Kitsch and tell: Waswo X Waswo on the making of Photowallah
Waswo X Waswo’s new show is special for a few reasons. For one, it marks the end of a travelling exhibit that began at New Delhi in October last year. It’s a homecoming of sorts, returning to Tasveer’s main gallery in the city. And it also celebrates the American’s decade-long collaboration with Rajesh Soni, the artist from Udaipur, Rajasthan. In an email interaction, Waswo speaks of his time in the country since his first book, India Poems: The Photographs (2006), and his evolving work.
What can viewers expect at the show at Tasveer?
The showing at Tasveer’s Bangalore space will be the last of a four-stop travelling exhibition. Photowallah has already shown in Delhi, Mumbai, and Gujarat. So this is like a coming home. The exhibition will be a little tighter this time around, partially because the Tasveer gallery is the smallest of the venues, and partially because many works were sold along the way. But for this reason the exhibition will also be much more intimate. Rajesh Soni, the photo hand-colourist, will be with me for the walkthrough. I imagine we’ll be telling some personal stories behind individual images, and also about our ten-year collaboration.
Tell us a little about your book, Photowallah. How did the book come together, how long did it take, and what are your expectations from it?
The book has a wonderful preface by noted anthropologist and cultural theorist Christopher Pinney. He has a deep connection with Indian photography, and also the history of outsiders such as myself. He wrote a brilliant essay. But I think what really makes the text special is the short story “Photowallah” itself. I wrote that story about five years ago, and it is still very meaningful. It deals with being a foreign photographer in India. The story is that rare combination of fiction and humour and truth. When Abhishek Poddar and I first discussed how we would organize this travelling show, the choice to revolve the images around the story was rather obvious. It’s worked beautifully.
You have now defined a whole new genre that you can call your own, that of painted photography and posed tableaux. How satisfied does it make you, to realise this?
What we do is really nothing new. Hand-coloured photographs developed almost as soon as photography was first invented, as a means to bring colour to a black and white image. Posed portraiture and tableau have also had a long history. What I think we have added is perhaps our particular aesthetic, the softness, the humanity, and the way the images seem to float between the vintage and the contemporary, never quite finding their place in time.
Take us back to that initial spur that set you on a path of your own - the early thoughts that led you on this journey that has brought you until here.
It’s a good feeling to know that Rajesh and I have found our own particular niche in the world of art. It has been a long road. It was actually Rajesh’s suggestion to hand-colour the black and white photographs, as this is what his family had been doing for three generations. I was rather a black and white purist at that point of time, and Rajesh helped pushed me out of my comfort zone. It’s been an amazing adventure, right from the very first images he painted for me. We can’t believe it’s been ten years now, and our work gets attention all around the world. Working with Rajesh has helped construct a bridge between a vintage aesthetic and a contemporary feel.
What is it about Indian kitsch that is so enamouring? Do you ever find some of it to be a little overdone, and your new show too bright, overly colourful, and even over the top?
Oh! I hope our images are never too bright! We like to think our colouration is very subtle and delicate. But I do understand your question about kitsch. Yes, it can be a lot of fun to play with that old calendar-art type of aesthetic. I think because such images have been so much a part of the popular imagination. We’ve probably most touched upon kitsch in the series we call New Myths. Some of our Krishna and Hanuman images are quite over the top, and also a recent Kali that we made using the artist Shine Shivan as a model. But it’s not just kitsch. We’ve explored serious issues in these series, such as how masculinity has both a romantic and an aggressive, even violent side to it. So in our work kitsch becomes just a vehicle, not an end in itself.
Your preferred palette though, does seem muted, of subdued tones and almost soft, natural shades. Please tell us a little about that warm quality in the paintwork of Rajesh Soni.
Rajesh’s grandfather, Prabhu Lal Soni, painted with oils on albumin and silver gelatin prints. Rajesh needed to update the technique for the digital age, and oil-based paints don’t work so well on digital papers. In the early days we went through a lot of experimentation to get the softness right. I explained to Rajesh that the over-painting needed to be translucent and let the photo show through very naturally. Eventually he perfected the technique, which is not as easy as some people imagine.
The inherent class hegemonies that the book mentions - how easy is it to accept these social structures, and conventions, and move on with life? As an artist from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was it easy for you to gain a bird's eye view of Indian society?
I don’t think I will ever truly have a bird's-eye view of Indian society. I remain very conscious of my status as an outsider and an interloper. Sometimes as an outsider I need a lot of help from my collaborating artists and assistants to understand things about culture that most Indians would know from childhood. But as an outsider it’s exactly that child-like state that sometimes increases our wonder and curiosity. Innocence can cause a person to see things very fresh, as if seeing for the first time, and I think that helps any artist.
When you first moved to India, as we discovered in India Poems, you were examining the moral and cultural difficulties of a Western photographer exploring in a supposedly Third World country. How have your opinions about India changed, in the last few years?
India has changed so rapidly over the sixteen years that I adopted it as a kind of home. I remember the days when no one had a mobile phone, and we all queued at the STD booth to make a call. Of course as India changed I had to change with it. I think many of the concerns about “Orientalism” and “The Other” that were addressed in the first book India Poems are quite worn out by now. Even academics seem tired of this discourse. For myself, I don’t fret so much about it anymore. Art and photography is my passion, and I follow it where it leads.
Would you ever consider celebrities to make portraits of? In the great history of portrait making in India, from the royal ages until now, would you like to be known as the man who made courtly portraits of the common people?
If asked, I do photograph celebrities and the wealthy. But it’s not really my passion. I’m still at heart just a working-class boy from a rust-belt US city. It’s the common man and woman that I’m interested in, because down deep I’m still one of them.
At Tasveer, on display until May 27. Details: 40535212.