Dayanita Singh: A Ticket to Freedom
Dayanita Singh is considered to be the most important figure in contemporary Indian photography. Recently, a selection of her black and white portraits was acquired for the Deutsche Bank Collection. Singh is currently represented in the major group exhibition "Where Three Dreams Cross: 150 Years of Photography from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh." Sunil Gupta, curator of the exhibition at the Fotomuseum Winterthur, introduces the artist, who lives in Delhi and Goa.
||A pioneer sails in the largely uncharted waters of Indian photography. For at least a couple of decades, Dayanita Singh has been championing the cause of photography by exhibiting and publishing a remarkable body of work and by insisting on absolute professionalism from everyone that she is involved with. This has been no small task; without the larger support and context for photography as exists in the West, the artist, who was born in 1961 in Delhi, has had to look hard for networks wherever she could find them, both at home and abroad-people who understand where her work is coming from and how it needs to be displayed. Singh is a graduate of the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, where she learned to design books. In her most recent talks, she describes her current interest with the book as a form and a medium in itself-a form that she now concentrates on, even more than on the display of the photographic print.
I first met Dayanita in the late 1980s in London, which was experiencing a vigorous resistance to Eurocentric traditions in art and photography by a movement called "Black Arts." This was especially the case in the fields of photography and film/video. Perhaps it was the clearly representational nature of the media. Where were the artists/photographers of color in contemporary art, indeed in art history? Sure, there was a lot of material about the places we inhabited-the 19th century in India as documented by colonial photographers is well researched and marketed by the auction houses. But work by photographers of African or Indian origin was largely unheard of. At that point, a group of us started a project called Autograph to champion the cause of such photographers, wherever they may live. To this end, my colleagues and I embarked on an initial research into photographers in India.
The 1980s also coincided with the rise of the academy in photography and a critique of the kind of documentary work that had emanated from the Family of Man tradition. The "otherness" of subject matter fell into theoretical and political disrepute. Of course, this applied to us as well, and as Stuart Hall once famously remarked, "a black man using a black camera doesn't necessarily make a good photograph." When I finally began to take a series of research trips to India, what I found was a great deal of commercial and editorial photography-and very little of the critical kind. The academy hadn't reached here as yet. Role models and mentoring were the order of the day. In the mid-century it had been Cartier-Bresson and his agency Magnum, which lives on in the work of Raghu Rai. Later, interventions came from the US: Mary Ellen Mark, Mitch Epstein, and even Lee Friedlander. Young Indians left the country in search of a photographic education. Many went to the US, instead of the more traditional British schools.
When I met Dayanita, she showed me her photo-journalistic work. We had a complicated discussion about it. She had been working for magazines in India and abroad; I was struck by her pictures of sex workers, who had been rounded up for forcible HIV testing in Bombay. We had the first of a sporadic series of discussions about the nature of photography, especially the relationship between the subject and the photographer. As it happened, we didn't really get to have another of our conversations until much later, around 2004 in fact, a year in which we had each published a book.
In 2004, Dayanita published a collection of portraits of upper-middle-class Indians called Privacy. I was startled by this development. Gone was the photo-journalism, the 35-mm. camera and its reference to the halcyon days of Cartier-Bresson. In its place was a series of very deliberate tableaux shot in middle distance and flash-lit to accentuate the sitters' every descriptive detail. The scale of the book was also a surprise: it's small enough to carry around with you, inviting you to peruse it in smaller sections wherever you are-on the bus, the train, waiting in an airport lounge. In this way, as an object the book felt more intimate, like a novel rather than a coffee table exercise in establishing a reputation.
Dayanita Singh is also represented in the Deutsche Bank Collection with works from the Privacy series, which were recently purchased for the art installment of the newly modernized towers of the Frankfurt headquarters. Sumona Ghosh, Calcutta (1999/2005) shows a young girl dressed up as a bride. We can tell this from her facial make-up and the jewelry in the parting on her forehead. She is seated with appropriate demureness on a bed; beside her is a table bearing religious icons. The photographs on the wall beneath the "om" depict the "Mother" and Aurobindo, both spiritual leaders. It seems the family, though well off, has some spiritual leanings, while the slippers suggest a certain humble piety. What is most interesting is the expression on the girl's face, which is open and curious. Something I find striking in many of Dayanita's photographs over the years is the empathetic way in which she depicts young women. It's as though she had a special connection with them.
In Koshy Kids, Bangalore (1997/2005), two young siblings can be seen dressed in their Sunday best, not looking particularly comfortable and completely enclosed in the frame by various objects-things of value to the adults in the family. There are many medals and trophies on display; perhaps the children are also trophies of a kind. The iconic maharaja on the shelf has been the trademark of Air India for many years and is instantly recognizable to most urban Indians. This is a family that frequently travels internationally.
Gayle and sister, Goa. and Uma Dubash, Morvi (both 2000/2005) were made somewhat later, and the surroundings are beginning to tell us less. The sisters are wearing dresses that suggest their Christian identity and Goan location, although many young Indian girls wear dresses, usually switching to Indian dress after puberty. Uma Dubash is floating in a neo-classical western-style environment. What's unusual here is that the nobility of the three-quarters gaze has been interrupted, first by an exposed toe and then by parted lips, as if the sitter is about to tell us a secret.
I discovered that much had happened to Dayanita in the intervening years. She had literally moved away from "people," both in her work and from her hometown, Delhi. Although she has two homes of her own, in Delhi and Goa, she now says, "I live out of my suitcase." There's some relish in this nomadic existence. Could it have come from her encounters with Mona, the eunuch friend who was the subject matter of her earlier book Myself, Mona Ahmed (2001)? Hijras (Kinnars, as they prefer to be known) or eunuchs live outside of "normal" family life; they do, however, live in communes. Mona, who Dayanita befriends, appears to have been rejected by his/her own community and to be living in a graveyard. This fact itself is a very iconic one in India, referring as it does to the opening scenes of a very well known and influential film called Pakeezah. Here the heroine-already an outcast as a "nautch" girl or sex worker in more modern parlance-tries to make an allegiance with the "normal" world and ends up being rejected by both. It's a film of high camp, beloved of all Indians, especially those that do not fit the hetero-normative obligations of married family life.
It's interesting to note that both these projects, which seem diametrically opposed in theme, happen in around the same time frame; although two years separate their publication, the lengthy periods of the making of the work coincide. Throughout the late 1990s, Dayanita was moving between Mona and her upper-middle-class families. By the end of the decade, she had moved away from the social bustle of Delhi to the relative quiet of an interior village in Goa, away from the beaches and package vacationers. Here she appears to find an interior, more contemplative side. People-who had always been at center stage in her work-begin to fade away. However, behind the scenes she begins a significant relationship with the publisher Gerhard Steidl.
In a talk she gave earlier this year at the gallery Nature Morte in Delhi, she explained how it was to become a turning point in her work, providing a renewed and more flexible approach to book making as a central activity. A succession of books has followed, of which Dream Villa and The Blue Book are the most recent examples. Go Away Closer was the turning point, a collection of photographic images largely without people or explanatory titles. It contains an extraordinary image of the sea; it is about everything and nothing simultaneously. Unnamed, it's not even about a specific sea. For a committed photo-journalist who once trained at the ICP in New York, this is indeed a shift. From here she has moved on to experimenting with the form of her image books. Sent a Letter is a collection of small-scale albums in concertina form. The Blue Book is really a set of postcards meant to be detached and mailed.
At her most recent presentation in Winterthur at the symposium for Where Three Dreams Cross: 150 Years of Photography from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, she reiterated her trajectory and interest in the photographic book as form. She started with a reference to her mother, Nony Singh's album of her fathers' many girlfriends. Her mother was an accomplished photographer in her own right and photographed her family extensively, including of course Dayanita. This experience of being the object of the camera's gaze initially made her turn away from photography; however, while she was photographing the musician Zakir Hussain for a book design project, she realized that she was drawn to the medium. She saw photography as a ticket to freedom, to travel, a way not to have to get married and have children.
Her exhibitions reflect this shift in focus away from the black and white silver print in a matted frame. Her exhibitions of the past year have included presentations of the books in vitrines with images displayed as unframed color prints, as wallpaper, and as projections. Throughout all this, her work embodies the growing sense of the maturity and confidence that we now see in Indian art practices, emerging as it were from under the dark shadows of post-colonialism. Perhaps with the nocturnal exposures of Dream Villa, Dayanita is realizing her dream to be free-not only from the shackles of everyday society, but also from being bound to a particular kind of photography from a particular society.