Leena Kejriwal - Leading Indian Photographer  

Babu Bibi Series


A Post Modern Expression: Art of Leena Kejriwal

- By Baruna Bhattacharjee

Artists have always experimented with new mediums and imagery, to express the contemporary ethos of the time that they have lived in, sometimes, even, looking back to earlier styles and concepts for inspiration and in the process creating a new visual expression of their own. This spirit of exploration and experimentation is very much evident in the recent works of Leena Kejriwal who is considered to be among the top editorial photographers in India. As a photographer, for Leena, the city of Kolkata: has been her primary muse, as is evident from her recent book "Calcutta: Repossessing the City".

Just as the patuas or the folk artists, of Bengal, who had settled down near the Kali temple in Kalighat in the nineteenth century, had begun to portray in a new satirical style and medium, the new urban Bengali 'Babu Culture' which had emerged in nineteenth century Calcutta, as a result of their contact with the British. The source of Leena's inspiration too reflected in her recent digital art, started with her walks through the streets of north Kolkata, especially in old neighborhoods like Chitpur and Sovabazaar, documenting the crumbling old baroque and neo-classical mansions of the merchant princes, areas where the flavor of the old nineteenth century 'Babu Culture' still lingers. The other source for her was the Kalighat paintings, which inspired Leena to explore through photography and the Digital medium, her latest series "KOLKATA INDULGING."

To appreciate Leena's recent works, a brief survey of the Kalighat style of painting would perhaps be helpful for the viewers. For just as the new influences from the West, had affected the intellectual as well the cultural activities, amongst the western educated elites of the emerging middleclass Bengalis of the 19th century Calcutta, which was to culminate in the 'Bengal Renaissance'. The Kalighat Pata painting too was just such a new variant artistic expression of its time.

The Kalighat painters were primarily folk artists, who had migrated from villages of Bengal in the 19th century and had settled down in Kalighat near the famous Kali Temple, to paint pictures of Hindu Gods and Goddesses, for the pilgrims take back with them as souvenirs of their visit to the Temple of Goddess Kali. Apart from religious themes, they soon started to paint genre scenes, to express their own reaction to the changing social and cultural realities of the city of Calcutta at the time. In their art one notices, not only influences of western style watercolors, engravings, lithographs, as well as photography, which had become very popular by then and were readily available in the bazaars, but they were also influenced by the new Bengali theatre as well, which had gained much popularity amongst the emerging bengali 'Babus'. In their art, one can see portrayed, the 'phool-babus' with their pomaded hair parted in the center, holding the pleated end of their dhoti in one hand, while flirting with their lush and bejeweled mistresses. They were mostly well-known courtesans or stage actors of the time. Even local scandals, such as the famous Tarakeshwar' Elokeshi murder case in the late 19th century, became a source of inspiration for these artists. This was something new in the folk art tradition of Bengal, as until then most of the painted scrolls depicted stories taken from the Hindu mythology or indigenous Bengali folklores like the Manasa or Behula Lakhindar.

Apart from these influences, one also notices that, while the indigenous tradition of painting in Bengal was painting long scrolls on handmade paper, earthenware, and clay dolls, using home made natural colors consisting of primary colors like red, green, yellow, and blue.. The Kalighat painters, on the other hand, used British watercolor on single sheets of cheap machine-made paper manufactured in Calcutta.

Just as the discovery of photography had a major influence on major art movements like Impressionism and Post Impressionism in nineteenth century Europe. The artists of the Surrealists, the Russian Constructivists, the Dada and the Bauhaus movements of the twentieth century, too had experimented with the photography medium further. As by this time, photography had come to be a medium of creative expression. In America, too artists like Man Ray and Andy Warhol, turned the photographic medium into a form of avant- garde expression, as reflected in Andy Warhol's famous multiple portrait of a popular Hollywood's sex symbol 'Marylyn Munro', in which he made use of the photographic silk- screen image on canvas.

In India, photography had become popular amongst both the British as well as the Indian amateur photographers, like the well-known photographer Raja Lala Deen Dayal. While the early British photographers interests in photography in capturing the "oriental scenery" of India to send back home to England as souvenirs. The Indians photographers on the other hand used the medium to cater to the tastes of the elites. Their hand colored photographs, especially the portraits of the Indian royalties and their courtesans and court the dancers or 'nautch girls' are very reminiscent of the Kalighat painter\\\'s imagery of the courtesans of Sonagaachi, a red light area in north Calcutta frequented by the wealthy 'Babus' of Calcutta.

Today with the advance of technology as reflected in the computer generated digital art, photographers like Leena Kejriwal, has given Kalighat Painting tradition yet another new direction. Though set in contemporary Kolkata, Leena has tried to go back in time to the nineteenth century Kalighat paintings for inspiration. In order to create a mood, she has placed her contemporary \\\'lush\\\' female protagonist, the same woman in every picture, in a traditional setting. Making her wear her sari in the traditional Bengali style, and then placing her against settings, like lounging in a carved old fashioned four poster mahogany bed, or standing next to a wooden balustrade alongside a winding marble staircase with portraits hanging on the wall behind her, all reminiscent of the late nineteenth century era. In these pictures though the artist has tried to recreate the ambiance of a period long gone, yet one notices that the woman here is not merely a sensuous object of pleasure for the voyeurs, but she is provocative and liberated in her attitude. Clearly reflected in the picture where she is sitting with her back towards the viewer sitting on a low stool with her pet cat sitting next to her, looking out at the lit up Princep Ghat where a musical soirée is taking place. Here she is \\\'Indulging\\\' herself for her own pleasure as she defiantly flaunts her glass of wine at the viewers. Though these scenes may seem set in the past, they are still relevant in Calcutta of to day, especially amongst the Bengali elites. Hence, in her series "CALUTTA INDULGING" the artist has been successful in expressing the spirit of Calcutta, the city she claims as being her muse.

Artist's Statement