The Eye of the Beholder

How three expat artists approach religion and its relevance in contemporary India

01 June 2012
‘Your Eyes’ by Olivia Fraser.

GUESTS AT THE OPENING of artist Waswo X Waswo’s exhibition, Confessions of an Evil Orientalist, last December at Gallery Espace, were presented with a copy of a slim comic book titled ‘The Evil Orientalist’. Its panels had been drawn in the style of Rajasthani miniature paintings, with speech bubbles in both English and Hindi which narrated the minor adventures in India of a bumbling but amiable American dressed in a linen suit and a white hat.

One panel showed the American, who is the Evil Orientalist of the title, astride a tiger like the goddess Durga, holding a bottle of packaged water, a camera, a fork and some other tourist essentials in his six hands. At another place in the book, he was the four-armed Lakshmi, standing on a lotus flower and dispensing money. The accompanying speech panel had him complaining that the locals see him as an ATM machine. In the final panel, he is down on one knee, tearing his chest open with his bare hands like Hanuman in the Ramayana, revealing a heart cracked right through the middle. “INDIA…,” says the caption “You break my heart!”

The exhibition, too, featured miniature paintings like the ones in the comic book, as well as installations and black and white photographs hand-coloured in the traditional style, all of which reflect a foreigner’s tongue-in-cheek view of contemporary India and his place in it. The satirical use of figures of gods and goddesses shows the comfort level in using religious imagery that can only come with an extended involvement with India.

Himanshu Bhagat is a Delhi-based freelance writer.

Keywords: India painting contemporary oriental European mythology expat religious symbolism