Whimsical look at everyday India

Whimsical look at everyday India
Chai depicts the rural Indian ritual of drinking sugary milk tea.

A "grand mistake" is how American artist Waswo X.Waswo describes his journey to India.

In 1993, on a trip to India, he was determined to see everything except the Taj Mahal. Sitting in a New Delhi travel agent's office, he chanced upon a lush, colourful image, which showed the historic city of Puskhar, but the agent booked him a ticket to the lake city of Udaipur instead.

The chatty 62-year-old, in town last week for the opening of his second solo at Indigo Blue Art gallery, said: "That would mark the start of my love for India."

While he travelled to many other parts of the world after that, the colourful city of Udaipur - a town often called the Venice of the East for its abundance of serene lakeside palaces - stayed with him and somehow pulled him back. He would move there permanently in 2001.

Waswo is now an international art name celebrated for re-imagining vintage India through contemporary miniatures as well as carefully painted backdrops by local craftsmen and gentle hand colouring by his collaborator, Rajasthani hand colourists Rajesh Soni and R. Vijay.

As a trained photographer, the starting point of Waswo's art is always an image. He takes great care with finding his subjects and then studying compositions. It is only when the photograph is ready that the artistic collaboration begins.

In doing so, he questions not just the premise of art-making as a solitary activity, but also skilfully blurs the line between the traditional and contemporary.

His solo show, A Day In The Country, while whimsical on the surface, celebrates the everyday life and ordinary people and, through deeply layered artistic techniques, takes on serious issues, including addressing the looming threat of ecological disasters.

There are 21 works on view. Of these, eight are miniatures while 13 are hand-painted photographs, priced between $1,400 and $3,000.

Speaking of miniatures, he says he was drawn to the historic tradition of miniature painting, but was appalled to see "how the tourist trap was killing it". Skilled painters, he felt, could do more with the miniature, an exquisite art that needs fine craftsmanship.

In Waswo's miniatures, there are references to the artist. He appears as a white man dressed in a hat and suit while surveying distinctly Indian scenes.

"I arrived as the foreign photographer in India and I wanted to have some fun with the representation of the man with a hat. I used to keep the hat on to keep the sun out of my face and it ended up becoming an iconic part of my work," says the artist who was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He studied photography at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and later at Studio Marangoni, the Centre for Contemporary Photography in Florence, Italy.

In the last 15 years, working from his studio in Udaipur, he developed an international reputation for his ability to find beauty in ordinary people doing ordinary things.

"I am interested in my landlord. I am interested in the people around me," he says, pointing to his everyday inspiration. In one work simply titled Chai, he evocatively captures the rural Indian ritual of drinking sugary milk tea, with the drinker squatting on whatever low wall or surface is close by.

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