Celebration of chance

Soity Banerjee | Updated on March 10, 2018 Published on February 20, 2015
‘Museum of
Chance’ on display at
Max Mueller Bhawan,
Mumbai, last month

‘Museum of Chance’ on display at Max Mueller Bhawan, Mumbai, last month. Photo: Dayanita Singha

‘I am as I am’ shot at the Anandmayee Ma Ashram in Varanasi. Photo: Dayanita Singh

‘I am as I am’ shot at the Anandmayee Ma Ashram in Varanasi. Photo: Dayanita Singh

Elegant as a book may be, it took photographer-bookmaker Dayanita Singh three decades to put it firmly and squarely at the centre

Can a photograph do to you what the texture of a canvas, the rough lick of paint, does to an art lover? Can an image — no matter how iridescent, how shallow or deep its depth of field — draw out the third dimension? What about a book? Hanging on a gallery wall, does it hold out the promise of plenty, of tactility between crisp, unturned pages? Is it art? What is art?

Dayanita Singh’s new project, ‘Museum of Chance’, asks and answers several such questions, even as the book — or, more accurately, books with 44 different covers and backcovers each — become/s “an object”, an exhibit.

Those familiar with Singh and her work also know of her love of bookmaking. A rare art that she continues to champion, despite and because of the impact of digitisation on visual and other media. But elegant as a well-made book may be, it took the artist years before she could finally push the envelope far enough to put the book firmly and squarely in focus.

“When I saw a picture, it seemed beautiful in itself. But I always missed the story, the sequence. I always felt like the gallery or curator had plucked out a note…” says Singh, who has with this exhibition and book finally found that “missing symphony”. Devoid of letters (ISBN number hidden inside), the covers in teals, blues, burnt reds and greys frame black-and-white images of disparate worlds, people, time and space collected over three decades. That they don’t offer the viewers a linear, cogent narrative to borrow from, that they allow them to read their own story, lend the exhibits their own meaning, only serve to underscore the fluidity of experience, the influence of the individual. A coming together, if you will, of providence and free will.

Yet nothing and no one rolls the dice as far as Singh herself, who by flipping the books at random, creates a new puzzle, a new ‘Museum of Chance’ each time. Whether it’s the serendipity of two photographs of bleached white kurtas hanging on pegs appearing next to each other, or lines upon lines of clothes at a dhobi ghat sitting cheek by jowl with the image of a naked Lajja Gouri, the goddess of fertility, this arbitrary disruption of the standard is a performance in itself, a celebration of chance.

Pushed to the floor by an organiser while covering a Zakir Hussain concert for a college assignment — an incident that eventually led to a six-year-long photographic association with the percussionist — Singh has known unexpected felicity early in life and work. Her encounters with publishers Walter Keller in Zurich and Gerhard Steidl on a street in London were not by design either. Attributing her success entirely to “recognising and being open to chance” would be naïve of course, yet it shows a certain courage to disengage, to allow the variables in her work greater agency and admiration as an artist and chronicler. Besides, for someone known for her portraiture and documentation of families and upper-class living rooms (though hardly ‘staged’), such a spotlight on chance, on the accidents of fate, appears to be even more uncommon.

“I don’t even remember taking this picture,” says Singh, standing next to a cover-print of a young girl on a terrace, who also featured in her 1999 series ‘I am as I am’. Shot at the Anandmayee Ma Ashram in Varanasi, where her father once considered enrolling Singh and her sisters, it’s a black-and-white image coloured by the warmth of a winter afternoon. On a contact sheet (and even today, from a distance), the girl in white appeared to be standing near the edge of the roof — static, unmoving. It was an arresting image, not an unusual one. Yet when Jonathan Watkin, director of Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery, stumbled upon it, he said, “What is it about this picture?” As the prints got bigger and bigger, it became increasingly evident just how extraordinary the photograph was. The ‘passive’ girl in the foreground was off the ground, curiously afloat in the air with her legs ramrod straight — a seemingly impossible feat. An “ultimate picture of chance”. A picture that is beyond dimensions, beyond debates on art and photography. Now captured in 44 books — on the front, back and, poignantly, somewhere in the middle.

Published on February 20, 2015
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