Dayanita Singh: Cabinets of Curiosity

Dayanita Singh with ‘Museum Bhavan’ at Serendipity Arts Festival, Goa 2017 (photo: Denzil Sequeira)

It is often in the space between two images that you can say the unsayable.


An early precursor of the modern museum, the cabinet of curiosities or Wunderkammer was an assembly of artefacts collected on their individual merits as objects of speculative interest. Popular in the seventeenth century, it mingled natural history with antiquities, religious relics with geology, ethnography with faux chimera, actively avoiding the taxonomic tendencies of the modern museum. Indeed, in the early days of the Royal Society, the provision of contextualising data was discouraged when presenting a curiosity lest it stem the flow of imaginative conjecture. However, by the following century, the approach had shifted. Patterns and systems were sought out and emphasised as evidence of an underlying uniformity in nature. The rare and anomalous were dismissed as distractions from the orderly pursuit of scientific thinking. Critical analysis replaced wonderous curiosity.

Over the past two decades, Dayanita Singh has been exploring radically different ways to think about museums, books, and photography. Adaptable and contingent, her modes of working emphasise the poetics of possibility over a catalogue of certainties. It is a democratising process not simply in the way in which her works may be experienced in a great diversity of places, including the home, but in the rejection of privileged knowledge. Here the emphasis is on fleet curiosity rather than pedestrian cognition.

But these are not cabinets of curiosities, collections of the rare and anomalous. Or, if they are, it is to remind us that the extraordinary nestles within the ordinary: that every object, every person, every situation, however commonplace, is unique in itself. A phenomenon with its own presence, its own identity. Because it is only when we break free of the regimenting forces of categorisation that we come to recognise the lyricism of the individual. And that takes an open and free-ranging imagination. Here, the curiosity is not so much the subject of our gaze as the sensibility we bring to engaging with it.

Alasdair Foster

© Dayanita Singh ‘Dear Mr. Walter – Mona and Myself (for Parkett no. 95)’ 2014


What drew you to photography as a practice and as a medium?

The idea that I could be free. Free of all social obligations for a young woman in India in the eighties. Freedom to go where I liked, with whomever I liked, to not get married, to not have children, go my own way… Though, as a child, I hated photography because every departure was delayed by my mother’s very slow picture-making.

What kind of photographs did you make in the beginning and how did this change?

I actually made very beautiful tender images in the eighties, because I did not think about making ‘good photographs’. I did not even think of myself as a photographer and neither did the people I photographed see me as one. The images were like caresses of a situation I wanted to remember. They were vulnerable and gentle.

But then I went to the International Center of Photography [in New York City] and saw what was considered to be great photography. My work was nowhere in that realm, so I tried to become a photographer. That was a mistake. I also tried to work as a photojournalist and that had its own editorial aesthetic. But I could not survive the inherent dilemmas of photojournalism and started to make photographs of friends and their families that were more collaborative. Then the work changed again because I was making images for their archives. But it was somewhat closer to what eventually became my way with making images.

[Left] © Dayanita Singh ‘Nixi became Dayanita Singh, the photographer, here on the lap of her favourite Mona Ahmed, New Delhi’ 2013
[Right] © Dayanita Singh ‘Mona Ahmed’ from the cover of the book ‘Myself, Mona Ahmed’ 2001

A significant body of work in this transitionary period was made with Mona Ahmed. What drew to her as a subject and how did this influence the future direction of your practice?

I met Mona in 1989 on a routine assignment for The Times [UK]. A story on eunuchs was a must in those days. I had heard of Mona, how she was the best dancer among the eunuchs, but she did not allow herself to be photographed… Nonetheless, in 2001 Scalo published ‘Myself Mona Ahmed’. She helped me select the images and then she captioned them. The text for the book took the form of a series of letters which Mona wrote to the publisher, Walter Keller.

Mona transformed me, not just my photography. She was the most unique person I had met in my life. She showed me how to think, to live, outside the box… She passed away in 2017.

[Left] © Dayanita Singh ‘Grandfather’s Chair, Kolkata’ 2000 from the series ‘Chairs’
[Right] © Dayanita Singh ‘Ladies Dance Room, Morvi’ 2002 from the series ‘Chairs’

Tell me about the creation of your concertina book, ‘Chairs’.

I wanted to make portraits of chairs, exactly as I had made portraits of people, by listening to them. Soon the chairs started to have personalities, genders, moods, and I wanted all of this to be in the photograph somehow. The concertina form emerged as a way of writing letters to friends that I had travelled with. When [the curator] Pieranna Cavalchini saw these on my desk, she asked if we could make the ‘Chairs’ book in the same format. I said yes we could, provided that it was not sold but distributed worldwide by a network of friends. Sol LeWitt got three! That’s when I realised that I could have my own parallel systems of distribution.

You have said: “photography can bring you to the unseeable”. What did you mean by this?

I know that photographs can take you to places and emotions where there are no words. But, if I could put it in words, why would I photograph it? That is one of the reasons to photograph, when there are no words. And it is often in the space between two images that you can say the unsayable, even the unseeable. I am drawn to that third image that gets created.

[Left] Dayanita Singh at the launch of her ‘House of Love’ book-cart at Nature Morte, New Delhi. 2011 (image © Dayanita Singh)
[Right] © Dayanita Singh ‘File Room’, a book-object showing the book inside its bespoke wooden structure. 55th Venice Biennale 2013

You have developed what you call the ‘book-object’. What is a book-object and how does it differ from a photo-book, catalogue, or portfolio of prints?

A book object is an architecture for the book, something that enhances its sculptural quality. Often it has the concept of dissemination built into it, sometimes it even offers the curating to the one who acquires it. To me it is a conceptual work, that takes the book as a starting point. The object created for that work can be made of wood, as in my work. This wooden structure allows the book to be displayed on the wall as a print or on a table like a small sculpture. It occupies a place between publishing and the gallery that takes the best from both worlds, but also offers more. A third space.

© Dayanita Singh ‘Museum Bhavan’ at the Hayward Gallery, London 2013

With ‘Museum Bhavan’ you created large structures that contain your photographs in a number of different ways. How did this idea arise?

I wanted to free the photograph from the wall. I wondered if people could receive the images with their bodies instead of just with their eyes. I wanted the reader to have to walk around the work, bend down, look up, walk away, come closer, like they do with a with a sculpture. After all, I don’t just photograph with my eyes. At the same time, I wanted to be able to change the architecture of the room, to change the mood of the room, so the structures had to have the possibility of waxing and waning. But, most importantly, I wanted to be able to rearrange the set of images in minutes, so the museums were living beings and not fossilised behind glass, in a strict sequence. The challenge was actually in editing a work in such a way that the images could work in any combination.

How do you achieve this?

That’s the challenge. I try to find a musical note for the edit, if that makes sense. In Indian classical music, there are set notes, and, within that, you improvise. For me, that kind of constraint frees me. But the guiding principle is to never be too linear. People jump onto a clear narrative; that’s the burden of photography, its facticity. I wanted to confuse that with these museums. It must never be too certain. It must never be fixed. It should be constantly in transition, and each iteration should present new directions of meaning.

I think the structures developed from ‘Sent a Letter’. That was when I realised the book itself can be an exhibition. You can just buy the box of prints and create an exhibition for your family and friends, anywhere. And, while it is a privilege to have my work held in the collection of major museums, it is perhaps an even greater privilege to have my works alive in your home.

[Left] © Dayanita Singh ‘Museum of Chance’ book-objects at the India Art Fair, New Delhi 2008
[Right] © Dayanita Singh ‘Museum of Chance’ book-objects in an exhibition at the Hawa Mahal palace during the Jaipur Literature Festival 2016

You have even created a museum one can wear…

Once I had made the ‘Museum Bhavan’ box with the nine accordion-fold museums in it, I made a jacket for myself. The jacket had nine pockets that allowed me to wear the museums and walk around with them. Ever ready to pull out a museum and exhibit it to a passer-by.

Tell me about the ‘Museum of Chance’.

This was a book that had eighty-eight different covers, forty-four at the front and forty-four at the back. What this meant was that you were never sure which cover you would get unless you bought a copy yourself. So, I forced you to go to a bookshop or an event where I was exhibiting the books. Then, if you bought two or three or more different covers, you had an exhibition that you could display on your wall. And, of course, you could turn the books around to vary the exhibition. Finally, I made a suitcase museum that had the forty-four books in wooden structures. The idea was that the exhibition could be re-arranged every day, either by moving the placement of the books or just by turning them around. Unfortunately, we were never able to make these rearrangements in a museum installation. I wanted the viewer to engage, not to be passive but to have some agency of their own. That’s why I make book objects where the viewer can curate my work. Touch it, rearrange it, curate it.

Where do you show these portable museums?

My pocket museums – ‘Sent a Letter’ and ‘Museum Bhavan’ – have been shown in a much wider range of venues. The large wooden museums have only been shown in art museums and galleries, although they are designed so that you can close them and people cannot enter the storage area, so you could have them on the street. But I love them being shown in the museum, because then my critique of the fixedness of the museum is made very clear. Glenn Lowry [the director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City], speaking on a Channel 4 [UK television] program, even said he wished MoMA could be like my Museum of Chance. Which to me meant that MoMA had bought into my critique of the fixedness of the museums.

[Left] Patrons buy the ‘File Room’ book from the book-cart before entering the pavilion to see the same ‘File Room’ displayed as a book-object on the wall, 2013 (© Dayanita Singh)
[Right] Display of ‘BV Box’, published by Spontaneous Books, 2019 (© Dayanita Singh)

In 2016 you launched your own publishing imprint. How did this come about and why?

Spontaneous Books was a way for me to make books as and when I felt like, as and when the material asked to be gathered. But, most importantly, I did not have to wait for my publisher! I have made five boxes so far, each in an edition of three hundred and sixty. You can only buy them from the exhibition venue, and only one may be purchased per person. They have thirty image cards in them, so when you have two different boxes you have nine hundred possible ways of arranging the images and when you have three different boxes you have twenty-seven thousand possibilities. The main thing is that my work is alive in your home.

What are you working on now?

I think I have done too much this year. I must pause. I must reflect and find new ways with which to shift my work and this medium of photography.

What have you learned in the process of making your work?

I have learned to listen. Or I could say that, in order to photograph, one has to learn to listen, to people and situations, of course, but also to spaces, to objects. And, finally, one has to listen to what the image wants to be.

Cover of ‘Let’s See’, a photo-novel revisiting the artist’s early years, published by Steidl 2022 (© Dayanita Singh)

Biographical Notes

Dayanita Singh was born in New Delhi in 1961. She studied visual communication at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad (1980–1986), and documentary photography at the International Center of Photography in New York City (1987–1988). She has exhibited widely with over sixty solo and more than one hundred group exhibitions in the Americas, Asia, Europe, and Oceania. Her work is held in forty prestigious public collections including the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney; The Art Institute of Chicago; the Centre Pompidou, Paris; Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek; the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi; and the Tate Gallery, London.

Her work has featured in twenty solo books and book-objects including ‘Myself Mona Ahmed’ (Scalo 2001); ‘Chairs’ (Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and Steidl 2005); ‘Go Away Closer’ (Steidl 2006); ‘Sent a Letter’ (Steidl 2008); ‘Museum of Chance’ (Steidl 2015); and ‘Museum Bhavan’ (Steidl 2017). She has won a number of accolades including a Prince Claus Award (Amsterdam 2008); Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (France 2014); Aperture PhotoBook of the Year (Paris 2017); an Infinity Award from the International Center of Photography (New York 2018), and The Hasselblad Award in 2022. In 2008, the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard, awarded Dayanita Singh the Robert Gardner Fellowship in Photography. She lives and works in New Delhi.

This interview is a Talking Pictures original.