Sunday, 20 September 2009
A Studio in Rajasthan
The history of 19th century colonialism is closely intertwined with the history of photography. It was through the images taken by itinerant photographers that the stay-at-home public learned about the new lands that their soldiers and administrators were colonizing. The colonial administrators also collected photographs during their long and often lonely tours of duty, to remind them of all the exotic things they had encountered.
Photographs were made everywhere that colonial rule existed, but India was an especially rich source of images of this sort, because it was so large, so various in the types of landscape it offered, and also because Indian society was so complex, and offered such a huge variety of different human types.
When we look at the images made by Samuel Bourne, who is perhaps the most famous of all the photographers who worked in British India, we soon see that the images fall into groups. By far the largest of these groups consists of landscapes and architectural studies, where human figures play only a very subsidiary role, or where, quite often, they are entirely absent. In addition, there are pictures of petty rulers and of the members of their families, often shown involved in various ceremonial occasions. There are pictures of soldiers – British troops and the members of so-called ‘native’ regiments, often wearing uniforms that were a compromise between European and local dress. Finally, there are portraits of the servants – the humble individuals who sustained the whole elaborate colonial life-style – and sometimes, in addition to these, there are likenesses of individuals who were considered to be especially exotic, for example, a sadhu lying on his bed of nails.
These categorizations hold good even when the photographer was not a visiting European, but Indian-born. An example is Lala Deen Dayal [1844-1905], who had a close connection with the court of the wealthy Nizam of Hyderabad, and who, by the end of his career, had set up studios in Indore, Secunderabad and Bombay. In 1897 he was given a Royal Warrant by Queen Victoria. His photographs are indistinguishable in style from those made by Bourne and also by other Europeans, among them Deen Dayal’s exact contemporary, the Italian Federico Peliti [1844-1914].
At first glance, Waswo’s photographs, some monochrome and some hand-colored, made using elaborate hand-painted studio-backcloths, look like an attempt to revive aspects of this formal 19th style. What he is interested in is portraiture – a kind of portraiture that seems, at first sight, to be quite closely related to Raj photographic portraits of soldiers, servants and the working poor. He is not the only contemporary photographer to have followed this route. Another example is the work of the young Iranian Shadi Ghadirian, who has also used a reconstruction of a 19th century studio as a setting for a series of photographs that have attracted international attention.
Ghadirian based her images on photographs made by Iranian commercial studios in the late 19th century, at a time when the country was ruled with increasing inefficiency by the Qajar dynasty. Her subjects are young women, often swathed in the extremes of Islamic religious dress, but always accompanied by some incongruous modern object – a soft-drink can, a ghetto-blaster, or a bicycle. Her aim is in no sense nostalgic – what she wants to do is to draw attention to the restrictions imposed on Iranian women by the religious republic founded by Ayatollah Khomeini. Waswo’s photographs are never polemical in this way, and his range of types is very much wider.
Because Waswo's messages are quite subtle, his intentions have been frequently misunderstood. He recounts, rather wryly, that he is often accused of exploiting his subjects, by members of the growing legion of the "politically correct". If Waswo doesn’t pay his models, he is said to be exploiting them tout court. If he does, it is said that he is bribing them to participate in scenarios of his own devising, which cannot reflect their own inner reality – inaccessible to him, his critics think, because he is not Indian by birth.
Basically these attitudes spring from the initially purely feminist doctrine of the ‘controlling gaze’, first proposed by Laura Mulvey in her essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, first published in 1975. In this Mulvey put forward the idea that in film women became objects, controlled by the camera, which in turn was controlled by heterosexual men, these being – certainly at that time – the target audience for most Hollywood films. This idea has since been extended to cover other forms of visual activity – films and photographs made by westerners of subjects regarded as ‘the other’ being perhaps the most important. In other words, westerners are said to exploit those separated culturally, and perhaps spiritually, from themselves, simply by looking at them and recording what they see.
Waswo’s photographs from his ‘Studio in Rajasthan’ series seem particularly vulnerable to this accusation for two reasons. One is that Rajasthan is one of the regions of India where the old, traditional ways of life are most completely visible. The other is the deliberately retro way in which he chooses to present his subjects. He is apparently determined to push them back into a Victorian past, where the separation between the photographer and what he is looking at remains as marked as it is in some of the photographs made by Samuel Bourne and his contemporaries.
What this leaves out is the fact that Waswo’s images are suffused with a sense of love, and also, more important still, with a sense of irony. Waswo’s subjects are in no sense separated from his activity as a photographer. They are completely aware of what is going on, and what is going on is an elaborate game, in which those being photographed both reveal and conceal essential aspects of themselves. One of the things Waswo has to tell us is that the India he loves so much, and where he has chosen to live, is essentially unknowable to a person from a non-Indian background.
There are a number of clues in the photographs that emphasize this aspect. If one looks at the painted backgrounds, for example, one sees that these are not only slightly primitive in style – they are painted to commission by Indian artisans – but they also show rumples and folds that make it plain that this is a décor with no real ambition to replicate reality. What these settings do is to direct us to the fact that the function of the images is autobiographical. They are portraits of the not-me, and at the same time fragments of an ambitious self-portrait of a westerner in India.
This interpretation is reinforced by the paintings that Waswo commissions from Rajasthani painters. The series is in part called 'The Secret Life of Waswo X. Waswo', and it depicts…in hilarious and often erotic detail…the photographer’s adventures in India. The miniatures Waswo conceives and commissions are as traditional in style as they are non-traditional in subject matter. Waswo, the protagonist, appears, when clothed (he is not invariably clothed) in a European linen suit, of the kind favored by old-style colonialists, plus a jaunty straw hat. He is presented as an endearing but somewhat ludicrous figure. These miniatures give a good sense of how Waswo sees himself in relationship to the India he has chosen to inhabit.
If I have to choose one adjective to describe the ‘Studio in Rajasthan’ series, that adjective would be ‘tender’. In these images we see India and some of its inhabitants seen through the eyes of an all-embracing love. Though Waswo is an openly gay man, a fact that it is made very clear by ‘The Secret Life’ series, the photographs are not about lust, and only on rarer occasions, in some of the male portraits, is there a little prickle of sexual desire, present but always respectfully restrained. It incorporates aspects of modern India that would have meant nothing to the Victorian photographers who supplied the templates for Waswo’s compositions, or which would have been inaccessible because they did not then exist – members of the country’s rising middle-class, an Indian youth in western cowboy dress, faintly ridiculous western tourists attempting to ‘go native’. Love, in some cases, doesn’t exclude a satirical edge.
‘A Studio in Rajasthan’ is the very opposite of exploitative – it is a sustained love-letter to a complex ancient culture that is now in the process of renewing itself. It talks about India’s future as well as about India’s past. And it never lacks compassion, just as it never lacks a saving sense of the absurd – the photographer’s own absurdity, as well as the ridiculous tensions of our inevitable cross-cultural encounters.
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