Stone sculptures of makar and tula rashis from south India and a 9th century carving of Vishnu from the eastern part of the country greet the eye as soon as one reaches the second floor landing of the National Museum in Delhi. Right in the middle of these is a wooden structure bearing photographs of government files and little girls in fancy dresses, being watched intently, it seems, by the ancient figurines and statues. It feels a little out of place, and yet hooks your gaze with the uniqueness of its structure and the evocative images adorning it. This is the NSDS Book Museum by photographer Dayanita Singh - a single structure composed of 55 images from her publications, The File Room and Privacy, and 15 photographs from her mother's book, Nony Singh: The Archivist.
Presented by the Embassy of France and National Museum, the Book Museum is an experiment of sorts with 'photographic architecture'. Singh always knew that book was her chosen form, and that she took photographs to make books. It took her 25 years to find a form that would allow her to display the book in a way that it became an object of art.
The photographs from the File Room are an elegy to paper in the age of digitisation. They are sort of an archive of archives. Endless rows of files in Indian courts, municipal offices and state archives create monuments to knowledge and attempt to map the chaos of life. "Just to see a room full of secrets where one fact and file could make such a difference to someone's life," said Singh about her fascination with file rooms in an interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist, that was included in the book.
With no accompanying captions, you are free to interpret the imagery without the obtrusive burden of someone else's perspective. There is a photograph of the file keeper's cycle parked in front of shelves stacked with scrolls and maps. There is a mysterious air to the image, as if you have stumbled upon the lair of the keeper of secrets. Another striking image is of files wrapped in cloth, like bodies wrapped in a shroud. "These bundles, Hans Ulrich, are to me like bodies, they are like families. For example, the one you just saw was the Maharana of Udaipur's archive, going back to the fourteenth century where everything the Maharana did, everyday, was recorded...so really 40 years of one Maharaja's life is one bundle," said Singh in the interview.
In the adjacent panel, one can see images from her mother's book, allowing you to make an effortless transition from archives of one kind to the other - both allowing you an intimate glimpse of histories, be it of a nation or of a family. There are images of Nony Singh's daughters as little adults - sometimes as a Kashmiri girl, a Maharashtrian woman, a nun and a British empress. It seems like the people are incidental to the images, it is the moment that takes centre stage.
Also included among the exhibits are some of Singh's accordion fold books, part of her ongoing project Kitchen Museum that she had made as letters for fellow travellers/conservationists since 2000. Seven of these were published in 2007 by Steidl as the book Sent a Letter. Eight teak vitrines feature silver gelatin prints folded out, which present Singh's diary-like style of photographing the city that she was travelling in. "Whenever I went anywhere with friends I would make a little book for them, referring to things we had seen together that only they would understand," said Singh in an interview to The Telegraph. You can see zig zag fold-outs about chairs in rooms, framed photographs - be it of actors like Nutan or elders who had passed away - placed in a room or an interpretation of history of a family through furniture, letters, books, clothes and paintings at Allahabad's Anand Bhawan.
The Book Museum is on view till April 10, from 10 am to 5 pm