Design Log / Photography

Exploring Works of Fiction in the Realm of Reality with Arka Patra

Painter-turned-photographer Arka Patra’s work questions our preconceived notions of gender and sexuality, bringing to the fore the intricacies of human desires. We delve into Portrait of Men, one of his strongest series yet, and unfurl what drives and inspires his evocative images

By Ritupriya Basu on 17 January

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Boy in Pearls from Portrait of Men by Arka Patra

A boy with a slight promise of a beard in a pearl earring, or a man in a mask peppered with butterflies – the stunning portraits in Arka Patra’s ongoing series radically redefines the idea of masculinity. He strips the body of all its mannish markers, and uses his lens to render it in an unusual, delicate light. What does it mean to be a man? Or a woman? Or simply to be human? This idiosyncratic style and inclination to question the familiar runs through his oeuvre, lending both his personal and commercial projects an immediately recognizable identity. Almost always touched by a slight note of melancholia, his work hints at the surreal, the mystic and the unwonted. Design Fabric connected with Arka to explore the subtle nuances that shape his practice.

How did your romance with photography begin?

I started out as a painter. Growing up, photography was still a purer medium, and people mostly used film and what you clicked at the moment was what you got. Towards the end of school, I got myself a digital camera and suddenly, making images was much more accessible. I could now materialize the dreams and fantasies in my mind into actual pictures and share them with the world through social media. It was comforting to know that photography could be an artist’s medium, like paint, clay or stone.

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Underneath You & I from Moaning by Arka Patra

What drives your relationship with the lens?

What I do is mostly driven by instinct. I never wanted to get into documentary photography like photojournalism where there are ethical pressures to present the truth. I like fantasy and fiction, where you can take the truth and present your idea of it. That is much more honest to me because I invented it.

The concepts of gender fluidity and sexuality run deep through your body of work. Why are you drawn to these themes?

It is tough to explain, perhaps impossible, why one would be drawn to a particular subject. Can one explain why Picasso was drawn to blue or Francis Bacon’s obsession with the macabre? One can only assume. We are a product of nature and nurture and that guides our inclinations to subjects that appeal to us. I think we can only honestly depict our own perspectives on a subject. The images I produce are not only explorations into my own psyche but also a portal into how I view a certain subject or a situation.

Your ongoing series Portrait of Men looks at the male form by juxtaposing the masculine with the immediately feminine. What inspired the project?

Art in India has mostly depicted women as vulnerable and soft - qualities that have been associated with femininity. The series Portrait of Men explores similar qualities in men. Also, the portrayal of women’s bodies has been for the service of the male gaze. Here, I wanted to create a similar sense of ethereal beauty but on the body of a man. The series therefore questions the gender stereotypes, which is my intention.

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Some Are Born In Their Bodies, Others Create It by Arka Patra

Your work is rife with symbolism. How easy or difficult is it to build the layered narratives of each frame?

I don’t try very hard to infuse symbolisms. A subject guides its own composition, and the elements are put in and out of it accordingly.The significance and implications of an image change according to time. I’d prefer if the viewer could relate to the images on a personal level, rather than me telling them what they are about. I intend the images to be a part of a conversation and be relevant to the viewer and not read as a description.

How do you know when a model/subject is right for your work?

I look for a certain spark that appeals to me. It largely depends on my mood and what I’m working on at the moment. Because the images I take of them are not really them, they are my emotions reflected on them. It might sound a little narcissistic but my models are a medium through which I express myself. I am an introvert and it is tough for me to talk about my emotions and thoughts. The images I produce are aimed to bridge that communication gap.

Take me through your experiments with aesthetics and how you arrived at the current style.

I try to portray my subjects in a beautiful light. And I do not have a sugar coated idea of beauty. It is more complex and layered but also perceivable at a superficial glance. Then again, what I find beautiful evolves and changes shape and form with my experiences. All these influences fashion my aesthetics.

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A Lone Bird In Her Nest from Melancholia by Arka Patra

What is it about photography that intrigues you the most?

The camera gives me an opportunity to create a work of fiction but still keep it in the realm of reality. It is an exciting way to depict emotions and experiences, to see my own reflection of others and capture that.

Who are the contemporary photographers whose work inspires you?

Oh there are many! Nick Knight, Tim Walker, Zhang Jingna and Uldus Bakhtiozina among others.

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