Dayanita Singh + Talvin Singh | A Musical and Visual Collaboration

Published on the Saffronart Blog on October 14 2013.

Talvin Singh, Stephanie Rosenthal and Daynita Singh in conversation. Image Credit: Ambika Rajgopal

London:  Words took second seat to visuals and music on 9th October 2013, at the Purcell Room at the Southbank Center, London. I was uncertain of what to expect when I found out Dayanita Singh would collaborate with Talvin Singh, in an interaction mediated by Chief Curator, Stephanie Rosenthal.

Dayanita Singh is adamant in her claim that she is first a bookmaker, and then a photographer. Her website also testifies this fact by describing her as a ‘bookmaker working with photography’. She used photography as a tool through which she can make books. Disappointed by the static nature of display of single framed photographs hung on the wall; Dayanita started creating portable ‘museums’. “Putting a picture on a gallery wall felt too passive. I wanted people to relate to my images in a more physical way”, she said.

Dayanita Singh photographed in her ‘Museum of Chance’ at the Hayward Gallery. Image Credit:

These museums were essentially wooden structures that could display 30 or 40 images with up to 100 in reserve, meticulously being pulled out from her archives. She compared these structures to giant hardback books with flaps that open out to create walls. This display enabled her to change what was being displayed during a show.

The idea probably evolved from a ritualistic travel custom she performed. Whenever she travelled anywhere with her friends, she would perpetuate the memories in the form of a little visual book, documenting shared moments. Each book, a visual odyssey of memories relived, would be presented to the friend, while Dayanita kept the only other copy. These homemade manuscripts folded up in an accordion like manner, so that it could be folded out and privately exhibited in the quiet comfort of her friends’ homes- a domestic inclusion of the art of exhibiting.

Sent a letter, 2008, Dayanita Singh. Image Credit:

This was the start of her working partnership with the German international publisher of photo books- Steidl. In Gerhard Steidl, the founder of the company, Dayanita not only found a publisher, but also a friend and an intellectual ally. Her book with Steidl- Sent a Letter published in 2008 was a compilation of seven of these visual stories, including one of her mother, Nony Singh’s photographs of little Dayanita growing up.

One of the things that struck me about Dayanita was the effervescent spirit she embodied. Small, but mischievous, she had the kind of personality that could interact with the same level of charm, intellect, humility and joviality with Stephanie Rosenthal and also the characters of some of her earlier works. The diversity of the characters she studied only gave me an inkling to the versatility of her own personality.

Dayanita documented Mona Ahmed, a street dwelling eunuch who was excommunicated from her already socially excommunicated community in Myself Mona AhmedWhen Mona’s adopted daughter, Ayesha was taken away from her, Mona became extremely distraught and started living in a cemetery. In the cemetery Mona adopted animals and tried to recreate a familial bond with them. The resultant visual narrative was in no means just a documentation of the life of a societal outsider; rather it exposed the commonality of human emotions. It was not a relationship between an artist and a subject; rather one between two people from very different walks of life, who have found that common thread of connection.

Myself Mona Ahmed, 2001, Dayanita Singh. Image Credit:

In Privacy, Dayanita’s painted a picture of post colonial opulence and regal elegance by capturing a part of India, she was more familiar with; the India with the high ceiling bungalows and the intricately carved mahogany furniture. Dayanita stepped into the worlds of these elite Indians and portrayed their social values visually- affluent and influential, yet held together by familial solidarity.

For Dayanita, rather than being about exclusion, photography is a way of including people who would normally be outside the boundaries of art. Dayanita rejects the white cube exclusionary tactic of dissemination of art and knowledge. Instead she opts for a unique way of disseminating her work. She freely hands out her work to beggars and homeless people, and exhibits it in equally unusual places. Her books are also priced very nominally. “People told me, ‘This is an art gallery, you can’t exhibit something worth £40’”, she laughed. In her usual style of engagement, discursive, yet speckled with anecdotal references, Dayanita broke off to remember her time in Kolkata. While passing through Park Street in Kolkata, Dayanita spotted a jewelry store- Satramdas Dhalamal with empty vitrines. She asked the owner if she could display her books on the shop window and he agreed. “Five years on, they’re still there. They’ve been seen by many times the number of people who have seen my other exhibitions and publications. I realised I could create my own spaces. I didn’t have to rely on established structures”, she exclaimed.

Privacy, 2004, Dayanita Singh. Image Credit:

Dayanita studied visual communication at National Institute of Design, a prestigious design school in India. As part of her curriculum assignment, they were asked to capture the moods of a person. The young Dayanita, feisty and ambitious decided to photograph a concert of the renowned table player Zakir Hussain. In the concert, she was interrogated by one of the organizers about not having a permit to shoot pictures. The organizer pushed her aside, and the young photographer fell on her back in front of everyone. She picked herself and ran out the door to where Hussain, would come out through. Upon seeing him, she burst into tears and proclaimed, “someday I’ll be an important photographer and then I will photograph you”. Hussain touched by the girl’s spirit and determination invited her to photograph his practice session.

Zakir Hussain, 1986, Dayanita Singh. Image Credit:

Thus started a six year long collaboration, where Dayanita documented Hussain on tour, over six winters in the eighties. The result was her first photo book Zakir Hussain, published in 1986, which discretely documented the many moods, feelings and frustrations of the maestro with an exquisitely observant delicacy. Although the book did not fare well in the market, this bond Dayanita has formed with Hussain would last her a long way. “For Zakir ji, work and life were one. From him, I learnt single minded focus and rigour.” Alongside her association with Hussain, Dayanita has been no stranger to music. She insists that the aural and the visual always coincide and interrelate- “the music I listen to while working always has an effect on the resultant visual work I produce.”

This is perhaps a good time to bring in Talvin Singh, who for a large part of this write-up has remained unmentioned. Talvin, a mercury prize-winning musician, is widely known for his innovative fusion between Indian classical music with drum and bass. At the center of this encounter though, Talvin is a tabla player- bearded and resolute. Perhaps Dayanita and Talvin’s paths crossed because her mentor turned out to be a musician, rather than a photographer.

Talvin Singh in performance. Image Credit: Ambika Rajgopal

Talvin first encountered Dayanita through her book on Hussain, which he found in a little cornershop in London. Talvin, a budding tabla player had never seen a book on an Indian classical musician in London; especially since Indian classical music was a purely oral tradition. For Talvin, this book was more than homage to a great maestro; it had a personal reflection of his own ambition. The book became a visual account of the human aspects of the musician- something Talvin both aspired for and could relate to.

The next part of the evening reinforced the interconnectedness of music and visuals. Dayanita’s photographs were projected on screen, while Talvin responded to them aurally- his was an aural response to visual stimuli, while hers had been a visual response to aural stimuli. Talvin Singh’s performance reflected the veracity of human emotions which Dayanita’s heartfelt visual style also pays homage to.

This talk coincides with Dayanita’s major retrospective exhibition Go Away Closer at the Haywards Gallery, on view till the 15th December 2013.

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