Magazine

‘I am loyal to obsessions’

Museum of Chance  

I first met Dayanita Singh in 2003 when I was a trainee with a national daily. At a show in Jawaharlal Nehru University, Dayanita was explaining and I was taking down notes, almost mechanically. She said that some of it was too personal to be written in a newspaper and I should be careful.

It has been 12 years since. Dayanita has journeyed from photographer to archivist-collector. Showing at the world’s best museums, she is one of the most powerful names in photography today. The sensitivity has remained. She brings the same tenderness to a lifeless table as to a bougainvillea. And that’s how her ‘museums’ come alive.

The folding wooden panels that open and close like books, fitted with black-and-white photographs, will be on view at Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, Saket, New Delhi, in an exhibition titled ‘Conversation Chambers: Museum Bhavan’, from December 17, 2015, till June 30, 2016.

Excerpts:

Tell us something about your museums.

My museums are like photo-sculptures, photo-architecture. It’s a new form and I am still trying to find my language. They can keep changing through the exhibition depending on the kind of conversations I have. In the exhibition, I can open them in a different way. Change the placement of the photographs inside them. Then if you open them, you will find reserve collection inside. Suppose you come to the show and we are having a conversation in relation to a work. It reminds me of a photograph, I have. I will take it out of the reserve collection and place it.

As of now there are nine museums, File Museum, Museum of Little Ladies, Museum of Chance, Museum of Furniture, Museum of Machines, Museum of Photography, Museum of Vitrines, Museum of Printing Press and Kochi Pillar, but one more museum might take birth during the course of the show because these museums have shared narratives going through highlighting inter-connectedness in my work. Museum of furniture and photography are linked. File Room and Kochi Biennale are about archives. The Little Ladies Museum came out of my mother’s pictures of mine taken as a little child. Out of Museum of Chance came Museum of Vitrines. They have small museums inside them and it’s possible to close them and have them on walls.

Kochi Pillar is unlike any earlier museums of mine. It doesn’t have large extended wings. It has all the images I shot in Kochi Biennale. It is becoming more sculptural. There are 800 prints in these museums all of which are unpublished except that one black and white photograph of a young girl in bed hiding her face under a pillow. I think it can never go away.

How do these museums come about? A lot of it must be about revisiting your work.

One gets really obsessed and I am someone who is really loyal to obsessions. I am not flirtatious and I can’t work in a butterfly mode. I still keep taking photographs of photographs in people’s homes, pictures of furniture. And then when you sit with all these images lying all over the table, you realise that’s what you have been doing.

I don’t work towards an exhibition or a book so nobody can commission me a work, say a book of bed-side tables. I shoot in a heightened intuitive mode. Extensive reading, good meaningful conversations fill me with right nutrients. I am in a very good place to go out and shoot. I keep making and breaking my museum till I get it right.

A loyalist to your obsession, is that why you didn’t pursue photo-journalism?

I always wanted to make books as a photographer, but in 1988-89, the only way to earn a living was through photography. But I couldn’t do it. There were no women in photography at that time. I could have positioned myself as a woman photographer but I didn’t want to. I was a photo-journalist. I had a problem with that. I was called an artist. I found that also problematic. Then people called me bookmaker. I wasn’t happy with that either. I keep changing my work.

You have often said that an image is just a raw material for you.

And you have to have good raw material. A photograph’s reality gets into the way of reality. That’s another topic which requires discussion. But my image is about what I remove from it, what I withhold, how well or rather how I edit it. I took a blurred photograph of Carnatic musician T.M. Krishna during a concert. It was one of the most magical evenings and I made that photograph for myself feeling those emotions. I allowed the situation to translate into my work.

Dissemination is very significant to your practice. One of your accordion-fold books Sent a Letter has been on display in a jewellery store in Kolkata since 2008.

I am always looking for ways to take my work to people. Can I have an exhibition of my work in your house? I am obsessed with the idea of mobility. And now I am working on the idea of suitcase exhibitions. I have to keep finding new forms. When there are so many incredible ways to showcase photography because the medium allows for it, when the nature of my work is so vast, why should I limit it by your ideas and your value of my work? Museum Bhavan is the giant version of Sent a letter. It gave me the possibilities for my books to have an exhibition. Who decides how to show a photograph? One may or may not be able to read English, but one can certainly read my image.

Dayanita Singh will be participating at The Hindu Lit for Life 2016 in Chennai.

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