Notes From The Desert


Ten years. Thousands of encounters. Photographer Gauri Gill has found a Rajasthan far from the coffee-table book clichés, says Nisha Susan

Strange fruit Ismat in Barmer gathering fodder for goats

How did this work come about? And how have the communities changed?
In April 1999 I began photographing village schools in Rajasthan. Earlier that year I had seen a girl being beaten by her teacher in a small school in Narlai. I wanted to understand what it was like being a girl in a village school so I took a month-long sabbatical and travelled through rural Rajasthan. I started by traveling from school to random school, from Jaipur to Jodhpur, Osiyan, Bikaner, Barmer, Churu; government and ngo schools, Balika Shivirs to Marushalas to Rajiv Gandhi Pathshalas. I met people who invited me home and became my friends and very soon the story became about everything. I knew nothing. In these years, things have not changed that much. Yes, cellphones work now in the dhani(village) in Barmer. The school goes up to class eight and has four teachers instead of two. The pucca road goes a little further. But that doesn’t mean more girls go to school, or there are more jobs. There is much more change in the cities. Barmer town, for instance, is transformed by Cairn Energy – you see hotels, suvs and engineers on the street eating golgappas in orange space suits.

Trigger happy At Bikaner, a man jokingly pretends to shoot his wife

You chose to shoot Rajasthani women, the most over-photographed Indian subject in black and white..
Rajasthan in general is over-photographed. It’s the coffee table book staple, in part because of its fantastic colours. I did not want to focus on the colour and make it look ‘exotic’. Yet, funnily, to my friends in Rajasthan, black and white photography is exotic. They keep urging me to switch. In my new show there is a blip of colour work — colour photographs taken by children — to point to another interpretation of the same place, and the peculiarities of the medium itself.

I have photographed individuals, my friends — women, men and children — who happen to be Rajasthani as I happen to be Punjabi. I found we have so much in common. Except women in the village work much harder. They have to fetch water, grind wheat, build huts, make aangans, cook, look after the livestock, till land and during a drought work as labourers.

How did the the young girls at the Balika Mela engage with the camera?
Well, really we had a lot of fun. An ngo, Urmul had organised the Mela. In the Mela ground, we set up a photo studio – just a stall with curtains and a bench. Anyone could come in and have their picture taken. All the girls who came in were clear about how they wanted to be photographed, with whom and how. They brought in props like paper peacocks, hats, magazines. They used particular gestures. Photography is all about unexpected things that may happen.


Self-fashioning Young girl who came in to have her photograph taken at Gauri Gill’s stall at the Balika Mela

What is the story of the woman in the tree? And the midwife series?
The photograph of Ismat in the tree was taken while she was gathering kejri for the goats. I had first met her when I was lost looking for a school. A group of women were gathered around a girl’s corpse, looking formidable in their dramatic black ajrak shawls. Ismat was one of them. She grabbed me and told me her story, she told me I must tell Sonia Gandhi – whom she assumed everyone in Delhi knows – and BBC Radio – another friend of mine – about the problems of the people of Barmer. She wrote to me and asked me to come back, and became a friend. Her husband had abandoned her, moved to Gujarat and married again. The villagers were hostile to her because she fights so hard for her due. It was very hard for her even to get BPL status, because on paper she is married and owns land. Her older daughter died from illness two years ago. Her other daughter hopes to pass Class Eight and get a job. Ismat should have been in politics, but she is not educated, and in the system as we know it, it isn’t possible.

Kasumbi Dai, a remarkable woman and a real feminist, has delivered all the children in the neighboring villages for the last fifty years. I photographed her deliver her grand daughter. I was living with her at the time and we were five kilometres away from the bus stop. It only hit me once the labor started and the baby’s head wouldn’t descend that we could be in big trouble. There was only Kasumbi, a neighbour and a twelve-year-old niece. I suppose we’d have had to get a camel cart in an emergency. But luckily the head emerged. It was extraordinary – I don’t mean to romanticise it — the way the young mother went through it, foot to foot, holding hands with the neighbour, and in her own home, with no tin tables and fluorescent lights and strangers. It felt utterly natural. The labor started at 5 am. By 9 am the umbilical cord was buried outside, the mother and baby rested. Kasumbi and I walked to the bus stop.

What have your learnings about life in the desert been? How has this work informed your other photography?
Life for my friends is often terribly hard, partly because they are in the desert, partly because of their precarious situations, yet there is also unexpected joy. Photography was the reason I went there but what followed was about something else. Someone said photography is about everything but photography. This work is about relationships that opened a new world to me. Rural India is inhabited by people who are up against tremendous odds and yet manage to show grace, humour and generosity. They are completely disenfranchised. They have learned to live off nothing. The State has forgotten about them. They are barely part of the political process. They have no English, no education. A friend pointed to how the pictures looked ‘timeless’ or from a hundred years ago, and maybe that is so because it is a world no longer familiar or perhaps even visible to us. These are people watching from the outside — sitting near the tracks playing cards — watching the train go by


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