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India Poems Introduce People and Places of Subcontinent

This summer, Milwaukee residents and visitors had a chance to see India's villages with their people, shops, fields, rivers and temples. They did it without leaving the city. India came to Wisconsin through a photograph exhibit that drew attention and stirred emotions. Faiza El Masry reports.

Lee Coppernoll leads the way along a wall of photographs. Haggerty Museum's acting director says the exhibit of images and words is called India Poems.

"These are photographs by Waswo X Waswo, a Milwaukee photographer," she says. "What's interesting about them is they really are photographs of rural India today."

"I, for some reason, have had a fascination with India ever since I was very young. Photographer Waswo says. So fascinated that he spends most of his time in India, between homes in Udaipur and Goa.

Waswo focuses his lens on India's villages -- from rice fields, riverbanks and market places to temples and teahouses. His show also includes portraits of villagers -- farmers, shopkeepers, old women and young children. One of his favorites is of a rickshaw driver.

"It's a photograph of a bicycle 'rickshaw-wallah' [driver] sitting in his passenger seat, the backseat, waiting for a customer," he says. "He has bare feet, he has a pagdi [turban] wrapped around his head, his hands are folded. He has a very beautiful, peaceful expression on his face. He is staring right in the camera."

Like most of the photos in this collection, Waswo says, he wrote a poem that goes with it.

The poem says: They are moving past you faster these days. / You hear their horns /And see their tail lights; / The young girls in jeans / Pull your eyes off the road. The Marutis [Suzuki model] have a simple ego. / The SUVs are hugely vain. / At night / The rhythm of your straining day / Still throbs deep in your legs. /Sometimes it seems / you are pedaling backwards, / Out of a world / Rushing forward, / Racing to forget.

Before opening in Milwaukee this summer, India Poems toured museums and galleries in the subcontinent for two years. Waswo says most visitors liked it.

"The people I'd consider the common people, that I make friends with on a day-to-day basis, namely my barbers, my rickshaw-wallahs, chai [tea] shop people, shop owners," he says. "These sorts of people, when I would invite them to a show to see my photographs, often really like the show. Generally, criticisms came from people who saw themselves as more urban and sophisticated, because I think there is a feeling of being threatened, that you are showing something of India they are trying to get beyond, you know."

The photos got similar mixed responses in Milwaukee, according to Haggerty's Lee Coppernoll.

"We actually had lots of people, Indian citizens of Milwaukee were here, as well as people who traveled a lot to India," she says. "Some people liked the fact that it focused on rural life of India today because there are still millions and millions of people living the rural life not as affected by automation, computers and things. But other people [say] 'This is not the India that I know.'"

But other exhibit visitors found it very familiar.

"People who came from India 30 years ago, they looked at it and said, 'That reminds me of home. I've seen fields like that back home," Nabash Memon adds. "they say, 'I've seen buildings like that. The trees remind me of the place I lived at.'"

The 24-year-old medical engineering graduate student came to Milwaukee more recently. He says he liked the collection and invited some of his American friends to see it.

"A lot of them had actually started laughing," he says. "They were joking like, 'Is this what your country has to offer, just cows and poor people?' I was like, 'No, that represents just one part of India, but it doesn't really reflect modern India.'"

Waswo admits that there is no sign of metropolitan India with its malls, multiplexes, high-speed metro system and state-of-the art hospitals in his pictures. Those aspects of contemporary India, he says, don't capture his curiosity as a photographer.

"I tend to see beauty in things that are rural, a life style that's perhaps slower, less hectic, less hurried," he explains. "Through my photographs and my camera, I have tried to seek out what I see as sort of an essence of India, what makes India special, rather than just the globalized culture, because to me it's very homogenous. It's pretty much the same whether you are in Tokyo or London or New York or Bombay."

But Waswo's photos of the 'essence of India' captured a global commonality for visitor Brenda Schendel.

"The humanity of the people just comes through tremendously," she says. "The very first one I looked at reminded me of the women that were photographed during the FarmWorks Administration of Roosevelt's tenure as president, when photographers were sent into the deep South. That woman has the same expression on her face, the same kind of dignity [as the people in the photographs taken during the Depression].

The museum's Lee Coppernoll says that's what she likes best about Waswo's collection. It stirs discussions, raises questions and helps gallery visitors recognize the differences and similarities among people, now and then, here and elsewhere.