Image & intrigue

Empty office corridors, tables laden with files, dusty shelves. Dayanita Singhs photographs reflect the silent modern day chaos. Hema Vijay talks to

Image & intrigue

“Finally, I felt that all my riyaaz was paying off,” says India’s intriguing and celebrated contemporary photographer Dayanita Singh, about her most recent ‘photo book’.

It is curious that she states this. Her camerawork has for long been producing perceptive visual output that prompts the mind to see and think far beyond the image’s narrative. Ironically though, she sees photographs only as raw materials, not as end products.


On the surface, Dayanita’s latest work, File Room, muses on the overwhelming and outdated world of files and paperwork that still dominates Indian daily life. But scratch the surface and File Room is really about the mind — about how memories overlap; about the balance between confusion and chaos; the way thoughts drag one another out, of the closed and the open spaces in the mind. The pages of File Room are not numbered or captioned and Dayanita encourages buyers to cut out and paste pages as they wish and “make what they want of the book”.


The Zakir encounter

In this digital era, when infinite photographs are afloat in virtual space and snapping up an image is just as simple as the act of seeing itself, it is perhaps inevitable that photographs morph into the alphabets of our thought, as much as words would. Well, Dayanita is among those at the helm of this wave, taking photography into the realm of literature.


Dayanita’s photography odyssey began with shooting Zakir Hussain for a college assignment, with an encounter she is too happy to share — of how she was pushed away by an official when she attempted to shoot Zakir at a tabla concert. “I shouted out, ‘Mr Hussain, some day, I’ll be an important photographer and then we’ll see!’.” To her surprise, Zakir responded, offering to let her photograph him the next day.

She reckons that the biggest decision she made in life was when she decided to throw societal taboos to the wind, and go ahead and visit Zakir (not so famous then in 1980, as he is now) in his hotel room, to capture his ‘24 faces of the same person’ far back in the 80s. “I’m glad I went ahead. If we want to do something great in life, we can’t really bother about what people would think,” says Dayanita now, proceeding to add, “I value my freedom more than anything else. Photography was my ticket to freedom as a young woman — it let me stay away from doing what was expected of every nice Punjabi girl — to marry and settle down.”

“I owe a lot to Zakir. One of the lessons I learnt from him was the value of riyaaz and focus. He believed that one had to put in at least 18 hours of effort into the passion that drives one. Riyaaz was his mantra and look where it has taken him,” she says. Well, riyaaz has taken Dayanita to the top rungs of world photography.

Each of Dayanita’s photo books from Zakir Hussain (1986), Myself, Mona Ahmed (2001), Privacy (2003), Chairs (2005), Go Away Closer (2007), Sent a Letter (2008), Blue Book (2009), Dream Villa (2010), Dayanita Singh (2010), House of Love (2011) and now File Room (2013) have received critical acclaim. Not surprisingly, she is much sought after and has exhibited at the prestigious Hayward Gallery in London, biennales of Venice and Gwangju, Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the Pompidou Centre in Paris, Tokyo Museum of Modern Art, etc, to name a few.

Her Sent A Letter was included in the 2011 Phaidon Press Book Defining Contemporary Art: 25 years in 200 Pivotal Artworks; she received a Prince Claus Award from the Dutch government for “artistic and intellectual quality”.

Incidentally, last year, Dayanita happened to meet her ‘guru’ Zakir at the Venice Bienale, where he was on the jury. Dayanita shares, “I shyly told him, ‘I too am a little star now’. He replied, ‘I sincerely hope you don’t believe that, because when you start thinking so, it means that it is all over.”
While Zakir has been an inspiration and a muse for her photography, so has Mona Ahmed whom Dayanita dubs as a double recluse, having been cast out by both her biological family and the transgender community. Gerhard Steidl, the renowned German publisher and printer, is yet another inspiration.

Footpath gallery


Perhaps the most endearing aspect about Dayanita is that she is not a pedestal-seeking, recluse artist who is pseudo-fastidious about how her photographs get disseminated. When she felt a penchant for her photographs to travel and fly around the world, she printed her photographs as post cards. Then, there were the family portraits she did, not something that world famous photographers do.

“They would be permanent exhibits. No family would throw away family portraits,” she said. Then there are her elaborate travelling cabinet-museums that can be opened out to form a wall, with provisions for display, storage, changeovers etc. She calls this cabinet museum ‘Museum Bhavan’, and it is currently on tour.

She is particularly proud of her photo display at the tiny Satramdas Dhalamal jewellery shop on Park Street in Kolkata. Walking past the street, seeing their street-facing display cases empty, an impulsive Dayanita had sought the owners’ permission to place her photographs there, and she put on display her accordion-fold like photo book Sent a Letter.

“Imagine the footfall on this street, with thousands walking by every day. That’s my most brilliant exhibition, more than Hayward. And the last time I went to Park Street, Sent a Letter was still there. My ultimate goal is to hold a footpath exhibition,” she muses. Meanwhile, there was this instance on a Kolkata street, when she bought an omelette from a street vendor. “I got my omelette wrapped in my photograph of Zakir. That kind of incident is a wonderful thing — it puts you in your place.”

Genesis of a photograph

“Camera work accounts for just about 10 per cent of the work. The rest of it evolves all through the time from the books you have been reading, the films you watch. In fact, my primary advice to aspiring photographers would be to read literature,” she says. Dayanita didn’t plan on taking up photography as a career.

As a child, her creativity had been given a free hand. It so happened that her mother “took photographs obsessively”, while her father had introduced her to classical music even as a little girl. As it turned out, both of this did go on to make an impact on the path that Dayanita chose. “My work really comes from music,” she says.

Dayanita says she accidentally fell into colour, when she ran out of black and white film. She had planned on making do with colour film and then convert them into black and white. But when the photographs came out in mesmerising blue, she decided to keep them the way she shot them. And they came into being as the Blue Book, a series of images made as 23 post cards, made during wanderings in industrial locations. “That’s the magic with film. With digital, you don’t have these lucky accidents,” she ponders.

“I never understood why I never felt part of the photography or art community. I am a mongrel,” she says. Dayanita dislikes being slot in categories or stuck with labels, but has settled for calling herself ‘a museum maker’ — for now.

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