Two Artists Immortalize a Centuries-Old Indian Performance Tradition

GURUGRAM, India — Gauri Dancers: The Opera of Mewar, presented by Latitude 28 in conjunction with Museo Camera Centre for the Photographic Arts, offers a new perspective into a performance art tradition from India. The show explores a series of dreamy hand-colored, black and white images by photographer Waswo X. Waswo in collaboration with third-generation hand-colorist Rajesh Soni, both of whom are based in Udaipur. 

The Gauri Dance is a centuries-old tradition of oral literature and performing arts by way of dance and drama, passed down over the generations among the Gauri tribe of Southern Rajasthan. The dance is performed by men and young boys, mostly farmers by profession. The male troupes play the roles of goddesses and women in this playful musical theater, and dress themselves in traditional women’s clothing. For 40 days, the Gauri dancers visit all the neighboring villages, performing from morning until sunset, narrating local tales and retellings of Indian mythology, folktales, and religious texts like the Mahabharata. 

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

Waswo has had a longstanding relationship with the Gauri dancers and has traveled far and wide into the the rural landscape of Rajasthan to uncover the dancers’ tale. He made his first portrait of a Gauri performer in 2010 on encountering a man with a plastic cowboy hat, women’s bangles on his arms, and glitter on his face. In 2012, he took his initial photographs of the dancers when they visited his own village of Varda to perform from morning to sunset with the whole village watching.

“I’m in love with the Gauri Dance,” Waswo enthuses. “It is so filled with improvisation, spontaneity, and magic! Watching it can be entrancing, and by the end, the entire village shares a communal harmony. People become possessed by the spirits, jumping up to tremble in ecstasy. Watching Gauri transports me to a different age and worldview.”

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

His curiosity to witness and document this tradition has even taken him to faraway villages to photograph different troupes performing in other settings. “These farm boys crossdress and wear makeup, and enact the roles of women. Some are rather ungainly in these outfits, yet most seem delighted to express a different gender role than their norm. It’s all in good fun, but [it’s] also a release from the societal norms that normally restrict them,” he notes. 

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

The two artists have been working together since the 2000s, with each artist contributing a unique aesthetic to their joint projects. Waswo shares of the collaboration, “Rajesh caught my desire for translucent and soft colors that allowed the beauty of the original photograph to show through. It is amazing to watch him brush on the colors of each individual photograph. He’s become a true master.”

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

The collaboration has resulted in a theatrical series of fantastical photographs that capture the enigma that is the Gauri dancers. However, Waswo worries that the art form may lose its essence to commercialization. “Over the past few years, there has been some intervention by NGOs and the local government, in an effort to ‘rescue’ Gauri from extinction. I don’t think it needs rescuing. It is ingrained within the society and much loved. I’m afraid it will be commercialized and distorted; the length of it shortened for the tourist trade, and the wildly spontaneous costuming and props will be made standardized. If that happens, the ironic coupling of reverence and irreverence at the heart of Gauri may disappear.”

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

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