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'My Green Card is at home, where is yours?

Last updated on: May 29, 2012 23:55 IST

'My Green Card is at home, where is yours?

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Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC

Leena Jayaswal, an associate professor at American University in Washington, DC, last week made her artistic debut at an exhibition titled Motherland at the GandhiMemorialCenter in WashingtonDC this month. Aziz Haniffa reports

In her remarks at the opening, which was well attended by the Indian American community, area photography buffs, art lovers, and a mainstream audience of students from DC-based universities, Jayaswal waxed nostalgic on her connection to India, her motherland, through her journey as a young immigrant to the United States.

She said her father inspired her to become a photographer at an early age and her understanding and deep appreciation for her Indian cultural heritage was a result of her regular travels to visit family in India.

In particular, she said, she was drawn to the places associated with her mother's family, especially Varanasi and Kolkata. It was through photography, she said, that she found her expression of her cross-cultural experiences as an American with an Indian identity.

Carrie Trybulec, director of the Gandhi Memorial Center, said, "Leena has captured important moments... a couple seated on a bench behind the Taj Mahal, a woman bathing in the Ganges, a child in a daydream-like state, a bride with all her adornments. The beauty of these images lies in the reality of the moment but the impressionistic quality of the Polaroid transfer gives the images a feeling of the eternal."

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Image: Photograph titled Woman on steps
Photographs: Courtesy: Leena Jayaswal

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Jayaswal, who is also the head of the photography concentration at American University, has had her photography recognised in galleries around the country and has worked with famed photographer Mary Ellen Mark.

Her films have been screened in film festivals around the country. Her film An Impression: Dischord Records was honored as the Best selected juror film at the second annual Small International Film Festival at the Berkeley Art Center in California. Another, Crossing Lines, has been shown on more than 70 stations and won honors at international film festivals.

She was awarded the prestigious Gracie Allen Award from the American Women in Radio and Television. Jayaswal said that the name of her exhibition "is in part a play on words.

"My connection to India is through my mother, and hence Motherland. We were one of the first immigrant families to move to a small town in Ohio, so much so that when walking to school once, someone yelled out the bus window, 'Where's your Green Card?' Not realising this was meant to be an insult, I answered, 'At home with my mom, where's yours?' So I grew up not associating much with Indian culture, just trying to fit in. It wasn't until I got to college that I realised that I was cutting off a connection to my roots. I became more interested in learning about India," she said.

She knew she was going to be a photographer, she said, since third grade.

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Image: Photograph titled Chhath Puja II
Photographs: Courtesy: Leena Jayaswal

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"My dad is an amateur photographer and was always carrying a camera. I wanted to emulate him and decided that was the part where we could connect," she said.

"I felt protected behind the camera... In college I found the camera was the way for me to connect to India, utilising the same tactics I used to learn how to be 'American'. One of my first trips, I shot everything I saw until my young cousin asked me what was so interesting," she said.

"After that I began to question why I was shooting. So in the more recent years I have found myself going from the macro to the micro and now what interests me is my mother's side of the family and the places they call home. I wanted the larger prints from this show to be about women and the various roles they play," she added.

She explained, "I shoot slide film and then take the slide and re-shoot it with Polaroid film. While the film is developing I take it apart and put the developing part on water colored paper. This process makes the textures of the paper come through and gives a very painterly effect."

"Each one is unique. This process is now much harder to replicate since Polaroid went out of business. There is a substitute film but it doesn't give the same response... I bought up all the expired film I could find on eBay... The reason why I find this process so important to the work is that it is reminiscent of the miniature paintings of India," she added.

Born in Carlisle, England, Jayaswal, 40, lived in Canada and then Medina, Ohio, from about the age of 6. She earned two bachelor's degrees, in anthropology and visual media, at American University, and an MFA in photography from the Maryland Institute College of Art.


Image: Gandhi Memorial Center Director Carrie Trybulec (right), introduces Leena Jayaswal, as Jayaswal's son Dev looks on
Photographs: Courtesy: Leena Jayaswal

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