Photographs from Arpita Shah's series "Purdah - The Sacred Cloth"

Photographs from Arpita Shah’s series “Purdah – The Sacred Cloth”


Arpita Shah is a visual artist, who is one of many excellent contributing artists, to this year’s BlowUp! at the 10th Angkor Photo Festival. As a South Asian photographer based Scotland her work very often points a lens at the Asian diaspora, exploring notions of home and cultural displacement. caught up with Arpita and asked her what motivates her practice of photography in Scotland.


[Editor's Note : This part of a series of posts on the 10th Angkor Photo festival & workshops (29th November to 6th December 2014) and BlowUp ! 2014 (submissions open till Nov 16th)]

As a photographer who has spent her early years first in India, then in Middle East, Ireland before settling down in Scotland. How has this transience influenced your practice of photography?

My experience of growing up between these various cultures has strongly influenced my photographic practice, both visually and conceptually. As an artist I am fascinated with exploring the notion of home, diaspora and cultural identity. And as part of my process I often collaborate with individuals and communities from diverse cultures in Scotland, and create work that explores the complexities inherent in identity for individuals, who like me, share narratives of cultural displacement. My work tends to focus on the experiences of being rooted in one place, and growing in another as it’s something I can identify with on a very personal level. It’s such an internal and personal experience but at the same time it’s often a shared one, so as an artist, it’s something that continues to challenge and inspire me in my work.

Visually, my work is very much inspired and imbued by my childhood memories and cultural experiences of growing up between India and Saudi Arabia. Working predominantly in portraiture photography; my images often draw from Asian and Eastern mythology, which I use as way of exploring my subjects’ cultural identities and metaphysical states of living between various cultures.

My early work especially referenced iconic Indian miniature paintings or particular Hindu myths that I grew up around, and I think my interest in mythology is very much influenced by being raised in a Hindu home where mythology is embedded in your everyday life.


Sadhvi : What attracted you to this subject of itinerant Jain Nuns?


My interest in Sadhvi Jains developed from a very young age, my family on my father’s side are Jain Hindus and when we’d visit them in India, I always remember seeing a photograph displayed in their home of a woman wrapped in a pure white cloth. I enquired who it was and was told they were a relative, but are now no longer part of the family but a devotee of god. As child this was quite confusing and strange for me to understand. But as I got older, I became more curious and knowledgeable about Sadhvi Jains, I was especially intrigued because hair is so sacred in Asian culture and whether it’s shown or covered, it’s culturally embedded within the Indian female identity. Sadhvi’s sacrifice their hair during their initiation into Jain nunhood and continue to maintain it by plucking it out twice a year. Once initiated, they also no longer have a home or any possessions and are given a new name. These are all themes I have often explored in my work, because for me, certain cultural signifiers, and your family and home are intrinsically connected to one’s self identity and to sacrifice it all for your faith is just an incredible and fascinating act of devotion. I started photographing ‘Sadhvi’ last year in my hometown Ahmedabad, Gujarat. My father and I were invited to a Jain Diksha ceremony, which is an initiation for Jains to formally change their status from householder to an ascetic and become a Sadhvi or Sadhu. The ceremony starts of by these individuals parading down the streets in a heavily decorated chariots wearing their finest bejewelled clothes and throwing money and jewels to the family members and passers-by who are dancing below them. This symbolises their farewell to their worldly life and all its attachments and possessions and initiates their journey into Jain monkhood/nunhood. This was followed by a very intense religious ceremony, and what really fascinated me was that there were women of various ages and backgrounds that were initiating. There was a young 5 year old girl and also an elderly woman, but also a mother and daughter, who were was similar ages to me and my mother. This intrigued me even further so after this ceremony, I started visiting an ashram where Jain Sadhvi’s were temporarily residing and that’s where I started creating this body of work. This project is very different to my previous work, because usually my portraits are very composed and staged, but because it was such privilege to be invited into their sacred spaces I tried to be as discreet, sensitive and respectful as possible. My previous work also tends to uses a lot of vibrant colours which are inspired by my Indian heritage so it really was interesting for me to be in India and make work where only white was such a dominant and symbolic colour. This project was a very different process for me as a photographer, but it was really exciting observing and documenting their day to life and having brief conversations with them about the journey’s that led them to becoming Sadhvi’s. I’m planning to go to India next year to develop this series, so am really excited to see where it leads.


Arpita Shah's Vasant Ritu

Photographs from Arpita Shah’s series Vasant Ritu (2007).The photographic portraits in Vasant Ritu were inspired by 18th century Mughal miniature paintings that depicted scenes of women heroines standing under flowering trees.


What excites you, being a South Asian practitioner in Scotland?

One of the most exciting things about living in Scotland is how culturally diverse it is, it’s such a welcoming place and home to such wide variety of cultures and communities. Even though I’m not originally from here, it still feels like home and I’m always meeting people from various backgrounds with really interesting journeys that led them here, so as an artist it’s these stories and experiences that really excite me about being in Scotland. The photography scene is really exciting at the moment also and there’s lots of great new work and projects going on. There’s a great photography gallery in Glasgow called Street Level Photoworks which always puts on really interesting shows –they just finished a great show by Document Scotland and are currently showing The Jill Todd Photographic Award 2014 which has some beautiful work in it by emerging photographers. So, if anyone’s visiting Scotland anytime soon they should definitely check it out, and also pick up a copy of Gooseflesh which is a great photography zine that features new work by Scotland based photographic artists.