A box, the colour of moss, mottled with rusty brown flecks, bears Dayanita Singh's latest work, Museum Bhavan, for me. Incredible as it may sound, it is a unique piece, exclusively my own, and the 2,999 other versions of it that exist in bookstores, in real life or afloat in the ether, are singular too, each distinguished by its own special cover.
These "unique multiples", as Singh likes to call them, can be yours too, for the princely sum of €75 (a little over ₹5,000). (The price of her prints, which used to sell for ₹5-7 lakhs each, should help put the 'value' of Museum Bhavan in perspective.) Each box opens, like a portal to a hidden chamber, to reveal a set of nine "pocket museums" (once again, the lexicon is Singh's very own), having simple but eccentric names. Finally, the pocket museums can be unfolded, like an accordion, to display an array of images of crystalline clarity. Portable and affordable at the same time, the work is pocket-friendly in several senses of the term. Here's Singh herself, giving a quick demonstration.
It is with the box and its textured cloth-cover, coming in 3,000 distinct varieties, that one must begin.
"It's my way of getting you to already engage with my work even before you've properly opened it," says Singh on the phone to me. "This is how I co-opt you into my process."
If you buy Museum Bhavan from a physical bookstore, you have the liberty to choose the exact hue of the box that appeals to you. Or, in case you go for a postal delivery, as I did, you can surrender yourself to a delicious element of surprise.
Although all 3,000 owners of Museum Bhavan get the same set of nine pocket museums in the box, they are at liberty to create their own private exhibitions out of them. You can choose to open out these booklets in full or partially, juxtapose one section of a museum against that of another. The structural and organising principles behind these miniature museums are flexible enough to free you to indulge your fancy.
After dwelling on the photographs in the mini-museums, trying to "read" them in the sequence they are arranged and toying with the possibilities they open up, by themselves or in relation to other museums, I can grasp the playfulness involved in the role that Singh foists on her audience.
At once idiosyncratic (can I find a museum of beds stashed away in the 'Museum of Furniture'?), cerebral (is there a link between the 'Museum of Men' and 'Little Ladies Museum'?) and personal (why does the 'Museum of Photography' bring back memories of the dead?), the responses catch you unawares. They may even put you in touch with your own private history and make you revisit your personal associations with the world.
Museum Bhavan owes its existence to several precursors in Singh's rich body of work over the last decade, especially to the mobile museums she created two years ago and Sent a Letter (2007). Those familiar with Sent a Letter will find resonances of its form and driving spirit in Museum Bhavan, although the latter is much more protean for its ability to reinvent itself tirelessly.
In contrast to the quirky moodiness of Museum Bhavan, Sent A Letter suggests more self-contained cocoons of narrative, also arranged in accordion-fold booklets, named after a few Indian cities. The photographs in each of the volumes, once again enclosed in a box, relates to a place and plots a theme or an emotion, which unfurls itself through a sequence.
Museum Bhavan, on the other hand, dispenses with specificities. Although all the nine pocket museums are loosely named after the subjects they represent, such monikers are either ironic or shifting — the 'Museum of Photography' is called, on the back cover, 'Museum of the Departed', for instance. Naturally, it stirs the eye into thought, instead of letting it become fixated on the particulars depicted within each frame.
"There's life happening inside the museums," says Singh, defending her decision to introduce so much flux into the very foundations of her work. The desire to see her work evolve over time and adapt to the mood of the day is intensely human. A work that morphs itself through its interaction with its viewers is, in a fundamental sense, contemporary — it can never be reduced to a single identity. Strikingly, for an artist who has worked with the photographic image throughout her career, this resistance to being fixed to a moment is also Singh's rebellion against the first principles of her chosen medium — photography — which wants to freeze a slice of life forever within a frame.
Although she began her career as a photojournalist and portrait-maker, Singh has steadily and emphatically moved away, in the last five years especially, from fetishising the single image. Most photographers and galleries still end up perpetuating the practice by framing and hanging prints on the wall. But for Singh, the departure from this traditional format of exhibiting has led to forays into book-making, turning the book into an object and, most audaciously, putting it on the wall of galleries. These new modes of public engagement did not please anyone in the industry, but that hasn't deterred her from venturing out in ever newer directions.
As an analogue photographer, who has worked with contact sheets of 12 images for most of her life, it's hardly unusual for Singh to put a premium on looking at images in relation to one another.
"For me photographs don't exist in isolation," she says. "To select an image out of a sequence for attention is, to me, like plucking out one note from a symphony." It's not that she disregards the power of an image to stand alone, all by itself. In Museum Bhavan, for instance, each image possesses a shimmering clarity and poetry to it, allowing the viewer to consider it solely in its own terms. "But we can't get fixated on this one way of looking, to the exclusion of all other possibilities," Singh says.
Her adventures with form, which saw her make a detour into creating oversized wooden structures for her mobile museums (one of which was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York recently), were made possible only through her prolonged habit of thinking out of the box, with a fair bit of chance thrown into the bargain.
It was Singh's mother, Nony Singh, who bestowed on her this gift of free thought, enabled her to tread on uncharted areas, simply by never making any conventional demands of marriage or domesticity that Indian parents bring to their children. Then, after Singh finished her education at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, and at the International Center of Photography in New York, a series of chance encounters opened several doors for her.
From stumbling (quite literally) at an assignment to photograph tabla maestro Zakir Hussain to travelling with a troop of musicians to meeting Mona Ahmed, perhaps Delhi's most famous trans woman, to trailing choreographer Saroj Khan in Bollywood to making family portraits in Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata to working with the famous German publisher, Gerhard Steidl: the story of Singh's career is strung together by several serendipitous meetings.
But without her immersion in finding newer languages for photography, her mission to free it from the despotism of convention and make it travel beyond the white cube of the gallery, into the hands and hearts of individuals, there would not have been a work as pathbreaking as Museum Bhavan.
If Singh's shift from selling prints to bookmaking raised a few eyebrows, given the limited commercial prospects in most non-mainstream work, her insistence on displaying books on the walls, inside box-like structures or large wooden frames must have quietly exasperated the art world.
No amount of scepticism has dimmed Singh's enthusiasm though. In spite of the adverse reactions from gallerists, she went on experimenting with means of making her work unique as well as mass produced — by stamping her books with her favourite slogans or wrapping them in a scarf or even by wheeling them around in a cart at the India Art Fair. At the 2014 Venice Biennale, for instance, she gave a performance, wearing a pink sari with the now-iconic phrase Go Away Closer (referring to an earlier work) printed along the border, signing and selling copies of her book File Room in front of the French pavilion.
Her restive innovations continue unabated, finding ever new venues and means of breaking every imagined barrier. Museum Bhavan, Singh tells me, will release at Orhan Pamuk's Museum of Innocence in Turkey next month on the occasion the 15th Istanbul Biennale. The pocket museum will also travel to another large museum, the Tate Modern in London (which is also making a short film based on the work), apart from the MoMA.
The cycle of innovation that had started with Sent a Letter seems to have reached its fullest expression with the pocket museums of Museum Bhavan at long last. There lies ahead a "terrorising time", as Singh puts it. "I have to now sit down with all the material I have gathered over the past one year and see what to do with it all."
She has no anticipation of any form, or a defining idea, but it's that sense of the unknown that makes Singh the endlessly elusive artist that she is. As Sabina Gadihoke, writer and visual historian, told me in 2014, "Just when you think you know Singh's work, she has already moved on."
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