Dheeraj Kumar is a trained fashion designer turned photographer and artist from Muzaffarpur, Bihar. He aspires to define his personal approach to life, beauty, and art through his lenses. Dheeraj draws inspiration from artists such as Frida Kahlo, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Henry Moore.
Anonymous male bodies have been a recurring theme in his work. He uses the body as a canvas, superimposing various styles of ornamentation ranging from botanic floral drawings to masks and markings inspired by Rangoli art. Dheeraj draws on his own experiences with the human body to represent it free of the constraints of society’s and his own cultural upbringing’s rigid gender conventions.
He exposes the landscapes of the human body and the many hidden nooks and crannies that carry traces of untapped and concealed emotions through elaborate staging and meticulous contortions. In his work, the body becomes both the subject and the object, rendered into abstraction, reminiscent of organic rocks and boulders but still retaining humanness, albeit in an unsettlingly intimate way that elicits the viewer’s primal instinct to touch and experience the sensory pleasure of bare skin. He now splits his time between Jaipur and Pondicherry.
As a part of our Queer Special Newsletter, we had a chance to interview him and understand his perspective and art.
Q. Tell us about yourself Dheeraj, let the world know who are you and why do you do what you do?
“As I grew older, I noticed how people struggled with the idea of toxic masculinity that is deeply rooted in the foundation of indian social structure – The notions that men should be self-sufficient, act tough, be physically attractive in a certain way, adhere to rigid gender roles, be heterosexual, demonstrate sexual prowess, and use aggression”Hi. I am Dheeraj and I am from Muzaffarpur, Bihar. My father works as a policeman. As I grew older, I noticed how people differed, particularly how they struggled with the whole macho and masculinity things that establish facts like men should be self-sufficient, act tough, be physically attractive in a certain way, adhere to rigid gender roles, be heterosexual, demonstrate sexual prowess, and use aggression. I am more of a silent person who prefers to let my artwork speak for me. (that’s why my social media handle: silentstoryteller_art)
The artworks are mostly about the body, gender, social issues, differentiation, and everything else I’ve noticed and experienced growing up in Bihar. So, in my work, I try to give voice to all of those things.
Q. So do you specifically work around Gender Issues and Identity or you have been a part of other themes?
Mostly, yes. The male body form is one of my strong directions. I’ve been doing portraits because I’m fascinated by body details. There is a lot of beauty in bodies. I also enjoy botanical flowers, plants, and nature. I combined everything. Such as bodies with natural elements like plants and flowers. THIS SERIES IS CALLED BODY VASES THAT FEATURED BODIES PHOTOGRAPHED IN SUCH A WAY THAT THE HEAD IS NOT VISIBLE, AND THEY APPEAR FROM A DISTANCE TO BE FLOWER VASES, AND THEN I PAINT OVER IT OR PLACE DRY FLOWERS ON THE TOP.
Q. Who are those people who pose for you? Are they professional models or the normal people you come across?
They are people I meet on the street, such as migrant and daily wage workers, as well as people I meet at a railway station and beggars. It’s not like I’m looking for a specific group of people; it could be anyone I see, and if I think I could make them a part of my art, I approach them. When I have the opportunity, I try to compensate them financially. When I photograph someone, I usually try to get to know them. When I first became serious about doing this, I met a boy with chickenpox marks on his back, and I told him, “YOU ARE SO BEAUTIFUL, I WANT TO PHOTOGRAPH YOUR BACK” and he burst into tears, saying that everyone had made fun of him up until that point. People see it as lacking, and many times they come up to him and tell him how bad it is. The chickenpox marks that stay for some people are nothing they can do about, rather it’s an added feature in our body. I found it beautiful. I photographed his back in detail and exhibited the same artwork for people to see. Thereafter, not only did he see his body as a beautiful art form, but it also helped him become more confident in his body and feel more positive about it.
More often than not, we find ourselves hating our bodies for their flaws, which are not flaws at all, but rather the diversity of anatomy. This diversity is lovely, and most people are unaware of their own unique characteristics. I make an effort to demonstrate the same. People who have been a part of my projects were surprised by how they looked in the artworks and left saying, “Is it really me?”
Making people aware of their own beauty through my work is a joy for me, and I appreciate unconventional beauty. Some people have six fingers, others have stretch marks, and they are all-natural and attractive to me. I met Albino, a boy with all white skin who was feeling inferior because no one wanted to interact with him because of his appearance.
I had a lot of trouble with portraits at first. I couldn’t persuade anyone to pose for me until I came up with the concept of ‘the body vase,’ in which no one’s face is visible. People were more comfortable posing and It has become a language now. There are many portraits of people with dark skin because the way it shines adds an element of beauty, and this is a statement against the stigma.
Q. What is the metaphorical meaning of the Body Vase Series?
Nature should be nurtured. Bringing nature’s elements together to show people that it’s natural and for the most part, I leave my art open to interpretation.
People’s insecurity about their bodies is one of the reasons my artwork catches their attention. They are uncomfortable with their bodies, and when they see someone posing in my art, they feel cathartic. Coming from Bihar, I am aware of the difficulties and discomfort that people experience when they are in the presence of others. There is a strong stigma associated with dark skin. When I go up to someone with dark skin and tell them they are beautiful, they tell me I am lying. “Dark is not beautiful” has been etched badly in their subconscious.
Q Has every portrait you’ve done been an idea turned into a portrait or has there been an instance where the person posing had their own idea of expressing their gender or identity?
It has always been an Idea first. I locate and direct people. I don’t want ‘model’ model. I work with regular people who are unaware of their own beauty and it goes well with the point I try to make. I want the portraits to be innocently beautiful. People used to stare at me when I was walking around in my hometown, and I felt very self-conscious. I had no idea what was wrong with me or why they were staring at me. As a cathartic response, I created a series called ‘looking at you,’ in which the person posing is looking at you (staring) in the same way that people do when they feel someone has deviated from their idea of what is beautiful and accepted.
Q. How easy it is on social media to get space to showcase your art and if it was not virtual space where do you see yourself?
Of course, I post my artwork on social media for everyone to see. It is easy there. And if it didn’t exist, I’d be making collages for a book of portraits. Someday, I’d like to compile all of the artwork and turn them into a book.
Q. What would be your dream project?
Going back to Bihar and educating people about their prejudices toward gender diversities and gender fluidity. I have done a project called Gender Bender which specifically was aimed toward educating People. It featured works of art around gender, as a concept, discourse, construct, and as art itself, creating a space for gender with artists and audiences alike. it aimed to contribute to the ever-evolving understanding of gender and its implications, to help produce works that re-examine and re-imagine the concept.
Q. People who go around following their passion often find it difficult due to a variety of reasons. How has it been for you?
It’s not easy. My parents don’t understand what I do and why I do it and people have told me that I could be charged with ‘pornography’ because my photos contain a lot of nudity and skin. It’s always been skin for a set of audience, and art for me.
Q Is Frida Kahlo your favourite artist?
Umm Yes, along with Matisse and Picasso. I made a book with Frida Kahlo. It’s like a self-portrait of me and Frida combined. I’ve always seen Frida crying and crying, so I’d ask her, ‘Can I put flowers in your hair?’ In an imaginary romantic story, I’m attempting to make her happy.
Picasso once had a blue period, so I attempted to collect all things blue and compile them into a book. Blue objects, blue pages. For nearly two years, my entire wardrobe has been blue. It’s great when you do something because you get to learn a lot of new things.
Q Tell me more about the series ‘I Tried Digging Up My Sorrow,’ in which a person sits alone on a beach.
Yes, it’s a Frida Kahlo quote, and I tried to portray isolation in this series. I was walking on a beach in Chennai when this thought occurred to me. There are two parts: one in which a person is enclosed in a box, and the other in which they are all alone on a beach. The idea is to demonstrate how people feel isolated. Many young folks hide their authentic selves from friends, family, and classmates before they come out, which is often an incredibly isolating experience.
Interviewed by Shivam Tomar