Among the catacombic installation of framed images part of photographer Dayanita Singh’s exhibition, Conversation Chambers: Museum Bhavan, sit a few lines of text by the artist about a dream she once had during a trip to London. It goes like this: she is drifting on a boat on the Thames and is headed – quite bizarrely – towards spiritual luminary Anandmayi Ma’s ashram in Varanasi. Instead, she suddenly finds herself at Devigarh Fort in Udaipur. When she tries to exit, she cannot seem to find a door. But then she locates a window that opens out into a moss garden in Kyoto, Japan.
This might bewilder the neophyte viewer who probably stumbled on the exhibition while walking through the malls of Delhi’s Saket, which houses the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, where the exhibition is on display. But for all its confusing, Christopher Nolan-esque overtones, this dream might prove a critical entry point for the works of Dayanita Singh. The viewer may wonder whether she is a photographer, an artist, or a bookmaker. He/she may also wonder why it says at the entrance that this particular exhibit has taken Singh into the genre of architecture.
Descriptors of creative people can be slippery and chameleon-like, changing with every artistic brushstroke. And when the person in question is Singh, whose permanent quest has been to push the boundaries of her medium, taming down her descriptor into a neat word to fit a business card can be a particularly tall order. “That dream is my medium, my genre,” she told Scroll.in at the exhibition.
While being a photographer is her primary artistic identity, Singh is also known as one of India’s finest contemporary artists. Her engagement with the written word reveals a third artistic facet: her blogs and text pieces in her photo books are as arresting (and an extension of) as her work as a visual artist.
Using the book almost as a canvas, Singh began to create photo books, in which photographs were used to weave visual narratives. Sent a Letter (2008) re-imagined the book as a work. “I had asked if the book, as an archive of material, could be an exhibition in itself,” Singh said. “Museum Bhavan is about me asking – just like a book or photography, can the museum itself be not just a venue, but a form in itself? It is always important for me to push the limits of what I’m doing.”
Still images, stories, and spaces
At first glance, Museum Bhavan is a few screens made comprising framed photographs. As you get closer, you notice that the screens are arranged in clusters. Museum Bhavan is the mother museum, and it contains nine smaller “museums” or collections.
The most striking feature of this work is Singh’s multiple forms of engagement and the various roles she essays. Singh is the photographer of most of the images which have formed the core of decades of her work. The only exceptions are the ones featuring the artist herself – photos taken by her mother. She is also the artist-bookmaker who took several of these images and turned them into photo books in the last few decades.
As the curator, Singh also has the power to edit the collections (the photo frames can be removed, replaced) as she deems fit, and she is the registrar who sets the office hours of the museum, and the director who decides everything. At some point, there will also be a museum shop.
Each of these nine museums can produce two or three collections, or collapse into another one. “File Museum and Museum of Little Ladies are siblings, while Museum of Photography and Museum of Furniture are cousins,” said Singh.
The first set of assemblages, for instance, goes in a particular order: from the personal to the distant. Museum of Little Ladies features images of many other little ladies: some at home, outside, sitting hunched up against file cabinets, striking a classical dance pose in school uniform.
The files are echoed in File Room. Museum of Men takes the first steps towards the outside world, while the Museum of Furniture and Photography serves as a gentle wedge from the personal to the impersonal, with the last touches of the human body and home.
By the time one reaches Museum of Vitrines, Machines, and Printing Press, the warmth is stripped away, taking us into a completely mechanised and inanimate space. The narrative takes the viewer on a particular journey simply by dint of their spatial and architectural arrangement.
One of the exhibits is a long wooden bench with stools on either side. This could be the museum shop: a place for conversation or a performance. “At this stage anything is possible,” said Singh.
There is an artistic angle behind this proprietary tone. “Museums generally make the rules of what stays in the collection, what is exhibited and so on," she said. "This is my museum. And by creating an artwork which allows me to make my rules, I can explore all its possibilities."
In pushing the limits of her art, Singh is also raising important questions about contemporary art, its workings, and its spaces. But she doesn’t necessarily want it to be read as a critique. “I want to make the most of being a contemporary, living artist. I have a fertile mind pushing in various directions,” she said. “This is how I function: I read poems, which lead me to Schubert, which leads me to Aveek Sen’s review of Vikram Seth’s poetry, which in turn leads me to Vikram Seth."
The door is open, and it leads to anywhere.
Conversation Chambers: Museum Bhavan is one of the collateral events of the India Art Fair 2016. The exhibition will be on display at Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in Saket, New Delhi till June.