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A new exhibition presents a portrait of the Indian youth

A multimedia exhibition looks at the inner worlds of youth, the demographic that will shape the future of India in the years to come

Though the 26 portraits have been treated in a similar manner, they differ in expression, attire, demeanour, and more. Courtesy: Prarthna Singh/Tarq

By Avantika Bhuyan

LAST PUBLISHED 12.04.2024  |  04:00 PM IST

At Tarq, Mumbai, one walks through rooms full of portraits. The firm outward gaze of the sitters seems to be appraising the visitors, trying to engage them in conversation. While the 26 portraits have been treated in a similar manner—closeups, with individuals looking straight at the camera—they differ in expression, attire, demeanour, and more. These subtle variations give you hints about the sitters—whether they are students or professionals, does that empty gaze conceal something?

The sitters fall in the age group of 18-25. It is this demographic that photographer Prarthna Singh and writer Snigdha Poonam have attempted to profile and understand in their multimedia collaboration, Notes from a Generation, which has been curated by Pune-based writer-editor Skye Arundhati Thomas.

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The portraits are accompanied by a special soundscape, which contains conversations and testimonies by some of these individuals—revealing their aspirations, dreams and heartbreaks. “2024 is a historic year for elections; nearly half of the world’s population, in 64 countries, will head to the polls. India is one of them. Each individual in 2024 is a young citizen, a fresh, politicised, and sprightly protagonist of a tumultuous, chaotic and complex moment in the political and social history not only of India, but of the world," states the curatorial note. These micro stories then come together to create a vivid tapestry of the present-day sociopolitical fabric of the country. The images and the soundscape end up becoming an important historical record of a demographic, which will go on to shape the future of the country.

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The project has been bookended by two elections, with the work on the series having started after the 2019 general election, finally culminating in the exhibition right before the forthcoming polls. Singh and Poonam have known each other for years, starting their collaboration with the profile of a rising TikTok star from an Indian village for The Economist’s 1843 magazine (September 2019). Their individual practices have often focused on the aspirations of the youth. Poonam published a book, Dreamers: How Young Indians Are Changing The World (2018), about young men and women in towns and villages, whose dreams have not been realised, while Singh has created portraits of female athletes of Haryana—photos from the series have been published in newspapers such as The New York Times and exhibited at The National Portrait gallery in London. Notes from a Generation brings their personal vocabularies together to create a research-backed multimedia project.

For the past five years, the duo travelled through towns and cities, starting with Singh’s home city of Jaipur. “The idea was to tell a larger story through these individual truths," says Singh. “It was such an expansive vision to chronicle what the youth is feeling. How was one to tackle it logistically? So, we decided to give ourselves a timeline for making the work, four years between two major election cycles."

The portraits are accompanied by a special soundscape, which contains conversations and testimonies by some of these individuals

The duo started working with local researchers, journalists, not-for-profit organisations and even casting agents to invite and interview young individuals. Poonam’s rigorous research-based practice helped in this aspect. “Years of reporting and researching about the lives of Indian youth gave me a broad framework that helped guide the conversations that shape the ‘2024’ exhibition," elaborates Poonam. “I could easily understand their anxieties about career, identity, and personal relationships, and their efforts to define themselves on their own terms. Having said that, many of these conversations took me by surprise."

She was especially struck by the enormity of battles that young Indians—especially women and other gender minorities—were fighting at home, against their parents, relatives, and wider communities, to earn the freedom to make their own choices. “Many of them spoke about enduring years of pain and abuse before cutting off ties or running away from home," says Poonam. “I was also surprised to find that it is a norm rather than a temporary situation for young people to have two or three jobs at one time. It hinted at the broader scenario of a broken job market as well as their own defiance against professional straitjackets."

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Singh wants her work to go beyond the act of image-making. Both she and Poonam decided against making environmental portraits. The idea was to separate the youth from their immediate environment—office, home, college—to enable them to come free, without any baggage. “The series is also a comment on where photography is headed. With the advent of Artificial Intelligence and Deepfakes, this work is embedded in a time when we are fighting disinformation and fake news at every level. We wanted an approach in which information could be presented in a way that felt genuine, without any manipulations," says Singh. Hence she photographed everything on film and printed it in the dark room.

The only way in which the makers of the series subtly insert their presence in the work is through the colour in the background of the portraits—the pink, blue, green and creams. “My home lies in the pink city of Jaipur, and the green comes from Snigdha’s state of Jharkhand. My home in Delhi is in a DDA apartment complex, which stands out for its cream-washed exterior. That colour makes its way into the portraits as does blue, which takes off from the permanent scaffoldings omnipresent in Mumbai. These various colours also acknowledge the fact that we are constantly moving," adds Singh.

At the gallery, the display is not static. As you walk through the rooms, there is a gentle murmur of conversations—as part of an audio element—that softens the space. It feels as if the various portraits are not just conversing with you but with one another. “We would set up a tent when photographing and interviewing people. Youth would be invited in, and exchanges would take place within that. The tent ended up becoming a safe space where people could come and reveal themselves to us. The audio element and the listening room that you see later in the show is symbolic of this tent," explains Singh.

The portraits lead you to a small space enclosed by diaphanous handwoven mulmul sheets. This is the listening room where one can hear the various exchanges and revelations. It harks back to the idea of the tent, where people would meet each other, often leading to some sort of camaraderie. “Someone would come back with a friend, others would exchange notes on the courses that they were pursuing," adds Singh. The format of the listening room allows for similar conversations between the visitors as well. With two sets of chairs and headphones, you end up sharing the space with strangers, listening to different parts of the audio together.

In a way, while sitting within the listening room you can’t help but reflect on how both technology and political ideologies have led to a sense of isolation, dividing society into silos. In such a scenario, a project like this, which enables dialogues, is poignant. Poonam feels that listening and seeing without judgement is one of the most radical acts of resistance that we have in an increasingly fractured world. “The exhibition urges people to step out of their bubbles—social, political, ideological—to engage deeply with the faces and voices of people who are strangers to them. In the course of doing that, we hope some assumptions will be challenged and fresh dialogue can take place," she adds.

Notes from a Generation can be viewed at Tarq, Mumbai, till 11 May, Tuesday-Saturday, 11am-6.30pm