By Rachel Trachten | Photos by Barnali Ghosh
As many did early on in the Covid lockdowns, Barnali Ghosh went walking around her neighborhood, cell phone camera in hand. She photographed flowers and trees and also joined the #GettyMuseumChallenge, creating riffs on famous paintings by matching their shapes and colors to objects around her home.
“I was taking a picture of the wisteria and in my head I’m going, ‘whoa, I have a sari and a scarf exactly those colors.’ And I’m thinking of Georgia O’Keeffe and how the forms in her floral paintings are also so human,” says the Berkeley resident.
Ghosh paired the wisteria photo with an image of herself in a purple sari and gold scarf, arms upturned in an Odissi dance pose that resembled the flowers’ petals. She initially saw her composition as a one-off creation, but a larger project ensued.
To celebrate getting her first Covid vaccine, Ghosh created “Happy Poppy,” and with it she launched an Instagram project using #unfaithfulrecreation to show her respect for native flowers and to become more attuned to them.
“It’s where the vocabulary of dance comes in,” says Ghosh. “It’s a way to describe my relationship with the flower. Odissi poses are more curvaceous, and that helps communicate emotions that are more sensual. And when I think about the purpose of flowers—to seduce and then pollinate—it makes a kind of sense.”
To strike the right pose, Ghosh stands at a full-length mirror in the corner of her small study and moves through different dance positions, capturing them on her phone set on a tripod. She dresses to match the flowers in saris and scarves from her large collection (or her mother-in-law’s), which, she explains, come to most women in India as traditional wedding gifts.
As Ghosh became intrigued with capturing the essence of native plants in her art, she began visiting the Regional Parks Botanic Garden in Tilden Park, and she also got permission from biologist Amy Patten to borrow some photos of rare wildflowers. Rave reviews of her compositions from the California Native Plant Society inspired Ghosh to create calendars for 2022 and 2023, with a portion of the profits donated to the California Native Plant Society and the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust. A calendar for 2024 is in progress as of this writing.
Although her focus is mostly on flowers, Ghosh gives herself an “occasional chuckle” by depicting foods or other household goods. In one photo, she’s dressed to match a samosa; in another her outfit resembles a package of basmati rice; in a third, she’s a superhero paired with the jar of Vicks VapoRub that helped her feel better during a bout of Covid.
Ghosh grew up in Bangalore, where flowers populated daily life: worn in the hair, set at the altar, adding flair to food. When she came to UC Berkeley in 1999 to study landscape architecture, she encountered some difficulties with language around plants: The scientific names of trees and flowers were hard to memorize, and she felt troubled by words like exotic and invasive.
“These metaphors are powerful and seep into so many other parts of our lives where they can be dangerous, like immigration, for example. Even [when] terms like exotic used to describe Asian Americans might seem like a compliment, [they] feel othering to me.”
By dressing in saris for the photos, Ghosh brings her Indian heritage into her daily life in California as she also connects with the flowers. “[It’s] in a way that’s not moderated by other people or the language they’re using,” she says.
Pleasure is key as well. “I love that seeing the image often brings someone pure joy and makes them smile.” ♦
Barnali Ghosh and her husband, Anirvan Chatterjee, lead the award-winning Berkeley South Asian Radical History Walking Tour. For Ghosh, the tours explore connections of people to place and deepen a sense of belonging. berkeleysouthasian.org
Rachel Trachten writes about local food in connection to social justice, education, business, art, and the environment. View her stories at racheltrachten.contently.com.