Emmanual Lenain's photo exhibition a feast for art lovers

Emmanuel Lenain talks about the ongoing Bihar Museum Biennale exhibition, and his love for the monochrome
A photograph by Emmanuel Lenain.
A photograph by Emmanuel Lenain.

On a hot and humid day in a back lane of Old Delhi, a man trains his Leica camera on a group of young women in burqa. The surroundings buzz with the proverbial chaos of everyday life. But Emmanuel Lenain remains unperturbed. Standing still, he clicks his subject and moves on to his next stop—the Jama Masjid. Not your casual backpacker visiting India, Lenain is France’s Ambassador to India since the last four years. And in those years, he has been somebody else too—a chronicler of the country.

He is showcasing his recent project—Nature Strikes Back—as a curtain-raiser to the second edition of the Bihar Museum Biennale. Talking about the exhibition that will go on till July 22, the 53-year-old says, “I have visited India before being posted here. And, like everyone else, I have been fascinated. The country has been my muse for over 25 years now. 

I would often travel here and naturally my camera accompanied me. But earlier, my lens would focus on different aspects. I would photograph religious rituals, weddings, festivities.”

Khajuraho ,April 2022
Khajuraho ,April 2022

He maintains that “the cultural diversity in the country” has always attracted him. While this holds true for most artists who try to capture the multi-hued nation through their craft, in Lenain’s case there is a marked departure. He likes to celebrate his colourful muse in black and white. “That’s my taste. I like shades, I like patterns. 

I like the way different textures are created in monochrome,” says the photographer, who has earlier exhibited in Kolkata, Delhi, Hyderabad and Chandigarh. But isn’t portraying India in black and white difficult? In answer, Lenain silently points to one of his pictures of Ladakh. The otherwise blue sky looks stark with shades of grey. The landscape throws up different patterns. In colour what would have been a vibrant picture, gets a different visual life of its own, dystopian in nature—a barren land with stressed textures that one can almost touch.

Chandernagor, West Bengal, November 2019
Chandernagor, West Bengal, November 2019

Why the theme ‘nature strikes back’? “Everywhere I have been struck by the tension between urban dwellers and nature. In large cities, you see nature surviving in unusual places—trees growing on walls or holding on stubbornly to what little piece of land there is. Sometimes nature takes revenge and occupies the space once occupied by humans,” Lenain says. One of the images of an abandoned bus in Aurangabad testifies to this. Left forlorn and neglected in the wild, the rusting bus has creepers claiming it. Yet another picture of the State Bank of India building in Kochi is striking. The overgrowth on the building almost reminds one of the late Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa and his penchant for letting nature be the dominant force in his designs.  

Lenain, who collaborated with the maverick photographer, Raghu Rai on a book, does not believe in “spoon-fed” images. 

“I do not like to stage my photographs. I like them to be smooth and free-flowing, almost candid. I want the viewer to relate to the images, as one would to real life,” says the photographer who counts Kolkata and Old Delhi among his most favoured spots to practise his craft. “There is life on the streets there,” he smiles.

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