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Their eyes never fail to speak. Some stand erect, conscious of the lens capturing them, others are more extemporaneous — holding hands, wearing caps made of old newspaper, posing with a flower basket or even imitating lord Krishna, their hands positioned like a flute. They are Gauri Gill's protagonists — girls from Rajasthan's Bikaner district who visited the Delhi-based photographer's stall at Balika Mela, a fair for young girls in the region.
Gill remembers photographing hundreds of them in the desert village, in 2003 and again in 2010. Back in her studio, she sifted through the frames that are now compiled in a book dedicated to them — Balika Mela (Rs 1,500) — titled on the fair.
Working in Rajasthan since 1999, the recipient of the 2011 Grange Prize (Canada's largest cash award for photography) — Gill learnt of the fair through her association with the local NGO, Urmul Setu Santhan. Over 1,500 girls from 100-odd villages spread across Lunkaransar, Chhattargarh, Churu, Nagaur and Ganganagar were in attendance, and several of them got themselves photographed by Gill.
Each girl returned home with a silver gelatin print of her portrait. In return, they gave Gill an idea — to conduct a photography workshop in the region. "The surge of interest among girls who came to be photographed led me to conceive of a workshop," says Gill. She spent a fortnight teaching students how to use the camera, process their own film and make black-and-white prints. "I would say most of my students seemed older than their years. They had come to the workshop with some difficulty, having had to work hard to convince their doubting parents, who needed them at home to look after younger siblings or livestock, among their other responsibilities," says Gill.
Among Gill's students was also a girl who brought a revolution of sorts in the district. Manju went on to becoming, perhaps, one of the first professional women photographers in the region when she set up her studio in Kaalu village.
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