Review of ‘Dayanita Singh’

Dayanita Singh, Penguin Studio & Fudacion Mapfire, Image courtesy: Dayanita Singh and Penguin Studio.
Dayanita Singh, Penguin Studio & Fudacion Mapfire, Image courtesy: Dayanita Singh and Penguin Studio.

Book Title: Dayanita Singh
Produced by: Penguin Studio & Fudacion Mapfre
Paperback: 256 Pages, 8.5×11.25 Hardback, Cloth & Paper
Binding, Ten Colour Printing 100+ Photographs
Price: INR 5999

As one turns the pages over slowly, the poignant portrait of Mona Ahmed in dishabille seizes the eye. Her sari twisted pathetically around her middle, she looks up beseechingly towards the camera and points to the bruises on her thighs. In the next section we read about her heartbreaking plight in her own broken words: “When I had gone to meet Ayesha, Chaman had me tortured by the police. In all that pain, I ran to Dayanita’s house for making a record of my hurt.” (1998)

Mona standing with a pet monkey nestling tenderly on her chest is another image that forms a part of the section Myself Mona Ahmed. In her words, “My beautiful monkey Shabnam (my eunuch brother’s name) that was killed by the Muslims because they said a monkey is a Hindu god and therefore cannot live in a Muslim graveyard. So they poisoned him” (1999).

Elsewhere, amongst other equally expressive photographs of Mona, are a few pages she has written to Mr. Walter Keller (the Swiss publisher) about her life and experiences. “Love is like the moon,” she writes, “when it is full, it lights the whole world, and when there is no moon, then there is darkness in the whole world. First Ayesha gave me so much happiness, now I have as much pain. Why do you want the world to know my pain?” In the unfolding of the story through visuals and words, we discover the tragic existence of Mona, a eunuch, eking out her livelihood in the alleys of the capital, deserted by all but her friend, Dayanita.

While technical aspects are critical to her composition, it is her ability to provoke, to touch us deep, that makes Dayanita’s images so very compelling. To quote Roland Barthes, ‘The photo touches me if I withdraw from its usual blah-blah: ‘Technique’, ‘Reality’, ‘Reportage’, ‘Art’, etc.: to say nothing, but to shut my eyes, to allow the detail to rise of its own accord into affective consciousness.”

If the photographic moment for Cartier-Bresson is an instant, a fraction of a second, and he stalks that instant as though it were a wild animal. The photographic moment for Strand is a biographical or historic moment, whose duration is ideally measured not by seconds but by its relation to a lifetime. Strand does not pursue an instant, but encourages a moment to arise as one might encourage a story to be told.” In Dayanita’s own words, “Mona is one of the most precious gifts photography has given me. In this class-ridden society of ours, there would be no meeting point for Mona and me, were it not for be measured like Strand, to its relation to a lifetime and this is reiterated when we get to learn more about the strange and deep affinity she shares with Mona.

Produced by Penguin Studio & Fudacion Mapfre, the book’s aesthetic merit is balanced with lucid and eloquent text that offering critical insights to the work. The journey of Dayanita Singh, today one of India’s most celebrated photographers, began as a fledgling photojournalist. Not many women photographers had quite made the grade in those days, and she was, therefore, extremely enthusiastic and excited at the prospect of meeting an important editor to show him her portfolio. Instead, to her indignation, he declared, chauvinistically, “You don’t have a voice. Experience true creativity in motherhood.” She had walked out furiously but only to wonder at a later moment, “…what was there to photograph in India, if not disasters or the exotic?” Memories of her own mother as a photographer and an opportunity to meet Zakir Husain, and later, in Banaras, Mary Ellen Mark, would transform her life. And as she discovered her oeuvre as a photographer, she came to understand too that “Photography was my ticket to freedom…to be free, to be open to all the surprises life has to offer, to travel and to be as I pleased…”

And so she made her destiny and that of several others whom she has immortalised as ‘Dayanita’s people’. There was no mistaking either her distinct voice or intensely personal approach as she explored the many subjects that appealed to her sensibilities, as was the case with I Am As I Am, her evocative photo essay on young adolescent girls leading a sedate life away from the hustle-bustle of Banaras in their ashram. The identification with other people and places was to soon become a “constant throughout her work”. Also, as Aveek Sen writes, “Abandonment” turned out to be her “most difficult and valuable resource, making the economy of her art inextricable from the economy of her feelings.” A fact that reiterates itself in her other series titled Ladies of Calcutta, Sent a Letter, Dream Villa, Go Away Closer, Blue Book or Different Loves, a collection of extraordinary images that has the artist scripting her own photographic history and in the process holding before the viewer a pictorial narrative that touches upon lives of others, as much as her own.

Predominantly in black and white, some of the portraits seem to offer an insight into a world that will soon be lost, therefore a lingering sense of loss permeates through the albums of photographs. The photographer, as a trusted confidant, is privy to a hidden, secret world and from this intimate sharing of confidences, emerge images of loneliness, longing, abandonment. Forming a departure from her established oeuvre, there is a section called Blue Book that deals with empty industrial spaces. I’m reminded of Krzysztof Kieślowski and his Three Colours: Blue as I gaze upon the abstracted blue-washed requiems to wastelands that Singh has captured so evocatively. Singh who had long spurned the seduction of colours has two sections in the book that permit colour to seep in, selectively in Blue Book and more adventurously in Dream Villa, where the photographs serenade an Indian nightscape alive with streetlights, headlights, neon signs. There was a mixed response to these colour works initially when Singh first exhibited them in the country but in this retrospective body of works, both these series have a place and significance.

“So you should simply make the instant/Stand out, without in the process hiding/What you are making it stand out from….” (Brecht). Dayanita Singh’s strength as a photographer is her ability to ‘simply make the instant/Stand out’.


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About Author

Ina Puri is an arts impressario, curator & writer. In her capacity as a film producer she won the National Award for her documentary on Manjit Bawa.

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