Owning an actual photo print by the kind of photographers who show their works in galleries is beyond the means of most people. If seeing their work in magazines occasionally doesn’t satisfy you, the next best thing is to invest in a coffee-table book of their photographs.
Fans of the well-known and well-regarded photographer Dayanita Singh have just such an opportunity in a recently released book titled, simply Dayanita Singh. It contains a selection of over a 100 of her published and unpublished photographs. The selection covers a broad time span—the earliest photos were taken in 1989 and the most recent in 2009—and is accompanied by illuminating essays by the photo critic Aveek Sen and Lounge columnist Sunil Khilnani. Their prefatory pieces before each series of images rise to the challenge of complementing them—providing context, as well as throwing light on the photos, their subjects and the photographer.
An image from the series ‘I Am as I Am’
The retrospective format of the book then is a treat for the serious student, as well as someone who just likes Singh’s work, for it allows them to see how her practice has evolved over the past two decades, transitioning towards the end, for example, from black and white to colour photography.
The photos immediately strike as being uniformly of a superior quality, which is only natural given that they have been selected from a much larger body of high-grade work—right from the first set of lyrical images of girls who live in a cloistered ashram along the bank of the Ganga in Banaras ( titled, I Am as I Am), to the final set of enigmatic and meditative photos on the transformative effect of darkness on the everyday world around us (Dream Villa).
As the book illustrates, Singh’s work has become more experimental over the years. The black and white photos of the ashram girls and those of her friend, the eunuch Mona in Delhi, appear positively conventional when seen alongside the final two sets which have been shot in colour—the blue-hued industrial landscapes (The Blue Book) and Dream Villa.
Dayanita Singh, Penguin Studio, Rs5,999, 231 pages.
Apparent in her oeuvre is a consistent push to try out something new and take risks—from one set of images to the next, there is a linear trend of increasing complexity in the interplay of elements that make an image, and also an increasing ambiguity. These make a greater demand on the viewer, a demand that is mostly rewarded. Along with the eye is the steadily increasing role of the mind’s eye—in both taking the photo and looking at it, be it Jawaharlal Nehru’s preserved jackets suspended from coat hangers; surgical rubber gloves hanging from window grills; or the famous image of the young girl lying face down on the bed. The risk-taking is most obvious in Dream Villa, the last set of photos, which consists of variously tinted shots of a seemingly random assortment of subjects, all of which engage with the effect of artificial light on its surroundings after sundown.
The power of the images, and their ability to move, inform and illuminate, make Dayanita Singh worth its price; additionally, on offer here is a chance to see just how a first-rate artist has, over the years, been taking chances and trying out new things. It is, in this sense too, a voyeur’s delight.