What does Arka do when taxidermy artists are not available? He learns taxidermy online, makes his own taxidermy birds to use as the props he always wanted. This conversation, get to know a purist soul, an artist who knows what he stands for and does not compromise.
How would you describe your style of photography?
There are two ways of describing it. One is to say what it is not—my images are not documentary in nature. In fact, I am not interested in capturing reality as is, therefore there is no pretence regarding the same. Another is to say what it is—it is my point of view. It is a work of fiction set in the real world, discussing and interacting with real world subjects. Through my images I intend to debate gender roles, sexuality and other issues as observed in contemporary society.
Which photographers' works are you drawn to or borrow aspects from, to your own work?
I am more drawn to painters and sculptors of classical and neo-classical genres, rather than photographers. I grew up in complete awe and admiration for the old masters who were heavily inspired by the classical era art, and later the neo classical artists who carried on this tradition. Similarly, I am drawn to the art in the Indian subcontinent, like the Ajanta murals, Gandhara sculptures and more recently the works by Nandalal Bose and Hemendranath Majumdar.
Please take us through your process of working on a photo series?
I live in a small town called Chandannagar, in the outskirts of Kolkata and a lot of my time is spent travelling. Weirdly enough, a lot of my ideas have come to me during this travelling time. Once the germ of an idea has emanated, I do some preliminary research and sketches to pin down the frames, collect or make the props, find the models and shoot. Even though I prepare and collect everything before the shoot it is never too rigid not to change. I keep tweaking the colour palette or a certain object till and while I shoot. The models I shoot with are extraordinary and they bring in a lot on the table too.
Series: Like Eggshells, Model: Chittajit/ Series: Underneath You and I, Model: Abhinandan/ Series: Teenage Scars, Model: Aman Pal.
What is a project closest to your heart and why?
I am particularly attached to the series – Do not go to the garden of flowers, which was published in an earlier edition of Curry magazine. We as artists, often get lost in the process of creating and the original vision of a project does not resemble the final images. I did not let that happen with Do not go to the garden of flowers. I said what I intended to say through those images and I am happy about it.
The controversies surrounding the images created many conversations on the subject and that was my intention. This was a few years back. Today perhaps I would think many more times before stepping (if at all) into something like that. We live in a very different world now. Here artists are told what is cool, what not to talk about and threatened to be shamed and canceled in case they don’t comply. I cannot imagine artists who I grew up admiring like Francis Bacon, Lee McQueen or Joel-Peter Witkin survive in this world.
Series: Do not go to the garden of flowers, Models: Rohit Sheikh & Subhajit Roychoudhury.
Who has been your best subject to photograph? Why? Your suggestions on collaborating with photographers...
Oh, I cannot choose. They are all extraordinary, brave, exceptional, beautiful human beings. I cannot thank them enough to put up with my expectations and to collaborate with my vision to create the images I imagined.
One possible suggestion for collaborators would be to understand the visual language of an artist and approach them directly.
Where do you think photography is headed in India? Particularly fashion photography?
Grim. If you have seen the kind of photo stories nurtured by Franca Sozzani, Diana Vreeland and what we have now, it’s disappointing. Or perhaps I am from another era! I cannot comprehend this celebration of mediocrity. Celebrities have replaced art in fashion photography.
What’s your relationship with social media?
Tip-toeing between addiction and necessity. It is addictive because there is so much great content and fabulous artists. It is a space that is essential for connecting to people. Can’t imagine a world without it now.
What advice would you give to someone beginning their journey in photography and art direction?
Read as much as possible about art history and image making. There are no shortcuts to this. Try to observe art physically and experience it in front of you. See what you are drawn to, what makes you feel like you belong. It is very important to understand yourself to create art, and it’s a continuous process.
Speaking of art direction, you practice mediums other than photography. How do these lend to each other?
If you are an artist, you usually cannot limit yourself within one medium. I try to paint and sculpt; it gives me a lot of peace and sanity. I do it only for myself, so there is no external pressure.
Besides that a lot of my images require unique props and objects that are not easily available. I prefer to make them myself instead of explaining to someone or have it made. I am horrible at explaining ideas to people! For example, a couple of years back I was using a lot of taxidermy birds. It is impossible to find a taxidermy artist nowadays. So, I learnt the taxidermy process online, collected birds that died from natural causes from friends who had pet birds and did a DIY. Easy and simple!
Series: Melancholia, Model: Deanna.
How much of your identity is that of a ‘Bengali’ artist?
I do not believe in 'Bengali Exceptionalism', sorry. The identity of a Bengali artist is generally limited to a Kolkata centric idea. There have been extraordinary personalities within that, but Bengal is much larger than Kolkata. The perks of growing up outside of Kolkata is also to be able to see outside of that metropolitan lens. To give you an example, Ray always considered his viewpoint to be that of an urban Calcuttan, so even when he was shooting a village scene his eye and his aesthetic was always urban. However, his work defined Bengali cinema and exhibited Bengali culture.
I am an artist from Bengal and naturally the environment around me would bear heavy influences on my work and it does. I hope my work is able to give an idea of Bengal outside of Kolkata.
Currently I am working on a series of paintings inspired by the Dutch Bengal school of art. This style originated from a town called Chinsurah, a former Dutch colony. Here, local artists learnt oil painting techniques from the Dutch and started producing realistic paintings of Hindu deities for local patrons. This style eventually spread to many parts of Bengal and suddenly vanished by the 20th century. My intent is to do whatever little I can to revive these styles.
Saraswati/ Uma Maheshwara/ Dakhina Kali
What are some of the conversations you want your photography to be more a part of? What does ‘Arka Patra, the photographer’ care about?
Conversations about gender, sexuality, culture are most welcome. A larger conversation about the idea of beauty in art would be appreciated. I do not think my idea of beauty is the only idea of beauty. But I must stick to shooting what or who I find beautiful, otherwise I would be dishonest as an artist. I believe art requires itself to be beautiful and deep and capable of presenting you with an experience. Anything short of that is just stuff.
For Bobo Calcutta, Model: Shreyashi/ Series: Portraits of Men, Model: Rounak/ For Eina Ahluwalia
What’s your favourite photograph you’ve clicked? Show us.
There are a few.
Series: Carnage, Model: Tara Thapa/ Series: Carnage, Model: Tara Thapa/ For Eina Ahluwalia
Series: Portraits of Men, Model: Shantanu/ For Divya Seth, Model: Karuna/ Series: Cravings, Model: Abhinandan
Invite us into your world—the books you read, the walks you take, non-human friends you might have?
It kills me to be idle. I must find something to do otherwise I would be a complete lunatic. Given I am a freelance artist, it is impossible to have a rigid schedule. And yet, I value my discipline, regarding my time to go to bed, get out of bed and do something productive. I rarely read now, but I still collect art books. I mostly paint or sculpt in whatever time I get. I believe our time in this world is limited and this pandemic has made it more apparent than ever. There is so much to do! It is not fair on myself to waste it.
The only pets I am capable of having, if at all, are cats. And I had two of them, Sujata and Gautam, until recently one of them decided to just leave and live an independent life. Gautam is still here and not particularly social.
A film’s compositions that have haunted you?
I don’t remember compositions that I don’t like. And generally, the movies with bad composition are bad. Forgetting them keeps the mind clutter free.
Your relationship with craft…
It comes handy.
What’s your favourite hangout spot in India?
Sikkim, probably because it is close by and not crowded. I am a mountain person. So, give me rocks, sprinkle some snow, I’m onboard.
What’s an upcoming project?
I don’t know. Can’t wait for the pandemic to be over for good and start thinking about my purpose in life now! It has been way too long!
Your role model and why?
Don’t have one.
Cats or dogs?
You already know.
To follow more of Arka's works follow his page on Instagram @arkapatra