The Eye of the Beholder

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

‘Your Eyes’ by Olivia Fraser. COURTESY OLIVIA FRASER
01 June, 2012

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.

The varied religious traditions of Hindus, along with their sacred texts and philosophies, have historically exerted a strong pull on many in the West. While this curiosity has resulted in a long and distinguished tradition of academic scholarship on these subjects by Europeans, there hasn’t been an engagement on a similar level in the field of plastic arts. The early artistic explorations of these traditions in India date back to the Company School of art from the colonial era, but this was only a selective representation of religion—the style of painting by Indian artists in India looked at Indian life from the British point of view, having been commissioned by European patrons. The works of independent European artists during this time, on the other hand, were marked by a more detached look at the subject. For example, the paintings of William Hodges and of Thomas and William Daniells from the late 18th century, which emerged out of their travels through India, tended, largely, to be documentary in nature. In their aquatints and watercolours, they recorded the sights of India—people and landscapes—but steered clear of exploring  native religious beliefs.

But the changes in the last century, primarily the end of colonial rule in India and its rising economic and geopolitical importance, have been accompanied by changing attitudes in the West towards India. There is still no dearth of “quaint” aspects that inspire continual fascination, but India is also now a subject of interest in its own right, full of complexities that come with a place of its size and cultural diversity.

And so it comes as no surprise that a generation of expatriate artists who have spent time in India are creating art that reflects these new attitudes. Sharing Waswo’s interest in the religious and spiritual in India are two other artists—Michael Bühler-Rose from the US and Olivia Fraser from the UK—whose joint exhibition, Interrogating Conventions, at Gallery Nature Morte in New Delhi in March was marked by its novel approach towards the subject.

‘Sapna Playing Sita’ by Waswo X Waswo. COURTESY WASWO X WASWO

While Waswo casts a wry and affectionate eye on his life and experiences in Rajasthan, often employing commonly known religious symbols and themes in his staged photographs and miniatures, Fraser borrows her subjects and techniques from schools of miniature painting in Rajasthan and draws inspirations from the Tantric, Vedic and Bhakti traditions. The works of Bühler-Rose, who exhibited photographs and video installations at Nature Morte, have been based on puja rituals and religious icons. Fraser, Bühler-Rose and Waswo have immersed themselves in the local environments and traditions out of which they seek to create art, and their works indicate their refreshing takes on stereotypical portrayals—both in India and elsewhere—of the country’s religious and mythological iconography.

While India is home to Fraser and Waswo, Bühler-Rose, who has spent long stretches of time here, now lives in the US where he is a practising Vaishnava priest. For all three, art is the way in which they engage with the country and its culture, and each one’s work is an expression of their individual relationship to India.

Fraser’s connection to Indian art can be traced back to the year 1801 when her forebears, the brothers James and William Fraser, arrived in India from Scotland to make their fortunes. Between them, they fought in military campaigns, explored the Himalayas, made famous engravings of Himalayan scenery and Calcutta cityscapes, and commissioned local artists to draw watercolours which were later compiled into the famous Fraser Album. In an email, Fraser described the contents of the album as “the supreme masterpiece of late Mughal and Company School painting portraying the different types of people and their jobs, crafts or castes…” She considers this “hybrid form of painting, where Indian artists created something that mixed techniques and ideas from the East and West, … as the starting point of [her] work.”

Fraser, who was born in London in 1965, studied modern languages at Oxford University before moving on to Wimbledon Art College. In 1989, she came to India to carry forward the legacy of the Fraser Album by painting watercolours of contemporary Indian subjects in a similar style. During her initial years in Delhi, she was captivated by Mughal miniatures and Company School drawings, and recalls being “knocked sideways” on her first visit to the miniature painting gallery at the National Museum in New Delhi. It was during this time that she made the pen and ink illustrations of old buildings and people for the City of Djinns, her husband William Dalrymple’s classic Delhi travelogue that was published in 1993.

Over the years, her interest shifted to Rajasthani miniatures and, seven years ago, she became an apprentice miniature painter in Jaipur. She was intrigued by the pre-Mughal roots of Rajasthani painting and by the fact that its iconography—the shapes, colours, placement of objects, and symbolic meanings associated with representations of gods and goddesses—held sacred meaning and significance. “I was keen to discover the origin of the symbolism of sacred shape, structure, colour and form as this all became relevant to my own practice as an artist looking into the sacred Hindu tradition,” she said. “It seemed to me that [these schools of art] were built on a very strong backbone of arcane knowledge and that Tantric art could contain answers to my questions.”

‘You Break My Heart’ by Waswo X Waswo. COURTESY WASWO X WASWO

To Fraser, Tantric art, with its abstract and geometrical forms, “seemed to present a universal aesthetic, which crossed boundaries and which was both ancient and modern at the same time”. It reminded her of the modernist movement in European art but, she said, she found it more subtle and rich in its philosophy and in its “erotic force”. The study of Tantric philosophy led Fraser to, in turn, study the Vedas, the Upanishads and the Bhakti tradition.

The influence of these diverse but intimately linked religious and spiritual currents was visible in the paintings she exhibited at Gallery Nature Morte. The works have been influenced by two schools of art in particular: the Pichwai miniature paintings of Nathdwara, which have as their centrepiece the iconic representation of Krishna as the infant Shrinathji, and the 19th-century ‘monumental’ miniatures of Jodhpur (so called because these miniature-style works were painted on larger surfaces), which are deeply informed by the Tantric tradition and revere the immortal yogi Jalandhar Nath.

Adding to the works’ appeal is Fraser’s use of methods and techniques of miniature painters. She uses traditional colours, some of which are made by finely grinding and mixing semiprecious stone pigments such as malachite and lapis lazuli. The colours are then painted on handmade Sanganer paper with a brush tipped with a single squirrel hair.

‘Godhuli Bela’ by Olivia Fraser COURTESY NATURE MORTE GALLERY

But her paintings do not look like traditional miniatures. Fraser literally deconstructs the traditional miniature painting, often taking apart its elements, motifs and even colours, and laying them side by side in separate frames. The first drawing of her ‘Mount Meru Triptych’ depicts the ocean with a simple blue spiral whorl pattern that covers the whole frame; the earth, in the middle frame, is represented by Mount Meru, depicted as an even-sided triangle made from gold leaf assembled in a pattern of stacked decorative hills; and in the third frame, the sky is represented by a pattern of little, unfurled Japanese-fan shaped clouds.

The triptych is uncluttered, simple enough to be grasped by a child and dominated by basic geometrical shapes. In another show at another gallery, it could have been titled ‘Three Squares and a Triangle’. Fraser gives another, practically identical triptych a completely different meaning by simply turning upside down the triangle in the middle frame. It now represents an inverted Mount Mandara, the mountain that the gods used to churn the ocean in the epic story of Samudra Manthan from the Puranas.

The same minimalist approach marks Fraser’s take on the familiar Shrinathji icon. Her treatment can be playful, which is appropriate considering that Shrinathji is, after all, a representation of the baby Krishna. But it retains an aura of seriousness and even profundity, which is again apt given that Shrinathji also represents the Absolute.

The five Shrinathji heads in ‘I See Him Now’, encased in overlapping bright yellow halos, are placed in a row and are flanked by his two palms which face the viewer. One head features his eyes, and the others his ears, nose and mouth respectively. Together with the hands, they represent the five senses. The yellow colour is a reference to Krishna’s clothes, while the black-indigo in the background is a reminder of the conventional complexion of the Shrinathji icon.

‘I see him now’ by Olivia Fraser COURTESY NATURE MORTE GALLERY

Fraser again departs from the rules of the miniature tradition when she raises the surfaces of her paintings, as in the case of the Shrinathji halos. She achieves this by applying layers of the handmade Sanganer paper to the desired portion of the work’s surface, thus raising it, and then smoothing out the edges. The reference here is to the Tantric tradition, in which geometry, like colour, is a way of visualising abstract metaphysical concepts. “The shapes in the works are archetypal [and] meditational,” Fraser said. “The relief in different shapes is an oblique reference to the significance of these shapes.”

Her works are replete with such symbolism. Each frame in the ‘Radha Krishna’ diptych features a grid of nine lotuses, sketched in various stages of completion, with the one in the centre fully drawn with all its details. The ‘Radha’ frame on the left is yellow in colour and features a raised inverted triangle that represents the ‘Yoni’, which signifies Shakti, or the female principle. The one on the right has a standing triangle, signifying Shiva or the male principle. The lotuses as well as the background in this frame are painted in various shades of blue, the colour associated with Krishna.

While the triangles in this diptych can be traced to the Tantric tradition, the title, ‘Radha Krishna’ is from the Bhakti tradition. The lotuses are considered sacred and crop up frequently in Hindu iconography, and the number nine, as Fraser pointed out to me, comes from the nine stages of joy in Tantra and the nine steps to achieve Nirvana.

Here, and elsewhere, Fraser picks and chooses from various sources, thus diverting from the rigid rules of representation that govern the traditional schools of art. The outcome, however, is a harmonious balance of colour and geometry, which is used to represent familiar religious icons, stories and principles in unusual ways.

“I love the sacred nature of tradition but instead of copying and repeating old stereotypes, I am attempting to pare down, abstractify and transform the sacred into something new and contemplative,” Fraser said about her work. “It has been very much a journey for me into India—exploring miniature paintings’ visual language in my search to uncover its essence, stripping it down to its archetype, treating it as a language and deconstructing it.” She hopes that those who like her works would want to know more about the religious and philosophical concepts she alludes to.

AS A 14-YEAR-OLD BOY growing up in New Jersey, Michael Bühler-Rose read the Bhagavadgita and became curious about the spiritual world presented in the holy book.

The interest led to repeated trips to India and, ultimately, to his becoming a priest, a pujari, in the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition. (Gaudiya refers to Gaud or Bengal, and Vaishnava to the tradition of worshiping Vishnu.) Alongside this spiritual journey, he studied art in universities in the US. “I am … a follower of Chaitanya [Mahaprabhu] as facilitated by ISKCON,” he said over the phone from Vrindavan, where he was visiting at the time of our conversation. ISKCON, or the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, is the formal name of the Hare Krishna movement, known in India for its beautiful Krishna temples and for having a large number of disciples outside India.

“There is my art life and there is the spiritual practice, and I am trying to unite the two,” said Bühler-Rose. An example of his attempts at achieving this unity was the video at Gallery Nature Morte titled ‘Black by the Light of the Sun’, which begins with a shot of a hand spreading a salt-like substance on a crinkled sheet of paper. A magnifying lens appears and is held over this bed of powder, focusing the rays of the sun at one spot. Time ticks away and nothing happens, until, all of a sudden, the powder at that very spot bursts into flames that rapidly spread across the whole screen. Parts of the screen start turning black, and you realise that the smoke and the soot from the camphor flames are blackening the camera lens. As the whole frame goes pitch black, ghostly, almost imperceptible remnants of the yellow flame can be seen flickering in one corner.

The bright white filling the screen, bursting into an explosive yellow before finally turning pitch black could be a metaphor for a number of things—the beginning and end of a cosmic cycle, or the brevity of an individual life cycle. The spectacle is visually arresting; igniting camphor (the white powder) with the aid of direct sunlight is an obvious reference to Hindu rituals.

Another work that ties together art and spirituality is titled ‘Camphor Flame on Pedestal’ and, in a series of six photos, shows exactly what the title promises. Bühler-Rose likens it to artwork in a museum, like a bust sitting atop a pedestal. The ephemeral dance of the naked flame and the black smoke wafting up above it is a sight that does not need an explanatory note. Bühler-Rose said it reminded him of the Havan Kund, the pit where the fire is lit for pooja.

‘Second Incarnation The First’ by Waswo X Waswo. COURTESY WASWO X WASWO

Religion is only an oblique presence in Bühler-Rose’s other works. A couple of photos from the exhibit are of objects assembled on a table in the tradition of classic Dutch still life portraits of fruit, flowers and food. One features a brass prayer lamp, a crisp, new folded silk lungi with gold trimming, flowers, papaya and pomegranate sliced open, and a truly exotic orchid plant in full bloom. The objects are mostly Indian but the setting and sensibility of the image draws upon traditions of European art.

Today’s hybrid East-West, boundary-blurring globalised reality is further brought home through a series of large photographs of American girls attired in sumptuous ethnic Indian finery. Had these girls—draped in silk and gold and with kohl-lined eyes—been Indian, posing for the camera and looking like maidens out of Raja Ravi Varma lithographs, Bühler-Rose would probably have been accused of perpetuating Oriental stereotypes. As it happens, these girls, from in central Florida in the US, were actually students of Bharatnatyam.

In these and a few other works on display, Bühler-Rose’s concerns appear to be more sociological or even anthropological in nature, playing with assumptions that link geography and cultural traditions. For a Vaishnava priest living in America, such concerns are likely more than just academic.

A similar blend of social observation and introspection expressed through the medium of religious imagery marks Waswo’s miniatures, photographs and installations. Waswo, 58, grew up in Wisconsin listening to stories about India and China, countries where his father had served during the Second World War. He first came to India as a tourist and, for the most part, has been based in Udaipur since 1999. Through his works,he reflects on the people around him and seeks to figure out his place among them. Religious imagery pops up often, not because of Waswo’s personal interest in religion but because it is so much a part of the lives of those around him.

“For me, the process of making my art has become the subject of my art,” Waswo said over the phone from Udaipur. He began by taking photographs with his Rolleiflex camera and making old-fashioned sepia prints of these images. When he displayed the photos in India, though, he was accused of “taking pictures of women with pots on their heads”. Waswo says he was doing in India exactly what he had done in England, Italy and Australia—“seeking out things that were a little timeless and giving them a sepia tone”.

He felt that because of India’s postcolonial sensitivities, he faced tacit restrictions on what he could or couldn’t photograph. His latest show, Confessions of an Evil Orientalist, was, in this sense, a response to the early reactions to his work. “My solution was to stop photographing on the street. Because there the presumption is that the work is documentary and expresses the reality of the country. By taking it into the studio indoors and with a staged environment [I am announcing] that this is not documentary; this is a construct,” he said.

To try a safer approach, Waswo switched from sepia to digital photography and employed a traditional photo-colourist, Rajesh Soni, to paint his photos, giving them a vintage feel and a local flavour. Shot against painted backdrops of the kind used as props in small-town studios and village fairs, his photos appear playful to the audience. His models are inspired from people in villages or small towns—mendicants, men and women in traditional Rajasthani attire; at times, young men, often bare-chested and clad in tight jeans, posing in front of tableaus inspired by the Ramayana.

His ‘Second Incarnation the First’ is a shot of a young man playing Hanuman as he flies across the skies to the battlefield in Lanka, carrying the mountain with the life-giving Sanjivani herb. Prostrate and aloft mid-air, he is balancing a small replica of the mountain on his right hand and gripping a mace with his left. He also sports a red tail that has clearly been painted on the surface of the black-and-white photograph.

Unlike his peers, Waswo is not exploring religion, but using religious symbolism as a means to comment on India. For example, Krishna to him stands for “male sexuality that is privileged” and Hanuman for “masculinity and the male ego”. Waswo is fascinated by simpler people, in whose day-to-day lives religion plays a more pronounced role. And he faithfully represents aspects of their lives, like clothes and food, that are untouched by modernity.

The subject of his miniature paintings—conceived by him but actually drawn by the Rajasthani artist R Vijay—is himself, the Orientalist American who takes photos of the exotica and makes a life for himself in India. His collaborator, Vijay, is a self-taught artist whose work has been described by critics as winningly childlike. The witty drawings of the duo puncture the evil Orientalist’s pretensions, poke fun at his spiritual quests and lay bare his insecurities, but, in the process, they show him, essentially, as a nice person.

“I am often asked, ‘Who is your guru?’” Waswo said. “I say, ‘My barber’, and I am not being flip.” For all their daily worries and tribulations, Waswo feels that the humbler among us “keep a smile in their heart”.