Why India Needs Art Museums, Not West’s Approval

World renowned artist Waswo X Waswo has a short studio address. India. Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA, he has lived and traveled in India for 16 years. One of the conjurers consistently exploring imagery and themes through his manifestation in Indian miniature art, Waswo recently showed Photowallah, presented by Tasveer, in New Delhi. He is currently working with artist R Vijay on “elaborate new miniatures” that he would “probably” premiere around the India Art Fair in 2017.

Viewing Waswo X Waswo’s work is not to travel across India with the overflowing backpack of familiarity.  It is, to pat off and tumble nostalgia ephemera, colours and curling petals belonging to your country, from crumpling memory linens. It is, to gently devour the rich imagery, motif by motif, stroke by stroke, frame after frame, back into your eyes, to see the interesting everyman in Waswo’s self portrayal become even more playful, self-absorbed and whimsical. It is, to be pushed by miniatures into your mammoth art history.  It is, to be jostled, brushed and tickled by people you meet on the canvas. People your own. People you. It is, to realise that even anger is vital. It is, to know the dangers in self-portrayal. It is, to register that visual art, in a silent churning of Eastern and Western sensibilities, sometimes moves two worlds on the canvas into a song, when “watched” carefully, and in continuity. It is, to learn that his travels across India are not documentation of the long journey.  It is to reaffirm that Indian artists do not need to look for validation elsewhere.

Represented by Gallerie Espace, New Delhi; Tasveer India, for his hand-colour photographs; in Thailand by Serindia Gallery, and in Europe by Gallerie Minsky, Paris, Waswo works at his studio in Udaipur, Rajasthan. His collaborators and local artists include photo hand-colourist Rajesh Soni (son of artist Lalit Soni, and grandson of Prabhu Lal Soni — once court photographer to the Maharana Bhopal Singh of Mewar) and artist R. Vijay (son of Mohan Lal Vijayvargiya, grandnephew of Rajasthani painter Ramgopal Vijayvargiya).

The artist tells Sumati Mehrishi that there’s a danger in being too open about one’s emotions, but in truth, he has always been that way.


Waswo X Waswo with Rajesh Soni. Hand-coloured photograph


How can India look at miniature art to strengthen confidence in our art history and modernism at this juncture? 

WXW: To put is simply, miniature painting is one of the greatest achievements of world visual culture. I’m not exaggerating that, or saying it just to please the Indian audience. Miniature painting operates by different assumptions and rules than the art traditions of the West, which is why miniature painting is less understood and appreciated there. But for anyone who has studied the works, or just taken the time to really look at and savour the tradition, it is readily apparent how great an art form this is. Of course the miniature tradition has spanned from ancient Persia to what is now Istanbul, but India’s role in this history is important and unique. It has influenced Indian Modernist painters from Abanindranath Tagore to A Ramachandran, and also contemporary artists like Varunika Saraf, Desmond Lazaro and Manjunath Kamath. Miniature paintings, like temple sculpture and Chola bronzes, afford Indians a way to think about their art history in a way independent of the West.

What work should happen silently (and diligently) between and beyond the growing buzz of art fairs, galleries and biennales?

WXW: This may not directly answer your question, but I strongly feel that artists need to remain true to themselves and their own vision. One of the largest emerging problems that I see is that artists are now skewing their work directly to win favour with powerful curators. If the curators don’t put you in big international shows, you lose out. So many contemporary artists are walking lockstep with narratives set by curators with highly politicised agendas. I’m not saying any particular politics is wrong, but this is a worrying trend. What happened to the idea of artists following their own dreams? What happened to introspection, and the narrative of a personal and unique view of the world?

Should Indian artists, galleries and collectors seek a seal of approval from the West? 

WXW: No, absolutely not. But this is not an ideal world yet. Until real high-quality museums develop in India, and the corresponding publications, research, and archiving that would surround them, artists are forced to look for validation in other places.

What are your plans for the Kochi Muziris Biennale (KMB)?

WXW: After the episode at the end of the last Kochi Muziris Biennale, I was actually going to avoid it this year,  but my friend Subrat Behera, who worked with us on the collateral event at the last Biennale, is an invited participant this year. I feel, we should be there to support him and see his work. We’re also doing a book-signing at Idiom Bookshop the week of the KMB opening. All three of us will be there.

Anger has made you destroy your work. Does anger make you deconstruct art? Do you turn towards art during lows — or away? 

WXW: Wow, good question. At the end of the last KMB, I destroyed some of the work in the show, just as a tactic to get the local head-loader union to negotiate. They were asking totally ridiculous wages and had refused to accede to their demands. Getting angry and making a scene was the only way I got them to bargain, and this was after a full day of deadlock. But does anger fuel my art? Normally, I don’t think so, though I certainly do have a temper that can be ignited at times. Maybe, anger does fuel much of it. The anger of not being understood in a foreign land, the anger of wanting to fit in but feeling marginalised. I think a lot of those concerns manifest themselves in the miniatures, though on the surface they might look sweet and very gentle.


‘At Navratri’: Waswo X Waswo with Rajesh Soni. Hand-coloured photograph


Where is your interest in Indian printmaking, lithographs and woodcut currently taking you? 

WXW: I made this huge collection of woodcuts and etchings and lithographs over a ten year period. If I say so (myself), it is a stunning collection of Indian art — from the early moderns such as Mukul Dey and Ramendranath Chakravorty — right up to young artists busily making names for themselves today. But after traveling the collection through New Delhi, and the NGMAs in Bangalore and Mumbai, I felt it was time to put the collection to bed. I still bought the occasional print, when I couldn’t resist, but basically I’ve moved on to other collecting interests. Much of the print collection has already been donated to an institution that has great future plans for it. So the works will resurface someday, and in the meantime be in very good hands.

Would you sometimes look at your work as documentation of travels across India and related experiences?

WXW: Never, ever, in fact that is an idea that I really resist. The art we create is not a documentation of India. It is the story of a foreigner’s life in India and the people he meets along the way. It’s about how he experiences the country, which is a very different thing than an objective documentation of the country. You can think of the hand-coloured photographs that Rajesh Soni paints as the photographs the little man with the white fedora is making as he travels through the miniature paintings made by Rakesh. It all holds together.

Does equating Indian miniature art with abstract make sense? How does it benefit art in the evolving contemporary scene? 

WXW: Some people might think that is really mixing apples and oranges, but there is precedent. Take for example the tantric miniatures from Rajasthan that are now being hailed as a form of minimalism before Western Minimalism. A person can find wondrous abstraction in the skies and waters of miniatures. Maybe, it isn’t normally thought of as such, but one can make the leap. Also, the miniature use of repetitive patterning such as Alexander Gorlizki’s brought to a fore.

What are you currently working on?

WXW: We are always working on a million things at once. In fact, our motto is “WE ARE ALWAYS WORKING”. My collaborators and I, and my two assistants have taken that motto to heart. Of course we have fun and take time off. But the motto reminds us that art is hard work. Sometimes, the casual viewer or certain collectors imagine the artist in his or her studio sort of leisurely painting between extended coffee breaks or sipping wine while daydreaming. It’s not at all like that for us. All of us are workaholics. The art is our life.  We finished work on the Tasveer showing of our hand-painted photographs that premiered at Exhibit 320 in New Delhi, recently. R Vijay and I have been working on some very elaborate new miniatures that will probably premiere around the time of the India Art Fair.  In the meantime, I’m also busy at the village studio making new photographs that Rajesh Soni would eventually hand-colour.


Untitled: Waswo X Waswo with R Vijay


Tell us how arguments and disagreements with co-artists Rakesh Vijayvargiya and Rajesh Soni have released the lines and language in your work.

WXW: Oh dear, that gets really personal. As I often say, Rakesh and Rajesh and I are like a rock band. We sometimes have enormous fun, we sometimes fight, our egos sometimes compete, but in the end we make beautiful music together. We’ve held this band together for nearly 10 years. Maybe I’m the singer/songwriter, and R Vijay is the lead guitarist, and Rajesh Soni is the resounding rhythm. I think that analogy works. Next year will be the 10th anniversary of A Studio in Rajasthan, which is what we call our collaborative work. Maybe, we should release an actual album? That might just be a great idea.

Crocodiles and lizards become friendly. The tie starts to crawl. The fedora moves from series to series. The impact of imagery is huge. How often do you rethink motifs? 

WXW: The imagery is always running through my mind, and then I run it past Rakesh and it runs through his mind too. There are the signature recurring motifs, like the white fedora and the Rolleiflex camera, and the “YES” — water bottle. But then there is new imagery that keeps it all interesting. I try to shuffle and reshuffle and mix in new cards to see how that will change the game. It is more difficult than it sounds. We play with a lot of ideas before hitting upon something that sings. Here is that reference to the band again. In the end we want a song.

Are there dangers in self-portrayal? 

WXW: To some degree. R Vijay paints me as this somewhat cute character in our miniatures, but if you follow the series through, this character has a lot of flaws. He can be greedy, self-absorbed, lustful…in other words — very human. I think that is why so many people relate to him. In ways, he has stopped being me, specifically, and has become more of an everyman. But with some of the new concepts, I dream up for Rakesh to paint, I sometimes fear that I might be revealing too much about myself. There’s a danger in being too open about one’s emotions, but in truth, I’ve always been that way. By nature I tend to reveal my feelings, even in casual conversations.

You have responded to Raja Ravi Varma’s art through your work. Can the distinction between Indian “high art” and “low art” be used to evolve the narrative?

WXW: Ravi Varma influenced about three or four of our early miniatures, all of which were homages to him. Rakesh (R Vijay) greatly admires his work. He’s not really my favourite artist, but I do see in him that mixture of Eastern and Western sensibilities that are unique also to Rakesh. If Ravi Varma was painting Eastern subject matter in a Western style, R Vijay paints my Western viewpoints in an Eastern style. So there is a strange connect there. Another inverse is that while Ravi Varma painted fine art that later became popularised as “low art” oliographs, R Vijay started as a “low art” tourist-bazaar miniaturist, and has raised that genre to a fine art level.

Where do art and reality separate for you?

WXW: There is no separation.


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Waswo X Waswo


Tell us about Ed Green and inspirations that came from within your family.

WXW: I came from an arts family in many ways. My mother was a lifelong Sunday painter, who painted traditional landscapes in oils. Her work matured with age, but sadly she was taken down by cancer, shortly after her retirement, exactly when she could have spent more time perfecting her work. I have a cousin, Dorinne Green, who taught art in the public schools, and her husband Ed Green was the Art Director of the natural history museum in my home town of Milwaukee.  He was also a hands-on artist and won awards in painting and printmaking.  Even my father painted near the end of his life. So, I grew up in an environment where being an artist was not at all considered a weird choice of lifestyle or profession.

Would you (still) want to be a curator?

WXW: I just curated an exhibition in Penang, Malaysia, for the Obscura Festival of Photography. It was exciting and went well. But no, I don’t want to be a curator. Being a proper curator is a skill.  It takes training and hard work. People tell me I’d be a great curator, but even if that were true, I really want to just concentrate on my art.

What are the cultural misunderstandings that concern you?

WXW: Where do I begin? There are so many, all around the world. Cultural misunderstanding is at the heart of so many conflicts. Yes, people fight over such things as land and oil and water, but cultural misunderstanding is used by power elites to motivate people to fight; the whole idea that “those people are bad” because “they’re not like us”. So, when we talk about cultural misunderstanding, it can be an ill-informed and ridiculous thing, such as when a tourist condescendingly remarks “the Indians still eat with their hands”, because as foreigners, they don’t know the etiquette and history and culinary pleasure of eating a delicious dishes with their fingers. But cultural misunderstandings go further and get far more serious. The entire gamut of the discourse fascinates me and it is too complex.

What is destructive to India’s view and vision of art?

WXW: I’m tempted to evade this question because it is hard for a foreigner to speak such things without inviting criticism, but I think India’s greatest weakness in regard to art is that art is seen as either just a craft or else as an investment. This means that artists are seen either as talented but plentiful labourers whose products are expected to be cheap, or conversely, artists are seen as very special stars and their products as investments. Both these ways of understanding the artist and his or her work comes with a lot of wrong ideas and misguided expectations. These views are also common in the West, but it seems the problems are amplified here.

We don’t have enough art museums. What do the existing prestigious museums and galleries need (urgently)?

WXW: It is not a matter of quantity. It’s a matter of quality. I’ll just say that and leave it there.

Which museums would you NOT sleep through?

WXW: A brand new flagship Museum of Indian Art that was designed by a world-class architect and functioned at the top International standards of curation, archiving, and exhibition – a museum that covered the gamut of Indian art history right up to the contemporaries – a museum that would become so significant that people would travel halfway around the world just to visit it. That museum I would never sleep through. I hope that it gets built someday.


Featured image: A work from the artist’s New Myths series.

(Source: www.alchetron.com)