If I can be very honest, Indian photobooks are not very good. There are of course a few exceptional ones (just a handful), some of them which have been previously featured on the blog but the majority falls into the category of ignorable. And thats why it brings me so much pleasure to present to you “Balika Mela”, a surprisingly honest and beautiful book by Gauri Gill.
Softbound, the book is published by Edition Patrick Frey. What is immediately striking about it is the cover text, which is written both in Hindi and English which immediately sets a very unique tone to the work, which continues through out the book. All texts inside too run parallel, both languages side by side.
The work is introduced with black and white portraits of young girls, posing in front of a rough fabric in a make-shift daylight studio. As you move further, the images present multiple characters inhabiting the frame, sometimes two or three girls, in poses unusually formal. The book then breaks into color portraits printed on translucent paper, hues merging into each other, ghostly faces looking out through the layers of pictures stacked one top of the other.
The work is extremely classical, Gill’s influences and ideas right on the surface. And yet what sets her apart is the collaborative element of the work which turns it into a social documentary rather than just a set of portraits. By choosing the subjects and allowing them to form a photograph with her, she forces the audience to consider the social conditions and women’s rights in India.
Gill does what most Indian photographers ignore, she is aware and critical of the space she exists in. Balika Mela is a brilliantly distilled idea, simple and profound which leaves you uncomfortable and challenges your position as an audience on how we perceive these images. Do we look at them as amusing images made with young girls who stand in a pose as if blessing the audience, eager to make a memorable photograph with their friends or do we recognise the pose as a response to the fundamental flaws in how we still continue limit the identity and role of women in India.
There are some things which I don’t like about the book but then in comparison to what is presented, the flaws don’t even matter. Balika Mela is a highly recommended book to have in your library, to be held right next to Fazal Sheikh’s A Camel For The Son. I’m not sure if the book is easily available. I had never seen a copy before and was lucky to find a one in Strand, New York. But if you like the book can be directly ordered through the Swiss publisher or on Amazon. Also, if you’re interested in reading more or looking further, have a look at her website.