Tuesday, May 20, 2014

A Unique Take on Life

Photographer Dayanita Singh takes images that are original and thought-provoking

Photo by Melton Antony 

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Dayanita Singh was a student at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, in 1981, she was given an assignment to take photos, showing the different moods of a person. At that time, tabla maestro Zakir Hussain was performing in the city. So she decided to take photos of Zakir.

But when Dayanita went to the hall, the organisers refused to allow her to take photos. So, she waited outside. When Zakir came out, following the show, Dayanita approached him and said, “Mr. Hussain, I am a young student. Some day I might be an important photographer. Then we will see.”

Zakir burst out laughing. Then he explained why she had not been allowed to take pictures. “First of all, you need to take permission,” he said. “Secondly, Pandit Ravi Shankar had added a fret to his sitar, so that he could do some experimenting. So he did not want any photographs to be taken.” Zakir told Dayanita that she could come the next morning when he was having a rehearsal.

Thereafter, for the next six years, during the winter, Dayanita took photos of Zakir. And imbibed wisdom from the maestro. “Zakir talked to me about the need to focus,” says Dayanita. “That means, if you decide to do something, you have to give 100 per cent. If you cannot dedicate 18 hours a day, don't do it.” It was during this period that Dayanita decided to become a photographer.

But her decision came as no surprise because her mother, Nony Singh, was an avid photographer. In fact, Dayanita remembers a photo that her mother took of her when she was only six months old. I was lying on a chaise lounge in the Presidential Suite of the Oberoi Hotel at Srinagar,” she says.

When Dayanita's father, Mahenderpal, wanted to celebrate her birth, Nony said she wanted to stay in a luxury hotel. “You never went to a hotel in those days,” says Dayanita. But once there, Nony was keen to show proof to her friends that she had actually been inside the hotel. “That is why she took my photo,” says Dayanita.

And her mother's passion has been passed on to Dayanita. Today, Dayanita is regarded as one of the best photographers in India. She had come to Kochi to check out the sites of the upcoming Biennale (December, 2014) so that she could provide a work for it.

Fort Kochi is a great venue for a biennale,” she says. “There is so much of history. In Delhi and Mumbai, you would spend so much time commuting. But in Kochi, you can float from one exhibit to the other. The special thing about the Kochi biennale, is that it is artist-run, while the others are mostly run by corporates.”

Sitting on a chair on the lawn of a Fort Kochi hotel, on a sunny morning, Dayanita comes across as charming, witty and sharp. And she has a touch of the old-fashioned about her when you see the camera hanging around her neck.

It is a Haselblad 503. “It is the same model which [astronaut] Neil Armstrong took to the moon in 1969,” says Dayanita. “Haselblad is the king of the cameras. On the road, people come up just to look at it. It has a film roll which only has 12 shots. So I have to be careful about what I shoot.”

Asked why she has remained with an analog camera, when the world has gone digital, Dayanita says, “It slows me down. Photography is a language. It does not depend on what equipment you use. In the end, what only matters is what you do with that language.”

Dayanita has done a lot of things with this language. At this moment, her obsession is paper files. “I never set out to photograph files, but had been to paper factories, libraries, courts, municipal offices, state archives and factory record rooms,” she says.

So when noted author and friend, Sunil Khilnani, came to Delhi to have a look at Dayanita's work, she put out 200 prints on a table for him to see. “Sunil pulled out a few pictures and said, 'File room',” says Dayanita. “He asked me to do more and promised help on a book.” 

Later, an exhibition of these photos, 'Monuments of Knowledge', was held during the opening of the India Institute at King's College in London. And a 88-page book, called 'File Room' has also been brought out.

Some of the other subjects that Dayanita has tackled include the many moods of her transvestite friend, Mona Ahmed, an ashram in Benaras, upper-class family portraits, chairs, industrial spaces and the night.

Interestingly, Dayanita says that photography does not reveal any truths. “Photography is nothing more than a portrait of the time I have spent with a subject and my response to it,” she says. “A photograph is successful if it has evoked something more than what is visible in the frame.”

And because she has been good at evoking something more, her work has been exhibited in places like London, Rome, Madrid, Brussels, Milan, Zurich, Bogota, Berlin and Boston. She is the first Indian to have a solo show at the Hayward Gallery in London. And, in 2012, she represented Germany in the Venice Biennale. “That is because the Germans wanted to show that art is universal,” says Dayanita. Among the awards she has won are the Claus Award in 2008 from the Dutch government for 'artistic and intellectual quality', as well as the Chevalier des Arts et Lettres from the French government in 2014. 

Interestingly, Dayanita is a soloist. “I am a soloist not only in my relationships, but also in thought and practice,” she says. That's because I love solitude.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)  

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