Dayanita Singh: Out of the picture

One of India’s most inventive artists pushes photography in a startling new direction


Dayanita Singh. Photographs: Courtesy: Dayanita Singh
Dayanita Singh. Photographs: Courtesy: Dayanita Singh

Can you imagine the kind of portraits I would have made if I had read the plays of Shakespeare in college?” says Dayanita Singh, 52. “When an aspiring photographer comes to me for advice, I tell them to study literature.”

Coming from an alumnus of the National School of Design (NID), Ahmedabad, and the International Center for Photography (ICP), New York, US, this may sound like an unusual admission. But it does provide a vital clue to the aesthetics of self-making that informs the work of one of the finest photographers in contemporary India.

In 2009, for instance, when invited to participate in a group show of self-portraits, Singh sent one of her iconic works—a black and white photograph of a young girl in bed hiding her face under a pillow—that appears on the cover of her 2007 book, Go Away Closer. “But these are not your legs, Dayanita!” the startled curator wrote back, missing the point of the gesture.

Photographs, as Singh told curator Stephanie Rosenthal in an interview last year, are to her what paint is to a painter. As early as the 1980s and 1990s, when she was steeped in photojournalism, Singh’s work had the maturity and inwardness befitting narrative non-fiction. When The Times, London, sent her on an assignment to photograph hijras, or transgender people, in India, she managed to transform a potentially clichéd subject into something rich and strange.

Mona And Myself
Singh spent several years documenting the life of Mona Ahmed, a hijra who had been rejected not only by her family but also cast away by the community of eunuchs she lived with. The result was the much-acclaimed book, Myself Mona Ahmed (2001), which juxtaposed photographs by Singh with Mona’s emails, written to publisher Walter Keller, telling him the story of her life.

“I’ve been saying this for a while now: I’m a bookmaker, really,” says Singh. “It’s just that photographs happen to be my raw materials.”

In spite of her continuing international success, Singh has moved, almost exclusively, into the realm of bookmaking, and come up with innovative modes of dissemination for her work. The seven accordion-fold books that comprise Sent a Letter (2008) continue to be on display in the window of a jewellery shop on Park Street in Kolkata, while File Room, her latest work of art, is a book, priced at Rs.1,800—a fraction of what one of her prints would sell for, which is anything between Rs.5-7 lakh (see box).

Dayanita Singh
We are sitting in the kitchen of her home in New Delhi. In the living room and outside the front door stand movable wooden structures, objects that look like a cross between cabinets and carts, which can be opened out like concertinas or folded in to form a box. “I haven’t quite found a name for these things yet,” she says. “But for now, I like to think of them as some kind of a ‘photo-architecture’.”

The slots on their outer surfaces are studded with photographs of gem-like clarity. These images can be pulled out and shuffled around to create new “museums” as often, and as whimsically, as one fancies.

At her show in London’s Hayward Gallery last year, called Go Away Closer after her book, Singh created several such museums by rearranging images in the panels: “Museum of Furniture”, “Museum of Chance”, “Museum of Embraces”, and so on. Each museum was made using a cluster of photographs—some new, others culled from her various books—to evoke a particular theme. “The Little Ladies Museum 1961-Present”, for instance, includes portraits of the artist as a little girl (the date in the title refers to the year of her birth) taken by her mother Nony; Singh’s own photographs of young widows in Varanasi (included in one of the volumes in Sent a Letter); and, with a touch of mischief and melancholy, recent photographs of Singh with Mona who, in her autumnal years, has the air of a character who has been in a Greek tragedy as well as a Bollywood melodrama.

“We are constantly changing as people. Why shouldn’t the work change with us?” Singh says, as I try to absorb the protean possibilities that arise out of such obsessive reshuffling.

Ustad Zakir Hussain and Ustad Alla Rakha (left) in concert, from ‘Zakir Hussain‘(1986)
The frisson of recognition, for those who have followed Singh’s work, is sharpened by the elements of surprise that leap out of these mini museums—such as the photographs of stills from cult classics of Indian and European cinema. The face of actor Nargis lights up one window. “Could you leave everything behind and start from zero again?” reads the subtitle on another composition, a close-up of Marcello Mastroianni’s face from Italian master Federico Fellini’s (1963).

That question could well have been the epigraph to Singh’s entire career.

“It is remarkable how she resists being slotted,” says Sabeena Gadihoke, author of an acclaimed biography of Homai Vyarawalla, India’s first woman photojournalist. “Just when you think you know Singh’s work, she has already moved on.”

At the peak of her career last year, Singh told Rosenthal, who curated her London exhibition, that for her it was really her “first show”. “I didn’t say that out of modesty or humility,” she tells me. “I seemed to have finally found a suitable form for what I was aiming at all these years.”

Leading up to this moment had been a lifetime’s effort of “surrounding myself with excellence, and seeking it,” as Singh puts it. That quest remains uninterrupted—with her sustained absorption in the writings of W.G. Sebald and Italo Calvino, in the music of Kumar Gandharva and Gustav Mahler, in films like Federico Fellini’s Roma or old Bollywood ones like Jewel Thief. But most of all, it carries on in her friendships with writers, thinkers and artists like Geoff Dyer, Sunil Khilnani and Anish Kapoor, or with extraordinary human beings like Mona, who lives in a cemetery in central Delhi, and with her mentor-publisher, the great bookmaker Gerhard Steidl.

And it was the camera, says Singh, that opened up her world so magnificently, giving her a precious ticket to freedom.

File Room: Steidl, 88 pages, Rs1,800
“My husband wasn’t too keen on sending her to college so far away from home,” says Nony, who lives a few houses away from her eldest daughter. “But I insisted she be given a chance to explore the artistic gift she showed from her early years.” While in college, Singh lost her father, whom she was very close to. But her mother continued to support her, respecting her wish to devote her energy to work rather than to the routine of marriage and domesticity.

Singh would reciprocate years later by helping her mother make her own book, Nony Singh: The Archivist (2013), with photographs selected from the stacks of negatives and prints Nony had accumulated ever since she got addicted to the camera as a little girl.

“My mother did not want me to be financially dependent on a man,” Singh says. “She probably felt that a foundation course in design would make me more employable.” Instead, in her first year at NID, she ended up working on a project that helped hone the twin skills that would inform the abiding passions of her life—photography and bookmaking.

“I remember going to a concert by Pandit Ravi Shankar with my father when I was five or six years old,” Singh says. “That was the beginning of my love for Hindustani classical music.”

At 18, faced with the prospect of having to put together a student portfolio, she decided to photograph tabla maestro Zakir Hussain, just 10 years her senior but already a global celebrity.

It took a scuffle with fellow reporters and a fall to get Hussain’s attention. Soon Singh was not only touring with Hussain, but also accompanying legends like Shiv Kumar Sharma, V.G. Jog and Protima Bedi on their tours.

In those days, even the stars travelled by bus, ate at roadside dhabas, and often slept in the vehicle itself. “I don’t know why they tolerated me, but I managed to stay on,” says Singh. “On one trip, Shujaat Husain Khan (the sitar player) and I even made a recording of the others snoring in their sleep.”

An image from the ‘Continuous Cities’ section of ‘House of Love’ (2011)
Those years of restless travelling culminated in her first book, Zakir Hussain (1986). It gave her an intimate experience of design, typography and editing, skills that are central to her practice, while also making her alert to the beauty of inflections.

“The alaap that opens a raga, and the pace in which it is improvised, taught me all that I needed to know about sequencing a body of work and building up a narrative,” says Singh. Classical music, which combines performance with precision, also helped her forge a visual language that could be theatrical without being exaggerated.

“As a child, Singh had a flair for acting, and participated in school plays every year,” recalls Nony. The world of photojournalism helped keep that dramatic streak alive.

In 1993, with the release of the Bollywood blockbuster Khal Nayak, Madhuri Dixit became an overnight sensation, thanks to the item number Choli ke peechhe kya hai, choreographed by Saroj Khan. Shaken by the end of Sridevi’s reign, Singh convinced The Independent newspaper to send her to Mumbai to photograph Khan, known as Masterji in the industry, at work. The result is one of the most charming, though little-known, series of photographs, “Masterji”, part of the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi.

Back then, I did not have the means to buy more than 20 rolls of film,” Singh says. “So I had to be careful about selecting the shots I would take.” She trailed Khan tirelessly, for all the three shifts she was doing each day, and waited for the right moments. Analogue photography ensured that she remained disciplined, thoughtful and cautious.

An image from ‘Blue Book’
Although Singh now owns a digital camera and uses it, she prefers film and its inbuilt contraints—or advantages, depending on the way one looks at it. “The difference between using digital and analogue forms is akin to typing on computers and writing longhand,” she says. The latter slows down time, allowing for reflection rather than impulse.

“Apart from the craftsmanship, beauty and the compositional sense in her work, I was struck by the amount of time Dayanita invested in her subjects,” says Peter Nagy, director of New Delhi’s Nature Morte gallery, which showed her work in India for several years. “There is not only excitement and intelligence in her work, but also a unique knack for getting the perfect shots.” Even so-called mistakes made by her—such as the time she used daylight film to shoot at night—have resulted in happy accidents, in the form of intriguing bodies of work such as Blue Book (2009), where she first ventured into colour.

“Dayanita seldom asks her subjects to pose,” says Nandita Palchoudhuri, one of her closest friends who, along with her daughters Ahona and Paroma, appears in the Ladies of Calcutta (2008) series and in Privacy (2004), Singh’s collection of exquisite family portraits. “She is never in the face but somehow always manages to get what she wants,” adds Palchoudhuri.

In some of the most haunting images in the family portraits, the protagonists are foregrounded against shadowy presences—pets, furniture or servants—that tease the eye into thought, urging it to look beyond the surface, for links and affinities that lie secreted in these sequences. “I am deeply interested in secrets,” says Singh. “That’s why I’m so fascinated by museums, which are repositories of hidden information.”

A few years ago, she started creating a “museum” in the kitchen of her Delhi home. Over the years, during her travels across the world with friends, Singh had been keeping photographic diaries of sorts. At the end of each journey, she would cut out the images she had taken during the trip from two sets of contact sheets, paste them on a couple of Moleskine notebooks, send one to her travelling companion, and archive the other on a shelf in her kitchen. Eventually, six of these “letters” would find their way into Sent a Letter (2008).

“I am not a domestic person. The kitchen is where I often end up working,” says Singh. Her bookmaking, which involves rigorous editing, begins with prints laid out on the kitchen table. Images are cut out of contact sheets, stuck together with Scotch tape, then arranged and rearranged to form possible narrative arcs—until the “story” comes through.

A work from ‘House of Love’
Sometimes even solitary images resonate with the poetry one may encounter in an accomplished short story—such as the photograph from Singh’s book, Chairs (2005), which found its way to the cover of the hardback Indian subcontinent edition of Jhumpa Lahiri’s second volume of stories, Unaccustomed Earth (2008).

Singh’s more recent books, Dream Villa (2010) and House of Love (2011), are self-consciously stylized, novelistic entities that are meant to be read like fiction. In the case of Dream Villa, the tight binding and the gutter cutting through each image meant that the book had to be prised open and peered into to get all the details. Each image is meant to be read closely as well as looked at from a distance—a quality of engagement captured by the phrase that recurs across her work: “Go Away Closer”.

The visual counterpoint to that phrase is the girl in the bed, refusing to expose her face to the camera. It is a moment that goes back to Singh’s early years, when she too would resist her mother’s attempt to dress her up in costumes and photograph her in a variety of poses. But over the years, the phrase came to be associated with other kinds of metaphors—of beginnings and endings, arrivals and departures, finding and losing.

“For me, ‘Go Away Closer’ is the essence of love,” says Singh. “You can’t live with it; you can’t live without it.”

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