Playfully examining the genres of both the ethnographic photograph-as-document that is linked to the colonial era, as well as the fantasy-inspired make-believe that emanated from traditional Indian portrait studios in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Waswo X. Waswo’s photographs in Photowallah, hand-coloured by Rajesh Soni, create a unique brand of contemporary photography that is an inspired mix of homage and critique.
Culled from three series produced in his Udaipur studio — A Studio in Rajasthan, Gauri Dancers and New Myths — these photographs range from individual portraits to theatrically arranged tableaux, featuring everyone from Gauri dancers to flower sellers, the incarnations of mythological figures, farmers and school children. Highlighting the inherent class hegemonies in the history of the posed-and-paid-for portrait, they are resonant of a romantic sensibility steeped in the pictorialist tradition, while remaining humorously self-aware and self-reflexive.
Straddling a thin line between individualisation and homogenisation, these carefully crafted images are astute and witty commentaries on the nature of stereotyping, portraiture and representation. Deliberately moving away from documentary photography, Waswo produces images situated instead in a nebulous, non-official “othertime”. Through their paradoxes and parodying, these images compel viewers to rethink their initial perceptions, question the dialogue set up between photographer and model, and eventually challenge the viewer’s own preconceptions.
In their collapsing of myth into reality and vice-versa, as well as their use of hand-painting, Waswo’s photographs further lay claim to a much longer history in India of photographic manipulation and an interocular world of photo-based image production. In keeping with the rich traditions of workmanship and artistry underlying this history, these photographs also form an essay in syncretistic processes and alternative artistic practice in the contemporary moment. Although Waswo remains the key photographer and director of these images, he consistently calls attention to the multiple agencies and complex collaborative processes that enable their production. The backdrops have been painted by Zenule Khan, Chiman Dangi, Anil Atrish and Dalpat Singh Jingar, and he notes that they all work with teams of their own assistants. His own assistants often help with bringing the models, and they in turn, participate in their own imaging. Last but not least, after the photographs have been taken and printed, they are tinted and painted over by local artist, Rajesh Soni.
Photowallah is on view in Mumbai at TARQ, as part of the Focus Photography Festival until 8th April 2017. From there the exhibition will travel to Bangalore and can be viewed at the Tasveer Gallery from 28th April to 26th May 2017.