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In the early 1980s, when Dayanita Singh was a student at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, she embarked on a project that would end up defining the trajectory of her career. It was an assignment to photograph tabla maestro Zakir Hussain in performance, and it left a lasting impact on her sensibility.

Zakir Hussain Maquette
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Zakir Hussain Maquette (Photo: Dayanita Singh)

As she opens her latest exhibition based on this early body of work, as part of the Mumbai Gallery Weekend, Singh believes she has come full circle. Zakir Hussain Maquette is her tribute to the man she calls her guru—her CV says she went to the “Zakir Hussain Academy". In the last 30 years, Singh has reinvented herself from photographer to bookmaker to conceptual artist who marries two of her enduring loves—books and images—to create objects of unique beauty.

Image from ‘Zakir Hussain Maquette’
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Image from ‘Zakir Hussain Maquette’ (Photo: Dayanita Singh)

The story, however, began on an ironic note. At a concert in the 1980s, where Hussain was accompanying sitar maestro Ravi Shankar, Singh was pushed by the organizers and fell down. In humiliated rage, she accosted Hussain after the show, crying out, “Mr Hussain, I am a young student today, someday I will be an important photographer, and then we will see." The moment lit a spark, and for the following six winters, Singh travelled with Hussain as he toured the world.

Image from ‘Zakir Hussain Maquette’
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Image from ‘Zakir Hussain Maquette’ (Photo: Dayanita Singh)

At the end of her peregrinations, Singh had over 2,000 photographs. As she began to harness this material into an original book, she interviewed the musician, his family and colleagues, made copious notes on the dimensions of the book, ruminated on the sequencing, and dwelt on the selection of the typeface.

Rejecting editing software and computers, Singh worked with paper and scissors, pen and Scotch tape. Like a sculptor moulding clay into life, she slowly forged a maquette, a dummy book, by hand. Eventually, Zakir Hussain was published in 1986 as a hardback volume by Himalayan Books, but didn’t sell. It would be 15 years before Singh embarked on another book.

Image from ‘Zakir Hussain Maquette’
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Image from ‘Zakir Hussain Maquette’ (Photo: Dayanita Singh)

The show in Mumbai features the Zakir Hussain Maquette (published by Singh’s long-time publisher Steidl), which is essentially a facsimile of her student project with all her thoughts and marginalia intact. Accompanying it is a reader where Singh speaks about the process of “book building" with her publisher Gerhard Steidl and art historian Monte Packham. The volume also includes an essay about Singh’s form by curator and critic Shanay Jhaveri. Finally, like a conjuror, Singh turns the book into a poster—“all housed in a sleeve, like a little family of book parts". Priced at 3,500, this is yet another attempt by Singh to get art to the homes of those who cannot dream of buying it in auctions and from galleries.

Pages from Dayanita Singh’s project notes
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Pages from Dayanita Singh’s project notes (Photo: Dayanita Singh)

Although she began her career with this radical experiment in bookmaking, for years Singh turned to the more conventional format of putting prints on the walls of galleries and museums. “I toed the established line until I got to Sent A Letter (a box set of accordion-fold books with gem-like images published in 2007),"she says.

Image from ‘Zakir Hussain Maquette’
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Image from ‘Zakir Hussain Maquette’ (Photo: Dayanita Singh)

The Mumbai show doesn’ feature any print on the wall (all the images were made for the maquette). Instead, it has 21 copies of the book suspended with L-clips from the wall. As she returns to the moment she started 40 years ago, the exhibition signals the beginning of a new phase in Singh’s ever-evolving practice.

Zakir Hussain Maquette is on at Artisans’ Gallery, Mumbai, till 9 February. For more information, call 98201 45397.

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