The Self, the Other and the many shades in between. Waswo X Waswo reflects on the work of putative Orientalists and his own art practice in Rajasthan
Christopher Pinney is Agitated. He irritably adjusts the cushion of the rattan chair and clinks his tea cup heavily on the table. Without warning, his expression has changed from politely congenial to dismissive and vexed. “In my mind he’s the worst of the lot! You couldn’t find a better example of an Orientalist gaze!” It’s the first time I’ve met the well-known author and anthropologist, and I’m regretting bringing up my story about meeting Roland Michaud. “It’s like he’s totally unaware of the dangers of seeing the East as unchanging! Instead, he revels in that!” The quick burst of revulsion that had crossed Pinney’s face has settled into a disappointed sort of scowl.
Thankfully, Hemant, the dealer in vintage photography who has brought us together for this introductory meeting, is quick to change the subject. My houseboy, Jai Prakash, arrives on the terrace with a plate of sliced fruits and assorted nuts. We reach for apple, mosambi, chiku and cashew, sip our chai and conversation returns to an even keel. I tread more carefully now, especially when explaining my own art practice. There’s that nervous feeling that makes each word a vetted choice. The sun sinks low in the sky, and we hear from our perch high atop the terrace of Chinar Villa the echoes of azaan across the breadth of Udaipur.
I had met Roland Michaud before I came to Chinar Villa. In those days I holed up at various cheap guesthouses in the tourist ghetto of the old city. I can’t even remember the name of the man who made the introduction, but I do remember him being middle-aged, portly and of average looks. He had led me up an extremely narrow alley, then between two bluepainted havelis overhung with jharokhas. At the end of this thin lane was a wooden door set in a mihrab and, inside, a surprisingly large, empty room with little more than a faded carpet. Sitting cross-legged, drinking water from a tall glass, was a frail-looking man with long white hair. This was Roland Michaud, a photographer I had only just heard of, but was soon to hear so much more about. His English was mixed with frequent pauses, as he struggled to translate twisting narratives from French. Chai was of course served, and in an adjacent room a sweeper went about her business, the dust making smoky clouds that lingered in a solitary beam of light, like a pictorialist photograph waiting to be clicked.
Michaud told me about Uzbekistan and Afghanistan and his Moroccan wife Sabrina, with whom he had collaborated through most of his life. He spoke with great eagerness about their most famous book, Mirror of the Orient, and the newer, smaller Mirror of India. Copies were handed to me, one signed, and I spent an hour leafing through page after page with the volumes flat open upon the dusty carpet. I dawdled over each page as the Frenchman interwove tales. Sabrina was the one with the passion for miniature paintings, and their combined loves for miniatures and photography had necessitated the images before me: here was an 18th-century painting of a man tending his goats, and here on the opposite side one of Roland’s colour photographs of a near-identical scene; here was an elderly man smoking a chillum, and here a Bikaner miniature depicting what seemed to be the exact same man. And so the pages went, a series of diptychs, espousing an unchanging timelessness as distant from intellectual fashion as the images themselves were close to soft perfection. It is no wonder that a man versed in post-colonial theory such as Pinney would recoil at such shameless indulgence in Orientalism; yet an aesthete such as myself found in those same images a minaret-like call to truth.
“Can you guess who this handsome young man is?” the Frenchman had asked while motioning at a portrait in Mirror of India that was clearly labelled “Udaipur”. Without waiting for an answer the white-haired man glanced revealingly at my middle-aged guide. The resemblance was there, but difficult to see. “It was so long ago,” Michaud continued, “I’ve been visiting Udaipur since the 1960s! I’ve known many of these people since they were children; and I’ve always stayed right here, in this haveli, from the very first visit.”
I think of that now, sitting with Pinney on the terrace of Chinar Villa, looking down upon the explosion of guesthouses adding ever-higher ugliness to the old city’s skyline. I drift away from Hemant and Pinney’s conversation, imagining instead Michaud’s favourite haveli in the days before it found itself squeezed behind towering new growth. Things have changed, tremendously. Nothing is timeless, except perhaps our desire to escape time.
Jai Prakash switches on the lights. It is well past Laxmi’s dusk-lit stroll and Udaipur is already sparkling with a galaxy of windows beyond the Chandpole Bridge. The fruits bats, which moments ago could be seen winging across Rang Sagar, have dissolved into black. Pinney and Hemant take their leave, and though I feel this first visit by the respected author has been less than satisfactory, I take comfort in the fact that he even bothered to pay me a visit. It is 2007, I’m still a relative newcomer to India and a first-year settler in Udaipur. After Jai leaves for home, I plunk ice in a strong tonic, return to the terrace and stare into the warm desert night. This place, I know, has been a magnet for itinerant artists for decades. Udaipur is seldom more than a two-day stop for tourists, but travellers sometimes linger, convincing themselves that their infatuation with its beauty is actually love. But love, of course, is a complex thing. A relationship evolves much later than the first flirtation. There must be misunderstandings, sorrows and arguments; fights, reconciliations and transformation. That is true love. It is 2007, and I’m still not sure what point in that evolution I’m currently holding, though I know I’m along the path.
There is a painting by Edwin Lord Weeks, titled in the charming manner of any late- Victorian voyeur, “Woman’s Bathing Place, Oodeypore”. I know the exact place he must have sat to paint it. I imagine him there, on the arm of Lake Pichola that juts past the Hanuman Ghat. It was 1895, obviously a warmish morning, and he must have sat there for at least a few hours with charcoal or pencil in hand. I can see him: looking a bit stern to ward off any locals who were too inquisitive; the women dipping clay mutkas and copper charus; the English gentleman intrigued by the way the women bathed topless with a nonchalant good humour, always chattering with their friends and neighbours. Though he certainly produced the final oil painting in an enclosed studio, it is the act of his plein air sketching that I’m imagining. In my head I search the painting for clues. There is one woman semi-huddled in a curvaceous slump (perhaps the air is still cool this morning?), and another, just to her rear, who seems to be looking, flirting, directly with the artist. I hear conversations fluttering through time. It’s a scene I can hear, if only because I have experienced it myself. The ghat is still there, and women still bathe upon it topless in the early morning quiet. I think of Michaud. Timeless.
In 1931 Hiroshi Yoshida created at least two exquisite images rendered as woodblock prints, proving, among many other things, that not all “Orientalists” who visited Udaipur were from the West. In the first of these, the Japanese artist sets all three of the mirage-like architectures of Lake Pichola in an elegantly angled row. Mohan Mandir holds the foreground, a small “palace” from which royalty once watched the Gangaur Festival; Jag Mandir dissolves far in the distance and, in the centre, Jag Niwas sprouts a forest of dark green trees, as it did before the coming of the Lake Palace Hotel. Mohan Mandir figures prominently in Edwin Lord Weeks’ painting as well, and I wonder at how both artists were drawn to make prominent the less significant structure. In both cases, beauty won the battle with cliché. Again, in “The Palace of Udaipur as Seen from Jag Niwas”, the elegance of Jag Niwas’s framing mihrabs and foliage and the sumptuous liquid greens of the lake dominate the rectangular factuality of the Palace of Mewar.
All this art was long ago, but then I think about the foreign artists in Udaipur now. Anne Vilsbøll, the Danish artist most known for her subtle hand-made paper collage, created a 24-miniature suite in collaboration with the Udaipur miniaturist Anwar Khan in 2001. Titled Welcome to the Water Palace, the suite was later exhibited in Copenhagen. Anne and Anwar’s work happened more than five years before my collaboration with R Vijay and our miniatures started. I think of the jeweller from Berlin who goes by the name of Madame Fee, and the decade in which she preceded my arrival in Udaipur. Her tiny white and neel-blue home is surrounded by a lush and much larger garden, and, to instil an ecological consciousness, she invites her Indian friends and neighbours over at Rakhi to tie strings around their brothers, the trees. Udaipur, I know, has more stories than can be told. My story is nothing special. I’ve just joined a flow.
It’s 2012, and Christopher Pinney is again with me, this time out at the village of Varda, the “new studio” as my boys and I still call it. Ganpat found the Rajput family that rents to us, and Jai and he have built the tinned roof area that I now make photos in. This cow shed of a studio sits on a patch of land that used to be my studio landlord Manohar Singh’s bhindi patch. We’ve been making photographs here since January, but Christopher has joined us in early April. It is the time of wheat harvest, and my team and I have been stretching backdrops in the fields when there are enough clouds to block the burning light. Pinney and I are on the roof of the concrete home we use for storage, talking once again about cultural perspectives and art. This time we are hitting it off well, the Kingfisher Strongs lubricating a long and enjoyable discussion.
Christopher has had his battles. “I was finishing a talk in, I think it was Chennai, and during question and answer I was called a ‘foreign fraud’!” We laugh a brief but bonding laugh. By now we both have stories to tell, and find ourselves converging on the idea of the Other as capable of Othering. It’s not a strict East-West divide. I’ve already had my exhibition, Confessions of an Evil Orientalist, and on that we speak a lot. I find myself quoting lines from the “confessions” by heart. As we look out over mountains that seem pulled from a Mewar miniature, and rolling slopes of golden wheat, I intone, “I have looked with pleasure over landscapes peopled with impoverished farmers.” Pinney is silent, but smiling. The sun is getting low, and I ask if he’d allow us to make his portrait. “We have to be quick,” I tell him, but already Jai and Ganpat are heading down the stairs to collect the frame we use to hold the backdrop. “We need to get this done between the time the sun sets behind the mountain, and the time it actually gets dark. We need to do it in the shadow of the mountain.” As we walk into the fields, Manohar Singh, his son Sharu and brother Ram Singh, tag along to help. The streaking harsh light is dimming by the minute and the phrase keeps running through my head. “We need to do it in the shadow of the mountain.” We always do our art in the shadow of a mountain.
This article was published in April-June 2017 issue on The Himalaya. The issue is guest edited by Stephen Alter.
Elsewhere in this issue, Nandini Purandare and Deepa Balsavar explore the unsung heroes among the climbing Sherpas and Bhotias of Darjeeling, Mamang Dai gets nostalgic in her lyrical reminiscences about the mountains in Arunachal Pradesh, Martin Moran is equally wistful writing about the pleasures of pioneering in the smaller peaks of the Himalaya. Janaki Lenin explores the oscillating relationship between the villagers and shepherds of Kinnaur and Sankar Sridhar depicts the life of the Bakarwals of Kashmir in his photo essay. Gautam Bhatia’s sardonic drawings of the imagined ruins of Delhi make us laugh—and cry. While Anurag Banerjee’s unobtrusive camera captures stolen moments and intimacy in public spaces in Mumbai, Stuart Freedman’s photo essay on the Indian Coffee House evokes an era fast disappearing.