Dayanita Singh’s photographs are like puzzles. If the viewer is patient, they reveal the unspoken and the unseen. Her numerous books are particularly conducive to this process. You can explore empty spaces (Go Away Closer, 2007), discover family secrets (Privacy, 2003), and embrace the confidences of friendship (Myself Mona Ahmed, 2001).
Singh’s new work is equally intriguing. Sent A Letter (Steidl, 2008) is a collection of seven accordion-fold books in a cloth-covered wooden box. The books fit into the palm of a hand, and may be read as one would any book: by turning each page. Or, they can be expanded outwards to resemble the instrument after which they’ve been modelled, creating a tabletop exhibition. Six of the books capture a journey with a friend to cities including Mumbai and Kolkata; a seventh features photographs of Singh growing up, taken by her talented mother, Noni. Accompanying the publication will be an exhibition of framed photographs at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), Mumbai.
This is reassuring as the images—of museums and book-crammed shelves, the seashore, and envelopes hanging outside a store—are small, each 3x3 inches in size. Shot mainly with a Hasselblad, they are intricate and unlabelled. In their detail and glass-like clarity, they appear to conform more to a style than a theme.
In 2002, having returned from a holiday, Singh expressed her gratitude to her travel companion not in an email, as most of us would, but with a handmade photo journal. The habit remained and, since then, Singh has gifted 32 journals to her friends, retaining for herself a copy in what she calls her “kitchen museum” in Delhi.
Allahabad, one of the books in Sent a Letter, was for the author Sunil Khilnani, whom she accompanied on a research trip for his biography of Nehru. “It was my way of thanking him for the gift of his company and conversation,” she says.
She also makes journals for people she admires. Moved by Amitav Ghosh’s The Glass Palace, Singh made the writer, now a friend, a journal on Kolkata before they even met. Singh’s efforts reveal not only a deep, even anachronistic, appreciation of friendship, but also a love of the craft outside the demands of what is necessary or important for her career.
Equating them with writer’s notes, Singh says she was initially reluctant to publish her journals, even omitting the names of her companions from the collection.
“But my publisher Gerhard Steidl, with whom I had made a journey to Kolkata, was delighted by the scale and intimate viewing experience they allowed,” she explains. “We both liked the idea of them being exhibited spontaneously—passed around a table among a group of people, for example.”
An aversion to “tombstone books” and the chance to cock a snook at the rising prices in the art market determined the size and price. At Rs2,400, Sent a Letter would be an expensive book, but is accessible artwork. And unlike her 2005 book Chairs, which had a limited 1,000-copy run, Sent a Letter will be mass-produced.
Since meeting Singh at her exhibition in the Goan village of Saligao in 2001, I have been fascinated by the contradictory qualities of restraint and magnanimity that characterize her work and life. In the past 20 years, for example, she has made only 106 images, each with seven prints, available for sale. “Not every photo is worthy of being collected,” she says. “It has to be truly special. The galleries I work with feel the same way—one has to be particular about what goes out.”
Her reluctance to flood the market is curious, since a single photograph of hers can fetch more than Rs2 lakh. Yet, even then, Singh is meticulous about gifting a print to her subjects.
In January, at the close of her exhibition Ladies of Calcutta, onlookers were taken aback by people removing their portraits from the walls. And in Saligao, where Singh now lives, dozens of families display her record of Goan life. “Consider the satisfaction it gives me,” she says. “The thrill of seeing my photos in someone else’s house is immense.”
Singh’s relationship with a photograph doesn’t end with an exhibition or book. With the mischievousness of Puck, she meddles in their onward journey, with unusual but—for her—gratifying results. She distributed 500 copies of Chairs among friends, asking them to pollinate as they chose. Ghosh kept nine in his study, and one on a table outside. A visitor who expressed appreciation for the photographs got one copy.
As the 2008-2009 Robert Gardner Fellow in photography—named for the founder of the Harvard film archive—Singh will spend a year between Kolkata, Varanasi and Mumbai. There will be friendships, a photo novella, and the certainty that Singh, as Sent a Letter demonstrates, will continue to “dwell in new spaces”.
Sent a Letter at NGMA, Mumbai, until 28 March.
Sonia Faleiro is the author of The Girl. Her non-fiction book on Mumbai’s bar girls is forthcoming. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org