THE EYE IN THOUGHT - The very rich hours of Dayanita Singh

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By Aveek Sen
  • Published 16.10.08

Seven little books in a small white box. Each book is about 9x13 cm, and has a blank, dust-coloured cover. Six of them bear just the name of a place on their slim spines — Calcutta, Bombay, Varanasi, Allahabad, Devigarh and Padmanabhapuram — with no volume-numbers to indicate any kind of sequence. The remaining volume, its cover a darker shade of dust, bears a name on its spine: Nony Singh, who, we learn, is the author’s mother. Open one of them, and there is no title-page. Just a 7x7 cm black-and-white photograph of exquisite clarity, printed on white paper with no caption. And then what begins to open into one’s hands from behind the first image is a trail of images, each like a jewel, printed on accordion-folds that fan out of the book and can be folded back in again. There are more than 140 black-and-white images in the seven volumes, and no information about people and dates, only the barest idea of a place that gathers the photographs in clusters. So each book can be ‘read’ closely and slowly as one reads a volume of short poems, dwelling on each image and then pondering their arrangement in intermittent, intriguing sequences. Or the volumes can be kept open and unfolded like a portable exhibition or ‘nano-museum’ on bookshelves, table or mantelpiece, making — as John Donne believed the wonder of love could make — “one little room an everywhere”.

Dayanita Singh’s Sent A Letter (Steidl, 2007) grew out of what she describes as a “diary-like way” of photographing that she started around the year 2000. She would take photographs while walking around a city or travelling together with, or simply thinking about, a friend. Soon, she began pasting contact sheets of these photographs, cut into squares or made into small prints, on the blank pages of accordion-fold notebooks or Moleskines. For each friend, she would make two notebooks, sending one as a coded letter to its specific addressee, and archiving the other in her own “kitchen museum”. By 2007, she had made more than 30 such books. One of them reached her publisher, Gerhard Steidl, for whom photography has always been inseparable from book-making. Steidl persuaded her to select a few of these notebooks and publish them as mass-produced books, but without making any explanatory changes for the general reader.

The “Calcutta” volume thus depicts a day’s journey through the city with Steidl, stopping to observe the local makers and binders of books, and other craftsmen who work with paper. This ‘secret history’ of book-making is interlaced with the progress of what looks like a single day from morning to night. Those who recognize Steidl and the locations will get from the sequence a particular set of meanings; for those who cannot, the book could become a different sort of adventure — charting the changing of the light from morning to night, or thinking about the ways in which books and paper are part of our everyday lives. Behind and between these visual ‘stories’, as one’s acquaintance with the books deepens, the absent photographer starts becoming an elusive and alluring presence at the heart of the books. Each volume begins to open up, purely through the images (and the relationships among them), into a world of subtly evoked emotions, attachments and associations. It takes the viewer, if he has the time for such a thing, on a journey that leads along the inner life of the artist to an inwardness that becomes the viewer’s own, without losing sight of the enigmatic spirit of the place that is the actual setting of each book.

In Sent A Letter, this interior world remains reticent and mysterious, but is achieved through technical precision and rigorous thinking. It takes photography beyond the urgency of having to capture the “decisive moment” towards documenting an ongoing engagement with reality, time and the photographic medium that is at once intellectually profound, visually novel and imbued with human feeling. It demands from the viewer a sensibility, and a range of reference, that must move beyond the optical and mental habits of what still remains, at least in India, a Cartier-Bresson school of photography, in order to restore to this most modern and popular of aesthetic media its place among the fine arts, literature and music.

With their movement from the singleton to the sequence, the large print to the small image, the gallery to the book, and from expensiveness to affordability, these volumes deliberately play with the established modes of making, viewing and owning photographs. Once before, in 2005, Dayanita had designed the catalogue of her Chairs exhibition as an accordion-fold notebook with no writing at all. And it was the cherished intimacy of this format that made her think of devising a way of distributing the books without putting a price on them. She drew up a list of friends, each of whom were given 10 books, and the decision of whom the books would be passed on to by these people would be entirely theirs, and therefore unknown to the artist.

Sent A Letter returns to this ‘private’ format, but dispenses with limited editions in being mass-produced and sold for a price. Yet, instead of treating them as collections of ‘reproductions’, it is the published books themselves that are displayed as ‘original’ works of art in the galleries, often accompanying a more conventional exhibition of framed prints, as they were in Dayanita’s The Ladies of Calcutta show in Calcutta earlier this year. To play continually with photography’s relationship with the market and the medium, with printing and pricing, thus becomes part of a constant exercise of thought. So the creation of meaning and value becomes inseparable from photography’s shifting relations with the private and the public, the original and the reproduced, the exquisite and the ordinary, the acquired and the owned.

Many of the sequences in Sent A Letter are about, among other things, this movement of photography withindoors and within, and about a simultaneous reduction of scale. The “Allahabad” volume opens with the photograph of a huge portrait of Nehru hanging in what looks like a public gallery, framed by the backs of two men standing indifferently on either side. We are then taken directly into a bedroom in Anand Bhavan in which a portrait of Kamala Nehru hangs above the bed. This is followed by the image of another portrait of Kamala, hanging above a writing-table with books and stationery on it, among which there are other, much smaller, framed photographs, the subjects of which cannot be identified in this size of image. A couple of images later, we are taken even closer to the bedside table we had seen in the first bedroom. On this little table, we can see double-framed family photographs of Indira, kept in front of an old Eagle flask and lit by a bedside lamp, with a paperback in the foreground, kept as if to be read in bed. Interlaced with this opening sequence are haunting images of a hanging overcoat, walking sticks and garlands in Nehru’s closet, and monogrammed crockery, all part of the ‘interiors’ of Anand Bhavan.

This progression from public largeness to private smallness is echoed in the opening sequence of “Bombay”. It opens with a monumental statue flanked by palm trees in a public square, followed by a smaller, more Roman-looking figure. Then busts of Vallabhbhai Patel and Vivekananda, human models in a glass cabinet in a museum, and startlingly, a deformed human head preserved in a jar, and even smaller, a little foetus in a jar surrounded by darkness. This sequence is not only about the shrinking of scale as one moves from city-square through museum-cabinet to specimen-jar, but also about the contraction of life itself into the gem-like photograph of the foetus — life arrested by death, and by photography, into an image of eternally suspended possibility.

“Allahabad” is a book about history and about a family, and about the history of a family, held, looked at and studied within its rooms, furniture, letters, books, clothes, paintings and photographs. These were all once intensely private possessions, but are now open to public view. Here, history and historical research are guilty of what photography is often accused of and is uniquely in a position to document: the experience, as well as the violation, of privacy. “Bombay” explores the civic and museological counterpart of this historical process, working into it the incursion of time and mortality that reduces the living to the preserved and the memorialized. Photography colludes with this process, but also records its ineffable beauty and pathos.

In Sent A Letter, the eye, made quiet yet sharp by the power of thought, is led to a heightened sense of inwardness, creating intervals of communion between viewer and image. This wordless exchange is perhaps at its most ineffable in “Padmanabhapuram”. The core of this volume takes us through a sequence of darkening seascapes. Between the first two, is the image of a floor so highly polished that its solidness seems to be turning into a liquid darkness even as we look. The immensity of these seascapes, heaving as well as still, finally contracts into the image of a single flower. It glimmers in the night, as if holding out the promise of its beauty against the dissolving power of a vast and pervasive sadness.