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July 14, 2017

Dayanita Singh On Her Constant Experiments With Form And Structure

Text by Sharmi Ghosh Dastidar

She tells us that while photographs open doors into the past, the way they are brought together can offer a glimpse into the future

As I wait with anticipation for the acclaimed impresario in her living room, my eyes inadvertently scan the photographs dotting the white walls. Black and white, these vignettes taken by Dayanita Singh are interspersed with images of her as a child, in myriad moods. “That was taken by my mother” — an animated voice cuts through the silence in the room. I turn around to see a smiling Singh. “You’ll see plenty of mini-mes in this house, all taken by her,” she quips, as we sit down for a heart-to-heart about her inspirations, exhibitions and upcoming projects. Her warmth is an instant ice-breaker.

Singh, who has over time transitioned into an inventive artist of repute, sees her mother, Nony Singh, as a heady source of inspiration. A fact that peppers our initial tête-à-tête. “If you follow me on Instagram you’ll see regular posts that are pictures clicked by her. But there is this one picture that keeps reminding me of her beauty and individuality,” observes Singh, referring to a striking shot of a young, attractive Nony basking in the Dehradun sun in her self-stitched swimsuit. Captioned ‘With a mother like this…’, there is more than a hint of admiration.

Singh’s recent Museum Bhavan project — a large scale installation composed of photos clicked by her from the time she stepped into the realm of photography in 1981, also includes plenty of photos taken by Nony as well, of Dayanita and her siblings during their childhood years.

Explains the photographer, “I don’t like to admit it but my family portraits are shockingly like my mother’s! This could not be avoided you see. I grew up with shots taken by her all over our house. But more than her creativity, I am inspired by her strength. She is a true feminist. She became a widow at 42 and brought up four teenage daughters.”

The images not only draw the viewer’s attention to Singh’s early years but are also a reflection of her trials with the viewfinder and how she subsequently came to choose it as a career after passing out of National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad and the International Center of Photography in New York City.

Just back from Japan where some segments of Museum Bhavan are being exhibited at the Tokyo Photographic Art Museum, Singh is pleased with how people have been interpreting the myriad facets of the project. Says Singh, “The response was incredible. They showcased an introductory section presenting my earlier works, Myself Mona Ahmed (1989-2000), I Am As I Am (1999) and Sent a Letter (2008). It was a moving experience to see Mona and the I Am As I Am girls in my Museum of Little Ladies and then later in the Museum of Chance panels. This made it evident to me that the recurrent themes in my work would never fade. They will always keep coming back. Though I am still photographing them all, they just take different forms in the final execution.”

Starting her career as a photojournalist and earning laurels for her offbeat eye, Singh however states that creating pictures is just a fraction of her artistic practice. Seventy per cent of her work, believes Singh, is ruthless editing, followed by sequencing. “Along the way comes the form,” she quips. In the last decade, form has been at the centre of Singh’s creative pursuits. A self-proclaimed ‘offset artist’ — a reference to offset printing — her most recent endeavours, which she calls ‘book objects’, simultaneously comprise a book, an object for display as an exhibition and a catalogue. Small, portable and endlessly customisable, they are, she proposes, the museums of the future.“I wanted the mass-produced quality of publishing and the uniqueness of the art gallery,” she says, adding, “But I wanted to make it accessible.”

So, does she think that many artists will be taking to the portable museum as a medium? Singh replies in the affirmative, “I believe so. It is a very exciting form for an artist. A museum is a collection of what someone considers valuable and worth preserving. For me, the shots I’ve taken all these years form a collection that I thought necessary to put up in a museum format. Later, a pocket museum was my way of making my pictures accessible. I am sure artists will find their own forms to disseminate their works as gallery and museum spaces are not enough today.” Perhaps, that is why she puts so much thought into the text that goes alongside her images.

Using the form almost as a canvas, Singh began to design her own photobooks, In Sent a Letter, she explains, “I had conferred the question whether the book, as an archive of material, could serve as an exhibition in itself,” adding that “It is always important for me to push the limits of what I’m doing. That is why I stretch the parameters of my works with a melange.”

Sent a Letter took the form of a handmade box filled with seven photographic diaries of Singh’s travels in India. The journals were accordion-folded, allowing readers to create their own private miniature exhibition. Thereafter, published in 2015, Museum of Chance contained 88 images from Singh’s archives. Placed in custom-made wooden structures and mounted on a wall, a full set can be presented as an exhibition. “I often transport the books in leather suitcases that I call the Suitcase Museum,” says Singh.

Her most recent work, Museum Bhavan, comprises nine smaller museums of prints housed in folding wooden frames. This is the mother museum, and as you get closer, you notice that the screens are arranged in clusters — the Museum of Little Ladies, Museum of Furniture, Museum of Machines, File Museum, Museum of Chance and so on.The cluster of shots can be rotated and intermingled from time to time by Singh as the structure of the show is flexible. When they’re not travelling to art institutions around the world — places like London, Frankfurt and Chicago, apart from the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in Delhi — the museums are stored in her Vasant Vihar home in New Delhi, where they are on display from time to time.

Each museum holds old and new images. The screens can be opened and closed to create different shapes, spaces and connections within and among them. They come with their own boxes, tables, stools and benches. “These become part of different kinds of movement, activity and interaction that animate the viewer’s experience. This is where a curator steps in,” explains Singh.

In the Museum of Machines there is one picture of a girl lying down on a bed that immediately grabs one’s attention. Speaking about this particular image as well as the recurring ones of Mona Ahmed (the capital’s most famous transgender whose life Singh has photographed in great and incisive detail) Singh says, “The themes in one’s life get formed quite early on. I follow my gut and well-tutored instinct while chronicling such characters. I do not self-censor anything and then see what emerges. It’s like a stream of consciousness while photographing or editing.” While Singh often rotates images within Museum Bhavan, choosing primarily from her archives, she also adds new photos. “It’s an ongoing process, a journey that is still on. I am not yet done taking photographs!”

In the exhibit, descriptions and labels are conspicuous by their absence. There’s a reason, explains Singh. “The ambiguity is intentional. People must make their own explication of the work. That is why I do not caption them. Photography is such a magical medium. If you allow it, it will present all sorts of meanings.”

Constantly exploring new mediums to be abreast with the times, Singh also has a dedicated fan base on social media, a platform she thinks could soon take the shape of an artistic form. “It’s brilliant how artists are opening up their creativity, especially on Instagram. Nigerian-American art historian, writer and photographer Teju Cole as well as Indian writer and photojournalist Mayank Austen Soofi are great examples of that,” Singh elaborates, adding, “I enjoy Instagram because you can post there without revealing too much. It’s like building a virtual museum, like a museum of glass. It’s an open forum to witness the vast creative juices being exchanged between artists and photographers. There’s a fascinating dialogue.”

Gifted with the art of keeping the audience riveted, Singh’s excitement is palpable when she talks about the upcoming release of her Pocket Museum miniature book that will be distributed by Roli Books in India. “Here, the museums live in nine accordion-fold booklets housed in a unique box handmade in India. I want viewers to arrange the booklets however they wish, designing their own exhibitions,” she says. Also, Museum of Chance has just been acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, even while Singh plans her  next museum and book object. “I am always working on something new and thrilling. Because, an artist can never stop ideating, creating and then curating for that flawless visual experience,” Singh rounds off with a broad smile.

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