“It was like looking in a mirror,” says Zakir Hussain. To an engrossed gathering, the prodigious tabla player recalls the experience of being photographed by Dayanita Singh 40 years ago. Singh, then studying at the National Institute of Design (NID), shot Hussain across six winters in the ’80s as part of her book design coursework. Hussain saw something of himself in the 18-year-old student, a common desire to chart a course even if the destination was unknown.
The photographs would culminate in a photobook, titled Zakir Hussain. Hussain, Singh and their friends assembled recently at ARTISANS’ gallery in Mumbai’s Kala Ghoda, for a private launch, not of this book, but of the book’s maquette, made in 1985. Copies of the maquette are turned into pages on the walls of the gallery, through which we meet several Hussains — a son and sibling, a husband and father, a disciple and guru, and a tabla player.
German publisher Steidl has reproduced Singh’s maquette as a facsimile so perfect that readers will be tempted to wipe out the smudge marks and feel the tape on the pages. The reproduction also manages to accurately capture the yellowing pages, Singh’s handwritten text, and numerous dimensions that were penciled in for each photo. The Zakir Hussain Maquette is presented as three parts in a grey slip case — the facsimile, a poster (or as Singh calls it, a poster-book), and a reader, which contains excerpts from Singh’s notes for the Zakir Hussain book.
Singh, 58, pays as much attention to photography as to the photograph. Continuously challenging modes of dissemination, she has come out with mobile “museums”, which allow their owners to customise the display, such as the Museum Bhavan book-object (published by Steidl in 2017). She has also made Suitcase Museum, Pocket Museum and Kochi Box and prefers to be called an “offset artist”.
She says, “I don’t have the desire to make massive prints. In the art world, however, it has become more about the image. That way, we are trying to compete with painting. Here, the book is my work. It’s a way of addressing the book as an art form on par with painting and photography.” Even the choice of the word “museum” is a political act for a woman photographer attempting to rethink the often masculine space of photography. After these unorthodox predecessors, Singh imagined that her latest work would be her most ‘bookish’ book yet. However, the maquette’s strength lies precisely in this — it continuously calls attention to itself, offering a peek into Singh’s art as much as Hussain’s. The word ‘maquette’ comes from sculpture, a small-scale model that sculptors make, a 3D object. In publishing, the term offers new ways of approaching a book, of touching rather than reading, of constructing rather than printing.
For Singh, Hussain wasn’t just a muse, but also a guru. The poster, with multiple shots of Hussain performing with his late father Ustad Alla Rakha, is titled ‘My Guru’. Singh says she could have used that title for the maquette, too. She has experimented with layout, playing with scale and placement to break out of the necessities of a grid. “We were taught the grid so much at NID that all the photobooks I saw were about the grid.” From Hussain, she learned the value of improvisation. “Zakir is who he is because of how he improvises the taal. What Zakir could do with the taal, I did with the grid.” If one were to read the maquette as music, it opens with an alaap, then eases into the opening of the raag. Towards the end, in the concerted effort of strips of contact sheets, is a crescendo, a jhala. The influence Hussain had on Singh was pervasive. “He was my role model. He showed me — this is how you engage with life, this is what it means to be an artist, that anything you do has to be done with single-minded focus,” says Singh.
In 1986, Zakir Hussain, Singh’s book from the maquette, was published by Himalayan Books and launched in Delhi. It didn’t sell and is out of print today. “Someone once came up to me and said I couldn’t become a photographer by just shooting one man,” says Singh, adding, “In 1986, to make a book about one person was unheard of. You’d shoot a president or prime minister, but not a musician.”
The book was different from this maquette, for Singh excluded photos that she felt were too personal to be shared publicly. There is no such filter on the Zakir Hussain Maquette, and we see some of his most intimate and iconic moments. We are looking simultaneously at Singh’s first work and her latest. She says, “I am exposing my beginnings. Not exposing (what I do) now – it would be different as everything is so defined now. I have made myself quite vulnerable with the maquette, especially with the reader.”
A special edition of the Zakir Hussain Maquette is available at ARTISANS’ for Rs 3,500