Notes from the Desert: Photographs 1999-2010
Nature Morte is pleased to present a solo exhibition of photographs by Gauri Gill. Based in New Delhi, Gill has previously exhibited series of works depicting urban scenes shot at night and the Indian diaspora living in the United States. All the while, Gill has been returning regularly to spend substantial amounts of time with nomadic and migrant rural communities in Western Rajasthan. "Notes from the Desert" will be the first exhibition of the works produced there over a ten-year period, on display will be more than forty photographs, edited from a corpus of hundreds.
The exhibition is primarily structured around portraits, some candid and spontaneous, many posed in collaboration with their subjects. The results are humorous, shocking, playful, and heart-breaking. The daily lives and intimate relationships of these families are revealed, as are their struggles with the unrelenting landscape, dire poverty and ancient traditions. Both joy and suffering flow through this body of work; Gill's camera documents the succession of experiences from birth to death, both her sympathies and her surprises.
Gauri Gill was born in Chandigarh in 1970 and lives in New Delhi. She received a BFA in Applied Arts from Delhi College of Art in 1992 and a second BFA in Photography from the Parsons School of Design in New York in 1994. She received her MFA in Photography from Stanford University in California. Her first solo exhibition "The Americans" has been exhibited at Bose Pacia Kolkata, Nature Morte in New Delhi, Matthieu Foss Gallery in Mumbai, the Thomas Welton Art Gallery at Stanford University, The Chicago Cultural Centre and Bose Pacia New York (2008-2009) and a catalog is available. Her works have been included in important group exhibitions of photography including "Where Three Dreams Cross: 150 Years of Photography from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh" (Whitechapel Gallery, London and Fotomuseum Winterthur, Switzerland); "The Self and the Other: Portraiture in Contemporary Indian Photography" (Palau de la Virreina, Barcelona; and "Shifting Shapes: Unstable Signs" (Yale Art Gallery, Yale University, New Haven).
The works in the exhibition are primarily silver gelatin prints, with also some archival digital prints and C-type color prints. All works are for sale, framed, and produced in an edition of 7.
GAURI GILL: Notes from the Desert (1999-2010)
In April 1999 I went out to photograph village schools in Rajasthan. I had seen a girl being beaten by her teacher in a small school in Narlai earlier that year, and had been thinking about it. I came back to Delhi and proposed the story to the news magazine where I worked at the time - I said that I wished to make some pictures about what it was like being a girl in a village school, but there didn't seem to be a suitable 'peg' for it. So I decided to take a month long sabbatical from work, and travel through rural Rajasthan.
I started by traveling around from school to random school, from Jaipur to Jodhpur, Osiyan, Bikaner, Barmer, Phalodi, Baran, Churu; from Government schools to NGO run schools, Balika Shivirs to Marushalas to Rajiv Gandhi Pathshalas; I met students, teachers, officials, NGO workers. They were tolerant of my ignorance and happy to show me around, to answer all my questions. I was an English-speaking person from Delhi, a distant world. In Lunkaransar town I went to visit a Marushala run by the NGO Urmul to try and educate nomadic Jogi children. I met Urma and Halima, who took me home, and I was introduced to the family of Bhana Nath ji. We sat in their hut, on the bed with the snakes and chameleons and rooster underneath it, with her brothers and their dogs, and they invited me to travel with them. In Barmer district, lost, I came upon a group of women fully covered in large black ajrak shawls standing around the corpse of a little girl. They looked intimidating but when I ventured to ask for directions to the school, I was interrupted by one who told me what was wrong with her life, and with great conviction impressed upon me that I should come to Delhi and tell people of the troubles of people in Barmer. Her daughter Janat was terrified of me in my jeans with my camera. But Ismat asked me for my address, and wrote to me, and asked me to return. I did.
The schools opened up an entirely new world to me. Over the course of the past eleven years the work has grown to encompass various parts of life, and changes that have occurred over time. I have witnessed various seasons, drought years and the year of a great monsoon – when Barmer became Kashmir, a flood, the building of new homes, followed the farming cycle, migration, working as labor in Rajasthan and Gujarat and Maharashtra, Food for Work programs, NREGA and other government schemes, nomadic travel, malaria, tuberculosis, epidemics, death from snakebite, from accidents, from growing old in the desert, the death of a camel in a year that is remembered as the year of the death of the camel, births, marriages, moneylenders, NGO interventions, dharnas and rallies, people fighting for change, national and Panchayat elections, festivals, prayers, celebrations.. and through it all my friends. To live out in the desert as a poor, landless person without a regular job amounts to an inescapable reliance on one's self, on each other and on nature. The stakes are high, the elements close and life is as cheap as jokes are rampant. To sleep out on the icy cold sand dunes at night, in the winter, with only some tarpaulin and heavy old quilts means that everyone must huddle in together, along with the dogs, and breathe into the quilt. One isn't quite sure what is what or who is who, in the huddle.
Notes on the Balika Mela Portraits, Lunkaransar, 2003
I have photographed in rural Rajasthan for ten years now, in villages, homes and families that treated me as their own. Although I chose to work independently, over the years I developed a relationship with the NGO Urmul Setu Sansthan, in Lunkaransar town, where I knew I could always stay when I was passing through. In 2003 they organised a Balika Mela - or fair for girls, attended by almost fifteen hundred adolescent girls from 70 odd villages. The Mela had various stalls, performances, a Ferris wheel, games, magicians, puppet shows and competitions - just like any other small town mela - but this one was also organised around the theme of Panchayat elections, and the girls took part in a mock election in which they went through the whole process of electing Sarpanches and Ward Panches for the Gram Sabha.
At the Mela, I created a photo-stall for people to come in and have their portraits taken, and then buy at a subsidised rate. I had a few basic props and backdrops - whatever we could get from the local town on our limited budget, but it was fairly minimal, and since it's dusty and out in the desert everything would keep getting blown around anyway. Many of the more interesting props - like the peacock and the paper hats, were brought in by the girls themselves. Individuals came in, friends and sisters came, girls came with their teachers, or their whole class, and later they received black and white silver gelatin prints. Some of the girls who posed for these pictures also went on to learn photography in the workshops that we started in May of that year, and two years later they documented the fair themselves.
URMUL Setu Sansthan is a development NGO that for more than 10 years has worked towards social and economic upliftment of the rural poor in the harsh and inhospitable Thar Desert region of Western Rajasthan. The activities of Setu have so far concentrated on primary education, health care, group organisation, agriculture and animal husbandry, income-generation, water and sanitation, capacity building of local governments as well as advocacy. The education programme has focused on increasing community awareness and responsibility for children's education, with special attention to girl children and adolescent girls. The health care programme has focused on child and maternal health with a view to develop local resources by strengthening the capabilities of dais (local midwifes) or trained village health workers. Pharmacies have been set up too in many villages and immunisation facilities established. Further, Setu has established a number of Sangathans (organisations) as participatory platforms for people, especially women, with a common interest to come together and engage in collective action to improve their living conditions in a consciously orchestrated effort. Setu works in 110 villages and hamlets (which are distributed in three tehsils) in Lunkaransar block of Bikaner district.