In a city dominated by conventional museums, here are nine distinctive ones under the same roof. Each with its own flap in teak that folds and unfolds like Japanese screens to create walls and windows between them. Their curator Dayanita Singh can unveil and conceal them at will. So a museum could be covered with white muslin one week, and another day, it might be open for visitors. Together, the photographs that comprise them connect and respond to one another.
But, each also stands on its own. As a collective, they belong to Singh’s archive — her labour over three decades that she has now curated into idiosyncratic museums, exhibited at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA), Delhi.
“Photography needs to move away from the walls. It needs to find other forms. These museums encourage viewers to look at works in an interconnected way. It’s about editing, sequencing and creating new story lines,” says Singh, 54. We see her in each photograph, but also in person, as a little girl photographed by her mother Nony Singh in the Museum of Little Ladies. Giving her company are many other ladies and the accompanying museums. The File Museum, with similar-sized photographs, is its sister, notes Singh. If the former is dedicated solely to women, the latter is largely unpeopled and an elegy to paper in the age of the digitisation. The two museums find cousins in other portable museums, each with a definite category of pictures — Museum of Furniture, Museum of Machines, Museum of Photography and Museum of Vitrines. Their origins could be traced to her acclaimed 2008 book, Sent a Letter, in which Singh explored the idea of the book as an exhibition. “It led me in 2013 to the ‘Museum Bhavan’. I think I had always known the book was my form,” says the photo-artist, who introspects through her frames. Editing is crucial. It is when Singh stops and looks at the material available to her on contact sheets to weed out the numerous themes. “I don’t like to go out knowing what to photograph.”
Central to the exhibition at KNMA is the Museum of Chance, with images that came together because of chance and are not connected by content. It borrows from Singh’s formidable collection, which she has been building since she accompanied Zakir Hussain on his tours in the 80s, leading to her first book Zakir Hussain (1986). The museums also feature other favourites who have been recurring in Singh’s oeuvre — the iconic image of a young girl on a bed with her face hidden that appeared on the cover of Go Away Closer, to portraits of Mona Ahmed, the eunuch on whom Singh based her publication Myself Mona Ahmed, and even photographs taken by her mother, Nony Singh, an avid photographer.
At the heart, though, the display comes across as enlarged books, where pages can be edited and re-edited to tell different tales. “The editing of these museums has been done not just by themes, but also tonally,” says Singh, adding that there are numerous museums within each. The nine titles might be suggestive, but there is an interplay between the words within as well — from those that appear in the frames to those that Singh deliberately imbibes, including a Vikram Seth poem in the Museum of Chance. And though some of these museums have travelled from London’s Hayward Gallery to New Delhi, the exhibits are not the same. The set of photographs will keep altering.
Singh plans to move the mobile museums to her Vasant Vihar studio, where they will be on permanent display, open for public viewing on the first and second full moon of each year and also by appointment. “Why not,” says Singh, when asked about the rather odd open days. There is a warning though — each museum might not be open for viewing at all times, they could be covered, or the wooden frames might be empty. Meanwhile, another museum is in the making. It is possible that is a Museum of Glass, says Singh, going back to her neatly-laid contact sheets.
The exhibition at Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, Saket, closes on March 30