Monday, March 14, 2022

A Factory without Alienation: Waswo’s Karkhana: A Rajasthan Studio


(Waswo with his Karkhana People)

In ‘Karkhana: A Studio in Rajasthan’, the latest book by artist Waswo x Waswo one could see/feel the spirit of a Ruskin Bond narrative. Bond loves his Mussoorie and Waswo loves his Udaipur. Bond had made India his home in 1960s itself; a sojourn in London was suffocating for him. Waswo spent his youthful days in Milwaukee and hit the road when the rural borders were closing in on his mind. Interestingly, in India he had his first professional exhibition at the Kashi Art Gallery, Fort Kochi in 2002. He fondly remembers late Anoop Skaria and Dorrie Younger who had recognized his ‘genre-less’ works, when the Indian art market was undergoing the labor pain. Since then Waswo never had to look back. Though the artistic journey was partly on bumpy roads he has finally settled down in Udaipur, Rajasthan, which he could easily claim as his home now.

(Karghana Book Cover)

Waswo works with a team of local artists and the book tells their story. Seen through the eyes of the narrator these local artists come across as legendry characters from the yellowing annals of a local gazette. The word Karkhana literally translates as a factory and the word factory brings in the mind a picture of assembly line works. This is where Marx had found alienation as the splitting factor that separated the worker from the product. In that sense, Karkhana has a different meaning altogether, perhaps a contrary one. Karkhana is an atelier led by a master artist where skillful assistants work on parts but still have an idea about the final outcome. Assistants could earn their own status either by choosing an independent course or by finding a patron and initiating a different karhana. Traditionally, artists/assistants in a Karkhana do not part ways with the master/s not only because the patronage was far and wide but also because their existence was based more on trust and style.


(Work by Waswo and his Karkhana)

Trust is something that cannot be fixed always in a signed bond. A written document may be legally binding for the parties but the unwritten trust between people who operate within a society is more reliable. Waswo was and is lucky to find a few artists in due course of time as he settled in Udaipur. He was in the right place at the right time and had the right attitude to make friends with the local artists and artisans. The growth was mutual as the local artists could extricate themselves from the demands of the tourist bazaar for making cheap and mechanical and lifeless reproductions of the stock images that defined ‘Rajasthan’ as a place and culture frozen in time, and in the meanwhile Waswo could negotiate with the problematic position/ing of his own artistic self as a ‘white westerner’ both in his mundane and creative existence. He started off as an ‘Evil Orientalist’ only to shed the honorific soon to become a benevolent collaborator and director of many selves in the creative process.

(Waswo and team)


The book tells the story of the collaborators; Rakesh aka R.Vijay, the miniature artist, Rajesh Soni, the hand colorist on black and white photographs, Shankar and Chirag Kumawat, the father-son duo who paint intricate borders on wasli papers, Dalpat and Banti Jingar brothers, who could paint backdrops and could faithfully reproduce exquisitely painted palace interiors in many frames without fault, Ganpat Mali and Jay Prakash who are multi-purpose studio hands who add a lot of value to the Karkhana process created by Waswo. There are many other side characters who come and go , and even at times pose for the photographs that eventually become full-fledged works of art as they pass through the hands of the above mentioned artists under the watchful direction of the mastermind, Waswo himself.


(Work by Waswo made by Karkhana)

Though the book is titled as Karkhana, the structure is that of a journey, sometimes on an Enfield Bullet and other times in a multi-utility van, driven by Ganpat Mali and Waswo on the pillion. The time is spread over a few years but the narrative is arranged in such a way that the reader feels that the whole thing happened on a hectic day; from early morning to night. The narrative unfolds in a reverse order. We see the border makers first and then the backdrop painters who make the broader decorative strokes in the works of Waswo. Then we go to the master artist, R.Vijay who, faithful to the miniature tradition of Rajasthan, recreates it for a modern aesthetic purpose with a sense of irony and a lot of personal touch. Today, R.Vijay is Waswo or vice versa. Each time, with the riders we too get down from the motorbike and walk into the artists’ homes or work places and what come alive are the little precious gems of their biographies.

 (Waswo and R.Vijay)

Waswo has written this book during the lockdown days. Udaipur streets are no longer abuzz with touristic activities. But the local life goes on. And in Waswo’s narrative one could feel the heat, dust and loneliness of the pandemic hit streets. However, the jovial nature of the collaborators is never gone as Waswo keeps their pay roll on with bonuses. R.Vijay underplays the hardships of the times by painting an abandoned surgical mask and a bisleri bottle, the iconographic details of the fedora man, the former evil orientalist. The book ends up in a party at the Varda studio and the night followed by that. In a way that chapter is a stock taking shot in a movie where the cast and crew gather for a party, a movie within a movie, a narrative within the narrative with the characters becoming living men and a few women in long shot or in fade out.

(Waswo x Waswo) 

Karkhana is a collective biography or rather a collective autobiography written by one person. Their lives are now intricately mixed up and positively the symbiotic relationship is not collapsed by surreptitious offers or breach of trusts. May be because Waswo remains the master mind and the glue that holds all together; without them, may be they are just border painters, backdrop makers, miniature artists and photo colorists. I do think that even mentioning such a dissection of roles is rude. The book, beyond its literature part also functions as a documentation of the works that they have so far collaborated, especially during the last few years including the pandemic ones. But without the literature, it is just another book of Waswo’s works. In creating that literature, Waswo has generated a post-colonial and truly global documentation on decentralized collaboration (not of the sweatshop version of the corporate like works of art) of artists where each one is acknowledged without fudge. One cannot complain about alienation here anymore. A must read for the art lovers.





Monday, February 28, 2022

Cosmic Battles Waged in Aesthetic Orbits: Latest Exhibition of Subodh Gupta


(Subodh Gupta)

Down here among the mortals a fierce war is being fought. World has not yet decided which side to take; that of Russia or of Ukraine. But everyone knows they have to ultimately take a side; and yes, they have more or less zeroed in on the side of their choice- that of humanity. Forget the geopolitics, they say. Whatever be the case we want the human beings, and that too the vulnerable of the lot, be safe and beyond the brutal pain that the wars are famous for inflicting upon the fleeing. From the safety of elsewhere warfare, unlike in the yesteryears no longer is exciting like the pyrotechnics that used to light up the huge flat-screen television sets. The title ‘Cosmic Battle’ of Subodh Gupta’s latest solo exhibition at the Nature Morte, New Delhi sounds like an eerie coincidence though the artist has been at it for the last one decade or so. I mean, bringing the pain of battles and displacements in his enormous and impressive installations.


(Cosmic Battle by Subodh Gupta)

‘Cosmic Battle’, the installation that provides the catchy title to the show is an apt reification for the saying like ‘suspended animation’. The phrase suggests the contrary meaning though it has the ability to show something in suspension and also in animation at once, even if the intention is to underline the frozenness of the situation. The stalemate of a confrontation may be a distant possibility when it comes to cosmic affairs, unlike the universal/global affairs like war. The suspension from the ‘dark nowhere’ is how the cosmos is described, sometimes in the form of a golden egg/Hiranyagarbha or in the form of a ghata/pot. Noted art historian B.N.Goswami writes in his essay titled ‘Engaging with Vastness’, “Hiranyagarbha is spoken of as being ‘present at the beginning’, ‘upholding this earth and heaven’, ‘whose commands all beings, even the gods, obey’, ‘whose shadow is immortality, whose (shadow also) is death’.” May be, for the ones who have keen eyes could see in Gupta’s ‘Cosmic Battle’ the definitional specificities given by Prof.Goswami.


(Cosmic Battle by Subodh Gupta)

The kinetic slowness imparted to the work through a mechanism that emulates the impalpable rotation of the earth itself, adds certain amount of conceptual magnanimity to the moderate size of the sculptural body (in comparison with the sheer size of the earlier indoor works of Gupta) and also invites the viewers for a virtual circumambulation around the object while being stationed at one place of viewing (depending on the entrance to the space where the work is hung). The unheard music (anhad garje, as said by the saint poet Kabir) reminds the visitors of the cosmic music generated by the celestial spheres along their elliptical paths. While the religious philosophy of the land is affirmative about the conception of cosmos as an Earthen Pot or as Golden Egg, the battle that takes place could be attributive, reflecting the contemporary global conflicts that cause the residual humans as refugees and homeless.


(Self Portrait by Subodh Gupta)

Size does matter when artist superstars are back in the gallery circuit. The obvious hugeness of Gupta’s works in many ways resembles the same enormity brought to being in the works of Anish Kapoor. It does not mean that Gupta imitates Kapoor or vice versa. On the contrary they share a common world view at least in the creation of aesthetics, that the object-hood of the works is important, the reflection on their smooth surfaces is an imperative and invariably the reflections should not correspond to the actual thoughts that the art should evoke in the minds of the viewers. There is a physical play between the surface truth of their works and the positioning of the viewers in front of them. Distortions and displacements caused by the imperfect reflections goad the viewers to find the meanings beyond the object-nature of the works. As Althusser puts it, it is not the artist who keeps certain relationship with the objects that he creates but the objects that make a relationship with the artist. Going by this view, the (art) objects remain in the realm of artist’s biography and history so far, establishing constant connections even if artist wants to detach himself from them and leave them as independent objects for aesthetic contemplation.


(Self Portrait Detail by Subodh Gupta)

These inextricable knots that the works of art generate in relation with the artist more or less open up the entry points in Gupta’s two other works exhibited in the same premises. The objects as a whole do not create a coherent continuity with the familiar aesthetics of Gupta. Though the hallmark vessels do establish a Gupta touch in them, the disparity lies in their organization in this work. A note that accompanies the show says that this works in fact look like a crashing down of Gupta’s works in the middle of the gallery and refused to be scavenged out. It could be one of the cruelest of qualifications that any work of art can get from a gallery introduction. Notwithstanding the cruelty of the statement there is a methodical madness in the disembowelment of the virtual pregnancy of Gupta’s vision. The heap thus generated however does not evoke revulsion but demand a mental engagement with the components as if it really were a Gupta jigsaw puzzle. In that mental engagement the continuity is established and the deliberate and accidental quirkiness of Gupta’s sarcastic and ironic takes on the Indian community practices unravel itself. The ‘sleepers’, the wooden planks that held the rails in place come as a visual suggestion or a quotation from the autobiography of the artist, a further claim of authenticity and continuity, perhaps an assertion that Gupta needs any more but too close to his heart to resist.


(Torso by Subodh Gupta)

A myth maker as he is Gupta often tells a story around his works, harking back to the real and imaginary incidents that had colored his childhood. A keen follower of Gupta’s speeches in various exhibition venues all over the world, available in YouTube could see how he twists and turns the same incident into stories suitable to explain his work in question. The articulation is deliberately patchy, moving beyond the logic of imperfect English, a language allows any linguistic community a tricky access to his works and through that he helps his works stand erect like the one you see in his ‘Torso’, a third work in the exhibition. Torso brings art historical torsos, Gomateswara of Sravanabelagola, the mutilated torsos of rampant communal violence and wars near and far, in mind. Also it is a torso in the making or in the process of abandonment. It is emblematic to the ambitions of a maker, someone aspires eternity but fails to deliver. Could it be a surreptitious commentary on the present Indian political leadership that revels in making statues that are finished physically but never achieved their conceptual completion in the intellectual sphere? One cannot be sure. Like Kapoor, Gupta cannot hide his cultural roots in the magnificent nature of sculptures; he has to give a hint of his socio-cultural belongingness. Or is Gupta a prisoner of his own image repertoire?










Saturday, February 12, 2022

Portia in Venice: Intelligent Interventions by Cecilia Alemani in Venice Biennale 2022


 (Cecilia Alemani, Curator, 9th Venice Biennale, pic source:net)

Nearly 200 artists from 58 countries. Mostly ‘women and gender non-confirming’ artists as put by the curatorial director, Cecilia Alemani. That’s the summery of the Venice Biennale’s latest edition slated to open on 23rd April 2022. The 59th edition of the world’s oldest biennale was put on hold due to the global pandemic during the last two years. The marker line that goes between the pre and post pandemic world is not yet clear though almost all the industries have braced themselves up to ‘live with’ the pandemic. Hopefully India’s Kochi Muziris Biennale also would take place towards the end of this year.


Some commentators have already said that the forthcoming edition of the Venice Biennale is based on social issues and why should one travel all the way to Venice to catch up all those politically correct art works when one could do some gallery hopping in any city and see the same. Waswo X Waswo, an American-Indian contemporary artist based in Udaipur, India opines that the ‘art world needs a cleansing and detox’. If I have understood it correctly, Waswo says that the curatorial line of the present edition of the Venice Biennale is too biased and politically inclined. The question seems to be like shouldn’t we go back to the days when art was judged for the sake of artistry and ingenuity?


(Waswo X Waswo, artist. Pic: Source the Hindu)

Modern art, an expressive mode adopted by feverishly intelligent individuals, has never been away from politics. Whenever it did take an apparent detour away from the political path, it surreptitiously upheld the larger political realities for its own existence. The seeming neutrality was a ploy that helped many to veer towards the slippery slopes of the investment market without leaving the claims of art for art’s sake, while the real intention remained as investment for investment’s sake. Art became overtly political in various countries depending on their materialistic realities. There cannot be a linear history for this though larger blankets could be used for making huge political packages on art.


During the last couple of Venice Biennales, though interesting curators were involved and politics had taken an upper hand in the formulation of the works of art, as the market boom was well in place, gallery circuits and museum managements had made tangible and tactical alliances, and above all the auction houses decided the tending styles and concerns, the choices made by these curators were largely determined by the market forces that the liberal socio-political curatorial policies never dared to contest. The result was a set of loose packages created succumbing to the arm twisting methods of the local market forces brokered through the locally sourced sub curators. The works of art created for the events fell line with the trends set by the global conglomerate of art market though in paper all were presented as revolutionary works of art with tall claims as first of its kind in history.


(Surrealist Leonora Carrington, Pic: Wikipedia)

Today Cecilia Alemani calls her curatorial project, ‘The Milk of Dreams’, invoking the life and art of the woman surrealist, Leonora Carrington. The curatorial line is unabashedly political and one wouldn’t see a lot of fancy plumes of male vanity in those exhibition halls in Venice. Instead, there would be many previously unheard of women artists from the mainstream and sub-streams whose engagement with art in many ways foreshadowed the turns that art could take in future. The post-human contentions and claims that the project evokes or even deliberately aims at are exclusive in terms of the avoidance of male interventions on the same but posits women and gender non-confirming artists as the voices of all those who have been excluded from the discursive core during the Anthropocene phase of the globe. The code of invisibility is broken and status quo is challenged in this exhibition, hopefully.


There cannot be an art for art sake anymore. Art is not judged for its formal values alone. May be that is an exclusive concern of the art makers who consider traditional knowledge of making art and also the traditional ways of appreciating art should be left alone to perpetuate itself in the mainstream and all else could happen in the sidelines. Cecilia Alemani seems to turn the tables and makes things inside out to imagine the post human world differently so that she could eventually bring a lot of ‘humanity’ into art discourse, something that has turned inhuman in all sense during the last couple of decades.