From the series "A Studio in Rajasthan"
Waswo X. Waswo
November 1, 2016–February 1, 2017
Medium: archival digital print hand-coloured by Rajesh Soni
Who are you?
I’m just a guy from Milwaukee who somehow ended up living in India. My father was in India and China during World War II, as part of the group flying supplies over the “hump” of the Himalayas. He had a photo scrapbook that always intrigued me when I was young. It had large gold letters on top a leather cover that read “CHINA – BURMA – INDIA”. There were small black and white photos inside that my dad took, and those always intrigued me. Later, in school, I fell in love with English Literature an opposed to American Literature. And of course English literature takes you straight to the Raj. I suppose all of this sounds very colonialist, but it’s not. I grew up in the 60s, so I’m a bit of an old hippie. The Beatles’ fascination with India influenced me also, and people like Allen Ginsburg and Peter Orlovsky. Later, Francesco Clemente. Anyway, in 1993 I made my first visit to India, and India has been in my heart ever since. For the past sixteen years I’ve lived here, first in Goa, and later here in Udaipur in Rajasthan, where I keep my home and studio.
When did you first discover your interest in photography and where did it go from there?
I started shooting with an old Nikon years back, while attending the now defunct Milwaukee Center for Photography. By the time I was studying at Studio Marangoni in Florence I had switched to a vintage Rolleiflex. My training was as an old fashioned chemical process guy, with heavy emphasis on quality in darkroom technique. My photos were heavily influenced by the movement of Pictorialism. Documentary photography never appealed to me. I would sepia tone my Rolleiflex images and reveled in their chocolaty tones. For me sepia wasn’t nostalgia, but just a beautiful way to present an image. In India this got me in trouble though. When I started to exhibit these images in India I was widely criticized by Indian and European critics for trying to hold India back in some past that lacked modernity. All the weight of Edward Said and post-colonial theory was thrown at me. I was surprised to find that the very images that were thought innocuous in the US caused such a commotion in India.
How do you use photography to interpret your experience as an American living in India?
In 2006 I rented a home in Udaipur in the northern Indian state of Rajasthan. There I built my first Indian photo studio. It was modeled on traditional Indian portrait studios, though the images I hoped to make would be much more funky. Working with a crew of local painters we produced our first linen backdrops. I switched back to a Nikon, and started to shoot digital. The resulting photographs were first printed digitally in black and white, and later were hand-coloured by Rajesh Soni. Finding Rajesh was just super lucky for me. He was very young when we started working together, which has been for ten years now. But he is the grandson of Prabhu Lal Verma, who was once the court photographer to the Maharana Bhupal Singh of Mewar. The skills of hand-colouring photographs had been passed down to Rajesh from his grandfather through the intermediary of his father Lalit. Rajesh is super talented, and we make a good team. There was something about this change in my artistic trajectory that caused a shift among the critical community toward a more positive view. Another thing that happened is that I began a series of semi-autobiographical paintings with an Indian miniaturist painter known as R. Vijay. The miniatures are self-reflective and often humorous. Indians started to love this work. The two bodies of work reflect on one another. It’s been rather a success story ever since.
Who or What inspires you?
I’m inspired by beauty. I love landscape, but feel too overwhelmed by landscape to try and capture it. The beauty of people on the other hand I can relate to on a very personal level. For the past five years we’ve had our new studio out in the village of Varda, about a thirty minute drive outside of Udaipur. The villagers are completely wonderful. They help us and have fun with us. It’s fabulous…truly, the things that have happened during our photographic journey over the past ten years in Udaipur have become the stuff of local legend. I may not be world famous, but I’m loved and respected here. India feels like home.
We keep working. Rajesh and I are both a bit of workaholics, and we love to just make things. There is a new series developing. But it’s always a bit hard to predict where the energy will eventually take us. We just work, and see where we go.
Waswo X. Waswo was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in the U.S.A. He studied at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, The Milwaukee Center for Photography, and Studio Marangoni, The Centre for Contemporary Photography in Florence, Italy. His books, India Poems: The Photographs, published by Gallerie Publishers in 2006, and Men of Rajasthan, published by Serindia Contemporary in 2011 (hardcover 2014), have been available worldwide. The artist has lived and travelled in India for over sixteen years and he has made his home in Udaipur, Rajasthan, for the past ten. There he collaborates with a variety of local artists including the photo hand-colourist Rajesh Soni. He has also produced a series of loosely autobiographical miniature paintings in collaboration with the artist R. Vijay. These paintings are represented by Gallerie Espace, New Delhi, while the artist’s hand-coloured photographs are represented by Tasveer India. In Thailand Waswo is represented by Serindia Gallery. In Europe the artist is represented by Gallerie Minsky, Paris.
Rajesh Soni was born on the 6th of August, 1981. He is an artist living in Udaipur, Rajasthan, who has become known primarily for his abilities to hand paint digital photographs. He is the son of artist Lalit Soni, and the grandson of Prabhu Lal Soni (Verma), who was once court photographer to the Maharana Bhopal Singh of Mewar. Prabhu Lal was not only a court photographer, but also a hand-colourist who painted the black and white photographs that he produced. His skills of hand-colouring photographs were passed down to Rajesh through the intermediary of his father Lalit.
R. Vijay, son of Mohan Lal Vijayvargiya, was born on the 22nd of March, 1970, and is a grandnephew of the historic Rajasthani painter Ramgopal Vijayvargiya. The artist received little formal training and his miniature painting style has been described as naïve, though his works have drawn attention and praise from various critics throughout India. Early in life R. Vijay was tutored by traditional miniaturists such as Sukhdev Singh Sisodiya and Laxmi Narayan Sikaligar. Later he developed his own style, which has been called an eclectic mix of Persian and Mogul styles, along with a bit of the Company School of Indo-British art. His collaboration with Waswo has lately become the subject of a book, The Artful Life of R. Vijay by Dr. Annapurna Garimella, Serindia Contemporary, Chicago.