Karkhana seems part travelogue, part behind-the-scenes account of Waswo X. Waswo’s collaborations with artists in Varda village in Udaipur, Rajasthan. Candid, quirky and unpretentious, this new book by Waswo looks at the 20-year-long association the US-born artist has had with India, first as a traveller and then as a resident. A large part of his practice has been associated with hand-coloured portraits of the locals of Udaipur shot against painted backdrops.
The visual and textual memoir offers anecdotes and insights into how Waswo’s relationship has evolved with the locals and landscape of Udaipur, yet at no point is the narrative just about him. Rather, it places his interactions and association with fellow artist-collaborators firmly at the core, be it photo hand-colourist Rajesh Soni, miniature painters like R. Vijay and Dalpat Jingar, or the painter of golden borders, Suresh Kumawat.
Aptly, the book is titled Karkhana. Some might hark back to its literal meaning, “factory”. But the book looks back at the word’s association with the painting workshops of the Sultanate and Mughal courts that were spaces of collaboration. It’s interesting to see an example of this within the contemporary art ecosystem. For Waswo, it’s not a “collective” but a team. And the book chronicles the team’s working through his eyes. Art historian and designer Annapurna Garimella places this “karkhana” in the art history of the contemporary. “To begin with, all participants come from different castes and professional backgrounds. The way work flows between various workshops is in part possible because Waswo is not ‘casted’ and thus can move easily between various spaces.… In the Karkhana, discord between conventional social identities is much less than the friction that comes from co-creating and co-fabricating work,” she writes in the Introduction.
The book seems like a literary retrospective, showcasing the oeuvre of Waswo and his collaborators, be it serious portraiture, mock ethnography and deep reflections on “Otherness”, as seen in the paintings and photo works. In the past too, Waswo has authored books, such as India Poems: The Photographs (2006), Men Of Rajasthan (2011), Photowallah (2016) and Gauri Dancers (2019).
In Karkhana, published by Mapin, one gets a more comprehensive view of his process. Those who have been following this team’s work will be able to recognise the touches of Soni’s hand-tinted photos, painted backdrops for the photos executed by Jingar, miniatures by R. Vijay and the intricate borders by Kumawat that tell stories in themselves. Within the pages, one meets Tofy, the well-mannered black Labrador at Kumawat’s home, and learns of the landmark event when a crocodile was sighted in Swaroop Sagar lake.
Waswo paints quite a picture of mornings in Udaipur—when the artist makes his way through the meandering lanes of the old city, lined with charu-wallahs hammering out pots, to reach painter Dalpat Jingar’s workshop. The book tells us Jingar does’t seek fame, he simply loves to paint. At the beginning of each work, he writes a short shloka on Wasli paper in pencil.
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One chapter is devoted to Waswo’s first meeting with Soni, another describes the moment when the lives of Waswo, Soni and Vijay became “separately intertwined”. Though they cannot remember the date, Waswo thinks it was when Soni looked at a new set of photos and exclaimed: “Chacha, we can paint these! My grandfather painted photographs. He was a court photographer at one time. He taught my father and my father taught me. I know the technique. Can I try?” That was the beginning of the collaboration.
There is a performative element to the work that these artists create—right from A Visitor To The Court series, or the black and white digital photograph painted by Soni , to lithographs such as Tilt and Flight Of The White Birds, a gouache and gold on Wasli work. In each, Waswo makes an appearance in the scene, dressed either in an ornate satin churidar and elaborate robes or in his trademark fedora and suit. His presence in a dramatic pose creates a sense of incongruity.
“The duo’s fifteen-year-long collaboration blends genres and plays intelligently on themes from history and colonialism interwoven with contemporary identities…. Part confessional and part comical, these miniatures are semi-autobiographical, where Waswo’s persona as the white-skinned ‘fedora man’ becomes both problematic and poignant,” states a note from Delhi-based Gallery Espace, which represents the artist.
One insertion that stands out is in the series Intruders, with gouache painted over plates from George F. Atkinson’s Curry &Rice (1859). Suddenly, in the midst of scenes from colonial India, you will find Waswo in his fedora. One, for instance, shows men dressed in dhotis seated on the floor, reading from a document, and a Britisher on a chair, going through a newspaper, when the eye moves to Waswo, standing in a corner, reading on his mobile phone. It seems like a satire within a satire.
At the end, as Garimella writes, this book is about the artists who have bonded to become the Karkhana through their shared capacity for making, their love for Udaipur and their camaraderie.