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In 1948, when she was 12 and attending boarding school in Dehradun, Nony Singh, then known as Ranjit Kaur, would spend all her pocket money, the princely sum of 20 she got every month, on Kodak films for her box camera. The year before, her life had suddenly changed one day, when she was forced to flee her hometown Lahore with her family in the wake of the violence that broke out during the Partition of the subcontinent. But amid all the tumult, photography had been, and was to remain, the one constant in her life.

“I was 7 when I took my first photograph," says Nony, now in her late 70s and a resident of New Delhi for many years. It was a portrait of her mother, Mohinder Kaur, sitting in a clearing, seemingly lost in her chores during a family picnic near Rawalpindi, now in Pakistan. A strikingly accomplished composition, it captures the essence of its subject—“graceful, dignified and wise," in Nony’s words—with a quiet confidence. Four years later, Nony would go on to make another portrait of her mother, a more self-consciously stylized one this time, by making her pose on the roof of their house, dressed in her other parent’s clothes, holding a policeman’s baton, and wearing a mighty moustache.

Nony Singh—The Archivist: Dreamvilla Productions, 116 pages, Rs 1,500
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Nony Singh—The Archivist: Dreamvilla Productions, 116 pages, Rs 1,500

Over the years, Nony would go on to take thousands of photographs of her friends and family, especially of her four daughters, collecting negatives and albums in an ever growing archive. A handful from that sea of images has now been selected and curated by Nony’s first-born, Dayanita Singh, one of India’s finest photographers, artists and bookmakers.

“Nony Singh: The Archivist is a companion volume to my book Privacy (2004)," says Dayanita, “You can see how influenced my portraits were by her aesthetic." The books look like identical twins—with teal-coloured covers, exquisite typography, and photographs of gem-like clarity. Nony’s book comes with texts by Sabina Gadihoke and Aveek Sen, providing a historical and autobiographical context to the work. There is also a note by Dayanita, culled from Privacy, which acts, retrospectively, as a gloss on the affinities between the books and their authors.

“I was the most photographed child in my family," writes Dayanita in Privacy, and the evidence is ubiquitous in her mother’s archive. From the photograph of baby Dayanita, nicknamed Nixi, lying on a chaise longue in a hotel suite to portraits of her as a little girl in fancy dress, some of these images have been seen before, most memorably in one of the seven accordion-fold volumes (“Nony Singh") that make up Dayanita’s 2008 work, Sent a Letter. In 2007, mother and daughter had been shown together in an exhibition, Nony and Nixi, in Arles, France. But Nony Singh: The Archivist reinvents these familiar images by placing them in relation to other sets of photographs and creating a narrative arc that is at once tender, ironic and filled with a sublime mystery.

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In spite of their elegiac gestures, reflections on mortality and being chronicles of human fragility, Nony’s photographs are informed by a robust imagination, keen to push the limits of the real, and harvest the possibilities of fiction. The book begins with a series of photos of her husband, with dozens of his ex-girlfriends, discovered by Nony one day in a trunk. “I was angry because photographs are such precious things," she tells Gadihoke. “I said to him, ‘Even ex-girlfriends deserve some respect.’" So she pasted them in an album and added her own photo with her husband at the end with the inscription: “Girl friends till he married Nony, Hope so...Have some respect for photography at least!"

Clearly, photographs occupied a special place in her mind all along. Early in the book, Nony tells us the story of a little girl who “enjoyed being behind a box-camera" and how she grows up and goes on to create her own “camera family". The passage is like a fine photograph in prose—succinct, precise, and filled with silences and elisions that tease the eye and mind into thought.

Growing up in the shadow of the war, Nony remembers going to school in the middle of curfew—her father, a policeman, had a curfew pass, and would not have his children’s education interrupted even by fire and riots. “I had a recurring dream of Hitler when I was young," she says. “He would land on our roof in an aircraft and I would be begging him to go away and come back a year later."

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Dayanita Singh

For many years after her husband died, Nony was embroiled in endless litigations over property, which left her with little time or spirit for photography. Impressed by her unshaken will, people in the courts would call her a “man"; while driving home to her little children late in the evening, she would disguise herself by wearing her husband’s last tied turban. Now mostly confined to the house, Nony is working on her next book of photographs, made of television screenshots.

Nony Singh: The Archivist releases on 29 September and will be available at the Delhi Photo Festival 2013 at a special price of 1,200.

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