Leena Kejriwal - Leading Indian Photographer  
 

A life Of Its Own

The Portraiture of Things: Ranjit Hoskote


Leena Kejriwal's eye dwells, in the present suite of photographs, on objects selected from the margins of urban life; on details that form part of the everyday life of the thoroughfares, the back alleys, and the quiet if neglected courtyards that are sometimes inset surprisingly into the heart of neighbourhoods otherwise fraught with the anxiety of survival.

These details are discreet compositions isolated from the vaster agitations of chance and the grander patterns of collective activity; as such, they assume the role of the still life. Historically, the still life originated as a detail of allegorical value set into a larger tableau; later, the detail acquired autonomy as a distinct genre, serving variously as a symbol compacting a religious allegory, or as a cautionary motif reminding the viewer of mortality and decay, the transience of earthly joys and glories. This Kolkata photographer adequately captures the innate beauty of still life in this series.

In Kejriwal's handling, the still life becomes, instead, an occasion to celebrate the vibrancy of the inanimate object, the spirit that quickens even the most ordinary and inconspicuous of things, the life of the overlooked items in the inventory of the real. Thus, we savour the bright wetness of an egg fried in a pan perched on a table improvised from a carton and propped against a scarred red wall. We marvel at a wire-basket of eggs hanging in darkness, and at the tea-kettles met in a variety of street side teashops: some of them are so highly polished that they hold the world captive in their reflections, while others are disreputable, sooty, battered from long and cruel use. Elsewhere, we find an ancient iron pressing down on hapless creased clothes: a familiar and functional, yet strangely ritual and consecrated object.

The title of this sequence of photographs, 'A Life of Its Own', foregrounds the autonomy that such objects gain when the frame of the lens isolates them from their context. At the same time, Leena Kejriwal is careful not to render the object remote from its surroundings; rather, she ensures that the object is gently shifted but not wholly separated from its normal context. Therefore this she imbues the object with a distinct personality while also indicating the milieu that is its primary context, alluding, as it were, to the social life of the object.

To the extent that these photographs communicate the personality of the object, the still life acts as a portrait; for I would argue that these images disregard the distinction between living and non-living, each respectively the basis of the portrait and the still life. Here, Kejriwal treats the object as attentively as she would have done a human sitter. As a thing singled out from its surroundings, special in its thingness, each of these 'object-portraits' (to suggest a category) marks an intense viewing encounter. And yet, around and through these object-portraits is implied a social life of situations and relationships, a circuitry of pauses and movements, economies and symbolisms.

The physical setting of the still life is often a threshold space in Kejriwal's photographs. Rows of glass biscuit jars inhabit the dingy chiaroscuro of a small teashop. A hand-cranked pump dominates a yard held between walls marked with strange and sublime signs: a skull-and-crossbones on the one hand, a palm tree on the other, as though encoding the cycle of death and fertility around the city's version of the fountain of life. The larger public ethos is also alluded to in the glimpses of informal shrines at street-corners; in the visual asides showing us calendar images of gods, cast in the style of theatrical realism popularised by Raja Ravi Varma, framed and garlanded in teashops; and in the tableaux of afternoon streets stretching motionless, spaces in which vacant handcarts, taxi windshields and brightly painted doors conduct a muted conversation.

Kejriwal's images in this sequence are principally images of objects at rest, and yet their quality of repose is deceptive. It seems not to be a token of serenity so much as a temporary reprieve from the inexorable motions of work, the cycle of routine labour and debilitating fatigue. This feeling is reinforced when the object-portraits are viewed in conjunction with the individuals who very occasionally appear in these frames: a man entering almost accidentally as the photographer was framing a teapot, an itinerant hawker catching an afternoon nap on his pushcart. While Leena Kejriwal's photographs assume the formal appearance of the still life in 'A Life of Its Own', it is gratifying to note that they are also animated by the original symbolic purposiveness of the genre.

Artist's Statement