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Collaborators Corner: Q&A with Prarthna Singh


In 2022 Prarthna Singh was one of the guest curators of Der Greif Issue 15. Based in Mumbai, India, Singh has recently presented her latest long-term project “2024: Notes from a Generation” at Tarq Mumbai curated by Skye Arundhati Thomas. Singh’s project began during a major election year, 2019, and was carried out across the last five years in collaboration with journalist Snigdha Poonam, a time-span that has been a radically transformative period in Indian politics, and moreover a time that appears to have entirely reshaped Indian society up until today, when India’s facing another election.

“2024: Notes from a Generation” encompasses portraits of youngsters from diverse backgrounds, where each individual provides a glimpse into India’s present day, even a possible future: that it is not limited to the confines of a single nation-state, or identity, but rather embodies a varied blend of interconnected desires, articulations, and ideals.

Der Greif: How did you start this project?

"2024: Notes from a Generation" was born out of heartbreak. In 2019, the elections had left me bereft of hope for India. I felt trapped in an echo chamber, one that I was desperate to escape. I reached out to Snigdha Poonam, a friend and journalist with whom I had worked on a piece for The Economist earlier in the year, chronicling a young TikToker from a village near Lucknow (the capital of Uttar Pradesh, an Indian state). I had also had the privilege of reading Poonam's book, "Dreamers," an exploration of the lives of four young Indians and a commentary on what their individual struggles revealed about the current state of our nation. I hoped there was something we could build together, something combining a visual and oral archive that held onto the urgency of this moment, some way in which we could better hear and see, as journalists and, more essentially, as citizens. And from that conversation and exploration, a project was born that spanned the next five years and multiple cities across the country.

Der Greif: How’s the project developed in the course of five years?

The last five years have been a radically transformative period in Indian politics and, moreover, a time that appears to have entirely reshaped Indian society. We were determined to bookend this project between two major national elections – 2019 and 2024. Over the course of these years, we photographed over a hundred individuals between the ages of 18 and 25, many of whom will be first-time voters in the 2024 election. We traveled to towns that we grew up in and to the metropolises we now call home, setting up an informal survey-style camp for three or four days where we invited a broad spectrum of the youth, India's most precious and dynamic demographic: a generation that will both inherit and shape the decades to come. 2024 is a historic year for elections; nearly half of the world's population, in sixtyfour countries, will head to the polls. India is one of them. Each individual in 2024 is a young citizen, a fresh, politicized, and sprightly protagonist of a tumultuous, chaotic, and complex moment in the political and social history not only of India but of the world. Through years-long practice of dialogue, image-making, and analysis, 2024 brings together notes from a new generation of Indians.

Der Greif: How did the collaboration with Snigdha Poonam start? Why did you invite a journalist to co-work on your research?

Our collaboration is rooted in exploring intimacy and ambition against the harsh realities of twenty-first-century India. Snigdha's journalistic rigor helped us establish the foundation for how we would approach such an expansive project. We needed to be able to work with a strong network of people on the ground. After months of preparation, which involved working with local researchers, journalists, NGOs, and casting agents, we began 2024 in a tent in Jaipur, my hometown. We met our subjects with the intention of understanding and documenting what it means to be young in today's India. Through their vivid accounts of their lived experiences, aspirations, and rich inner worlds, they provide a unique portrait not only of themselves but also of the conflicting realms of desire and disillusionment that comprise our society today.

Der Greif: What's the exhibition presenting? How is it curated?

This multi-form body of work is essentially an exercise in deeper listening. One that is built on the simple, yet powerful act of truth-telling. In a time where we are engulfed by misinformation and fake news, speaking and presenting the truth seems like a radical act. To quote our curator, Skye Arundhati Thomas, "We live in an isolationist time – sectioned into silos of our class and social mobility – in India especially, we have retreated into ourselves, into small chambers of interiority, of loneliness, and an extreme disconnect from the everyday. We misunderstand each other. And we do little to repair our misunderstandings. If we are to mend the torn social fabric of the nation-state we live in, we must begin by paying sharper attention, by listening to individual stories not simply as anecdotes but as historical and political records – the crucial evidence of the cultural, social, and technological power structures that govern our everyday lives."

The images are accompanied by a sound piece that gives a more literal voice to those in the images we see in the show. Here, the sound is not immediately juxtaposed with the image; we do not always know who it is that we are listening to. As we enter the gallery space, the first sensation is that of registering the gentle murmur that is moving diffusely through the room. It is like walking into a space in which a conversation is already in progress; voices bounce from one corner to the next. We, as viewers, eavesdrop, trying to catch the phrases and piece together the patterns and stories. Then there is another piece of sound in a special listening room: an enclosed space in which we may sit draped in sheer fabric that allows both light and image to gently filter in, and pay focused attention to individual fragments of monologue and dialogue. This act of listening is important and central to what is being proposed here.

Der Greif: How has the project given you the chance to grow in your profession?

Having a solo show in a gallery has been a first for me. The kind of footfall and engagement a physical space encourages was something I got to witness and learn from firsthand. Any time we step out of our comfort zone, whether while making or while presenting the work, it is bound to be a real opportunity to learn and grow. So yes, definitely!

Der Greif: Is this project going to continue? What are your plans for the future?

In a broader sense, the core of my work is centered around building human connections. The image is often a result of my interactions. I want my practice to constantly go beyond just creating images. This has been a common theme for the past few years and it will continue to be a constant in the future. This work came from a place of emotion and I hope that the emotion with which it was created carries through and resonates with people. The ideal scenario would be for it to reach a larger audience in whatever form that may take. "2024: Notes from a Generation" was created with the intention of gathering, sharing, and upholding our truths. More importantly, at this critical moment, it breaks away from the nostalgic and romanticized ideas often associated with India and demands that the viewer pay close attention.