Conversations on camera

Debbie Rodgers, Feb 15, 2015, DHNS:

Picture Perfect Some of Dayanita Singh’s photographs that capture the simplicity of everyday life.
Dayanita Singh’s photographs are like simple dialogues from everyday life
that highlight its beauty. Debbie Rodgers talks to the artist about her inspirations & more.
Life, to Dayanita Singh, is one long ongoing conversation. With my first question, I put my foot into my mouth. Dayanita was appalled when I referred to her photo books as “projects”. “This is my whole life, not a project!” she protested. An hour in her company and I realised the truth of that statement. Life to Dayanita is one long conversation. “Conversations and friendships are the key to becoming who I am. More than family, I have been nourished by great friendships. It’s one long, ongoing conversation. It never stops until someone drops dead,” she explained.

Charting the course

Three decades ago, little did Dayanita know about the trajectory that her photojournalistic ambitions would take. Legend has it that when the 18-year-old was ousted, by the organisers, from photographing a Zakhir Hussain concert, the great tabla player took pity on the young visual communication student from the National Institute of Design and invited her to his practice session. So began a lifelong conversation. Dayanita travelled with Hussain for six years, photographing his every mood, and this formed her first book. “I still travel with him, I am still photographing him,” she says, vindicating the continued conversations. This, then, is the heart and soul of her art. It’s what sets her apart, gives her that unique identity.

“I think I learnt a lot from my few years as a photojournalist — there I learnt that the biggest power of the image is its dissemination.” And Dayanita has created her own innovative modes of dissemination. From making personalised books for friends because “you can say the unsayable with photographs,” to creating movable museums as she did for her solo show at Hayward (the first Indian to be so honoured) and discussing with students the nuances of her work (as she did in Bengaluru recently), this artist is constantly making her work accessible to all.

“I am tired of photographs on the wall, in their frames,” she says. For her forthcoming exhibition in Goa, Dayanita plans to frame the literary magazine The Threepenny Review on the wall. “This, to me, is the biggest compliment I could have had,” says Dayanita, on being asked to provide photographs for an entire issue, surrounded by the editorials of such erudite personalities as Argentine-born Canadian novelist Alberto Manguel. “I love this page. I think it’s a work (of art)!”

Her book, Museum of Chance, has 88 pictures and each book has a different cover, so that’s 88 different covers. Put on the wall, this forms an exhibition of her work. “I have found the form now.” This was the format of Dayanita’s exhibition in Mumbai recently.

But the journey actually began with “this amazing publisher” Gerhard Steidl, who “can really transform the idea of the book”. He took seven of her personalised books and published them as a set titled Sent a Letter, where each could be viewed as an independent exhibition. This was the defining element that chartered the course for Dayanita. Her Retrospective at Hayward saw the photographs being showcased in giant wooden “books” that actually opened out like pages.

Archive of experience

The passionate, driven artist with 12 books and exhibitions across the globe to her credit, says that there are two ideas that keep her going — one is the Addressee and the other is the Gift. The addressees are all people Dayanita is in conversation with, either because she is reading their books, listening to their music or just friends with them. “They are dear to me,” she says. “I don’t make the work for an audience. The audience is too random. I make the work for one person — the Addressee,” she explains. Her current addressee is famous Carnatic musician T M Krishna. In summer this year, Krishna released Dayanita’s book in Chennai; and now she is surrounded by his music all the time. “So, that’s going to shape the edit that I do for Kochi,” she explains.

For this alumnus of the International Centre of Photography, New York, photographs are not the works in itself, but rather the raw material that go into the making of that gift. Dayanita likens her photographs to notes that go into composing a piece of music. “You can tell when there is one wrong note… It may be a beautiful note on its own, but it doesn’t work here.”

Demystifying the thought process that goes into the making of her photo books, Dayanita says, “I make hundreds of little prints and put them on a long table and I see what is emerging. So, that becomes my archive —which really is an archive of experiences…so works are coming in, going out, it’s a continuous (process) — its life!” Yet she clarifies that her work is not governed by photography. “Photography is just my medium. It’s what I do with it that drives me,” she explains.

Varied influences

“I am entirely shaped by the people I was fortunate to have in my life,” says the artist. She credits Zakir Hussain with her sense of rigour and focus; and her fierce independence and inner strength is a legacy from her mother, “the original originator of thinking out of the box”. “When I was 18, she told me: don’t bother getting married… have as many lovers as you want — which I did!” The lovers, each in turn, played their part. “You are shaped by the love that comes into your life; whether it brings loss, hurt… they do form who you are,” she says.

This bookmaker working with photography mourns the loss of her friend and publisher Walter Keller (he passed away last September), one of the “two or three people that I listen to a hundred per cent”. It was he who urged Dayanita to build her archive, and for a decade she did just that, photographing subjects as diverse as chairs from around the world (Chairs), the outcast eunuch Mona Ahmed (Myself, Mona Ahmed), and collecting 200 photographs “somehow connected to paper” (File Room). “I work with a well-nourished intuition and I try to keep myself completely open. I try to see what life would bring to it and I put myself in situations too — I don’t sit at home and wait for life to come to me,” says the artist.

Books and music are the chisels that have shaped her soul. Italo Calvino, Michael Ondaatje, Vikram Seth, Mahler, T M Krishna and their ilk continue to power the inspiration and fuel the passion of this “soloist”.

Criticism and praise alike leave Dayanita unfazed. “In from one ear, out from the other,” she says. “I love what I do and that’s all I do. I just have to go out and make those images!”


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