In her latest work, File Room, Dayanita Singh frees her prints from the exhibition walls, and presses them between the folds of a book.
The Madras chapter of Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence is to be found not in the novel, but framed, like a photograph, at the entrance to Dayanita Singh’s home in Vasant Vihar, New Delhi. It’s an account of an encounter between the photographer and Kemal Bey amid a gallery of empty teacups and crockery — one the archivist of moments, the other an “anthropologist of his own experience”, who creates a museum out of the detritus of his failed love. What are they both looking for? Museums which grow out of people’s obsessions, full of ordinary things that “aren’t ordinary anymore”, where “the past is preserved within objects as souls are kept in earthen bodies”.
That Singh wrote herself into Pamuk’s novel (“of course, with his permission”) is not surprising to those who know her work and its affinity with literature. “I think of photography as my vocabulary. That’s all I have done for 30 years, make my vocabulary. So now I want to know how to do more with it. Can I make a short story? Can I write a poem?” she says.
In much of the 52-year-old photographer’s work, the ordinary becomes imbued with rare meaning — empty chairs and rooms flicker with the mysterious life of those who are absent; a girl on a bed buries her head in a pillow, inviting you to look closer but stay away; hulking, impersonal machines bear the imprint of human use. Freed from the details of time and place, they float away into a fictional space. Through the play of objects and people, presence and absence, they tell us stories of our inner life.
Singh’s new work, File Room, evokes in the reader a frisson of recognition. These are images of archives we have all seen, crammed with files and records, a bureaucratic machinery of paper and ink slowly disintegrating amid torn plastic chairs and Godrej cupboards. Cavernous passages lit by a single neon light and filled with frayed, brittle paper. Paper preserved in shrouds and in trunks, speaking of journeys yet to be made. Singh’s black-and-white images are an elegy to paper, when this whole way of organising information faces imminent demise. But in their sensory excess, in the repeated architecture of decay and fragility, they bring us face to face with the disorder that all knowledge systems grapple with.
They become a portrait of the collective subconscious. For, if we exist in dreams and unspoken desires, we also exist in file notings and birth registers, in the parallel imagining of a bureaucratic state. “It’s not just a roomful of paper, but a room full of stories and secrets. It’s the handwriting, all the different inks that are being used. Things printed in so many different ways. But most of all, the human presence in it,” she says.
Singh points to the cover image of her book — files colonise the space on racks that line the length of walls, but some squat on the floor, as if in resistance to the ordering of the chaos. The white glow of a tubelight obscures, rather than illuminates. A grubby mind palace, perhaps. “In a way, this could be a portrait, no? This is how our minds are. It’s packed with so much. It’s just that we have been taught that we can take out one file, examine one file. I think that’s impossible. In my work too I want to push the mixing up of things,” she says.
We are seated in her studio. Behind her on the walls are several images from her iconic oeuvre — Privacy, Go Away Closer, Dream Villa, and an image from Frederico Fellini’s 8 1/2, which says, “Could you leave everything behind and start from zero?”
Piles of paper and stacks of books appear in her earlier work, and it wasn’t until a friend picked out 24 images from a set of prints and suggested that a skein of thought ran through them that she began photographing archives. But this interest in files began much earlier, with her mother Nony Singh’s dogged battle in the Delhi courts after her father’s death. A house that was once full of albums of photos that Nony took of her four children became “a mausoleum to files”. But the burden of that memory did not weigh Singh down when she embarked on File Room. “This smell of paper in the archive room — I don’t want to use heavenly or orgasmic — I was hypnotised by that smell,” she says.
Following Henri Cartier Bresson’s images of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, Indian photography remained aligned to the political and the national, driven to capture the historically potent moment. In the works of Raghu Rai and Raghubir Singh, the photographer became the traveller, documenting in vivid colour its street life and landscapes. From very early on, Singh forged her own path, turning inwards into houses and drawing rooms, exploring the pauses and silences of lives. The difference, she says, was in her role models: Zakir Hussain and early Rashid Khan, Italo Calvino and Geoff Dyer. And the rigour of her training, which is akin to that of a classical artist. “I have done solid, solid riyaz. And even the ‘chilla’ part of it. Do you know what chilla is? It’s the part Zakir used to tell me about. That for 40 days you are in a room like this with your instrument, and you are playing all the time. The door is opened twice a day to take out your dirty plates and give you food,” she says. The immersion in her work leads her to spend weeks on her own, there is not much conversation with others. “I just retreat with the work, which is why I often travel with boxes full of little prints, hundreds of little prints. Then I can build my narrative out of it, and destroy it and build it. And, for sure, some new revelation comes, some new form develops. Sometimes I go to Varanasi to the Ganges View Hotel, and sit on the third floor, and from 6 in the morning to aarti time, I will just watch the river change, the light change, from sunrise to sunset. And it’s life-and-death, life-and-death. There’s a wedding ceremony, there’s a body.”
Since Sent a Letter, Singh has explored more miniature forms — books of her photos that can be held in the hand. But the File Room, and the Go Away Closer show at Hayward Gallery, London, last year, she says, sees her leave everything and start from zero. It is as if, “I am ready for my arangetram.” The sense of renewal comes from the form. At the National Museum in Delhi, File Room was displayed not as a series of prints on the wall, but as several books (with different covers) inside a wooden structure customised for the show. A cross between a cabinet and a cart, it can fold out like a accordion, or collapse into a box — a form that teases out the connections between her images. It is a larger version of Sent a Letter, the small picture books that Singh made as a token of her travels with friends. A life-size contact sheet, if you will, where File Room is in conversation with her mother’s book The Archivist and her earlier Privacy. “When I see a print on the wall in an exhibition, I always miss the full story. A gallery tells me that if you must do an exhibition, you must have 30 portraits of chairs, which is fine. But I am no longer satisfied by that. For me the book is the form. The exhibition was always a catalogue of the images in the book,” she says.
At the Jaipur Literature Festival, she took a leather box along. Inside was a smaller, accordion-like structure that opened up to make her mini-exhibition. “Now you can call it photoarchitecture, book architecture, book sculpture. I have completely freed myself from the wall, from the print on the wall,” she says.
In making the book the artwork, Singh is challenging the conventions of the art world. “Why is it that a print is considered a work? And this book is not? While I made silver gelatine prints, it was a different story, because those were the originals and the book was made by scanning them. Now because I can’t make silver gelatine prints of the same quality, I scan my negatives. So it’s the same scan that has made this print and that has made this book. Between inkjet and offset, are you trying to tell me that something is a work and something is not? It’s absurd,” she says.
This innovation is in keeping with Singh’s many experiments with taking her work to more people. In January 2008, she left a copy of Sent a Letter in the vitrines of the Satramdas Dhalamal jewellery store on Park Street, Kolkata. “Six years later it is still there. How many people walk on Park Street every day? At least 10,000. If one per cent of them see the work, we still have larger numbers. The gallery is a very small place. Specially in India where it is possible to reach out to so many people. So now I want to show at Victoria Memorial,” she says.
But her dream, she says, is to sell posters of her work on the footpath outside the Indian Museum in Kolkata, along with the Hrithik Roshan posters and the seraphic babies. “I went to Sivakasi with my one picture of Bombay, thinking now that I am doing colour they’ll accept me. It didn’t work. I have to follow it up,” she says. Before that, though, her obsession with archives will take her on another paper trail to Kochi, even as she remains “open to chance, open to life.”