Book review: Photowallah
A new book of painted photographs subverts the idea of ‘exotic’ in India
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In an insightful essay in the book Photowallah by artist and photographer Waswo X. Waswo, anthropologist and art historian Christopher Pinney writes about the production of sepia photographic prints, where the process reorders the image, thus privileging new kinds of form and a different kind of time. Not only does a sepia print force one to think back in time, it also reveals a past that is now dated but also carefully considered in contemporary visual practice. This is exactly the intent of Waswo’s new book of painted photographs.
Waswo begins with a short story that reveals his way of finding people and considering others’ opinions of him as an outsider—the foreigner who might be the bearer of a much-despised colonial legacy of only fetishizing the exotic in India. He’s a wanderer who chances upon people who often embody a certain stereotype, but are far from it. For instance, “The-Man-Who-Sold-Hara-Dhania” will never accept money from Waswo because he is “proud” and not poor. His farm is huge, sold by his sons to the developers, who are building new colonies there. He sells on the cart because he’s still proud to be a farmer. There’s also the curious case of the “real” sadhu, as Waswo calls him. A former professor of geology at a university, Srinivas Ji did not abandon reason to seek refuge in nature. After losing his family in an earthquake, he chose to sense things beyond reason. He tells Waswo that by photographing him and showing his picture to others, Waswo will only reinforce the stereotype of the holy man, the ganja smoker, and be in the way of understanding the real sadhu.
It is one thing to anticipate the critique of a work and another to embrace and work with it from the beginning. This is Waswo’s approach as he collaborates with painter Rajesh Soni to create hand-painted photographic portraits. Waswo was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, US, and has been living in India for the last 16 years, of which the last nine have been in Udaipur. Working with a technique from the past, stereotypes that became symbols of an exotic India and his own identity of the outsider, Waswo addresses issues straight up, revealing an India within the popular conventions of myth and mythology, but using a phantasmagoric lens.
The book begins with a reversal of roles, as Waswo becomes the portrait-sitter, dressed in a dhoti, shirt and turban, looking at the photographer (a villager) against a painted backdrop. His relationship with time is complex because different elements in his portraits speak to different times in India’s history. This dynamism is most noticeable in his images Tribal Dreams, 2008, School Girls, 2008 and New Myths First Incarnations the Eleventh, 2009.
Soni’s detailed paintings lend a decorative layer to the photographs, embellishing them with a kind of hyper-real quality. There’s also the idea of intentionally removing people from their surroundings by placing them in front of painted backdrops, which draw from India’s varied natural and built landscape. Waswo even indulges in some gender-bending, when he photographs little girls posing as kite-flyers (a visual usually imagined with boys), a man posing as the goddess Kali and the striking Gauri dancers in their ambiguous costumes. The book is a collection of nuanced portraits, which remind one of the colonial traditions of depiction and yet align themselves more to the fluidity of time. Waswo’s creation of the imagined place is as dynamic as his interactions with people and places in India, thus making this book a much needed compilation of personal and public (visual) histories.