Body of art

The exhibition, At Home, by award-winning British Indian artist Hetain Patel examines issues of identity through the medium of photographs and videos. Interestingly, it drives home the point that the body can actually be a cultural marker; Soma Das soaked in the story boards

As an Indian boy growing up in a predominantly white neighbourhood in Bolton (Manchester, UK), Hetain Patel experienced the good, bad and ugly side of ethnicity.

First Dance depicts Eva in her bridal finery in an Indian neighbourhood in the UK, Mamai depicts artist Hetain Patel's grandmother 

While on the one hand, the 80s were marked by negative bias towards immigrants, during the 90s with India embracing an open economy policy, there was greater awareness about the country and it became hip to be Indian.

"It was a bizarre situation where I ended up feeling like a foreigner in India due to my accent and birthplace and amongst the minority community in the UK due to my Indian roots," says Patel, who graduated from Nottingham Trent University in 2003 and worked as a freelance music and fashion photographer for a brief span of time.

When he chose to become a practicing artist, those experiences spurred him to explore his Indian heritage and focus on issues of cultural identity through performing arts.

The mehendi patterns sported by Patel's wife Eva are cultural markers of identity

It also led him to learn the tabla seven years ago. As he questions himself on his website, "If the western influence of my birthplace is embedded in my way of thinking and the physical mannerisms of my body, is it possible to retain these ways of understanding the world with an Indian code?"

Family ties
His latest exhibition, At Home, brings him back to the country of his ancestors. The exhibits include photographs and videos featuring his loved ones, including his grandmother (Mamai), his father and his wife Eva.

"Through imitation and repetition, the images explore what happens when you are surrounded by more than one culture. In the process, the human body turns into a vehicle or marker to explore and retain cultural memory," states Patel, who has won awards such as the Decibel Award for his unique art forms.

Elaborating on the theme, Patel explains that in the image titled Mamai, his grandmother's prayer rituals have been captured on camera. "She learned these rituals almost a 100 years ago and it's fascinating that while her body has undergone changes over the years, these rituals are still part of her memory."

In the image Dance Dad, Patel juxtaposes an image of himself alongside one of his father where he imitates his father's gestures. "A video was shot at my father's factory and I watched the video again and again to learn the mannerisms.
Then I restaged the scene, imitating his actions and juxtaposed the images where I walk like my dad, talk like him and so on. The images highlight how we inherit cultural traits by watching our parents as well as from popular culture," says Patel.

When the body turns canvas
Body art has been an abiding interest for Patel and hence, there are several images which depict his wife Eva, who is Spanish, with mehendi patterns all over her body. For his initial images (2004-08), he had decorated his own body with pigments used during Hindu rituals.

"In a way, it's about marking a foreigner's body as Indian with the help of an ethnic cultural marker. It also questions my authenticity to brand someone in this manner, since I was born in Britain and am perceived as an outsider," he concludes.

Till March 3
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