This is an unsettling body of photographs – and not just because at its center is a young woman’s death in Rajasthan, India. In 1999 Gauri Gill, a photographer from New Delhi, wanted to do a magazine photo essay on what it’s like being a schoolgirl in rural India. But as there was no news peg, she explored Rajasthan herself. She visited schools in various towns, and in 2002 and 2010 she travelled to Lunkaransar to participate in Balika Mela, a festival of rides, performances, and games for girls in the surrounding villages.
Notes from the Desert at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery through February 12, 2017, is a condensed view of Gill’s long exploration. Two sets of photographs are on view. One includes a few large, formal black-and-white portraits of schoolgirls at the Balika Mela fair. The portraits are intense and beautiful, but it’s hard to tell much more about these girls than that they’re determined and dusty. The other portion of the show, some 40 small, gelatin-silver, black-and-white prints, focuses on one homeless family – two girls, Jannat and Hoori, and their mother, Izmat, living in the desert in Barmer.
Gill recalls that when she first met this family, in 1999, the mother grabbed her hands and “told me what was wrong with her life” and continued to do so in a series of pleading letters. (These letters are displayed, with translations laying over her handwriting). It’s unclear how Gill responded to Izmat’s pleas, but she did return to Barmer, as Izmat had asked her to, to tell the world about their hardscrabble lives. Unfortunately, because the wall texts do little to explain the circumstances of each picture, or even who’s in them, it’s difficult to put them together in any coherent fashion.
Although Izmat appears in many of these photographs, the emotional core of them is Jannat, who died in 2007 at age 23. In one small photograph, she appears on her deathbed (Gill does not say how she died), and her mother’s arm reaches across the bed (and across the photo) to close her young eyes. Behind her, a man, a doctor perhaps, wrings or wipes his hands. Another holds up the arm and limp hand of Jannat, covered with bangles. It’s a terrible array of limbs, but what speaks louder than the pictures are the words – Izmat’s furious but trying-to-be respectful letters – begging wildly for help.