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Friday, December 03, 2021

‘The quality of light is the strongest in Kamala House’: Dayanita Singh

The photographer on her new book of conversations and images that offer an intimate portrait of the Pritzker Prize-winning architect BV Doshi's home

Written by Benita Fernando |
November 5, 2021 12:44:56 pm
Dayanita SinghDayanita Singh (Photo: Alison Morley)

On assignment in 2018, photographer Dayanita Singh met architect BV Doshi for the first time. An architect and a photographer have common ground — both shape light and space — and meeting as they were at Doshi’s personal residence in Ahmedabad, their conversations turned to thoughts on home and family. The assignment was soon complete, but the conversations between Singh, 60, and Doshi, 94, continued.

It has resulted in Portrait of a House: Conversations with BV Doshi (Rs 2,200), a book of conversations and monochrome photographs published by Singh, who is known for making book-objects and “museums” in book form. Portrait of a House offers an intimate portrait of a man and his family at home, even if the man is a Pritzker Prize-winning architect and the home is his design, named Kamala House after his wife. Pages of family members at ease and in each other’s company at Kamala House fill these pages, which conclude with a conversation between Doshi and Singh’s mother, Nony.

Dayanita Singh Dayanita Singh’s book ‘Portrait of a House: Conversations with BV Doshi’ (Source: Offset Projects)

Equally so, the book is a portrait of Singh, where portions take audiences through her process and the aspects of architecture that captivate her. Like with her other works, Portrait of a House considers its own contents, with Singh and Doshi generously discussing nearly every photograph, right from windows and staircases to embraces and leisure. Edited excerpts:

Portrait of a House is at once a book on architecture, photography and architecture photography. Yet, it’s so much more than these. Did you know that your conversations with Doshi would take this form?

I never know. It really kills a project if you know at the beginning what you have to do. I realised that Mr Doshi was an ally in discussing photography because he understood light in a very special way. He has such a philosophical understanding of what we call home or family, and that was also very much a draw. Architecture and photography are just the starting points.

It was a tricky book to design because there had to be a balance between image and text. So, while I love to design my own books, for this one I had to go to a really great designer, Rukminee Guha-Thakurta. My only brief to her was that the book should be like a sawal-jawab, which is not quite a question-answer, it’s more like a jugalbandi, words-to-photo kind of thing. I also worked with a really great editor, Nayantara Patel.

You say in the book that there is a shift in body language that you have encountered only in Doshi’s houses. What was it about Kamala House that made this possible?

When I started working with the Hasselblad (camera, in 1997), my work became a lot more formal. My very early work used to be like these images from Mr Doshi’s house — a lot more open and vulnerable, a certain tenderness and certain tenuousness, it’s more a mood rather than a photograph. That was a quality that I thought had gone from my work and I was surprised to find it again in Mr Doshi’s house even though I was still using a square format.

It has to do with the ease that the body feels when you enter the space, which is a combination of the light and the wood and the way you have to turn to enter it. Somehow you get embraced by the space and you have immediately relaxed.

Dayanita Singh Pages of Dayanita Singh’s book on BV Doshi’s house. (Source: Offset Projects)

You are sitting on the ground and sometimes on the bed — there are no hierarchies for the guest. Because there’s such little furniture in his house, you have to find your own position. Someone will sit on top of the landing with their guitar, someone will be sitting on the steps and eating their food, which may not happen in other houses, because a step is a step and a landing is a landing.

It also reminded me of possibly childhood, family, home — in ways that I am not really used to anymore. This didn’t happen when I went to photograph his buildings. Those are good strong buildings in my traditional sense.

You have been drawn to the chair as both subject and symbol. Here, does the staircase play that role? The photograph of one of Doshi’s daughters, Tejal, having a meal on the stairs is beautiful.

I didn’t realise that I had photographed so many staircases. I didn’t do it consciously. In fact, I have made a work, a large structure called Doshi Stairs, which shows 20 staircases. It will be shown at my retrospective next year. I had long conversations with him about stairs but didn’t put them all into this book because I like the domestic (aspect) of this book and I like how it suddenly moved into my mother’s house.

Doshi and you speak at length about the behaviour of light, which is critical to both architecture and photography. It appears that there was something new that you experienced regarding light while shooting at Kamala House.

Obviously, as a photographer, I am obsessed with light. With Mr Doshi it was just fantastic to find someone who was equally, if not more, obsessed with what light does. And that was the magic of our meeting, when he said, “So tell me Dayanita, how will you make a still photograph speak?” And then he went on to open the shutters in that room to show me how many different lights could be created…

The quality of light is the strongest in Kamala House, but it was also built so long ago and has the patina of time as well. It has aged beautifully. And there are no curtains; there are wooden shutters. So, when you close the wooden shutters, a lot of the heat stays out as well.

Dayanita Singh Pages of Dayanita Singh’s book on BV Doshi’s house. (Source: Offset Projects)

Now that I think back, going to his house in the month of May and feeling that cool afternoon light was also something very familiar to me from my six years in Ahmedabad in that unbearable heat of May and having the possibility of closing the shutters made the room so much cooler. So, it was Mr Doshi, the architecture, but also my growing up, when as a student of NID (National Institute of Design) I often spent time at the School of Architecture (CEPT) — the reason for accepting the commission was to let me meet the person in whose building I spent so much time.

You confess to Doshi about how you think he is surrounded by female energy, to which he doesn’t agree or disagree. But we do see that the photographs of groups of women — mothers and daughters and sisters — are as powerful as the portraits of Doshi himself. What are your thoughts on this?

The house has a lot of female energy. And I think Mr Doshi has imbibed that, too. We know all about architects’ egos. We have ideas about that. But being surrounded by so many women his entire life, he is quite unusual. Or, maybe, he just thinks differently.

There is a lot of touch in the family and again it has much to do with the architecture because the moment you sit on chairs and armrests, then you’re not leaning on each other.

Doshi speaks about the connection between architecture and memory, how homecoming is living with memories and associations. One could say the same about photography and its links to memory and nostalgia. How do you see these connections play out?

I am not the best person to answer that question. Of course, I know that the moment I make a picture, the moment is gone and it’s the past and it might be read as memory and nostalgia. But I am always trying to do something else with the image. I won’t leave it as just the past. That’s not enough for me.

I enjoy how you build the structure and break the structure. In this book, the staircase would have been an expected ending to the book because the staircase involves all his mega projects. But I didn’t want to do that. If you think of music, I wanted to bring it back to a more basic sum rather than going elsewhere with it. So with my mother, I was able to keep it in the domestic and the family, and yet we are talking about a phenomenon like Ellora (caves).

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