Notes from the Desert, Gauri Gill's photography

Gauri Gill Notes from the Desert

Waterwells, 1999-ongoing

Jannat, Barmer, 1999-ongoing

Izmat, Barmer, 1999-ongoing

Mir Hasan with His Grandfather Haji Saraj ud Din, Oldest Member of the Community, in His Last Days, Barmer, 1999-ongoing

Sumri, Daughter of Ismail the Shepherd, Barmer, 1999-ongoing

Government Hospital, Barmer (3), 1999-ongoing

New Homes after the Flood, Lunkaransar, 1999-ongoing

Jogiyon ka Dera, Lunkaransar, 1999-ongoing

Urma and Nimli, Lunkaransar, 1999-ongoing

Hanuman Nath with His Daughter and Hem Nath, on Holi Day, Lunkaransar, 1999-ongoing

Artist's statement

In April 1999, I set out to photograph village schools in Rajasthan. Some months before, I had witnessed a girl being beaten by her teacher and I had been dwelling upon it.

Back in Delhi, I proposed an essay to the political weekly where I worked about what it was like being a girl in a village school, but I was told my idea lacked a “news peg” or a subject that more urban readers might relate to. I decided to take a month-long sabbatical and spend it in rural Rajasthan. 
I started by travelling from school to school, crisscrossing the state through Jaipur, Jodhpur, Osiyan, Bikaner, Barmer, Phalodi, Baran, and Churu districts, photographing mainly in the villages.
In the town of Lunkaransar, I visited an experimental school for nomadic Jogi children. I met Urma and Halima, who invited me home with them and introduced me to Bhana Nathji, Urma’s father and a respected community leader. He was to become my friend and sage guide until he passed away in 2019. We sat in their mud home, on the bed with the snakes and chameleons and rooster underneath, Urma’s brothers and their hunting dogs around us, and Bhana Nathji invited me to travel with them.
In Barmer district, lost, I came upon a group of women in dark ajrak shawls standing around the corpse of a little girl. They looked intimidating, but one of them, Izmat, grasped my hands and, with a conviction born of her own great suffering, impressed upon me that, on my return to Delhi, I must tell people of the troubles of those in Barmer. She took my address and, in letters dictated to literate acquaintances, urged me to return. I did. Looking at schools opened out a world. I realised school was only the microcosm of a complex reality I knew nothing about, having grown up mainly in cities.

On my numerous visits to western Rajasthan, to meet with essentially the same people and places, I have witnessed the whole spectrum of life: drought years and the year of a great monsoon — when Barmer became Kashmir, dust storms that can give you a fever and a flood bad enough for Urma’s home to need rebuilding. I have followed the farming cycle, migration, men travelling to work in Gujarat and Maharashtra, Food for Work programmes, MNREGA and other government schemes, nomadic journeys, epidemics, cerebral malaria, tuberculosis, overwhelmed hospitals and understaffed schools, death from snakebite, from accidents, from being burned alive for providing an inadequate dowry, from growing old, the death of a camel in a year remembered as the year of the death of the camel, births, marriages, child marriages, moneylenders, dharnas, national and panchayat elections, festivals, feuds passed down over generations, celebrations, prayers ... and, through it all, my friends, by whom I was led.
To live poor and landless in the desert amounts to an inescapable reliance on oneself, on each other, and on nature. The stakes are high, the elements close, and life is as cheap as the jokes are rampant. To sleep out on the icy-cold dunes in the winter, with only some tarpaulin and heavy old quilts, means everyone must huddle in, and breathe collectively into the quilt, along with the dogs. One isn’t quite sure what is what or who is who in the tangle.

About the photographer


Chandigarh, India, 1970



Based in

New Delhi, India

About Gauri Gill

Gill’s work emphasises her belief in working with and through community, in what she calls “active listening”. For more than two decades, she has been engaged with marginalised communities in the desert of western Rajasthan, and for the past decade also with indigenous artists in Maharashtra.

Gill studied at Delhi College of Art; Parsons School of Design, New York; and Stanford University, California.

Her work has been shown internationally, including at Whitechapel Gallery, London (2010), The Wiener Holocaust Library, London (2014); San José Museum of Art, California (2015); and the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in Kerala, India (2016). In 2017, Gill’s work was exhibited at Documenta 14, Athens and Kassel; the 7th Moscow Biennale; Prospect 4, New Orleans; and Centre Pompidou, Paris. It has been shown at Museum Tinguely, Basel (2018); MoMA PS1, New York (2018); the 58th Venice Biennale (2019); National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa (2019); Chobi Mela, Dhaka (2019); and BAMPFA, Berkeley, California (2020).

Gill’s first major survey exhibition opened at Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt, in 2022, moving to Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek, Denmark, in January 2023.

She also exhibits at locations outside the art world, including public libraries, rural schools and non-profit institutions. Her work is held by institutions including the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Tate Modern, London; Smithsonian Institution, Washington; and Fotomuseum Winterthur, Switzerland.

Her awards include the Grange Prize, awarded by the Art Gallery of Ontario (2011), and an India Today Art Award in 2018. She has been a Creative Arts Fellow at the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center, Italy (2013), and was the inaugural Roberta Denning Visiting Artist at Stanford (2022). Gill has recently published two books with Edition Patrick Frey about her collaborations with rural artists, Acts of Appearance (2022) and Fields of Sight (2023).