A collection of portraits of girls and young women by contemporary Indian photographer Gauri Gill, Balika Mela is named after a rural fair in Rajasthan that served as the site of the project. Organised specifically for adolescent girls of the region, the event in Lunkaransar in Rajasthan’s Bikaner district — Balika Mela or ‘a fair for girls’, in Hindi and other regional languages — was aimed at raising awareness around social issues facing women in the region. Forming a sub-series of Gill’s project Notes from the Desert (1999–), the photographs in this collection were made during her visits to the fair in 2003 and 2010. In 2012, Edition Patrick Frey published the collection as a photobook titled Balika Mela, with a selection of 72 black-and-white photographs and 32 colour reproductions, alongside essays by Gill and Manju Saran, the subject of one of the photographs, who went on to open her own photo studio.
Gill’s career has been characterised by work that is both socially and politically conscious, involving extensive collaborations with vulnerable communities. Her ongoing project Notes from the Desert exemplifies this as a photo archive of the natural, social and political dangers faced by marginalised and underprivileged populations in rural areas of western Rajasthan, particularly women. In 2003, she was invited to the Balika Mela organised by Urmul Setu Sansthan, a branch of the Urmul Trust, a non-profit organisation working for the development of women and children in Rajasthan’s rural areas. The fair aimed to raise awareness about various issues — particularly those surrounding widely prevalent practices such as child marriage and female infanticide, which stem from local perceptions of girl children as economic burdens. Held shortly before an auspicious Hindu date that sees a large number of child marriages take place annually, the fair introduced girls to the repercussions of such practices, the importance of education and healthcare, and new possibilities of careers, through a variety of talks, performances and presentations. This was incorporated into a carnival experience with games, rides, shows and food, and was attended by about 1500 girls and young women from around the Bikaner district.
Gill set up a temporary photo studio in a tent at the fair, inviting anyone who wished to have their photograph taken, which they could later buy as an inexpensive silver gelatin print. There were no rules or guidelines for the girls who agreed to be photographed, and they had the freedom to opt for any companions, props and posture they wished to have for their portrait. She did not question any of their choices in how they wished to be photographed, and the scene of every image was staged as a lighthearted, collaborative effort between Gill and the girls, as well as an audience that often formed around the tent. The makeshift studio formed a safe space in which the girls were given agency and their wishes were heard, in contrast to the silencing and subjugation they faced in the conservative society of rural Bikaner. When the fair next took place in 2010, she set up an exhibition tent with the black-and-white portraits she had taken in 2003. Many of the girls in these images were present at this fair, and many others known to the attendees. Gill also repeated the portrait project on popular demand, this time taking colour photographs. Each photograph is named after the girl forming the subject of the image.
Madhu, in her eponymous portrait, is seen holding a magazine while in Anopi, the girl is seated on a parked motorcycle, with her hands gripping its handlebar as if about to ride it. In both these instances, the subjects are participating in activities they would otherwise be forbidden or discouraged from pursuing, thereby making the photographs acts of resistance through art. Similarly, in Revanti, the girl poses with one hand on her hip and another raised high above her head in a posture exuding a confidence and ambition usually seen reserved for men. The photographs of Balika Mela detach the image of these girls from the patriarchal gaze they are constantly subject to, allowing them to be individuals with their own aspirations. Following the 2003 fair, in the same year, Gill conducted photography workshops for the girls, further empowering them with a skillset that they would have not had access to otherwise. Saran opened her own photo studio after having attended this workshop.
The photobook Balika Mela was launched with an exhibition of the same name at Nature Morte, New Delhi in 2012. In 2023, Gill was awarded the 10th Annual Prix Pictet Photography and Sustainability Award for Notes from the Desert.
Bever, Andrea. “Balika Mela: A Fair in Celebration of the Girl Child.” Girls Not Brides, April 29, 2014. Accessed October 27, 2023. https://www.girlsnotbrides.org/articles/balika-mela-fair-celebration-girl-child/.
Desai, Prajna. “The Kids Aren’t All Right.” Aperture, January 12, 2017. Accessed October 27, 2023. https://aperture.org/editorial/gauri-gill-girls/.
Edition Patrick Frey. “Balika Mela.” Books. Accessed May 30, 2021. https://www.editionpatrickfrey.com/en/books/balika-mela-gauri-gill
Gill, Gauri. “Books.” Accessed May 29, 2021. http://www.gaurigill.com/books.html.
Gill, Gauri. “Works.” Accessed October 27, 2021. https://www.gaurigill.com/works.html.
National Museum of Asian Art, Smithsonian. “‘Notes From the Desert: Photographs by Gauri Gill’ Brings Together Works from Three Major Series by the Delhi-Based Artist, Set in India.” Press Releases. September 7, 2016. https://asia-archive.si.edu/press-release/notes-from-the-desert-photographs-by-gauri-gill-brings-together-works-from-three-major-series-by-the-delhi-based-artist-set-in-india/.
Nature Morte. “Balika Mela.” Exhibitions. Accessed May 29, 2021. https://naturemorte.com/exhibitions/balikamela/.
“Photographer Gauri Gill Wins the 10th Prix Pictet Award.” The Wire, September 29, 2023. Accessed October 27, 2023. https://thewire.in/the-arts/photographer-gauri-gill-wins-the-10th-prix-pictet-award.