Nine little museums sit next to one another in a box. Each, in book form, holds in its accordion-folds black-and-white images created by Dayanita Singh. Each is a scaled-down reincarnation of the same family of exhibitions that came together as “Museum Bhavan”, debuting at Delhi’s Kiran Nader Museum of Arts in 2015. These include the Museum of Little Ladies, also known as the Museum of Time; Museum of Machines; The File Museum, also tagged the Godrej Museum; Museum of Photography, alternately known as Museum of the Departed; The Museum of Chance or the Ongoing Museum; Museum of Men, also titled Museum of Curiosities; Museum of Furniture; Of Vitrines; and the Printing Press Museum.
The exhibition had Singh’s prints housed in wooden structures that could be resequenced and reordered while on display, enabling a fluid format. “It’s important for me to keep disrupting the sequence, to bring in new images and see how that changes the exhibition space and how the images respond to each other,” says Singh. So, when “Museum Bhavan” isn’t travelling the world, it is made public on the first and second full moons of the year at the photographer’s residence in Delhi.
“Museum Bhavan’s” miniature version, that Singh refers to as Pocket Museum, was born of her desire to create a “unique multiple”. “What I understood from the Museum of Chance (in which 88 images from the photographer’s archives are placed in random pairs in wooden structures and mounted on the wall) was that everybody likes the work to, somehow, be special for them. So, I thought this was my chance to create a unique, mass-produced pocket museum,” says Singh.
Bound with the underlaid cloth used in block printing, different patterns adorn each of the 3,000 boxes, all of which carry the same nine museums. “My friend Anuradha Patni, of Xylem Papercraft, had shown the fabric to me some time ago. It soaks the colours that bleed through during the process of block-printing. Therefore, no two under-cloths are alike. In fact, you can see variations on the same cloth too but it retains a sense of continuity. Much like my work,” explains Singh. Once the varying multiple was locked, a container of 3,000 unique empty boxes made its way to Gerard Steidl, Singh’s publisher in Germany, someone she refers to as “one of the most important people” in her life. A booklet in the collection contains Singh’s correspondence with Steidl about bookmaking as well as a conversation with writer Aveek Sen.
For the Pocket Museum, the “Museum Bhavan” exhibition acted as raw material, especially as Museum of Chance and the File Museum had previously been published by Steidl. “I went into the archive of File Museum, which is much larger than the book, and selected all the Godrej images to create the Godrej Museum. Similarly, with the Museum of Chance, I made a new museum. So that was an interesting thing that happened in the making of the books — finding a museum within a museum,” says Singh, who believes that just taking a photograph is not enough. “I know photographers who take beautiful photographs and hand them over to designers. You’re literally handing over the best part of the job to someone else. It’s not just about making the images. That’s just the raw material. It is also about finding the form,” says Singh.
Her predilection for challenging both form and the conventional locus of display of her work led Singh to create yet another form that could exist independently of galleries and museums — somewhere between publishing and the museum. The Pocket Museum also aims to challenge the readers of her work, by the immediacy of its ownership, to a closer interpretation of it by encouraging them to actively sequence, while also choosing how to present, the works. “When you acquire the Pocket Museum, my nine museums are in the safety of your home. I hope people display them, all at once or one at a time, on shelves, on their tables, change them frequently, pass them around at dinner parties or even carry them around, well, in their pockets,” says Singh, adding, “when they do that, they are assimilated into the process”.
In search of yet another stationing of her work, Singh wrote to author Orhan Pamuk, asking if the Pocket Museum could be displayed within the Museum of Innocence. Pamuk agreed. This September, he will present Singh’s miniature museum in Istanbul. While addressing an intimate gathering of curators in Kolkata last year, Singh had said, “All it takes is for one person to match your madness and then you fly.”