Express News Service
It was back in 2010 when photographer and writer Waswo X. Waswo noticed an unusual sight while at a barbershop in Varda, a village in Rajasthan. Out on the street, there was a boy wearing bangles, donning a cowboy hat, and with glitter on his face.
Surprised, he asked about the boy to his barber, Manoj. That’s when Waswo first heard about Gavari or Gauri dancers. Waswo took this boy immediately to his studio and shot a portrait of him. That’s how this US-born and Udaipur-based artist’s journey of photographing Gauri dancers began.
While Waswo took black-and-white portraits of these dancers, it was Rajesh Soni, a third-generation artist from Mewar, who added colour to these images using his hand-colouring skills. A culmination of years of their work has been documented in an eponymous book titled Gauri Dancers (2019).
The entire collection of published photographs from this book is now available for art enthusiasts across Delhi-NCR to view at an exhibition titled ‘Gauri Dancers’ in Gurugram’s Galerie at Museo, Museo Camera Centre for Photographic Arts till October 15.
The exhibition is presented by the art gallery Latitude 28. Bhavna Kakar, founder-director, Latitude 28, says, “Shot mostly at Waswo’s studio in the village of Varda, these photographs are captured digitally, though the staging itself hearkens back to the days of painted backdrops, arranged sets, and natural light. Selected images are printed digitally on matte, fibre-based papers, with archival inks.”
A generations-old dance practise among a few tribes of Rajasthan’s Mewar region, Gauri dance is a 40-day event in which several troupes of boys and men, dressed as women, go across villages performing folk tales and retellings of the Bhagavad Gita, the Ramayana or the Puranas.
The men – mostly farmers – are supposed to follow a strict lifestyle during these days. This includes eating vegetarian food, sleeping on the floor, and avoiding alcohol and smoking.
Fascinated by this unique art form, Waswo started photographing these dancers, each with a unique backdrop. The artist, who moved to Udaipur from Goa in 2006, says, “One of the reasons this dance attracted me was that it has a lot of gender bending. It is a male-only tradition so all the female roles are played by men and there’s a lot of cross-dressing involved. While some of the men look very stiff behaving like a woman, there are some who totally get into the role. One of them was even flirting with me when I was photographing him!”
Waswo, who has spent years with the Gauri’s, says, “Some of these performances also have local and political satires intertwined in their tales. So the dance tradition, while religious, is also a source of entertainment for the villagers.”
Behind the scenes
Just like Waswo, Rajesh Soni also encountered the Gauri’s in a rather unique manner. “I was in the sixth standard and was walking to my school when I saw these men dance. I ended up bunking my school and stood watching them,” says Soni.
Back then he was unaware that the Gauri’s would play such an important role in his career. Soni’s meeting with Waswo, 17 years ago in Udaipur, was by chance as well. “Waswo came to Udaipur and exhibited his sepia-toned photographs. I felt it’d be great to see photographs by an American artist. That is when I introduced him to my family art. I hand-coloured one of his photographs and that’s how our collaboration started,” says Soni.
Waswo concludes, “People who come to see this exhibition should remember that while I click these photographs in black and white, it is Soni who puts colour in them with his meticulous skills.”