Catching those lightbulb moments

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At first, you are exasperated. Internationally known photographer Dayanita Singh (48) refuses to meet. She insists on doing an email interview. But once you send those questions, Singh responds with detailed answers and reveals that the questionnaire has set her off on a mental journey. “Did someone who knows me help you with those questions or are you a witch?” she asks when you finally meet her at Nature Morte Gallery in New Delhi, where her latest work, Blue Book, that marks a departure from her usual black and whites, is displayed. You admit then that you do indeed ride around on a broomstick. Excerpts from a wide-ranging interview:

A self portrait by the photographer

Tell us about Blue Book.
As any photographer I had wondered about colour but never really explored it. I knew what not to do but never imagined I could find a language of my own in colour. Colour in photography seemed to me to be about colour as it existed. How could I transform it into something else? How could colour evoke emotions other than what was obvious?

I found myself on top of a 54-metre high factory tower bang in the middle of an industrial landscape I had never seen. Of course, I had black and white film but I also had some daylight colour film. It was after sunset and I used the colour film. The contact sheets came back with a blue cast that I was very drawn to. So it was the limitation of the colour film and being in a totally unfamiliar landscape that led to the blue work.

What’s the effort that went into Blue Book?
The images were made in 2006 and early 2007. Then a year-and-a-half of sitting on them. I did not want to be the India Factory Photographer. It was too easy to make a book about Indian factoryscapes and many persuaded me in this direction. And all of that seemed untrue to my motivations in the work. Once again, it felt like an interior landscape but lacked the warmth of my earlier work. It was a moving away, a coldness, and I decided that was how I would present it. Then, the making of prints in various sizes… always trying to go smaller. We made traditional C prints in London.

I showed this work to my publisher, Gerhard Steidl, and since we are both so interested in the idea of the dissemination of the image, we decided to make a book of postcards. It is displayed in the Serpentine Gallery in London as my art work. Our last book was Sent a Letter and postcards seemed a natural progression. Both books are mass-produced to make the image even more accessible.

Jump for joy From I am as I am

Tell us about the industrial spaces you photographed — where the actual sites are and why you picked them…
Why do you want to know where a particular site is? What does it satisfy in you other than curiosity? I think the ‘where’ and ‘when’ gets in the way of your experience of the image. If I am trying to evoke a sense of loss, do you really need to know that cloud is from Padmanabhapuram? I did not pick the sites, they just happened… like my Family portraits. One led to the other and so on. My work is led by my coincidences and my contribution is being open to them.

Through your career, you’ve clicked the different aspects of India. Where do you see your work moving?
I don’t know and I don’t want to know where my work is moving, as long as it is moving. The day I feel I am repeating myself, I will stop. I am not about to decide to become a Factory Photographer or even a Family Photographer. The work is informed by what is going on in my life, the books I am reading, the friends I am travelling with, the places that draw me, the music I listen to, in short, LIFE. So it is impossible to know where the next journey will lead me.

Different light Industryscapes from Dayanita Singh’s Blue Book

I came to photography accidentally. I wish I could find the man who pushed me to stop me from taking photographs of a concert of Ravi Shankar and Zakir Hussain for a routine class assignment at NID. I fell on my backside in a hall full of people. My 18- year-old pride was seriously damaged. I waited outside and when Zakir came out of the concert — he was not such a star then — I shouted, “Mr Hussain, I am a young student today but someday I will be an important photographer and then we will see”. He brought me some water and suggested I photograph him while he rehearsed. That was the most important night of my life. How to go to a man’s hotel room, a musician at that… My friends and I decided that one could not bother about what people would say. The rest is history. My diploma project was a published book on Zakir Hussain. He is still my guru. He taught me about focus and about believing in what one does. I watched him transform himself from an accompanist to the soloist. Travels with musicians to small towns in India had a significant influence on me.

How did you come to photography?
We are four sisters, mother and dear departed father, who passed away in the early 1980s. Photography was the bane of my childhood as my mother counted her steps to photograph each dress she stitched for me, delaying every departure, every birthday party. My father would drive me to Surajkund to watch the full moon, we would then decide to drive on to Agra. The worst was when he would take me to stay in the ashrams of Anandamayee Ma. This meant sleeping on stone floors and eating Bengali food, missing once again all the birthday parties.

I came to photography accidentally. I wish I could find the man who pushed me to stop me from taking photographs of a concert of Ravi Shankar and Zakir Hussain for a routine class assignment at NID. I fell on my backside in a hall full of people. My 18- year-old pride was seriously damaged. I waited outside and when Zakir came out of the concert — he was not such a star then — I shouted, “Mr Hussain, I am a young student today but someday I will be an important photographer and then we will see”. He brought me some water and suggested I photograph him while he rehearsed. That was the most important night of my life. How to go to a man’s hotel room, a musician at that… My friends and I decided that one could not bother about what people would say. The rest is history. My diploma project was a published book on Zakir Hussain. He is still my guru. He taught me about focus and about believing in what one does. I watched him transform himself from an accompanist to the soloist. Travels with musicians to small towns in India had a significant influence on me.

What’s your earliest memory apropos photography?
It’s my mother counting steps and my missing the school bus because of her slow photography. Visually, a handpainted portrait, made by my father, of the girlfriend he could not marry because she was Pakistani — that dreaded word in love stories of that time. He subsequently met and loved my mother dearly.

What was the first photograph you took?
I was seven or eight, on a school trip to Ajmer. It was an old monument clicked with an Agfa Click 3. I fell on the railway line and still carry the scar on my eyebrow.

Good photographers set their subjects at ease. How do you do that with subjects you don’t have a relationship with?
I have rarely worked with subjects that I have no relationship with. The Family portraits were all about collaboration, about asking people how they want to be represented. Of course, it takes time even when you know the people.

What’s the central theme of your next work? 
Dream Villa
 is a landscape in my head, a world that appears only at night, is lit by the moon and by artificial light. It’s a world where nothing is at it seems. The world is no longer such a comfortable place. The work has none of the solace of my earlier work. It is, as a friend puts it, relentless. And it’s in very strange colour. Steidl will publish this as a book of posters in the fall. We will show it in Delhi in January 2010.

Tell us about your famous ‘kitchen museum’.
My work has grown and shifted with each journey I have made with a friend, either in person or in spirit. I did not have the language to write letters to express my thanks. So I started to cut up my medium format contact sheets from a journey, paste them in accordion-fold books and send one copy to the friend and keep one for myself.

I did something similar for Gerhard Steidl when we travelled to Kolkata together. He was surprised with this object and even more so when I told him I had 33 such books in my kitchen museum. He suggested we publish seven of them, and not re-edit them for a larger audience. I said that they were made for a specific person, filled with clues of a time spent together, like letters, and how could I make these public?

We published Sent a Letter in 2008 and it was on the Ten Best Photobooks list. So someone saw it! But more than that, it was the idea of making a book that could open into a mini exhibition, a book that was the art work itself. It has been displayed at museums, galleries, art fairs, jewellery shops, hotels and most importantly, at friends’ houses. It is mass-produced and sold for Rs 3,000 — a small travelling archive that consists of seven exhibitions.

You often return to works you’ve taken a decade before. How do you ‘edit’?
The photography I engage in is all about editing, about weeding out over time, of reducing till you get to the core. It is not hard to make a photograph — that is, maybe, 10 percent of the work — but what form the work should take, what context it should be presented in… Those are the more significant questions for me. And they take a lot of time. Making the book is an equally engaging process. Book making is as much my work as prints on the wall.

Photography is like language, and like language, we all learn it in some form or the other. But the point is what one does with it. Does one want to do reportage, write a poem, an essay, a novel or pulp fiction? That is how vast the possibilities are.

Have you ever destroyed any of your work because it was too painful in its associations or had nothing left to tell you?
Just once because a friend was uncomfortable. It is difficult to rip negatives, and thank God, I do not have to just press delete. Go Away Closer is a wonderful example of not throwing work out because it does not fulfill a more immediate need. I made a photo of a girl on her bed and had a light bulb moment. I had been in that emotional space, in that feeling of Go Away Closer before. I rushed back to Delhi, went through contact sheets of six years and there it was: Go Away Closer — a deeply significant book for me.

Among the younger lot of Indian photographers whose work has caught your eye?
Gauri Gill and Dileep Prakash… and among the older, Ahmed Ali, who at 84 runs his photo studio in Kolkata. There are the great industrial photographers of the 1950s and 60s and of course, Richard Bartholomew whose work we have just seen. How different our photography trajectory would have been if we had known the works of Umrao Singh, Nasreen Mohamedi and Richard Bartholomew.

Who are your favourite authors, musicians and artists
I’m reading The Love Affair as a work of Art by Dan Hofstadter and as always, All You Who Sleep Tonight by Vikram Seth. My favourite authors include Michael Ondaatje, Italo Calvino whose Difficult Loves is one of the most important writings on photography, WG Sebald (Austerlitz is my favourite photography book), Amitav Ghosh, Sunil Khilnani, Rilke, Geoff Dyer — I’m waiting anxiously for Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. Among musicians, my favourites are Gustav Mahler and Rashid Khan and among artists, Adam Fuss and Anish Kapoor.

Has the art photography scene in India improved?
Most certainly. We have PhotoInk, a serious gallery for photography, which also publishes important monographs like Umrao Singh and Richard Bartholomew.

I still hope for a time when photography is as much a part of the art scene as any other medium.

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