Professionally, Arka Patra is a photographer. He is based in West Bengal’s Chandannagar, the township that was formerly a French colonial outpost. The 31-year-old lensman is now making a name in the world of fashion photography. His work has been used in jewellery advertisements, on book covers and for fashion catalogues; he has been published on Homegrown and Curry Conversations; in 2020, he was one of 10 winners of the FDCI Wall Of Frames contest. At the moment, he divides his time between personal projects and professional shoots, commuting between Kolkata and his hometown.
But there is so much more to him than meets the eye.
For one, the photographer is also a sculptor and a painter – a true multifaceted artist. He often makes his own props – as an aside, he tells a story about how for one shoot, he really wanted a taxidermized bird but couldn’t find any, so he looked up online tutorials and made one himself with the corpse of a friend’s bird. For another, he refuses to let his work be pigeonholed by personal identity, preferring to let his pictures do the talking.
Arka’s pictures are soft and still. In them, he plays with shapes, silhouettes, objects and colours, imbuing the elements with symbolic meaning. Gender and sexuality are the predominant themes in most of his personal work. He believes putting his own distinctive stamp even in commercial projects, with aesthetics of queerness and a love of Early Modern-era art and sculpture being his primary influences.
“When I first started working, I wondered how I could bring in these visuals I loved into the fluid space of gender, especially masculinity,” he says.
Edited excepts from a longer conversation with Lounge.
Describe your current workspace to us.
It’s a big spare room in my house. I started using it about 7 or 8 years ago. It’s filled with all my work gear – my camera, computer, lights, and fabric and paper for backdrops are all here. But there’s also equipment for painting, spare clay and shola for sculptures and crafts, hoops and tools for embroidery. And then there are the more eccentric things I use as props – dry flowers, masks, feathers, and even skulls! This is where all my creative pursuits happen.
Has it always been this way? Or has it evolved over the years?
It definitely wasn’t as cluttered 5 years back! There’s a fair amount of what I would call junk – I’m a bit of a hoarder. There are boxes and cartons everywhere. The space-organisation has changed somewhat, and although my paintings are hanging everywhere, I wouldn’t really call the space decorated. But it’s not just functional, it’s purposeful – like a workshop.
How would you define your daily relationship with this space?
I strongly believe that an artist needs their own space. I use this room for all my personal artistic projects, from photography to painting to sculpture, and to prep for shoots. Everything I treasure is here, and I like to be surrounded by these things. I even stay in this room at night sometimes. When I walk into it, it immediately feels like home.
Tell us about some of the eureka moments you have had and major works that you have done from here.
I’m a pretty spontaneous person, so although I plan everything, there’s some improvisation in every shoot. Once I used a plate that I broke accidentally during the shoot as a prop, and the photos were amazing! As for major works done here, one of my favourites are the portraits of I took of models to explore how softness can be an essential element of masculinity.
If you were to trade in this place for another, what would it be?
I would like to have a warehouse! It will need to be bigger than this room, with a lot of light, and closer to Kolkata. But I like where I live and work right now – it’s right next to the river, with the ghat is only a few paces away, and my house is surrounded by old colonial-era buildings, built in the French style. There’s so much peace and old-world charm.
What's the one thing that has always been at your workspace over the years. Why?
It’s less of a thing and more of a philosophy that I identify with – the contrasting interplay of life and death, the dichotomy of the idea of plenty and the idea of death. It’s something that the Dutch masters were obsessed with, too, and you can see it influence in my work. That’s why I have so many skulls in my work and in my workspace, but also flowers and fruits. The space represents the spiritual truth that I carry within myself.
Is there one image that always moves and inspires you?
It’s probably the image of Saraswati Ma. Every year, we hold a puja in our home, and I sculpt the idol myself, including the sholar shaaj – the ornaments made of the pith or shola plant. I can gaze forever at her. She is my inspiration, as the Hindu deity who is the patron of arts, the bhagawati, source of all creation and beauty. I don’t think I’m capable of doing anything if there isn’t her will in it.
A memory of one of your earliest pictures — how did it come to be, where did you shoot it?
One of my earliest projects was called ‘Crimson Lust’ and it’s still one of my favourites. It was focused on the idea of that violence is a part of nature, represented through the colour red. The images had a lot of pagan symbolism. Another favourite is called ‘Do not go to the garden of flowers.’ It’s based on a poem by Kabir about love. In the images, I interpreted it through the lens of queerness.
Rushati Mukherjee is a writer based in Kolkata.
Creative Corner is a series about writers, artists, musicians, founders and other creative individuals and their relationships with their workspaces.