Waswo X Waswos 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 Waswos 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.
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.
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. Theres the farmer Ram Singh, (Ram Singh Concerned about The Weather) and the goat herder (Bakri Wali). These men and women are subjects of Waswos frames. My roots are working class. Till this day, I feel comfortable with them, he says.
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, theres 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.
In A Greeting at the Gate, he catches the look of suspicion on a womans 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.
Waswos 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.
Another group of artists create the captivating backdrops for the photos on linen depicting Rajasthans landscape: forts, trees, birds and animals. Waswos black-and-white digital prints are then hand-coloured by Sonis 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. Im 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. Im often inspired by that, says Waswo.
Bodies of work is on at OED Gallery in Kochi till February 12