Fields of Sight (2013–), a series of Gauri Gill’s black-and-white photographs overlaid with images by Rajesh Vangad created in Warli tradition, is an ongoing collaborative project that attempts to reckon with the many layers of story, time, and space as they intersect with different ways of seeing. Gill captures Vangad in photos taken in varied urban and rural environments near Vangad’s home in the Indian state of Maharashtra. Vangad then supplies his own interpretation of the scenes through intricate and expressive ink paintings on large-scale prints of the photographs. The evocative visual texts that result have brought international acclaim to the pair.
Gill, a renowned photographer based in the megalopolis of New Delhi, met Vangad in 2013 when she traveled from her home to his Adivasi village. One of India’s largest thermal power plants is nearby, and the region’s indigenous people, including the people of the Warli tribe, have been displaced several times as a result of ongoing industrial development. Vangad and his family have been working as artists in this region for many generations; he and Gill were both invited to create work at the local community school for an NGO-run festival. In the course of working on that project, the two artists became friends, and as Gill slowly began to photograph the landscape she felt drawn to for its beauty, she realized her photographs lacked the compelling stories she heard about his village and its surroundings:
How could I convey what happened in those months in the 1970s when the violent mobs of a powerful political party raided the village and the locals fled and fell upon each other in terror; or the particular full moon night in October when a great forest on one hill comes alive, and all the people who spend that night in the forest see shining eyes glitter around them, as even the most dangerous animals are benign when everything glows from the aura of the moon; or the stories of great overlords who come calling in secret to the homes of innocent, hospitable men, bringing gifts and drink and returning with deeds of land; or the mythical stories that encompass everything that has come or is yet to come?
The historically male-dominated field of photography as a fine art first emerged in the late 1800s; tribal Warli etchings, originally almost always done on walls by women, are said to have originated around 3000 BC. With Warli paintings, chiseled bamboo sticks often become the brushes used to depict daily village life that values harmony between the human and beyond-human worlds. Thus, the artistic interaction in Fields of Sight dehistoricizes the camera’s fixed perspective by inscribing the ephemeral language of the prehistoric. Gill, to convey the temporal layers of story held in these landscapes, offers Vangad her photographs for reinterpretation through the Warli lens; Vangad, informed by oral storytelling tradition, in turn transforms the Warli through to the present moment of industrialization—with images of modernization, or the city, for example.
To illustrate, Gill explains how she and Vangad created Sacred Gods, Revered Things, in which the photograph depicting a peaceful riverbed also includes drawings of ubiquitous twenty-first-century technology:
Sacred Gods, Revered Things has a great chowk at the top—sacred in Warli art, and representing two key gods: Palghat Devi, the Mother Goddess, and Paanch Sira, the Male God, who appears on a horse with five heads. They appear in the sky as on a stage revealed through sheets or curtains of rain—a suggestion I made to Rajeshji, as water and rain are always auspicious. The lower chowk came about in a curious way. One Diwali when Rajeshji was staying in my studio in Delhi he did a puja on the festival day, as is the tradition; prayed to his bamboo instruments, the paint, the drawing; offered marigolds and so on; and also at some point opened out all the cupboards. When I asked him why, he said that Adivasis believe that things too have a life, or are sentient, and therefore need to breathe, especially on special days. So then we started to speak of which things might be revered in Warli homes—books, or cooking gas, or the entrance of the home, sewing machines, the television, and cell phones—and decided to construct a chowk for them, just as for the gods, as they mean so much to us that they are deeply valued and respected, if not quite sacred . . . the whole work is set against a large body of water, that leads to the sea.
Gill meticulously frames the light and creates compositionally stark fields crisp with modernity; Vangad ornately busies up the frames, with logarithmic spiral pitches composed of marching ants in Worship of the Great Serpent Who Lives in the Homes of Ants or soaring birds in The Sweet and Salty Sea, with natural and industrial details in works such as Factory and River II (cover image). By way of introduction to his own art practice, Vangad explained in a piece published online by Granta that “I am a creation of my stories, which live in my work. There are at least sixty stories I know. They concern gods, kings, man, the earth, Mahadeva, Parvati, and the gods of the hills.” Sharing a traditional tale of four hunters, who represent North, South, East, and West, Vangad writes that “This particular story was told to my father’s father by his brother. He relayed it to my father, who told it to me. I believe it was prescient, that it foretells the future. It encompasses so much of what we see today: earthquakes, cyclones, tsunamis, and all kinds of destruction on earth. Why do we farm, when, and how, in how many days and in what ways must the farmer till his fields, all of this is in the stories. It manifests constantly in my work.”
Photographs have often been used to colonize indigenous peoples. Susan Sontag states in her famous essay collection On Photography that “To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge—and therefore, like power.” Gill and Vangad’s shared process dismantles this power dynamic. “The photographs are constructed collaboratively,” Gill elaborates, “with each image discussed between us before I finally take it—the site and what it might represent in terms of content, and formal aspects such as how the space should be divided, the dark and light tones, and later, which image from the contact sheet would work best—just as the subsequent drawing by Vangad is also arrived at through a process of back-and-forth dialogue.”
Gauri Gill’s portraits of Rajesh Vangad present him in and as part of the ecologically vulnerable yet thriving landscapes he calls home; Vangad contributes visual narratives about the history, present, and future of the places framed in Gill’s photographs. These new and collaborative narratives make the old ones less static by introducing possibility. As Inderpal Grewal’s Spring 2015 article in Trans-Asia Photography notes, Fields of Sight “reconfigure[s] the photographic site formally as well as conceptually, to arrive at new documents of multiple knowledge systems.” We perceive, perhaps, the fragments and stories in Vangad’s imagination: the animals, the people, and the machinery that are part of the landscapes but never would have been apparent to viewers solely in the photographs themselves.
All compositions are acrylic ink on archival pigment prints.
Copyright © 2018 Gauri Gill and Rajesh Vangad. Images appear courtesy of the artists.