Home Performing arts Two artists immortalize centuries-old Indian performance tradition

Two artists immortalize centuries-old Indian performance tradition

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GURUGRAM, India – Gauri Dancers: The Mewar Opera, presented by Latitude 28 in collaboration with the Museo Camera Center for the Photographic Arts, offers a fresh perspective on a performance art tradition from India. The exhibition explores a series of hand-colored black and white images by photographer Waswo X. Waswo in collaboration with third-generation hand colorist Rajesh Soni, both based in Udaipur.

Gauri dance is a centuries-old tradition of oral literature and performing arts through dance and drama, passed down from generation to generation among the Gauri tribe of southern Rajasthan. The dance is performed by men and young boys, mostly farmers by profession. Male troupes play the roles of goddesses and women in this playful musical theater, and dress in traditional female clothing. For 40 days, Gauri dancers visit all neighboring villages, performing from morning to sunset, telling local tales and tales from Indian mythology, folk tales and religious texts like the Mahabharata.

Waswo X. Waswo, “Untitled”, from the series Gauris dancers, black and white pigment print, hand colored by Rajesh Soni, 18 x 12 inches

Waswo has a long-standing relationship with the Gauri Dancers and has traveled all over the rural Rajasthani landscape to learn about the history of the dancers. He made his first portrait of a Gauri artist in 2010 when he met a man with a plastic cowboy hat, women’s bracelets on his arms, and sequins on his face. In 2012, he took his first photographs of the dancers when they visited his own village of Varda to perform from morning until sunset before the eyes of the whole village.

“I’m in love with the Gauri dance,” Waswo enthusiastically. “It’s so filled with improvisation, spontaneity and magic! Watching it can be spellbinding, and in the end, the whole village shares a community harmony. People become possessed by the spirits, jumping until they tremble with ecstasy. Watching Gauri transports me to a different age and worldview.

Waswo X. Waswo, “Untitled”, from the series Gauris dancers, black and white pigment print, hand colored by Rajesh Soni, 18 x 12 inches

His curiosity to witness and document this tradition even took him to distant villages to photograph various troupes performing in other contexts. “These farm boys dress up, put on makeup and play the roles of women. Some are rather unsightly in these outfits, but most seem excited to be voicing a different gender role than their norm. Everything is fun, but [it’s] also a liberation from societal norms which normally restrict them, ”he notes.

The Gauri dancers became the subjects of Waswo’s frames in a series of digitally poignant studio photographs, which were then carefully hand-painted by Soni, who continues her family’s legacy by hand-painting studio photographs vintage. These images ended up in the book Gauris dancers by Mapin Publishing in 2019, alongside texts by Pramod Kumar KG, Waswo X. Waswo and Sonika Soni.

The two artists have worked together since the 2000s, each artist bringing a unique aesthetic to their joint projects. Waswo shares the collaboration: “Rajesh caught my desire for translucent and soft colors which allowed the beauty of the original photograph to shine through. It’s amazing to see him brush the colors of each individual photograph. He has become a real master.

Waswo X. Waswo, “Untitled”, from the series Gauris dancers, black and white pigment print, hand colored by Rajesh Soni, 18 x 12 inches

The collaboration has resulted in a theatrical series of fantastic photographs that capture the enigma that the Gauri dancers are. However, Waswo feared that the art form might lose its essence in favor of commercialization. “In recent years, there have been interventions by NGOs and local government, in an effort to ‘save’ Gauri from extinction. I don’t think he needs to be saved. She is anchored in society and very popular. I’m afraid it will be commercialized and distorted; the length of it has been shortened for the tourist trade, and wildly spontaneous costumes and accessories will be standardized. If that happens, the ironic coupling of reverence and irreverence at Gauri’s heart might disappear. “

Gauri Dancers: The Mewar Opera continues at the Museo Camera Center for the Photographic Arts (Shri Ganesh Mandir Marg, DLF Phase IV, Sector 28, Gurugram, Haryana, India) until October 15.

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