The Book of Waswo

The new miniatures from the studio of Waswo X. Waswo are as captivating as his latest photobook. ♦

Originally published in India Today.

‘Moon of Dreams’ by Waswo X. Waswo and R. Vijay

Nearly two decades ago, when Waswo X. Waswo was travelling in Pushkar, a group of camel herders started referring to him as “Chacha”. “The name just stuck,” the artist tells me in a recent interview, ahead of an exhibition of recent paintings and the release of a new photobook.

Over the years, Waswo has used various names to refer to himself directly or indirectly—”Photowalla”, “the Evil Orientalist”, his given name Richard—but to the people in the village near Udaipur where he has his studio, he is Chacha. This kinship term quite suits the avuncular-looking expat American, who is sometimes seen in photographs wearing an off-white suit and brimmed hat which, with his moustache, gives him the look of a modern-day Mark Twain.

“The paintings appear like episodes in a sort of Waswonama, featuring a foreign figure based on the artist as he journeys through Indian landscapes–the innocent abroad.”

The literary allusion isn’t too far off, despite the fact that Waswo is known primarily for the miniature paintings and hand-coloured studio photographs he produces with various Indian collaborators in their Rajasthan karkhana, or atelier. “My college background was actually more in creative writing and literature than it was in visual arts,” says Waswo, who has previously published some of his writing. There is often a strong narrative or illustrative element in the paintings he produces with miniaturist R. Vijay; they appear like episodes in a sort of Waswonama, featuring a foreign figure based on the artist as he journeys through Indian landscapes-the innocent abroad.

A collection of new miniatures will be exhibited at Delhi’s Gallery Espace starting October 11, following the recent release of an unrelated book of photographs. The show, Like a Leaf in Autumn, “will really mix concepts and figures from both Western and Eastern traditions”, says Waswo (appropriately, the title is taken from Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red). Art historical references in these works include Michelangelo’s David, pichwai paintings, Henri Rousseau’s lush jungles and the Daniells’ engravings. A reimagined rasa lila in ‘The Garden of Archetypes’ features a smirking Krishna, offering a dupatta to Sandro Botticelli’s Venus as she tries desultorily to cover herself with her hair.

‘In the Garden of Archetypes’

R. Vijay’s virtuosic hand saves the paintings from being pure pastiche, allowing them to transcend their disparate references. He has “improved tremendously as a painter”, Waswo points out, since their early work together; each series of collaborative paintings is successively more richly hued, more masterfully illuminated.

Waswo says the show is an attempt to reconcile “extreme identity politics, calls for censorship, and silencing of free speech” from liberal factions, with “stuck-in-the-mud conservatism”. The works, he says, explore themes like the “so-called ‘whiteness’, immigration, and the current rage for destroying monuments from our past”-issues of migration, whiteness and religious belief-through recurring symbols. Some of the most moving, however, are the ones that try to say the least, simply juxtaposing a weary or confused ‘Waswo’ figure with the world around him, still full of wonder and teeming with life.

Reconciliation between opposing viewpoints is also an important theme in Waswo’s latest photobook, Gauri Dancers, released in September. The book’s studio portraits-hand-coloured by Rajesh Soni, another long-time collaborator-depict men, mostly from the Bhil tribe, who travel from village to village for 40 days following Raksha Bandhan to perform a set of stories loosely based around Shiva, an army of goddesses led by Devi Ambav, and the demon Bhasmasura.

Gauri Dancers includes a “short story” by Waswo about the making of the book, in which “the Artist” and “the Ethnographer” argue about how this local tradition ought to be approached and represented. These “two warring factions of my own personality,” as Waswo calls them, finally manage to reconcile “enigma” and “understanding” through the experience of a Gavri performance.

‘The photographs are art, but also ethnography–rife with the inherent problems of subject and object of both disciplines.’

In the book, Waswo ‘the Artist’ frames his subjects in an outdated photographic mode, against painted backdrops, like native models in an ethnographer’s diorama, or perhaps like the first generation of nobility captured on camera. The photographs are art, but also ethnography–rife with the inherent problems of subject and object of both disciplines. Yet Waswo does not try to obscure these issues, or the contemporary context; jeans or a branded T-shirt show beneath the dancers’ costumes, which are themselves an amalgam of tribal and junk jewellery, sacred masks, copious make-up and elaborate ensembles. The book also includes a context-setting essay by Sonika Soni, who has been studying the tradition.

Like Waswo himself, it’s hard to put just one name to a project that mixes photography, painting, theatre and documentary in this manner. By defying definition, Gauri Dancers perhaps also escapes the burden of defining the phenomenon it captures, or claiming to preserve it. The vitality of art is more important than virtue in Waswo’s eclectic approach. “All good art is magic,” Waswo says. “Really. If it has no magic in it, then it is stale and dull, or mere propaganda.”

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