Elegy in sepia

Friday, 27 October 2006 - 9:36pm IST

It's easy to dismiss India Poems, an exhibition of photographs by photographer Waswo X Waswo as pictorial and post-colonial.

Waswo X Waswo’s India Poems edits out modernity, says David de Souza

It might be easy to quickly dismiss India Poems, an exhibition of photographs (also released as a book) by American photographer Waswo X Waswo as pictorial, post-colonial, romantic imagery. But the question that might stimulate the viewer of these photographs is about reality,  deception,  falsity, illusion and the relationship all these have with perspective — the photographer’s and the viewer’s.

Photographs have the immediacy of telling you about the subject being portrayed, the portrayer, and ultimately about you—across time, culture, and all those classic ethnographic divides. These images, all made within the last six years, depict the Indian world that we think we know. The world of Waswo, a Verrier Elwin with a camera, looks very familiar.

It deals selectively with a bucolic India; all traces of globalisation are framed out, modernity is edited and excluded from a sepia-toned, 10” square bromide. The works, in that sense, are elegiac, wistfully pining, lamenting pace and progress.  It would be curious to wonder about who or what is stuck in a pre-industrialised world — the photographer, subject or viewer.

At the exhibition, Waswo commented on the connection between uniqueness and the exotic (a term that makes him cringe), yet in the same breath said he sought to distill the ‘specialness’ of his subjects. It comes as a bit of a contradiction.

There is an endearing, mundane, ordinariness in the work; most of the posed subjects are smack in the centre of the Rolliflex square, that has reverberations with so many photographers of the ’60s, Diane Arbus and Irving Penn being the most noteworthy. While this is only a construct, the decision to shoot square, or horizontal, chemical analog as opposed to digital, the medium and the message come in intimate prints that draw you in, rather than distance you.

The images, even at this size, are not sharp; most are set in a diffused light. Are all of these conscious elements to induce a sense of retarded time, backwardness, a sense of contemporary history? Whose time, whose history? Ultimately, the photographs stand before you defenceless, they lack the energy to jump past the 2mm protective glass and touch you meaningfully. What distinguishes the poem from the prose?

Waswo X Waswo’s India Poems — 69 photographs and a book, organised by Bombay Art Gallery and Gallerie Publishers; Bombay Art Gallery, Ruia House, Mount Pleasant Road, Malabar Hill, ongoing till October 31.

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