The self-confident elite of the country is nearly unknown in the West. Privacy provides great insight into a closed world characterized by tight family solidarity. Singh shows the people as they would like to see themselves, in the middle of splendidly decorated rooms and surrounded by possessions that represent their self-image. At a certain point in her work Singh realized that even without their residents, the rooms were occupied by the invisible generations that had lived there before. The book closes with photographs of interiors, empty but still filled with spirits.
Not in a fixed frame, photographer of privacy Dayanita Singh chases her freedom as notes in a journal, says Amit Sengupta
Books, libraries, chairs, beds, families, women with amazing self-dignity and inner confidence, something only women can celebrate with such quiet lucidity; pets, faces, shadows, light, like Vermeer’s light, colours, like Visconti’s colours (“India is so full of overwhelming colours, that’s why I prefer black and white; a red table, a yellow chair, a blue ashtray, what’s there left to see or experience?”); then there are the folds in the clothes, chiselled hands, eyes with history, bare arms outside history, the possibilities of obscure ordinariness: nothing is objectified, there’s no feminist statement which must be made for the sake of feminism, no art for art’s sake.
“My family portraits,” she says, “they are out there on the walls of 200 houses in India, ten abroad. What can be a nicer exhibition of my pictures then these walls of homes with people whom I have clicked?”
Dayanita Singh was born in 1961 in New Delhi, where she currently lives and works. She studied visual communication at the NID in Ahmedabad in the early 1980s. Then she studied photojournalism and documentary photography at the International Centre of Photography, New York (“my mother was convinced this is a better investment then dowry”). Since 1989 she has worked across the globe: Granta, Fortune, Independent magazine, India Magazine, New Yorker, Time, among others. She has done solo shows in Zurich, Goa, Milan, Brussels, Berlin; also JNU. She has done group shows on facets of India, among other themes, in the Asian Arts Museum (San Francisco), New York’s Queens Museum of Art, Musee d’ ethnographie, (Geneva), Nature Morte, (Delhi), Tate Modern, (London), Asia Society, (New York). “I don’t look for subjects. You were speaking of the Sal trees in winter. I might go looking for them. Wait for them to be bare next winter. But the moment I say I want to do something on the trees of India, it’s gone, finished, all over.”
“Five photos I may be able to do, but five hundred words freezes me instantly,” she told Tehelka. In an essay in this book she writes: “At a certain time in my life, I was living at a friend’s house in a small village in Goa. While he was writing and reading, I had to occupy myself, so I started to visit the local church, meeting families and going to their homes to make portraits, since this was my only way of engaging with a new place. While making these portraits, I would sometimes photograph a detail of a door or a crockery cabinet as little records for my friend who could not be with me in all these wonder-filled spaces. I did not think of these as photographs, just as little notes for him. It was the same when I photographed the house museums he was researching in. Just little notes…”
She also writes that photography was a way of liberating herself from the trappings of gender and class. So why did she want to liberate herself? “I didn’t want the goodies. What was the chosen path for a north Indian girl at that time? Sanawar, St Stephen’s, and then get married. I was driven by a different urge.”
As an NID student, she travelled with Zakir Hussain for six winters. Later, she would “naively” photograph the Indian dilemma, the lives of prostitutes, “believing she would make a difference to, let’s say, the lives of prostitutes with AIDS… But Meherunissa, the child prostitute I photographed for over two years, died anyway… I felt I could not go on living from the distress of others.”
Living on the distress of others? “Either I could become an activist, or do what I want to do. I still go through this dilemma. Mehrunissa could not even write the text or the caption to her own life’s pictures. She had no say in her image-making. I don’t know. It’s like your paper writing about police atrocities, Pankaj Giri; but then there are so many others. Every day there are so many atrocities.”
Mona Ahmed helped her engage with guilt. She met her for a routine assignment on eunuchs in 1989. “Mona took the film away from me and embraced me for life,” she writes. Later she photographed Mona for 13 years, “from her being a queen bee in old Delhi’s Turkman Gate to becoming the kind of person who chose to make the graveyard her home when the eunuchs threw her out and made her an outcaste among the outcastes.” They did a book together. And Mona wrote the text about her life.
“Photography and my life are hand-in-glove. So the work keeps changing. I am alive. I am questioning. I allow my experiences to translate in my work. I want to see people holding my pictures in a book in their hands and reading it in privacy. My photography is like keeping a journal.”
So when the images of privacy have been ‘taken’, after hours of hypnotic eye contact, what does she feel? “Top of the world,” she says. Top of the world? “No, that’s wrong. I feel nourished. Yes, nourished.”