, but when we finally did, it was a big blow for me and my mother. Migration is not a new phenomenon in our family as my grandparents had migrated from Bangladesh to India before 1947. So, at the root, my ancestors were refugees. But, people often tend to undermine the aftereffects of interstate or intercity migration. It was quite hard for us to get used to the city life and my mother could never recover from the trauma of separation from her own place. We struggled to belong in the complicated city life and I had some of my worst years at school. The trauma also took a toll on her mental and physical health and eventually we had to move back and she couldn’t live a very long life. I think the notions of home, belonging, memory are somehow interweaved in the whole project. It really doesn’t satisfy a very clear narrative. When we moved back, I briefly stayed with my family but again went to the city for work. So, when I came back again last year, I wanted to photograph and document everything from my mother’s clothes, old photographs, and also replicas of certain memories I had remembered seeing as a child. I also noticed that the place where I was born is rapidly changing, and who knows a few years down the line, nothing would remain the same.
The idea of objects and artefacts as memory-laden emblems is intriguing. Could you share some examples of the objects you encountered during your project that had particularly powerful stories of symbolism attached to them?
By objects and artefacts I was referring to my mum’s clothes, specifically a Saree (worn by Indian women). The one I had photographed was of her wedding and she in fact got married in a pretty low-key and simple manner. There’s also a brass pot which was used in all our festivals (my mum had bought it). It’s still there and is now a heirloom object. There are old letters written by my sister when she was quite small and my uncle has kept this whole bunch of letters written in postcards. These are memories, which I had kept away from myself for years as I was quite conscious of my roots as a “village” or a “small-town girl”.
Loss and longing seems to be a central theme in this project. How do you go about conveying these complex emotions through your photography and are there any specific images that encapsulate this duality for you?
So when I started the project, it was last year, in fact it’s my Masters project which I am continuing right now. As I felt that doing the work here would best bring out the essence and what I am exactly trying to convey. I lost my mom here and this place does hold a lot of memories of my childhood and also the trauma of leaving this place, being displaced and a longing to get back everything that was once good. Longing for a time that’s gone and never going to come back. Yes, these are quite complex emotions. Initially I had done collages taking photos from our family archive and laying it out with photographs I have taken now.
In your view, what do you hope viewers of ‘Textures of Belonging’ will take away from your photography, especially in terms of understanding the complexities of migration, loss and belonging?
When I started the project and even now, I didn’t really hope for anything from the viewer as it has been more of a rant about how much I missed home and my mother who would never come back. Now when I am back home, it’s an exploration I am doing of my place and it’s so beautiful. I think what I wanted the viewers to know was about a world that was out of their imagination. Both times, when I went out of my hometown and my country, the move impacted me tremendously. I was angry for a long time when I didn’t feel like I belonged there and people actually don’t make it easy for you. Of course, I met wonderful people and made lifelong friendships. But the struggle an expat goes through especially if you are from a village or small town and have migrated to a city or if you are from a developing country and went to a developed country is a lot more.
What other projects or themes are you currently exploring, and how do you see your photography evolving in the future?
I am interested in doing experimental work other than what I am doing right now, maybe work more with analog than digital. I started using analog last year and really loved it. Archival photography also appeals to me. So, I might want to explore that in future. Work wise, this is an ongoing project, so it’s going to take some time. There is also another project I have just started doing on women here. It’s just brewing. I don’t exactly know how it’s going to shape up.