Artist Waswo X Waswo appreciates the mysterious currents that run beneath the peaceful fields of rural Rajasthan
I’m watching Ram Singh cut the vegetables. They’re beautiful vegetables, fresh from the farm and vibrantly colourful. I hear them speak the names in Hindi and Mewari: gaajar, piyaaz, lal mirch,; but to my hungry English-speaking eyes they are fat orange carrots, white onions with healthy green stalks, intensely red chillies and only slightly less red tomatoes. Ram Singh dices the onions methodically, like a master. They are chattering about the crops as we wait for Kashu to return with the eggs. As for me, I am privileged to lounge at the cenotaph under the mango tree, sharing a chillum with Kuka Singh, the rotund jeepwala who drives the villagers of Varda to places they need to go. The thick yellow frames of his glasses are taped together in the middle, just above his nose. He keeps passing me the chillum, but I’ve had more than enough already. My studio landlord, Manohar Singh, is spinning strings off tiny plastic bags. He uses a small thali to pile miniature mountains of turmeric and black pepper. Then he sets about smashing ginger between a round rock held in his fist and a flat rock on the ground.
The cenotaph Kuka and I are leaning against is situated far away across the wheat field from the family compound. It was built in the 1920s to commemorate the bringing of water from the Ganga to this place, which was then reverently spilt here. It is lime-plastered and I have often seen its stark white crown in the afternoon sun. Today, in the mango shade, it is soft, cool, finely cracked and a timeworn grey. The land it sits upon has been shared by Ram Singh and his brother Manohar, whom we all call Manoor. They tell me this farm has been in the family for seven hundred years. That doesn’t quite fit with their other story—that it was gifted to them by Maharana Udai Singh of Mewar in the 16th century. But I’ve learnt not to question too deep. It seems best to let the farm, and the village of Varda, retain some mystery. I have a love of this village and a partiality to this cenotaph. It has already helped me make a good photo or two. My favourite is the photo of the farm worker, Mula, who I’d been told was a good worker, but had “some problem”. Perhaps this is why I photographed him staring emptily towards the sky. Later, after Rajesh Soni had hand-coloured the finished photo, I’d titled it “Alone”. It seemed to fit, though what Mula’s problems were, and why he seemed to be socially shunned, were unanswered questions. Things on the farm often stay silent and out of sight, like the leopards that live in the crags atop the adjacent hills.
It’s been nearly two years now since we moved the Udaipur studio to Manoor’s compound in Varda. From my flat in the city it’s a half-hour drive, past the blue expanse of Badi Lake and into the lush valley between the hills. I have Ganpat, my assistant and friend, to thank for finding this place, and Manoor for allowing me to build a shed with corrugated tins to use as my photo studio. I call it my “cowshed” because that is what it looks like. But the studio light is good, even though it has a gobar floor. It stands in a portion of what was once Manoor’s bhindi patch. Nearby is a partially finished concrete house Manoor had been building for his family. He ran out of money and the structure sat unusable until I, the crazy artist, showed up. These days it stores painted backdrops rolled loosely around bamboos. Ganpat and my other assistant, Jai, will often share a drink with me at sunset on the roof. Our favourite obsessive-compulsive peacock climbs the neem tree like clockwork, roosting for the night.
We look down from the roof and wave to Manoor and wife toasting makki roti on an earthen hearth in the courtyard of their earthen home. Manoor often joins us for a drink and passes a beedi. His wife then sends up the corn roti with rabri. Much later, after midnight, the leopards slink behind the compound to lick water from the tap. When a goat goes missing, the villagers mutter a knowing murmur, but there’s seldom an outward display of fuss.
I’ve learned that Varda holds good water. Right through the dry season the deep old wells stay green with ferns and moss. When the sporadic electric supply allows, there is a chugging of the rusted pump that pushes water into the irrigation furrows. Corn is planted early in July, and wheat late in October. But an early rain two seasons ago ruined the just-harvested wheat and the corn this year rotted before it ripened. Farming is a gambler’s game. Too much water can be as big a problem as too little. Connecting with this farm community has attuned my own consciousness to the shifting fortunes of weather. Unlike Manoor and Ram Singh, I cannot divine a forecast from scanning the horizon, but the necessity of rain and proper growth cycles has been impressed on me. Food, I now realise, is not a given. There are climatic reasons for onion prices shooting up and down and certain vegetables disappearing from the bazaars.
A clinking of bottles awakes me from my nap at the cenotaph. I’ve fallen asleep next to Kuka, just as I have often fallen asleep in the charpoy on the concrete roof after the peacock has climbed to his roost and the sun has set behind the mountain. Kuka is snoring, and Kashu has returned with eggs and whiskey. There is a new clattering of pans and utensils. About a dozen eggs are set to boil in a handleless saucepan resting on a small fire of sticks propped up with stones. Meanwhile, the once beautiful vegetables have been steamed to muck in a pressure cooker nestled in adjacent flames. My western sensibilities sometimes cringe at this insistence on transforming fresh produce into a ghee-laden, lip-burning mush. Yet I hunger for it, sometimes even crave it, and on a day like this, with the chillum’s pungent dreams overpowering me, I am positively starving for it. But there is a long time left for it to cook. “Chacha bhookha hai?” Manoor asks, wiggling the pan in the flames. Ganpat looks up from his card game with Ram Singh and asks, “Mogambo khush hua?” It is his special tease for me. “Mogambo khush hua,” I repeat, as gangster-pompous as I can manage. Everyone laughs. Ganpat holds a small bottle of whiskey up as if proposing a toast. For a moment I think he is offering it to me, but he smiles and shouts “Jai Mata Di!”, then takes a swig for himself and hands it back to Ram Singh.
I let my mind drift back over the day as the eggs boil and the pressure cooker erupts with its sharp scolding hiss. It was not a good day. The photo we tried to make, by another tree, had been a failure. We did what we normally do: stretch the painted backdrop cloth over a mammoth wooden frame which needs at least three people to hold it in place. But what seemed like a gentle breeze instead surprised us with gusts powerful enough to whip the frame again and again out of Kuka’s and Kashu’s hands. A sky of spotty clouds did not help. It was a struggle to get the model, backdrop and camera in sync with rapidly shifting conditions. Shadows and bleaching light seemed to take turns denying us opportunities. Eventually, when the last clouds had left us with only blinding sun, we’d given up. It was Jai who had suggested we cook curry near the cenotaph. Jai prided himself on his cooking skills, but as soon as the others had agreed to the plan, the job was taken over by the brothers. The typical small debate ensued: mutton or chicken? I lobbied long and insistently for anda. In the end, perhaps everyone knew it was I who most needed comforting. Our rest and our meal were to be compensation for the wasted energy of a futile day.
So, now, in this moment, Mogambo khush hua. Shells are being removed from hard-boiled eggs, a final sprinkle of green coriander added to the top of the curry. Manoor Singh is quartering the eggs with a pocket knife. Ganpat and Ram Singh are folding away their cards and spreading their blanket wide to make room for all to sit. Kashu has not only brought eggs but pale green chai glasses as well. This afternoon they will not be holding tea. Jai dips them in water pulled from the well, wipes them dry with a soiled white cloth, pours equal parts whiskey for all.
My mind is going backwards again. To the good days. Like the day we made a fabulous photo of Sumer Singh in his field of golden wheat. The day Ram Singh’s son Kasar posed for us while planting corn. The day a handsome young man named Suraj had modelled with the neighbour, Babu Singh, near a thick-limbed tree. The people of Varda have been good to me. They’ve lent a helping hand without my asking. They’ve modelled for a few rupees and a cigarette. They’ve tolerated my idiosyncrasies. They’ve sought to learn about me in the same way I have sought to learn about them . . . With the implicit understanding that some questions must remain unasked, that some things must remain mysterious.
I join everyone on the fully extended blanket. Warm rotis, unwrapped from foil, appear magically. Manoor pushes the first piece of anda through my lips. The effect of the chillum has made the lateafternoon light sparkle in a manner I’ve never seen. The joke is wearing thin, but once again Manoor is asking, “Mogambo khush hua?” This time I only answer, “Swaadisht.” I look across the wide field of wheat and see my studio. I see Manoor’s mud home, and behind it the concrete roof where we usually party. I cannot see the peacock, but I know he will soon be coming, working his way down the mountain path until he finds his special neem. I cannot see the leopards either, but I know they are there. They are realities in Varda, not legends, and although I have never seen one, I know they are there. Some things ought to remain mysterious. And then, halfway through a handful of anda curry, I realise this has been a good day too.
Waswo X Waswo is an artist who has travelled in India for over 12 years and has lived in udaipur for the past eight. He collaborated with a variety of local artists there. his books are India Poems: The Photographs and Men of Rajasthan. Waswo has also produced a series of autobiographical miniature paintings