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Waswo X. Waswo's pictures of India exude tender warmth. But they aren't quite the visual poems the photographer wants them to be

Trying to do a Ramanujan with photographs: Waswo's archetypal India

Images detached from mirrors
Float through the room,
Cross minds and corridors,
Come between you and the shadow
On the wall...

A.K. RAMANUJAN, who wrote these lines, had made Chicago his home for the better part of his life. Known for an uncanny ability to play with words, Ramanujan could achieve a unique communication with his readers through inimitably perfected imagery. In a somewhat reversal of roles, Wisconsin-born Waswo X. Waswo, calls India his second home. He also believes that his photographs capture a higher truth, and the images whisper deeper, more archetypal insight into existence. Like poems.

Waswo, trained in photography at the Milwaukee Center for Photography, USA, and Studio Marangione, Florence, Italy, has journeyed through India as many as five times since 1993. Calling his collection of photographs India Poems, Waswo feels that "they are often the stuff of dreams and laden with meanings hard to articulate in the harsh light of day." Waswo's photographs have already been exhibited in the USA. Before reaching Bangalore, they have already travelled through not only Cochin and Goa, but also Colombo and Kandy (Sri Lanka).

Dwelling on the cultural intricacies of India, Waswo avers that "the (country's) richness is found not in its gold-encrusted palaces and temples, nor the teeming business centres of Mumbai and Bangalore. It is found in the stillness of a mango grove, the chatter near a village well, the grace of an elderly man, the soft curves of a hand-wrought, dark canoe." He seeks the obvious symbols not as representative nonentities, but as rich and significant icons. For instance, a cow is seen as an emblem of all Indian cows, the monkey as something which is deep-eyed, archetypal, and lyrical, and portraits which not only capture each subject's inherent dignity, but also radiate a portion of the universal spirit of mankind.

Besotted with the richness of Indian life, Waswo, thus, has tried to capture some of the many moods of the land and its people. His 40-odd sepia-toned photographs displayed could be broadly divided into two categories: those focusing on the people (Untitled Portraits) and those focusing on the landscape that includes sea shores, rice fields, lakes, mountain paths, and so on.

The portrait of his driver, shot in Pushkar (1999), is a typical one in the portrait category. The subject, seated in front of a studio backdrop, is shot with fondness and feeling. Looking straight into the camera, the driver, sporting a shy smile and a huge tilak, comes to life with his sharp features. A similar warm-hearted indulgence could be seen in his shots of a comfortably seated gentleman with a half-burnt cigarette in his hand (Himachal Pradesh), a resting onion-seller (Kerala), the sickle-seller displaying his wares (Udaipur), and a rickshaw-wallah in waiting (Hospet). Waswo also sights conversing women in the marketplace of Jaisalmer, agriculture workers in the rice fields of Karnataka, street boys in Delhi, and an elderly Buddhist priest at Dharamsala.

Among the pictorial works, the early morning light filtering across a street in Pushkar to illuminate the entrances of homes contrasts with the low-key aura of the Cross before a Goan home. Subdued but effective lighting is also seen in pictures titled View Of Temple's Court (Hampi), Ancient Steps (Jaisalmer) and, Morning In The Ghats (Pushkar). In Hampi, the photographer not only manages to take a bird's eye view of the rich landscape, but to capture a monkey's frown as well.

Other stirring efforts of Waswo include the solemn mood captured in The Shopkeeper's Desk, where the combination of a hanging banana bunch, photograph of an old man, and a partially hidden wall calendar simulate a visually interesting tale.

Near The River's Edge takes a gentle peep into the seemingly placid water front, with the narrow but neatly turned in boat and its reflection adding to the silent mood. A Flight Of Birds (Jaisalmer) is a good action shot, while Counting Their Coins, portraying a bunch of burkha-clad women in Jaipur, makes for engrossing viewing.

The same sensitivity is, however, lacking when Waswo snaps the portrait of a man showing his two hands in repulsively poor light — one hand is broken and bandaged, while the other is bloated with disease. Another shot of a physically-challenged person in Cochin is equally upsetting.

Waswo definitely tries hard to exude a sense of tender warmth in his photographs. However, many of his efforts, though honest, fail to rise beyond the level of a documentary. As for the camera producing visual poems, Waswo still seems to have a long way to traverse.

(India Poems is on display at Alliance Francaise de Bangalore till December 20.)


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