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Trisha Gupta
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Trisha Gupta is a Delhi-based writer and critic. Read more of her work on her blog Chhotahazri (trishagupta.blogspot.in)

What is the ‘real you’, and other questions about photo-portraits

Lichhma & Lali from Gauri Gill’s ‘Balika Mela’

hen anthropologist Chris Pinney began his research in Bhatisuda village in 1982, he took a half-length picture of his neighbour Bherulal in his fields, which seemed to him "to perfectly capture his mischievous character". The "slight shadow that hung on one side of his face gave him," Pinney thought, "an appropriate gravity, for he was an essentially serious, indeed tortured man". Bherulal did not agree. "When he saw it, he started shouting, asking why [Pinney had] taken a picture with his face in chhaya", and only half of him at that.

Bherulal's reaction made Pinney realise that that the pictures he wanted to take —images he thought would be "candid, revealing, expressive of the people I was living among"— were entirely different from the pictures that people wanted him to take of them: properly posed photos for which they had changed into their best clothes, brushed and oiled their hair and if they were "upper-caste women", applied powder to make themselves look fairer. To Pinney at the time, these full-length, symmetrical images, with their passive, expressionless faces and deliberately stiffened bodies seemed to represent "the extinguishing of precisely that quality [he] wished to capture on film".

But what is "that quality"? Does the ability of an image to represent a person's selfhood depend on 'candidness'? What if 'posing' is as crucial to the process of self-formation— the self that is, in some sense, produced by and for the camera?

Gauri Gill's Balika Mela images, recently compiled into a book and currently on display at Nature Morte in Delhi, are all posed portraits. In Rama, a young woman in a white salwar-kameez sits on a folding metal chair, one hand extended tentatively towards a decorative flower pot stand. She looks straight at us, but we cannot see her eyes: she is wearing sunglasses. In Goga and Mahendra, two younger girls hold hands in what seems like a simple gesture of friendship, but also display their mehndi-ed palms. Sunita, Nirmala and Sita stand in a row, each holding up a hand arranged in a mudra of what might be blessing. Lichhma and Lali wear near-identical black leather jackets over their kameezes; one of them holds a black suitcase, as if in readiness for departure.

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In the photo studio, Pinney argued, you could reiterate an existing identity, but you might also choose to enact an identity that didn’t exist in the social world.

The images were created in 2003 and 2010, during fairs organised by the Urmul Setu Sansthan. The 2003 Balika Mela was attended by about 1,500 adolescent girls from a hundred odd villages spread across Lunkaransar, Chhattargarh, Churu, Nagaur and Ganganagar districts of Rajasthan. The girls, Gill writes, were between 12 and 20, "ranging from class five to class ten pass — mostly unmarried, and from a broad swathe of communities, castes and denominations — Jat, Meghwal, Gosai, Mali, Bavri, Rajput, Swami, Kumar, Brahmin, Nai, Nayak, Sansi, Bhatt, Suthar, Muslim". Asked to "do something with photography" at the mela, Gill set up a photo stall in a tent, where anyone could come in and have their portrait taken. The photographs, she says, were "co-directed by me and those in the picture, as well as everyone around us".

inney's Camera Indica is an account of his changed opinion of posed pictures. In the photo studio, he argued, you could reiterate an existing identity, but you might also choose to enact an identity that didn't exist in the social world. And the inventiveness of the studio — backdrops, collages, overpainting, composite printing and doubling — could be marshalled in the service of this goal.

Gill does not use these techniques, but the girls are certainly conjuring up selves. In their willingness and enthusiasm to pose — with new friends and old, unexpected gestures, against a painted floral backdrop or seated on a motorcycle — they seem to want to enter the space of fantasy that photography enables.

And yet, they never laugh or even smile — their faces have been steadied into seriousness. In the stiffness with which they hold themselves, in their deliberate banishment of the 'candid', they seem closer to the "expressionless" Bhatisuda villagers than the pleasurable theatrical possibilities of the studio.

Gill's decision to label the photos with the girls' names seems, in this context, an attempt to call into being their individual selves, however tentative. It is also a conscious response, one imagines, to a long history of photography in which the camera captured either the richest or the poor. The rich had names; the poor could be, at most, representatives of social types: a bhishti, a sannyasi, a Toda, a dancing girl.

It must also be a conscious choice to not mark these girls as Jat or Meghwal or Sansi or Muslim. And yet getting away from these identities is not so easy. When Gill dedicates her book to "Urma and Halima, two girls who belong to the nomadic Jogi community" which "may almost be said to exist outside society as we know it", she is pulling those identities into the service of another kind of representativeness. And when she describes Urma and Halima as "looking at the camera with poise and confidence," the image that comes to her is "not unlike the Maharanis of a hundred years ago".

Photography has always been a constant balancing act between fact and fiction. But is such wishful inversion enough to turn one into the other?

 
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