Where images do the talking

Elizabeth Mathew | Updated on July 23, 2014

Dayanita Singh KV SRINIVASAN

Dayanita Singh, the ‘book-maker’ opens up on her love for photography

In Chennai for the launch of her book File Room, Dayanita Singh returns to the southern capital after more than 12 years.

Dressed in a cream and gold traditional Kerala kasavu saree, Dayanita Singh is getting someone to adjust the mullapoo in her hair. “Indulge me in my flowers and my saree,” she says, insisting that life has come a full circle for her. From the release of her first book, Zakir Hussain, in 1986 to the launch of her latest one, the renowned photographer and artist has come a long way. Her latest book, called File Room, was launched by renowned classical musician TM Krishna at the Taj Connemara.

Talking about File Room, Krishna said, “What struck me most was how much the human mind is like a room that looks cluttered, but pick up and open any file and what comes out, is called creativity.” Agreeing with this, Dayanita says that the analogy is nearly perfect. “The file room, much like the mind, is not in order, but isn’t in chaos either.”

Hybrid theory

But how can two disparate arts like classical music and photography find common ground? Dayanita is quick to remind you that she considers herself a student of Zakir Hussain. After a chance meeting while on her first photography assignment as a first year student at NID, she ended up travelling with Zakir Hussain for six winters, documenting him as he practised and performed. “What I learnt the most from Zakir was focus. Whatever you want to do, you must do it for 18 hours a day. It is about how you push yourself. The foundations for rigor, to become an artist, were laid when I was working with Zakir Hussain and I think all that riyaz has paid off now.” It certainly has, as she displayed her works at the Venice Biennale 2013 alongside Ai Wei Wei’s Bang, an installation of 886 wooden stools.

Karma calling

Singh believes in fate since she claims it’s a series of accidents that led her along her path – whether it was falling down at Zakir Hussain’s concert that led to photographing him for years, or meeting Mona Ahmed on assignment for the London Times. Both meeting resulted in critically acclaimed photobooks made by Singh.

“I accidentally fell into colour” is how she explains her Blue Book that came about when she used daylight film after sunset, giving it the titular blue tint. Her personal favourite display of her work, she says, is a Park Street jeweller in Calcutta who put up her work in their window after she simply walked in and asked them. And she once sold calendars of her work in Mumbai’s infamous Dharavi slum. “Who is to say my work is only valid if it’s up on a wall or published in a newspaper?” she justifies.

Her book Sent A Letter started off as a thank-you for friends who ‘opened doors and windows’ in her head. I have a limited vocabulary but I can make photographs, she explains, another happy coincidence that led to her unique ‘accordion books’.

Defying genres

“I hate categories and I hate being labelled,” Dayanita insists, adding she is neither a photographer nor an artist: ‘bookmaker’ is the title she prefers. “I photographed to make books. You learn your medium and then you push your limits. “Photography is just a vocabulary”, she says, “what are you going to do with it? It has become today the universal medium it set out to be, but it needs to be made into a composition or form.” Poet, biographer or short story writer – what are you going to be with your photographs, she asks, insisting that even the most beautiful photographs on Instagram need to be something more.

“I carry boxes of all my prints with me and I cut and paste all of them myself.” Creating a book is like ‘building a symphony’ she says, admitting that the way she puts books together often depends on what she’s listening to at the moment – and it could be anything from Mahler’s First Symphony to TM Krishna’s compilations. It is madness to design a book on a computer, she insists, because a book is a tactile object!

Dismissing labels and categories, believing that she is neither fully an artist or a photographer, Dayanita Singh has created an amalgamation of all these forms, in a truly unique way. From photographing at least 300 families to having her pictures sold outside museums next to “Hrithik Roshan posters”, as she claims herself, Dayanita Singh’s ambitions are varied, but her contribution is mainly having repackaged the idea of photography, through her work, from an art form to a medium.

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Published on July 23, 2014
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