an evening or two with Dayanita Singh

An evening with Dayanita Singh

On the previous evening I had visited an exhibition at Nature Morte Gallery in Delhi called “Dream Villas” by Dayanita Singh with a photographer friend in Delhi, Rakesh Sahai, whose work one is likely to see on arrival at Delhi airport  illuminated and printed large since he has worked there extensively in the airport; Mumta, a photographer-friend of his accompanied us. We all wondered at the exhibition, not knowing what it was exactly about and found ourselves questioning the technical expertise as well as the meaning of the images, all of which were either taken at dawn or dusk. Rakesh joked that he could have done the whole lot in a single night; we did not take the work on show too seriously.

It was to be a few years later that I read in an interview (BJP,October 2013) with Dayanita Singh that these images were made during her “blue period” initiated when she ran out of black and white film on a shoot; she thought that this would not be a problem and she could turn the colour film she used in it’s place into black and white later on. However, she was struck by the beauty of this “spontaneous colour experience” and continued it to make the Dream Villas exhibition. Of this Geoff Dyer wrote, “So what makes a “Dream Villa?” How does Dayanita know she’s found one? The answer, surely, is that she doesn’t, or, more accurately, that the question is the answer. The pictures are all uncaptioned because the places in them don’t exist. Yes, theyr’e out there in the world somewhere, and she photographs them in that interrogative way of photographer’s, but it’s only later, when they’ve stopped being places and become photographs, that it’s possible to see if what was once reality – or a piece of real estate, at any rate – has acquired the ideal and elusive aura of the dream image.

I returned to the exhibition space the following evening, dimly aware that my reading of the images was a little superficial yet also because Dayanita Singh was going to be present and giving a talk. Rakesh and Mumta were otherwise engaged. Perhaps this second visit would enable me to understand her work and see why she is an acclaimed artist. Frankly, a lot of the “Dream Villas” images did not appeal to me; the haunted atmosphere of many of them made it feel more like “Nightmare Villas.” These are personal images and hence evoke a personal response.

For her talk, Dayanita projected images on to a wall. She started with a photo-album kept by her mother, also a keen photographer, and went through all the photobooks she has done, beginning with her first that is about the life of a eunuch. As someone interested in the photo-book as an art form, this was to be a fascinating talk.

Dayanita crafts her images; everything has it’s place. She studied at The National Institute of Design in Ahmdebad, Gujerat and even as a student had works published in The Times of London. This lead to her first book about a eunuch; the eunuchs are a recognizable part of Indian culture. The photographs were accompanied by text.

A turning point in her career if not her life, was when Dayanita went to work with Gerhard Steidl, the acclaimed photography publisher. He introduced her to a completely new way of doing a book that involved a much more contemplative approach. Images can easily be sequenced logically yet if one is to look at them visually and to sequence them as visual objects rather than as images containing more obvious meanings then a different kind of book has the opportunity to arise. One that is not so conceptually based (as I write these notes up into a more comprehensive essay, I wonder to what extent these are my own words rather than those of Dayanita!?).

It was Ansel Adams who compared the negative to a score of music and the print to it’s performance. There is no set way of doing a book, constructing a series of images, rather a variety of ways that might be interpreted and eventually rendered.

Dayanita talked about what was evidently something of an initiation with Gerhard Steidl. He turned off all the lights in the room and took her to a window; she wondered if he was going to kiss her. In fact, what he wanted to do was instill in her a sense of wonder, a way to approach her work differently.

Looking through the books that Dayanita has done with Steidl, one is aware of the fact that their meaning is left very much to the viewer’s imagination. One is likely to try and read these images, to discover something of what they convey. One may be frustrated in the effort or simply accept that one can never exactly know what they are about. They indicate yet retain a sense of ambiguity if not mystery.

One of her best known images is that of a young girl lying on her bed with her back to the viewer. This would appear to be a young girl in retreat from the world who has thrust herself down on her bed without thinking; she may be sulking or just dreaming childlike thoughts. What makes the image so striking is that her dress is pulled up over her knees exposing the back of her naked legs. Some might consider this erotic and certainly it sparks associations with the sexual abuse of children, yet it is also records a sense of vulnerability.

Being published by Steidl is a photographer’s dream. Dayanita, in spite of her obvious abilities, is lucky to have been chosen; she realizes this and is grateful. Steidl though are a specialist publisher and do not attract popular interest except in the world of art photography; one’s audience is likely to be limited since for many the images will appear problematic and hence of limited interest.

Dayanita leaves me with the sense that I have been in the presence of a great artist; an inspired sense of clarity is my experience and I wonder to what extent this is my projection and to what extent a genuine experience of Dayanita’s work.