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Beyond orientalism: An American-Indian photo jugalbandi in hand-coloured prints

art-and-culture Updated: Oct 08, 2016 08:28 IST
Poonam Saxena
Poonam Saxena
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

Photographer Waswo X. Waswo and Rajesh Soni, who hand-colours his black and white pictures, setting up their exhibition in a gallery in Lado Sarai. (Sanjeev Verma/HT Photo)

He’s been in India for 16 years and has never seen the Taj Mahal. That’s because Rajasthan has held him in complete thrall for ten of those years. The 60-something American photographer and artist, who goes by the unusual name of Waswo X. Waswo, found new vigour and life in his art in this faraway desert state. He runs a photo studio – “I call it my cowshed, with its gobar floor and corrugated tin roof held up by six poles” – in a small village, Varda, half an hour’s drive from Udaipur.

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Waswo and his assistant, Ganpat, find ordinary, interesting ‘models’ – his barber, chaiwallah, somebody just walking down the road, Gauri folk dancers – and shoot them in front of specially painted linen backdrops. Then the black-and-white digital prints are hand-coloured by Udaipur artist Rajesh Soni, who learnt this fine art from his family (his grandfather Prabhu Lal Soni was the Mewar court photographer, and hand coloured the black-and-white photographs that he took).

A photograph titled New News at the chai shop. Rajesh Soni learnt the art of hand-colouring pictures from his father and grandfather.

Together, Waswo and Rajesh Soni have created what Waswo calls a “homage and critique of old ethnographic photography.” A collection of their striking photographs have been brought to Delhi by Tasveer and can be seen at Exhibit 320 in Lado Sarai. A dancer delicately holding the edge of a sari with her hand, balancing a tumbler and pot on her head. A wizened ironing lady with her ancient-looking heavy iron. Five youths gossiping at a chai shop. And many others.

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In earlier ethnographic photography, says Waswo, the people look almost scared in front of the camera. “But we have tried to break the mould. We have introduced a playful element.” Take the picture of a young man with a rubber tail and a gada, ‘flying’ like Hanuman. Or the picture of a lean young man standing knee-deep in water, emptying a ghada of water on his upturned face and bare chest. The photographs are also reminiscent of old studio pictures where people posed in front of painted backdrops and pretended to be movie stars or pilots flying planes.

Photograph titled Desert Man with Sickle. Waswo and Soni have created what Waswo calls a “homage and critique of old ethnographic photography”.

But how did Waswo, who is originally from Wisconsin, get to Udaipur at all? The story is best told in his own words: “My father had been in India during World War II. I grew up listening to his stories and looking at his pictures. In school I developed a love for English literature, which led me to the Raj, which led me to India.” He first landed in India in 1993, and went straight from Delhi to Udaipur after seeing a picture of the city in a tourist brochure. He stayed there for ten days and fell hopelessly in love with the place. He came back to India in 1999 but it was not till 2006 that he decided to open a studio in Rajasthan (in between Waswo lived in Goa where his father spent the last three years of his life before he died in 2007).

So in 2006, he rented a beautiful three-storey house on Ambhavgarh Hill in Udaipur overlooking Lake Pichola (“It had the best view of the city”) and that’s where he met Rajesh, a talented sketch artist who sold his drawings of Udaipur at his own gallery. At that time, Waswo was working with chemical-process sepia photographs of India. “I wanted to change my style, yet keep a continuity,” he says. Hand-coloured photographs seemed the answer. “It was a new style but still had a vintage feel,” says Waswo.

He had to leave his Udaipur home after five years (the landlord retired and wanted his house back), and move to an apartment. The hunt for a studio took him to the Rajput village of Varda, where he’s universally known as chacha, and where he sometimes spends his evenings on the studio roof, drinking (“that’s when my Hindi really comes out!”). He says he rather likes the fierce Rajasthan summer, because Udaipur is empty of tourists and he can go to the “local, more plebian” Lake Fateh Sagar where youngsters hang out at night.

Photograph titled The Shopkeeper. In earlier ethnographic photography, people would look almost scared in front of the camera. Waswo and Soni have tried to break the mould.

This “going native” as some would call it means that Waswo has often been subjected to familiar criticism – of a foreigner ‘exoticising’ India in his pictures, looking at his subject with a foreginer’s gaze. The accusation annoys him. “The problem is that people still think of all photography as documentary,” he says. “But I come from the pictorial school. I see beauty in people and craft. If I am guilty of something, so are most people – say, of seeing beauty in a farmer’s field when the farmer is impoverished.” Waswo often conducts a little experiment when he’s invited for talks in different parts of the world – he shows the audience a series of pictures and asks them to figure out which ones were taken by Indian photographers and which ones by foreigners. “They can never tell the difference,” he says. “So much for the ‘foreigner’s gaze!’”

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The global debate around cultural appropriation bothers him equally and he’s already felt its impact. Recently, he sold his Hanuman photograph to the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco. It was a big museum sale and Waswo was excited that his picture would be a part of their Ramayana exhibition in November. But suddenly he found that the picture had been pulled out of the show. “They said it was a routine thing, but they had actually announced it would be part of the exhibition in a press release. So I can only suspect that it was because of this,” he says sadly.

Photograph titled At Navratri. Waswo has often been subjected to the criticism that he’s a foreigner ‘exoticising’ India. Waswo counters that he, like many others, is only seeing the beauty in people and craft.

Not that his time in India has been all honey and roses. “There are moments when he says he’s fed up and he’s going to leave and not come back,” laughs Rajesh. (Maybe one of those times was at the Kochi Biennale last year when an enraged Waswo destroyed his own art installation after Kerala unions demanded Rs 10,000 for loading it into a truck.)

At the moment, Waswo is spending a lot of his time in Bangkok (“mainly because my partner lives there”) and has been asked by his Thai gallerist to do a series with Thai themes. “To do that I have to spend time there,” he says. “But Rajasthan’s crafts and skills keep pulling me back. I start missing Udaipur after just a few days. The place has magic.” Apart from Rajesh, Waswo also works with Udaipur miniaturist R Vijay (Rajesh introduced them to each other) and the two have collaborated to produce a series of quirky miniatures, which invariably feature a foreigner in a white suit and hat.

Is that Waswo himself?

The foreigner who is also an integral part of the frame?

(The exhibition is on at Exhibit 320, F 320, Lado Sarai, until October 18. Timings: 11 am-7pm.)