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Waswo X. Waswo: New Avatar for Indian Art

An American artist collaborates with Rajasthani painters and colorists to rework old crafts such as photograph tinting, miniature painting and border illustration into a reimagined art form that represents both cultures.

He loves to walk barefoot in his home, grew to savor lots of chili in his food, developed a liking for the roadside food stall, and does not mind sitting cross-legged on a straw mat. American artist Waswo X. Waswo, born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, has made India his home for the last eight years. During his first “real encounter” with India 16 years ago, he felt so connected that he visited again and again and then decided to remain here in order to give new dimensions to his artistic expressions.

Known for his sepia-toned photographs of people and places in rural India (which were hand-processed by the artist in his darkroom in the United States), Waswo has since been collaborating with Indian artists in Udaipur, Rajasthan. He has made the city his home since 2005. His work involves trying to revive old Indian arts and crafts, especially hand-coloring of black and white photographs and expanding the expressive possibilities of Indian miniature paintings.  

How did this idea of making black and white photographs in a studio and then hand-coloring them emerge? “Through seeing and collecting vintage Indian studio photography, I became eager to explore posed studio portraiture myself,” says Waswo. “My initial idea was to once again create sepia photographs in a chemical darkroom…. But at the studio in Udaipur I found the complications of unfamiliar chemicals, water and heat too much of a hurdle.” In the meantime, he began to use a digital camera and started making digital prints.

 One day Rajesh Soni, who was interpreting between Waswo and miniaturist R. Vijay, saw the digital black and white prints and said to Waswo, “Chacha, I can paint these.” Waswo liked the idea but was apprehensive about the quality. “It was not easy. Chacha did not like my initial efforts. He thought I was using too loud colors and asked me to use lighter shades. But after discussions with him I developed a special style to color these prints, which produced wonderful results,” says Soni, whose grandfather, Prabhu Lal, was an expert hand-colorist and photographer who worked for Maharaja Bhopal Singh of Mewar. 

There is another reason why Waswo likes these hand-colored prints. “Hand coloring maintains some of the evocative softness of my former sepia prints and still lends a certain vintage feel…. It also opens up a world of new possibilities in mood and expression,” he says. A hand-colored image, The Chara Tala Wallah (the man who sells hay from a cart), is one of Waswo’s favorites. “The black and white print was wonderful, but once it was hand-colored by Soni the image became truly magical,” he says. 

Each finished hand-colored photograph from Waswo’s studio is a collaboration between at least four people—the person who paints the backdrop, the model, the colorist and Waswo himself, as photographer. Backdrops are painted under Waswo’s direction by Udaipur artists Zenule Khan, Anil Atrish and Chiman Dangi. The models are generally local people who come into contact with Waswo and his team members. “I feel a bit like a film director. I have this vision of what I want to make, and there are a lot of people working to make this vision reality…,” says Waswo. 

Soni has been working with Waswo since 2006 and has applied colors to more than 250 black and white images. “As soon as a print comes to me I start visualizing the colors it would need and apply the colors in several layers,” says Soni. Waswo does not interfere much in his work. 

“Rajesh understands what I am looking for but sometimes I do point out the things I don’t like,” says Waswo.

Another area in which Waswo has collaborated with Indian artists is miniature paintings. The Udaipur region is famous for miniatures and it is obvious why an artist like Waswo would like to experiment with them. “Miniatures express feelings and ideas which cannot be expressed through photography,” he says. Waswo’s miniatures are painted by R. Vijay and are mostly autobiographical. “I make a very rough sketch of what I would like to see in the miniature, and R. Vijay then perfects the sketch, and after my approval, proceeds to paint…. These miniatures portray different episodes from my life in India,” says Waswo. “Of course R. Vijay adds a lot of his own feeling and style,” he adds. 

Waswo’s miniatures, such as A Prayer for Rain and Paani deal with contemporary issues. A Prayer for Rain was made when Rajasthan was worried about rains and Paani portrays the ecologically correct Indian way of using a clay pot and pitcher.

R. Vijay does not have any formal art education but he has been painting since childhood. “Earlier I was doing traditional work which was more about lives of former kings and queens and landscapes. Waswo introduced me to new subjects and expanded my horizon,” he says. He has painted about 75 miniatures for Waswo in the last three years. 

Shanker Kumawat is another local artist discovered by Waswo. He does the intricate borders for the collaborative miniatures created by Waswo and R. Vijay. “He is perhaps the best in doing borders. Sometimes he comes up with better ideas than what I tell him,” says Waswo. Kumawat has been working with him for the last year. “I study the details of a miniature and try to bring contrast to the border,” says Kumawat. He prepares the colors himself in such a way that they will last for years and do not fade in sunlight. He also uses real gold powder to impart shine and richness. 

Waswo is happy with his local collaborators. “We work as a team. They bring my ideas to life. …In working with the artists of Udaipur I do feel that I have encouraged the revival of craft or expansion of it. I do not think Rajesh Soni would be seriously hand-coloring photographs if it were not for the “Studio in Rajasthan” series…And in working with R. Vijay I think I have encouraged him to see new expressive possibilities of miniature painting.”

The local artists also say they are happy; they are paid “enough” and get a “bonus” when Waswo makes good sales at an exhibition. Even models, who are mostly workers and farmers, get “good money” for about half an hour of work.  

Indian printmaking, like etchings and woodcuts, also fascinates Waswo. He is making a collection which he hopes “…will one day be representative enough to make for an educational exhibition which could travel.”

Waswo’s India connection runs in his genes. His father, George Waswo, traveled through India during World War II. “As a child I was often told the story of the ammunition ship that blew up in Mumbai harbor. It was a famous event from those years and my father was in a nearby pub when it happened,” he says. “As a child, I read books about India and had a kid’s romantic ideas about tigers and elephants and unexplored spaces.” 

When did he realize his interest in art? “My mother, Lucille, introduced me to art. She did drawings, paintings and used to organize art events.” Her watercolor painting showing an old farm house covered with snow is still in Waswo’s Milwaukee home. His father also did a bit of painting, and Waswo remembers how he used to paint flowers. As he grew older, Waswo studied photography at the Milwaukee Center for Photography, and Studio Marangoni, Center for Contemporary Photography in Florence, Italy. The Milwaukee center has since closed.  

Waswo has exhibited his work in India and the United States. His “India Poems” series of sepia-toned photographs was exhibited in several Indian cities including Mumbai (2004, 2006), Cochin (2003, 2007), Panjim (2003), and Udaipur (2004) and later in the artist’s hometown at the Haggerty Museum of Art (2007). The “A Studio in Rajasthan” series of hand-colored photographs and miniature paintings has been exhibited in Cochin (2008), New Delhi (2009), and Genoa, Italy (2009). He has also exhibited his work at Kandy and Colombo in Sri Lanka and Amsterdam in the Netherlands. What kind of response is he getting for this collaborative work? “I am happy. We had good sales. People are really liking these.” 

The artist thinks awareness about India’s art is growing in the country and abroad. “…I have been overwhelmed by the talent that exists in this country.” He feels cultural exchange between the United States and India could do some good. “Many Indians have expressed to me their desire to see more contemporary American art, which unfortunately does not seem to cross the ocean to India with much frequency. Conversely, America has a long way to go in exhibiting Indian art and recognizing its importance….” He adds, “Art alone may not be able to bridge cultural divides, but it can at least help us recognize and begin to understand them.”