Grave realities

Birth, being, disappearance & death form the themes of Delhi-based photographer Gauri Gill’s humanistic reflections

I’m at the Tinguely Museum in Basel, looking at Gauri Gill’s show Traces, which opened in June and will run till November of this year. For a moment, I wonder if I’m in the state of what Tibetan Buddhists call ‘bardo’ — the transitory phase between death and birth. Behind me is Jean Tinguely’s Mengele-Totentanz (Dance of Death), before me is Gill’s Birth Series, and I’m taking a pause in the silent, dimly lit space in between. It’s a time of reflection after an unsettling encounter with Tinguely’s dark and burlesque sculptural installation, with its use of skulls and burned wood and metal objects, menacing movements and Gothic lighting. Equally, it’s a moment of preparation for the new life looming in Gill’s tenderly shot series of photographs of a child being born.

The vague sense of bardo turns into a fleeting burst of energy before developing into a strong sense of ‘memento mori’ (‘Remember you will die’;  in Buddhist philosophy) as I progress from the Birth Series, Gill’s intimate eight-piece set of black-and-white photographs of her midwife-friend Kasumbi Dai delivering her granddaughter in her desert hut, to the main show Traces, comprising large-format, black-and-white photographs of graves Gill has photographed since the early 2000s. These two distinct series form a part of Gill’s large archive from western Rajasthan, Notes from the Desert, which has won the 48-year-old, Delhi-based photographer international acclaim.

From a riveting picture, among others, of a baby being expertly guided out of her mother’s womb straight onto the sandy floor with no protection except for her grandmother’s wizened cradling hands, I traverse to a set of elemental graves far out in the sunlit sands: to a pristine Bishnoi resting-place that’s unmarked except for a wreath-like twist of twigs but appears to be one with both the landscape and the light; to a bump in the earth strewn with broken domestic objects; to another mound covered by a tattered white sheet and marked by a misshapen stone bearing a hand-carved inscription of the figure ‘78692’, along with the name ‘Asiyat’ and a date ‘30.11.09’. From dust to dust: the show ultimately becomes a meditative exercise on life and mortality.

In contrast

“Quite. Tinguely grappled with the concept of memento mori all his life, seeking invariably to answer death with life, and Gauri’s photographs initiate a dialogue with his work, addressing his preoccupation with the subject of coming into being and passing away, with existential angst and extinction,’’ says Roland Wetzel, director of Tinguely Museum, who invited Gill to bring her work to Basel after he saw Traces at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in December 2016. “Gauri is the second artist we’ve asked over since the summer of 2017, when we opened the special chamber dedicated to Mengele-Totentanz, his central work. ”

If Tinguely’s work is dark, surreal, satirical, and overwrought, Gill’s is light, natural, and stark. Standing before her luminous, life-sized photographs of graves makes you feel as if you are on the spot, absorbing every grain of essence of those organic burial places. That they are black-and-white enhances the visual experience – Gill preferred to not work in colour here because the vivid colours of Rajasthan can be “distracting and exoticising”. It’s an experience that evokes a sense of release, and not the encircling sense of melancholia that conventional graves elsewhere do, or as Tinguely’s Totentanz, a savage attack on human violence and senseless destruction (embodied in Mengele, the maniac of Auschwitz), does. The play of light in the pictures highlights the relief of the ground and the texture of the natural elements (sand, stone, and wood) and material offerings (ceramics and textiles). It creates a striking sense of place and conveys what Roland Wetzel describes as the ‘‘imaginary Great Breath” — the emptiness, silence and infinity of the desert landscape which turns it into a place of reflection.


A photo from Gauri Gill's series 'Traces'. 

The graves, which belong to Muslim and Hindu communities such as the nomadic Jogis, Bishnois and subsects such as Meghwals and Jats, are often hardly discernable. “The family members of the dead often have limited economic resources and construct the graves themselves, with the help of the community,” says Gill, when we meet at the show. “I was interested in these expressions of the human hand, as well as how the body in time becomes a part of the landscape itself. In some graves there is also an ecological imperative at work. The Bishnois, for instance, are exceptional environmentalists: they will not cut wood or waste resources. They simply gather and use what is there.”

Gill did not seek these graves out for a photo project; she came across them while accompanying village friends: “I visited my first local graveyard with a friend who went to visit her father’s grave; later, with other friends and their family members. At some point I began to notice the graves themselves, some of them because they were strewn with revealing objects — broken teacups, medicine bottles, incense, tools. At times the offerings — a bottle of liquor, a musical instrument — gave a sense of the missing personality. The offerings consisted of whatever the family could bring to honour the person and cultivate memory. They were personal and moving because they bore the signs of the labour of the maker — the handwritten names on the tombstones, for instance.”

The photographer was struck also by the constant presence of death. “Death comes more easily there as the circumstances are so precarious and the landscape itself so difficult,” Gill observes. “People die not only of grave diseases and old age but also of malnutrition, cerebral malaria, tuberculosis, water-borne diseases, snakebite, accidents, mental illness...so many ways. Medical care is still basic and the better hospitals in nearby cities unaffordable to most. The bereaved must continue with life, as best they can.”

Connections

Gill’s closeness to and respect for the people is evident in Birth Series featuring her late friend Kasumbi Dai, a veteran midwife, feisty feminist and community leader in Ghafan village in Motasar. “Kasumbi Dai was proud of her work and wanted me to make a visual record of it, so she invited me to her home to photograph this birth,” Gill recalls fondly. “Birth Series is my homage to her life’s endeavour. She lost her husband as a young woman and then took up her mother’s profession, which she continued all her life. She delivered most of the children in the surrounding areas and is, to me, akin to the figure of the Mother Goddess, or mother of mothers.”

Her visual record takes on importance because “the profession of the midwife is being undermined today,” as Gill notes.

“The government tries to incentivise rural women into coming to hospitals to give birth, which is fine if it creates good hospitals with experienced health workers. But the expertise of the traditional midwife, which can offer valuable lessons to modern medical care, also needs to be respected,” she adds.

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