Ismat, Barmer Silver gelatin print. 24 by 30 inches.
‘Notes from the Desert’ (1999 - 2010)
This extensive series is drawn from more than ten years of Gill
visiting her friends among rural communities in Western Rajasthan,
including Jogi nomads, Muslim migrants and Bishnoi peasants. The set of
pictures is also structured around performance and portraits; some
spontaneous, many posed in collaboration with their subjects. It
includes the Balika Mela Portraits at one end of the spectrum - posed
pictures made in a tent in Lunkaransar town; unplanned and spontaneous
portraits at the other end; and finally those photographs that were
staged in people’s real life environments, and so combined both
practices. The work references vernacular and popular practices of
photography and image making often found in and around the village -
including the studio portrait, passport photo, religious calendar art
and Bollywood posters.
The exhibition in Delhi also included a dimly lit room with the Birth
Series; and a wall in the main area displaying the Ruined Rainbow
Pictures, the only color works in the entire show.
“To set up a photographic project in rural Rajasthan, in black
and white, stretching over a decade, goes against the grain of several
stereotypes; and signals the maturing of a ‘voice’ within the corpus of
Photography in India. Defrocked of its color and tourism potential,
Rajasthan, is scoured at the nomadic margins; revealing lives in
transition: epic cycles of birth, death, drought, flood, celebration and
devastation, through which they pass. The extremity of the situation
requires no illustration or pictorialism- those vexed twins of the
colonial legacy- especially from an insider, or the one who is led by
the hand. Her subjects take her into their world, and she goes there
like Alice. Her method embraces ‘Time’- which does not ‘naturally’ exist
inside a photograph, beyond the epiphany and commemoration of a moment
(photography’s melancholy and limitation is precisely this)- within a
structure of intimacy and relationships that unravel their mysteries
From Anita Dube’s notes on the show in Delhi, published in Art India and Du magazine 2010.
In 2003 the non profit organization Urmul Setu Sansthan organised a Balika Mela - or fair for girls, in Lunkaransar town, attended by almost fifteen hundred adolescent girls from seventy surrounding villages. The Mela had various stalls, food, performances, a Ferris wheel, magicians, puppet shows, games and competitions, similar to any other small town fair. Urmul Setu invited the photographer to do something.
“I created a photo-stall for anyone to come in and have their portrait taken, and later buy the silver gelatin print at a subsidised rate if they wished. I had a few basic props and backdrops, whatever we could get from the local town studio and cloth shop on a very limited budget, but it was fairly minimal, and since it can get windy out in the desert everything would keep getting blown around, or periodically struck down. The light was the broad, even light of a desert sky, filtered through the cloth roof of our tent. Many of the more striking props - like the peacock and the paper hats - were brought in by the girls themselves. Girls came in, and decided how and with whom they would like to be photographed – best friends, new friends, sisters, the odd younger brother who had tagged along, girls with their teachers, the whole class, the local girl scouts. Some of those who posed for the pictures went on to learn photography in the workshops that we started in May of that year, and two years later they photographed the fair themselves.”
Gauri Gill, 2009
In 2010, Gill returned to attend a Balika Mela held after a gap of seven years, with an exhibition in a tent. Many of the girls portrayed in the pictures from 2003 were either at the fair or known to those who attended. She ended up making more portraits, this time in color.
"Gill’s photo document Balika Mela (2003-10) embodies India’s staggered engagement with modernity. What began with Ram Singh’s foto ka karkhana in the 1850s comes to Lunkaransar, 300 km from Jaipur, over 150 years later. For the young girls posing in the makeshift tent studio set up by Gill, the moment of improvisation becomes a performative gestalt. The girls perform gender, cross gender, divines, Bollywood, and just themselves, with an interested gaze at the camera. Technology enables mimicry that traverses class. The 19th century grand studio portrait of heavy velvet drapes and aristocratic subjects is here imitated with a stubborn confidence that exceeds the poverty of materials. Gill as a (woman) photographer lends agency, the freedom to perform, the return of the gaze, the playful mis-en-scene, not unlike the freedom for self representation afforded by the woman photographer in zenana studies, a hundred years ago."
The set of photographs was made when Gill lived for twelve days with a
great midwife in a remote village in Motasar, Barmer. Kasumbi Dai had
invited her to photograph her at work - in this case deliver her own
granddaughter. The photographer ending up helping with the birth.
Kasumbi Dai died in 2010.
“One room in the gallery contains a series of small photographs in
which the elderly midwife Kasumbi is delivering her granddaughter on
the sandy floor of their desert hut. The veiled mother-to-be, arms clad
to the shoulders in ivory bangles, strains and pushes. The midwife helps
by pressing the soles of her feet against the laboring woman’s and
grasps her hands to create resistance. We see the infant’s emerging head
and the outstretched hands guiding it into the world, and then the
newborn gasping its first breaths in the sand.
The great dramas of life and death, love and longing, growth and
change, captured in these images are presented with the same
matter-of-factness that accompanies these great life passages is this
place — with unadorned humanity rather than maudlin sentimentality.”
The series was edited by the photographer from rolls of film taken by
children photographing in the same dhanis or villages as her, and
discarded by them because they were ‘ruined’. When later displayed in a
row of C – prints in the gallery, they looked uncannily like a rainbow.
They are also another version of the places photographed by Gill in the
very same show – Notes from the Desert; serving both to disrupt her
narrative, and also to point to how each representation of a place is
highly subjective, only a realistic fiction.
Typing classes at Khalsa Diwan. Tilak Nagar, New Delhi, 2011
C - Print. 16 x 20 inches.
'What Remains' (2007 - 2011)
'What Remains’ looks at the displacement of the Afghani Sikh and Hindu
community from Kabul to Delhi, over successive waves of migration, to
question notions of identity, home and belonging.
The collaborative photo and text-based installation
includes Gill’s own photographs, taken in Kabul and Delhi; photographs
taken by members of the Indo-Afghani community on their visits back to
Afghanistan - overlaid by text taken from her interviews with
individuals; and texts by some of the children within the community,
drawn from writing workshops she conducted at the Khalsa Diwan Afghan
Hindu-Sikh Refugee association school in Tilak Nagar.
“What do we take, what do we leave behind, who we were there and who
we become here, and through it all what remains...what continues to live
in and around us, or in our children. I am interested in the act of
making such physical journeys, both by individuals and communities." -
Alok and Sumati Patel-Parekh. Silicon Valley, California 2001
Archival pigment print. 27 x 40 inches
The Future Infinitives
All over those bland, continuous states, in ghettos amalgamated beyond Sikh, Muslim, Hindu to one easy race- name, South Asian, one umbrella brand, Indian-American, in basement sublets, dorms, mortgaged cookie cut homes where god lights blare like truck horns, coatless or bundled, hardhat headscarf askew in cold sun, a mother and daughter slaughter ready at the register, or that man, rushed, clenched shut at Dunkin’ Donuts, at Apna Bazar Cash and Carry, on Roosevelt, a food-fragrant driver of a yellow taxi, those sisters, shy and not shy, rival sports trophies and photos arrayed, the dead one’s husband, emperor sized bed against uncurtained white wife light, empty house and he alone with remote, & the priests of the convention cathedrals, limp wrists extended over wine cocktails, suits and flesh glossy in the gloaming, wild glint of fossil fuel, DCs far domes winking yellow, oh all over those blonde, bland states, saying to Gauri’s camera, It’s me, barefoot in the ballroom of the dream, poised, posed, alone, almost American.
‘The Americans’ (2000 - 2007)
"Nearly five decades after Robert Frank, Gauri Gill takes a series of solitary journeys through America traveling extensively from New York and New Jersey to California to the Midwest and five Southern states. She moves outward, from the nucleus of family and friends to their networks, through a map lined with the material and psychological presence of migrants. The resultant body of photographs. The Americans, emerges as a palimpsest that documents the new Americans – Indian immigrants. That Gill addresses her subjects with the transnational gaze of the traveling photographer brings her subject within the potent discourse of migration and diaspora, post-coloniality and the new world. Set in the chromatic intimacy of the candid photograph, it is inscribed by the material residue of two cultures, of the glittering flecks of Bollywood and Hollywood, the Indian and the American dream."
From Gayatri Sinha's essay on the work, New Delhi 2008
"“Given Gill’s explicit invocation of Frank (apparent, as I’ve suggested at so many different levels), how should we understand the object of her critique? Does she intend to present Indo-Americans as part of a liberating counter-culture? Is she mounting a critique in part of a US consumerist dream that fails to deliver for most Indian-Americans? This seems implicit in a number of powerful images which take the viewer very close to the quotidian routines of low-paid manual work (for instance the moving diptych showing Laljibhai and Pushpa Patel cleaning the Days Inn West in Mississippi). But is she also mounting a critique from within of aspects of the Indic tradition, of targets such as religious orthodoxy, Bollywood and patriarchy? The display of cut-out victims from a benefit function for the subjects of domestic violence suggests this quite clearly. The serried ranks of Bollywood videos with peeling labels set alongside racks of salwarkameez may be intended to communicate the routinized repetitive actions of diaspora nostalgia. Or it may be intended to record its tenacity – its steadfastness, and endurance, in this new context. Such ambivalence, of course – and the power it gives the viewer to come to their own conclusions - is a considerable part of the power that Gauri Gill’s project offers. Like Robert Frank’s work, her images are not easily "selected and interpreted", but they speak of things that are there: "anywhere and everywhere".
From Christopher Pinney’s talk at the show at Chicago Cultural Center, Chicago 2008
The photographer sometimes walks around in her neighborhood in New Delhi at night, with a camera, but without a flash or tripod.
Gauri's intimately stark renditions of the area of Nizamuddin shot
during the night time gave a beautiful gray-scale representation of
winter in one of oldest areas of Delhi. Placed randomly across the still
wet grey walls of the rooms the photos almost enacted a watery washed
out collage rendering a psycho active tapestry of solitary
socio-cultural glimpses of Nizamuddin. Charged with a prolific eye for
the most visually self contained images from the vicinity Gauri's entire
photo 'installation' assumed an appearance of a multi windowed black
box with windows into a different space and time...very connected to the
immediate area and yet completely ethereal in it's entirety.
Khoj Residency 2005
“I started to photograph my neighborhood in the year 2005.
Returning home late at night, I would notice things that I didn’t in the
day. Lit up by streetlights, houselights and moonlight, sometimes
diffused by the rain and fog, Nizamuddin became another place. One of
the first pictures I took was of a white van. Its precise location on
the road, its mysterious alignment with the shadows imprinted on it,
transformed it from an ordinary van into another creature altogether. It
was as if I had passed through a door into another world.”
“Gauri Gill constructs her images like a careful essayist,
recording the urban metropolis in transition. In her urban landscapes
her subject is the city in states of transition. In divesting her
subject of people and colour, Gill sets up a psychological debate with
her viewer, and investigation into the nature of desire and its
uncertain outcome. Structures appear like accretions on the land,
frequently silent, dark and forgiving. Against these, the pursuits of
the metropolitan dream, nevertheless survives. When the interiors do
reveal themselves, they bear marks of migrancy, aspiration and the
imprint of the dream. Gauri places on the same scale of desire the
interior of the pastry shop, and the anticipated wedding feast, the
photo studio which feeds into masquerade and performance and the drawing
rooms of middle class suburbia. We are looking from the outside into a
(failed) utopia of demolished buildings, 'painted' scenes of happy
Structurally, she is drawing on multiple photographic traditions,
of the studio as a site for wish fulfilment, of the popular/vernacular
tradition in India, as architectural structures as cultural readings, as
documented in the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher. Of urban sites of the
"quiet and the commonplace" and the vast city spaces of detritus and
waste, as recorded in the work of Michael Ashkin. In this way, the work
hovers between nostalgia and strange absences, the promise of pleasure
and its exhausted satiation.