The girls in the new photobook by Gauri Gill look back at the viewer and ask some unsettling questions, says Aditi Saxton
IN CATALOGUING a difference between sense and experience in his 1964 song, The Sound of Silence, Paul Simon never wrote the line about people looking without seeing. It’s implied, though, a melodic chide to our general passivity. The girls who stare out from the pages of the photobook Balika Mela aren’t saying the line either, but they are speaking it.
Largely black and white glossies taken in 2003, bracketing a thin insert of colour exposures from 2010 printed on waxy, translucent paper, they are also a document of the untold weeks and months Gauri Gill, 42, has spent in Lunkaransar, Rajasthan. A free-floating association with an NGO, Urmul Setu Sansthan, led to her setting up a makeshift studio at their annual fair for young girls. ‘Studio’ is such a lofty label for the cubbies printing ration-card photos, as spare and utilitarian as the neighbouring kirana doling out rations. Those bare outposts are at a telescopic remove from artistic enclaves of image-making. If there was a neatly calibrated measure, the distance would be the same as the one between these pictures and current conceptions of portraiture. “I didn’t want to perfectly recreate a local studio. That would’ve been such a heavyhanded didactic event. But it is a reference,” says Gill. A few lengths of cloth for backdrop, one tawdry metal stand topped with a basket of plastic flowers as sole provided prop, and the effect is deftly achieved.
Reading confidence in a tilt of chin is as defunct as seeing pathos in a set face; and that’s the retrospection the work demands
The depth is provided by an entirely altered context. Because the idea of a photograph as a record of an event, the event of people being photographed, has long since been eclipsed by digital cameras and profile photos. Gill says the pictures are a reflection of her interest in “the language of the vernacular”, but it’s more a patois, one rendered recently obsolete, partially archived in those straightforward, full frontal pictures of grandparents. The girls don’t often smile. They do not brim with ‘V for victory’ brio. They do raise their hands to brow in salute, or touch finger to cheek with tilted head, or push palms outwards in a blessing. There is nothing mocking, or coy, or arch about the gestures. There is mimicry and re-enactment; of poses from older Bollywood posters, vivid god and goddess calendars, of school march-past snapshots, or as Gill mentions, the pictures preserved in tin trunks, solemn mementos of a wedding or the birth of a child.
Like a fading vocabulary you strain to decipher, looking at these photos requires some effort. With facial cues missing or misleading, or unknown, it’s an entirely good thing that Gill’s technically demanding medium-format camera makes negatives rich in detail. The portraits have plenty of hooks to hang stories on and it’s impossible to spot the ambiguities and not seek their meaning. Three girls stand in hand-folded, tri-corner paper hats and the newsprint on one reads, ‘Style & Substance — In Perfect Accord’. In another, a neat-as-a-pin girl — button down cardigan, pleated skirt, hair parted and bindi aligned with military precision — has a long painted thumbnail poking out. Very rarely, Gill lapses into tautology. In one diptych, the same girls pose for two photos. On the right-facing page sunlight streaks their hair with grey in the way that sometimes happens with old-school darkroom photography. It’s a pedantic reinforcement of narrative, a too insistent nudge to look at youth and see senescence. Minor flaws aside, these aren’t the chancy captures of a crammed memory card, or some happy by-blow of an unrelated documentary effort. Storytelling is ground into the grain of Gill’s perspective.
“Someone said to me, you do realise they’re all portraits of you,” she deadpans, and then doesn’t really counter. She casts it instead in the construct of “photograph as subjective fiction; a result of several decisions — black and white or colour, depth of field, the backdrop, whether they’re still or moving, what you leave out, the various references at play — I’m definitely involved.” It’s a curiously academic stance for an involvement that is intensely personal. Her admiration for the girls’ “willingness to choose to represent themselves, to assert themselves when they are not coming from a place of privilege” is unequivocal. She returned to the Balika Mela, ran two workshops, and after a gap, revisited in 2010 what is now a patchwork quilt of felt relationships, not the detached network of a completed project.
The strange technicolour prints produced that year were unplanned. Gill had gone to exhibit her earlier work, but was importuned by some old friends, some new, to set up shop again. Memorably, Bimla, whose 2003 picture was photo-bombed by a little boy, gets a do-over. “The frame in India is so elastic,” smiles Gill. She did away with the old medium and method — 18 for a silver gelatin print — and the girls meanwhile had done away with some earlier conventions, posing now with a motorcycle, lipstick, and what Gill, in her brief accompanying essay at the back, calls, “fiercely knotted scarves instead of dupattas”. One constant is the physically expressed affection. The girls touch, shake hands, link arms, hug, and totally unintentionally, swipe at rundown representations of Indian men holding hands. And by virtue of the pellucid paper, every girl has a face that stands out in the crowd. Just like that, the slender, see-through segment steers the book far away from any top-down tropes of teenagers trapped in time.
Gill pulls off that quick trick of all-powerful photography, of making the unknown familiar, but that’s the least of her accomplishments. Reading confidence into a tilt of chin is as defunct as seeing sadness in a grim, set face, and that’s the quality of retrospection the work demands. Just like The Sound of Silence isn’t a scold set to music, Balika Mela isn’t poverty shown in monochrome. It’s not ineffable or ephemeral or rhetorical; it feels real.
Aditi Saxton is Features Editor, Tehelka.