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Posted at: Feb 11, 2018, 12:54 AM; last updated: Feb 15, 2018, 1:07 PM (IST)

Unmasking the mask

Photographer Gauri Gill looks beyond the surface and delves deeper into the minds of obscure communities

Monica Arora

Contemporary artist Gauri Gill draws inspiration from communities inhabiting the fringes of society. A certain documentary filmmaker’s sense of observation laces her work and that is what evokes several emotions in the mind of the onlooker.

Take, for instance, her ongoing solo exhibition called Acts of Appearance, which is on view at the New Delhi-based Nature Morte art gallery. What catches attention are, of course, the coloured photographs by Gauri, a veritable statement on how the simple act of hiding behind an interpretative manmade mask can imbibe everyday acts of, say chatting with friends, or cooking a meal, or simply lounging on a cot at an hour of leisure, with a potent meaning — a meaning which offers the unknowing urban audience a sneak peek into the life of marginalised communities in their home and landscape.

These photographs are a result of her interactions with the Konkana tribe, an economically weak community, in a village of traditional Adivasi papier-mâché artists residing in Maharashtra’s Jawhar district. Gauri was first smitten by masks when her friends in Rajasthan’s Jogi community donned them at Holi. Later, in 2013, she heard about the Bahora procession of Maharashtra spanning rituals lasting many evenings wherein a mythological tale of yore is play-acted. However, it was in 2015 that she decided to create her own project. She commissioned a group of close to 20 persons, led by Subhas and Bhagvan Dharma Kadu, sons of the late indigenous Bahora mask maker Dharma Kadu, to create some outstanding pieces.

Unlike the traditional masks of gods and goddesses from epics such as the Ramayana, or demons, divine creatures and other legendary characters, which are otherwise a regular feature at the annual processions, these are masks of ordinary men, women, children, animals, and even common objects of daily use or desire, some familiar, some bearing exaggerated expressions.

The masks seem to lend a fresh dimension to these ordinary people in their native surroundings and give them a new voice, one which seems to be questioning their very deprivation of even the basic amenities of life; and yet, there is no trace of poignancy in their demeanour. The fact that their lives are so deeply interconnected with their environment is reiterated by the fact that the Bahora procession masks as well as the new masks commissioned for this project are created from paper pulp mixed with glue from a local tree. The chiseling and finishing is left to each artist’s discretion, unlike the Bahora masks which are also perfectly polished and lacquered. The person playing each character often believes the spirit to have entered him or her, and then partakes in a ritual procession that moves through the village. 

For Acts of Appearance, the actors wearing the masks performed against regular yet interesting backdrops as a classroom, an Asha care centre for women, the village bus-stop or a simple Panchayat bench in the square.

Juxtaposed with these evocative photographs run two parallel narratives entitled Notes from the Desert (1999 — ongoing) and The Mark on the Wall (1999 — ongoing). The former series is the name of a large archive of photographs beginning in 1999, a result of Gauri’s interaction with Rajasthan-based Jogi nomads, Muslim migrants and Bishnoi peasants among others, to create photographs that are mostly natural, but some posed for by the rural and oft-neglected people, marking important events in their precarious lives. Interestingly, in this show, the faces of the subjects are hidden fully or partially, akin to the mask-bearing subjects of the latest series. 

Works from The Mark on the Wall are black and white images of drawings by teachers, local artists and children under the government of India’s now defunct Leher Kaksha project, an attempt to teach government schoolchildren through the visual medium.

One can find references to human anatomy, recurring problems such as diarrhoea, a beautiful drawing of different birds and even one of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose amidst these little shards of village life. Both these series are akin to a psychological insight into the deepest realm of these innate communities and are an apt extension, an addendum to Acts of Appearance, which, in its entirety, is a powerful insight into the life and times of a marginalised rural community. The artist almost seems to suggest that the fast-paced lives in contemporary metropolises are but an anti-thesis of the lives led by these people in their rural settings, often even without access to any of the so-called progress that many may claim is percolating through the length and breadth of India.

The works are the artist’s attempt to bring to the fore their everyday struggle, their resilience and their indomitable spirit, which is most vocal in these mute images. Despite the odds against which the community tries to rise, the photographs find protagonists often going about life in a joyous, even happy-go-lucky manner. As British novelist Charlotte Brontë wrote in the magnificent Jane Eyre: “And it is you, spirit — with will and energy, and virtue and purity — that I want, not alone with your brittle frame.” Walking out of Gauri’s exhibition, one cannot help but wonder as to what were the subjects behind those masks actually thinking? Their simple frames, crowned by these masks give away nothing...


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