Documenting lives in pocket-sized frames

Last Updated 27 January 2018, 19:21 IST

A balding man, his smile hiding behind a  bushy moustache. A dandy in a  checkered shirt and dark sunglasses. A man jaded, his monotony overshadowed by a stack of files. A bespectacled, old pharmacist with a long laughter line. A rotund baker with a toupee and a rolling pin.  

Men. All kinds of men sitting on the shelf of Goa's 'The Project Cafe' (TPC). Dapper. Jaded. Ancient. Busy. Delighted. Poignant. So many men. I could fold all these men like a free-reed concertina, stuff them in a handmade, screen-printed box, take them home, and rearrange them on my mantelpiece. Or, I could pick 'Little Ladies' and tidily line them next to the men. Shun the man for the machine. Pick Godrej almirahs. Printing machines. Everything foldable into an accordion, stuffed in a box and rearranged. Wherever. However. As if one could turn curator and create a museum at home.

This is what ace photographer and bookmaker Dayanita Singh has created. A foldable, handy museum. Singh's 'pocket museums' consists of nine individual 'museums' in book form with lyrical titles: Museum of Men, Little Ladies Museum, Museum of Photography, Museum of Furniture, Museum of Vitrines, Printing Press Museum, Ongoing Museum, Museum of Machines, Conversation Chambers. Each of these comprising Singh's photographs that can be housed in handmade, screen-printed box, making each pocket museum a unique multiple: the same inside and yet completely different on the outside.  

Born in New Delhi in 1961, Dayanita Singh is an artist whose medium is photography, and the book is her primary form. She studied visual communication at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad and documentary  photography at the International Center of Photography in New York. She has published  13 books. Her works have been shown in several museums including TOP Museum, Tokyo (2017), MAST, Bologna (2016) MMK, Frankfurt (2014), Art Institute of Chicago (2014), the Hayward Gallery, London (2013), and the Mapfre Foundation, Madrid (2010). She has also shown in the 2nd Kochi Biennale (2014), Sydney Biennale (2015), and the Venice Biennale (2013 and 2011).

Dressed in a blue floral outfit, Dayanita Singh opened the Museum Bhavan in TPC. Calling it a pocket museum and one of her many artistic forms, Singh encouraged people  who acquire the box, to become curators of her work, have their own openings, at home or  on their travels, to even make their own press photos. "Since the pieces are unique and each box is draped in block-printed fabric, so when you buy it from the store, choosing among many, it's like buying a sari  and making it your own. And the story that goes with buying it, the association, making very personal and intimate," added Singh.  

The Pocket Museum was launched at the Museum of Innocence in Istanbul, Bildband Berlin, Lebal Books Paris, Micamera Milan, Tate Modern in London in September 2017, and brought to India by Drasty Shah, co-founder, The Project Café. At TPC, housed in a 140-year-old Portuguese village sitting smugly in the undulating landscape of Goa's Assagaon village, Shah hosts multiple artists under one roof where art melds with design, words and food.

Singh's Museum Bhavan  is a miniature version of her travelling exhibition of the same name. When the nine mobile museums in Museum Bhavan began to find homes in more formal institutions, Singh decided to find a form that would allow her museums to be simultaneously disseminated in more domestic spaces: as a result, the larger wooden museums transformed into this pocket museum. Consequently, 3,000 of these boxes were specially crafted in India and were then shipped to Göttingen where they were filled with nine accordion fold books and a book of conversations.  

In the Little Ladies Museum, girls come alive on squarish black/white images. A little girl spooned by her mother. A girl in a frock standing by an antique chair. Their expressions ranging from innocence to bewilderment to agony and merriment. The girls are nameless, but their faces narrate a story, each plotted against a backdrop that lends life to a moment caught by the photographer.

Faces can unfold expressions. In Singh's photographs, even inanimate furniture, machines and burly Godrej almirahs tell a tale. A four-poster bed. A chaise lounge. An armless chair. A flat table. Inanimate, yet telling their age-old story. Of the people who lay on the beds. Of newspapers that the machines spat out of their gritty teeth. In the Museum of Photography, framed photographs have been photographed. Framed dead men garlanded with respect. An old man holding in his hand a photographed naked back. A frame hanging alone on an austere wall. Stepping out of The Project Cafe, a question loomed. What is it that I just saw? Dayanita Singh's picture postcard photographs arranged into a handy accordion? A museum artefact? A book? Did I walk into a museum? Or, was it a semblance of a museum in a constricted space? Whatever the chosen definition, Singh's black/white portraits of men, women, furniture and machines stay in your mind. Long after you walk away from the teal door and the brown steps of The Project Cafe.  

Museum Bhavan is on display at The Project Cafe, Assagao, Goa, til March 15, 2018.

(Published 27 January 2018, 05:22 IST)

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