If you want to understand how cultures evolve, don’t head to a museum or to a heritage district of a city to gawk at the statues the past generations have erected. Instead, study the statues they pull down.
Way back in 1357, local officials in the Tuscan town of Siena voted to remove a nude sculpture of Venus, the Roman goddess of beauty, sex and fertility, described by one art critic as “frolicking saucily in a public fountain”.
Seemingly, the Siense, beaten on the battlefield, morose, and convinced they faced defeat because they “allowed themselves to be led astray by a pagan seductress”, voted to have her pulled down from her pedestal. Over several centuries, statues have been erected and pulled down, right up to June 2020, when in quick succession, a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis was toppled in Richmond, Virginia, followed by the toppling of the statue of 17th-century slave trader Edward Colston by Black Lives Matter movement participants in Bristol.
“The contemporary move to topple statues began some time back, with both the “Rhodes Must Fall” movement and the fight to remove Confederate statues in the American south. I follow cultural trends keenly and noticed the writing on the wall. The murder of George Floyd, which reinvigorated the Black Lives Matter movement, brought the statue issue to the fore,” says Milwaukee-born and bred, now Udaipur-resident Waswo X Waswo.
Dreams of the Orientalist.
This cultural trend of toppling statues played on his mind when Waswo conceptualised the works in his new series, ‘Like a Leaf in Autumn’ that was meant to suggest the idea of falling and also the end of a cycle. But there was more to the series then its socio-political connotation. “I’m going on 67 years, and at this age, one becomes aware of the shortness of the time that you have left. But the idea of falling also referred to larger issues, such as the rise and fall of civilisations. I work in collaboration with the Rajasthani miniaturist R. Vijay, and together we created paintings that dealt with these issues. The few sculptures in the series added to the conceptual weight.”
From the Photowallah series.
Interestingly, India has had a very problematic relationship with statues. In Mumbai, several statues of our past British colonisers either lie stuffed away in dusty museum corners or languish on nondescript traffic-choked streets.
“I’ve often wondered why statues of British personages such as Queen Victoria are still standing in parts of India,” comments Waswo. “I have had friends in Mumbai and Kolkatta tell me that these statues have lost their original meaning, and to some extent are just seen as pretty objects that decorate the parks and fountains. It was similar to the Confederate statues in some parts of America. People didn’t see them for what they were anymore, though of course, the African American community was far more attuned to their symbolism.”
Putting Waswo’s new work in the perspective of these social and political contexts, then, becomes a satisfying process. In ‘Dreams of the Orientalist’ he subverts Rajasthan’s miniature traditions while ‘Push’, white marble and brown Jaisalmer stone statue, depicts an Indian man in the dhoti is seen toppling one of, maybe, a white imperialist.
Waswo, referring to Push, says, “The fedora man, carved in white marble, has been pushed from his pedestal and lies broken to pieces upon the floor. Next to him, a brown Indian man (carved in Jaisalmer stone) seems to have crossed halfway from his brown pedestal to encroach upon the fedora man and push him off his pedestal. It is, perhaps, the culmination of the intersectional theory that has the white male dethroned from the top of the pyramid of oppression. There is the direct implication that strength and violence were needed to achieve this, but we are left wondering, "Who is now at the top of the pyramid?" In other words, hierarchies shall always exist, and there is little evidence throughout history that this can ever be removed from the human condition.”
From Milwaukee to Udaipur
Waswo recounts his journey from Milwaukee to Udaipur, which he adopted as home in 2003, in fascinating detail.
“I was bored with my life in Milwaukee, feeling I’d squandered my creative gift. So, in 1993, I quit my job, sold my house, broke up with my first love and bought a round-the-world ticket. I went to Seattle, Vancouver, Hawaii, six months in Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Bangkok, and then flew into Delhi in 1993. It was a total culture shock. I got captured by an autorickshaw wallah, who said, ‘Where do you want to go?” And I said, ‘I don't know’. He said ‘What about Taj Mahal?’ And I said, ‘No, anywhere but the Taj Mahal. Kashmir, maybe’, so he took me to a travel shop in the back alleys of Connaught Place. They said Kashmir wasn’t safe.
“I started looking through a Lonely Planet in the shop, and there was this beautiful photo of a blue lake with white ghats, and it said Udaipur. I pointed at it. They booked me a round trip with 10 days at the hotel Hilltop Palace. I was captivated with Udaipur. I continued in my journey but the odd thing is, when I got back to the US I kept talking about Udaipur to my friends. Then in 2000, I came to India for six months with my companion, and we started coming every year, spending more and more months in the year here. I wanted to be in Udaipur.”
Waswo’s love for the city and its people finds expression in the exquisite hand-painted studio portraits he is famous for, many of which he showcased in his series ‘Photowallah’. One of his studios, which he calls Karkhana, is located in Varda, close to Udaipur. “Karkhana means ‘factory’ and brings to mind Andy Warhol calling his New York studio “The Factory”, but the word goes deeper than that. Karkhana is a traditional name for a miniaturist workshop. The word goes back to the Mughal times, and even Persia. In a painting karkhana, there was always the master artist, an assistant or two, and a border painter.”
Over the years, Waswo has married photography, painting, theatre and documentary. His dramatic hand-painted portraits are of people that many would choose to call ordinary: neighbourhood biker boys, a man on a cycle, a guy selling peacock feathers. For Photowallah, instead of photographing his subjects in their natural surroundings, he invited them to his studio and photographed them in quintessential early 20th-century studio portrait style. In his new book, Gauri’s Dancer, Waswo has photographed young men, cross-dressed with make-up, posing on elaborate painted sets, many covered in local flora, or with the backdrop of Mewar’s forts.
Gauri’s Performers is a unique performance practised by men, largely farmers, in the interiors of southern Rajasthan. It was a series, and a book, born out of the fear that Gauri performances would get corrupted for tourist consumption, much like Kathakali. So he used his trademark caricature portraiture style, shot the photographs in his Varda karkhana, and had them hand-coloured by Rajesh Soni.
“When I began living in Rajasthan, in 2003, I realised that I wanted to tell other stories, in other ways. In Udaipur, I connected with a few painters in the bazaar who mass-produced miniature painting for the tourist trade. It was tragic really, the way they were trapped painting the same birds and palaces day-after-day. I began to work with them, especially Rakesh Vijay. We clicked as a team, and soon his painting techniques were growing in an extraordinary way.”
Later, Dalpat Singh, his painting assistant, and Rajesh Soni, a water-colourist who traces his lineage of water-colourists to Udaipur’s royal family, joined the “rock band” team “I’m sort of the singer and songwriter; I come up with the ideas and the basic tunes, and the others are the masterful musicians who back me up and bring the music alive”.
Rajasthan is famous for its flamboyant art and photography traditions, which has placed royalty at its core. Waswo subverted the tradition and focussed on the state’s regular people, the working class. “In the miniatures, I look at myself and turn an inward glance on the foreigner in India as a sort of caricature,” says the artist. “But in the photographs, I look outward. The fedora-wearing man in the miniatures is often seen holding his Rolleiflex camera. The hand-painted photographs that I make with Rajesh Soni can be interpreted as the photos that this man in the miniatures is making, while he journeys through India.”
Although he has often been accused of stereotyping Indians, Waswo has dismissed such claims as a critics’ inability to perceive the alternative reality that exists in cities like Udaipur. He calls his portraits “staged fantasies”. He once countered, “India was much unsure of itself 16 years ago, so my images of a quaint and tranquil rural country did not sit well with the desired narrative–that of India as a rapidly developing and modernising country.”Deepali Nandwani is a journalist who keeps a close watch on the world of luxury.