My roots are working class, says Waswo X Waswo

Waswo X Waswo

Waswo X Waswo   | Photo Credit: H Vibhu


The common man of Rajasthan and Tiruvannamalai are the stars of the artist’s show, ‘Bodies of Work’. The exhibition is on at OED Gallery, Kochi, till February 2

Waswo X Waswo’s show ‘Bodies of Work’ is a celebration of ordinary people. His fourth exhibition in Kochi, it combines two series of photographs — Gauri dancers and farmers from the village of Varda, near Udaipur in Rajasthan, and friends and sadhus in Tiruvannamalai, where he worked on a photography project in 2015.

To understand Waswo’s empathy with the people in his photographs, one needs to go back to 2000 when he left the American mid-west, from where he hails, and arrived in India. In a leap of faith that India, the country and its people, would be a transformative experience, he added to his surname the multiplication symbol, X, and transformed into the American photographer in India.

One of Waswo X Waswo’s works

One of Waswo X Waswo’s works   | Photo Credit: H Vibhu

Not surrendering his American core, Waswo, through his work, speaks a language that in every inflection proclaims unambiguously his complete love for the people of this land. Inversely, it is proof of the degree of acceptance the once-upon-a-time outsider feels, which motivates him to create a life for himself here.

In 2002, when Waswo was searching for studio space, he first zeroed in on Kochi, for he fell in love with the beauty of the land although he worried the humidity might affect his ability to work. The dry conditions and the beauty of Rajasthan was his alternative, and Waswo found his studio at Varda in Udaipur.

One of Waswo X Waswo’s works

One of Waswo X Waswo’s works  

After two decades, he knows the land and its people well, not only observing their physical selves but also delving into their inner beauty. It is this deep and empathetic gaze that is evident in the 46 works on show at Gallery OED in Mattancherry, Kochi.

The Gauri Dancer series is from the annual folk dance that takes place in southern Rajasthan in late August. A retelling of the Mahabharata and of local tales, the performances are loud and musical but also strong, funny and reverent. Boys play the roles of goddesses and women, as villagers watch in mirth and curiosity.

Hence Kashu, the farm hand who helps Waswo in the studio during his free time, plays a character in Gauri and is beautifully captured on camera. There’s the farmer Ram Singh, (Ram Singh Concerned about The Weather) and the goat herder (Bakri Wali). These men and women are subjects of Waswo’s frames. “My roots are working class. Till this day, I feel comfortable with them,’ he says.

One of Waswo X Waswo’s works

One of Waswo X Waswo’s works   | Photo Credit: H Vibhu

But the narrative is not a plain telling. Waswo turns playful and enters the frames, posing alongside these men and women. He is seen in one image as a foreign gentleman with a spyglass in hand, looking disturbed by a chance encounter with Kashu.

In ‘A French Gentleman of Udaipur’, there’s Dominic, the French hotelier, holding India Poems, a book by Waswo. He sits flamboyantly poised along with Deepak, a young man exhibiting his gym-built taut torso. A palpable male love is sensed.

‘New News At The Chai Shop’, captures the panic-riddled chatter among a few young boys at a tea shop during Eid, reacting to an American bombing that has been reported on the news. “The transistor radio is playing outside the frame,” explains Waswo, implying that peace is fragile and transient.

Frozen moments

In ‘A Greeting at the Gate’, he catches the look of suspicion on a woman’s face who he is visiting for the first time. Waswo waits for the right moment, which he wishes to freeze. “I try to catch people in the studio as I have seen them in real life,” he says.

Feted photographer Abul Kalam Azad and educator-poet Ananda and his artist wife, Gayathri, find charming elucidation in the series from Tiruvannamalai.

Waswo’s works are collaborations. His miniatures, for which he is more famous, are done in conjunction with R Vijay. This series, the photographs, are enhanced by Rajesh Soni, a third generation photo hand-colourist.

Miniature art
  • Waswo moved into miniatures in 2006 for he felt that his photographs were not capturing his entire story. The miniatures began to tell a more personal narrative. Through them, he looked at himself in a comical way, as a bumbling yet sympathetic foreigner. The miniatures that he does with R Vijay narrate the expat’s life and emotions. Waswo says, “You can imagine the character in the miniatures as making the photographs that you see in this show. My photographs and miniatures are not separated, they are inter-related.”

Another group of artists create the captivating backdrops for the photos on linen depicting Rajasthan’s landscape: forts, trees, birds and animals. Waswo’s black-and-white digital prints are then hand-coloured by Soni’s pale and delicate shades, adding that gossamer touch of sophistication.

“This show has a lot of layering, both physical and artistic. People often say my work is nostalgic, but I know I find camels and elephants on the streets of Udaipur today. This is also modern India. I’m not a documentary photographer; my works are my personal narrative. The people of Rajasthan have a spiritual quality, an inner light. They manage to be at peace even in tough times. India has a different vibe from the west. I’m often inspired by that,” says Waswo.

‘Bodies of work’ is on at OED Gallery in Kochi till February 12

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Printable version | Jan 28, 2020 4:36:44 PM |

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