Worlds Of Wonder: The Art of Waswo X. Waswo

Shubhasree Purkayastha

“When you first look at my pictures you know what you’re seeing. Then you realise what you first saw is not correct and you’re forced to look at them again, which leaves you with this strange feeling that you’re caught in the middle.” Learn about Waswo X. Waswo’s body of work that infused with layers and layers of meaning.

“When you first look at my pictures you know what you’re seeing. Then you realise what you first saw is not correct and you’re forced to look at them again, which leaves you with this strange feeling that you’re caught in the middle.”

Waswo X. Waswo is an American photographer and poet, who currently lives in Udaipur Rajasthan. Waswo made his first trip to India in 1993, before relocating for good and establishing a photo studio in the outskirts of Udaipur in 2003.

Waswo’s body of work is infused with layers and layers of meaning, yet are easily accessible to the viewer. These include his sepia toned photographs of Indian landscapes and people, contemporary miniatures painted on handmade paper, and painted photographs created in his in-house studio in Rajasthan.

Cross before a Goan House, Arambol, Waswo X. Waswo, 2002, Sepia-toned silver gelatin print

Waswo began his artistic journey in India with India Poems, a series of sepia-toned photographs documenting the country and its people. Drawing inspiration from the tradition of pictorialist photography, coupled with a desire to ‘slow down time’, the photographs in this series evoke a sense of nostalgia and act as “visual meditations that go beyond the literal, seeking a more eternal form of reality”. The series has also received some amount of criticism and has been interpreted as a foreigner’s judgement upon a land and its people. Aware of being viewed as another “neocolonial figure perpetuating the agenda of the colonisers”, Waswo clarifies that his photo series intended to dig out pure aesthetics and eternal human truths through personally lived experiences – ideas that go beyond any form of political debates or sides.

My Private Driver, Jaitu – Pushkar, Waswo X. Waswo, 1999, Sepia-toned silver gelatin print

The works that follow India Poems are primarily collaborations with fellow artists of Rajasthan (in a nod to the tradition of karkhanas or painting ateliers of historic India). In the contemporary miniatures that Waswo executes along with miniaturist R. Vijay, one sees a painted version of the artist travelling across the country and taking photographs. These photographs can be then imagined as the photographic body of work that Waswo produces along with photograph-painter Rajesh Soni.

The Mutka Chor, 2010, Waswo X. Waswo, Hand coloured pigment print

The residents of the village where Waswo has set up his studio are his models. From the roadside fruit seller to the local street performer – anybody willing is welcome. The process of taking the photo itself is theatrical: with elaborate backdrops painted on linen (often featuring the landscape of Rajasthan), vintage props and costumes. The models often play a role in their own imaging, while Waswo directs the whole, as the creative director. Post the digital production and printing, the photos are meticulously hand-tinted by Rajesh Soni, adding the signature gossamer quality that identifies them as Waswo’s work.

The Mirch-wallah, Waswo X. Waswo, 2008, Hand coloured pigment print

Waswo’s photographs playfully examine the worlds of colonial ethnographic documentation and the fantastical make-believe of early photo studios. They range from single figure shots to theatrical tableaus, and reference everything from Hindu myths and contemporary rituals to everyday life.

The Evil Orientalist, Waswo X. Waswo, 2011, Hand coloured pigment print

In the series on Gauri / Gavri performers (a traditional form of dance-drama from Rajasthan), one can see young men, often cross-dressed and with make-up, posing against elaborately painted sets. In this series, the focus is not so much on documenting the performance but on the actors and their characters.

Gauri Dancers #6, Waswo X. Waswo, 2013, Hand coloured pigment print

In another series titled New Myths First Incarnations, Waswo draws from stories in Hindu mythology and stages the likes of Krishna and Hanuman in unexpected settings – the viewer may find Krishna lounging on a charpai with a companion or catch Hanuman in the middle of his snack break.

First Incarnation the Eleventh, Waswo X. Waswo, 2009 Hand coloured pigment print

After spending over two decades in India, Waswo calls it home. His work, not surprisingly, proclaims the love that he feels for the people of this land and acts as proof of the acceptance that this once-upon-a time outsider felt.

By his own declaration, “India has been good to him”.

“To this day I never see my work as individual statements, but rather, portions of a much larger tale.” 

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