The writing and images complement each other perfectly.
This is an unusual book. Eponymously named, it features the work of photographer Dayanita Singh and writing by Aveek Sen and Sunil Khilnani, as well as a set of emails from Mona Ahmed. Taken as a whole, rather than each of its parts, it is not a book about photography, or a book of writing on photography, but a synergy between the two, where the writing complements the photography and the photography offsets the writing, with each illustrating the other. The volume is divided into ‘stories', in turn with the obvious classification of ‘writing', which tells stories with words, and ‘pictures', which tell their own versions of the stories with light and shade.
The introduction itself tells the story of the photographer and how she became one. The “fall off the horse”, as it is described, when she realised what she was going to be, came when Singh was just 18, taking pictures as part of an academic project for her first year at the National Institute of Design. At a concert by tabla maestro Zakir Hussain, she was stopped from taking photographs and protested with a vow of “one day I will be a famous photographer and then we will see.” It is incidents of this kind, personal, intimate, that make the academic tenor of the writing more digestible. And it is indeed academic in writing style, well-researched, lucid, erudite and occasionally tough going for the average reader of ‘coffee table' books - which this is very likely to be seen as by most people.
Sunil Khilnani speaks of the holy city of Kashi in ‘What To See In Benares', the lead-in to ‘I Am As I Am'. The setting, the mood, the dirt, even the sounds and smells of piety and how they are all, strangely enough, captured on film (or pixels) are suddenly left behind at the stone walls of the Anandmayi Ashram. At that point, the images take over. The same kind of cloistered feeling comes in Singh's ‘Ladies of Calcutta', of which Aveek Sen writes in ‘Fiction in the Archives'. There is a sense of travelling back in time, to a place where life is slow, studied, purposeful and all feminine.
Sen's ‘A Distance of One's Own', and its accompanying set of photographs in Singh's ‘Go Away Closer', is not as obvious and easy to understand. There is an eerie emptiness, a desolation that comes with the images, and, as Sen says, “Departure and arrival become mysteriously inseparable”.
‘Blue Book', prefaced by Sen's ‘A Land Called Lost', bursts suddenly, shockingly, into colour after a series of black and whites. The ‘leaving behind' is complete, the objects pictured are abandoned, but there is also a feeling of anticipation, of waiting, of knowing that something urgent, eventful, will happen not too long hence. ‘Dream Villa' is, as Khilnani writes, ‘India by Night', its colour, light and mood weird, spooky, a story being told even as something lurks behind the door at the edge of horror…or could it be overweening joy? The last piece in the book is ‘Sen's Difficult Loves', writing that is sheer poetry, even as it fairly pragmatically discusses Singh's work and its intent.
But all this apart, perhaps the most moving story in this book is Myself Mona Ahmed, three emails from Mona Ahmed to ‘Mr Walter' (Keller). She talks of her life and her own evolution, as a child in a fairly stable home, her castration, her adulthood as a eunuch, her small joys and large griefs, her love, her isolation. It is touching, the images bringing on tears at times, the writing even more. Her words in 2000, “Suddenly I felt better, maybe it was the magic of the old woman, or the gods took pity on me” could be the bon mot of the entire volume – there is magic in the words, enchantment in the pictures.
Dayanita Singh; Penguin Studio; 231 pages; Rs.4799