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Gauri Gill

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Despite having spent her years of her career using photography to document the lives of her Indian American family and friends, and thereby creating a visual diary of immigrants; or a vast archive of intimate photographs of marginalised desert dwellers; or notebooks reflecting on the 1984 Hindu-Sikh pogrom; years creating prominent, self-reflexive bodies of work that are self, social, political, and art historically-conscious, three years ago, while living in Ganjad in Dahanu, an Adivasi village in coastal Maharashtra, with the purpose of creating work for the local primary school, Gauri Gill came to discover the limits of her preferred medium. The discomfort lay with her experience of the landscape, and her viewing of it as disparate from the eyes of her host, an Adivasi artist, Rajesh Vangad. “I was made acutely aware, once again, of how a place is assigned meaning only by its viewer, determined perhaps by her relative distance or proximity to it; and of how viewing itself is an essentially solitary act, since what we see might be only a projection of what we know, have already seen or experienced prior,” she wrote in retrospect, in an essay for Granta.
Vangad introduced Gill to places within the forested landscape that were home to his own memories of his tribal heritage, and she then decided to frame him against this backdrop. The sites on the map were determined by him, while she constructed the cartography. But when she revisited the images while examining her contact sheets, she felt somewhat disappointed by the outcome. “I realized that so much of the narrative that I had received from Rajesh—the great stories, which had made it come alive for me—was missing,” she says. The limitation, she felt, was the “unique presence of photography, which restricts what is in the image to ‘now’.” “How could I convey what happened in those months in the 1970s when the violent mobs of a powerful political party raided the village and the locals fled and fell upon each other in terror; or the particular full moon night in October when a great forest on one hill comes alive, and all the people who spend that night in the forest see shining eyes glitter around them, or even the most dangerous animals are benign when everything glows from the aura of the moon; or the stories of great overlords who came calling in secret to the homes of innocent, hospitable men, bringing gifts and drink and returning with deeds of land; or the mythical stories that encompass everything that has come or is yet to come,” she writes.

Gill arrived at a creative strategy for assimilating all that she had heard but was unable to render in her photographs because they existed in the domain of the oral narrative, she invited Vangad to collaborate with her, asking him to inscribe his drawing over her photograph, thus meeting her text with his own. “Or I would construct a photographic scene or set, in which he might stand and speak,” she elaborates. Over time, the two spent extensive time in each others homes, and mailed works back and forth between Delhi and Ganjad. Three years since, the collaboration between the two continues. For someone who has spent an incredible amount of time working in villages, Gill’s question to herself was whether she could actively collaborate with an artist from a rural context, whether they could have a conversation through the work, with each contributor using the language they were comfortable with and confident in. 


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