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THE LONG GAZE

Gauri Gill’s BALIKA MELA (Edition Patrick Frey, 56 euros) is an important, and often moving, body of work in the tradition of photographic portraiture established by artists like Seydou Keïta and now practised most consistently by Fazal Sheikh. We think of Keïta, Sheikh and Gill as artists because they consciously bring to their work a standard of precision, luminosity and restraint that invests what they ‘document’ with a timeless and reflective quality, taking their humanitarian or ethnographic preoccupations towards the stillness and beauty of art. The quiet and engaging drama of their work is founded not upon a single, or even a series of, “decisive moments”, but on an ongoing relationship with their human subjects that might span years of real time spent with a community and its place. These stories of a long and returning gaze emanate from the “conviction”, as Fazal Sheikh’s website puts it, “that a portrait is, as far as possible, an act of mutual engagement, and only through a long-term commitment to a place and to a community can a meaningful series of photographs be made.”

Gill has been working in rural Rajasthan since 1999. In this course of more than a decade, she has formed a close association with the girls who come to the shivirs (camps) and melas (fairs) organized for them by the local NGO, Urmul Setu Sansthan, as part of its gram sewa (service of the village) programme. In 2003, Gill had a makeshift studio at the mela, where the girls could come with their friends and kin, choreograph their own group or individual portraits, and later get a silver gelatin print. This was followed by photography workshops with the girls, shows of their portraits and of the fruit of the workshops. Remarkably, one of the girls, Manju, opened her own photo studio in her village and ran it successfully for five years until she got married. Manju’s difficult story — the opening up of her life and sensibilities through photography, together with some of its problematic consequences — form one of the texts appended to the photographs in Hindi and English. Gill’s book collects two sets of these portraits, made at the 2003 and 2010 melas, in black-and-white and colour respectively, together with pictures of the girls photographing one another and generally letting their hair down during the workshops.

The rigidity of the pose and the little accidents of life happening around it, all in “the broad, even light of a desert sky filtered through the cloth roof of the tent”, create the human texture of this work, the girls’ eyes confronting us with forms of knowledge that are both sociological and inscrutable, capable of being as fragile and serious as whimsical and playful. Yet, the peculiar mix of stiffness and candour that they bring to the camera, or Gill’s presence elicits from them, is not only a measure of the distance between their lives and hers (or ours), but also the visible expression of something that is invisible, elusive and wordless. This is what Gill calls “a pervasive sense of fear”, which is sometimes nothing less than “the fear of being a girl” (as one girl, Maghi, puts it), and sometimes simply the “ghabrahat or anxiety in the dark” that the girls experience while developing their own work in a darkroom improvised in the desert.

Most of the book works through a strangely halted theatricality of improvised and repeated gestures (especially of the hands) and props. This is counterpointed by the colour portraits, printed on semi- transparent paper (and strongly smelling of ink), so that the images show through and create ghostly layers of faces and forms disappearing into the depths of the book. But hidden somewhere in it — I do not want to give out where — are the images that take us by a sort of sweet surprise because of their sudden freedom from the pose. There is a light-hearted gladsomeness in these pictures, as the girls delight in the coming of the rains, that is perhaps photography’s greatest gift to their lives.