“With the Steidl box, you can host Museum Bhavan in your bedroom, send it on its own tour to friends in Madrid, or share it among your students,” said Dayanita Singh to Aveek Sen during a conversation in December 2015.
A transcript of this conversation between the photographer and the writer appears in a small booklet, titled Conversation Chambers. The yellow booklet comes nestled between nine books with a sky-blue cover, housed in a handloom cloth-bound box that is neither heavy nor uncomfortably big as most picture books tend to be.
The little handloom box is Singh’s latest addition to her mobile museums. The small books can be carried around in a bag or in one’s back pocket and be flipped through while commuting to work or while waiting for a friend. Titled Museum Bhavan, the exhibit is divided into nine neat pocket books which fold out like a black-and-white accordion to reveal Singh’s work from over the years.
For the last decade, the 56-year-old has been consumed by the need to construct museums that are not handicapped by the restrictions imposed when transporting one’s work. Refusing to give in to this inconvenience, Singh has produced museums that can be easily checked in on flights and, in some cases, even taken on as carry-on baggage. The pocket museum belongs to this family of travelling museums.
Created with Steidl, a German publishing house, the nine books are a miniature version of her exhibition of the same name that is contained within folding, expanding wooden structures and the placement of the images can be moved around and re-ordered at will to create completely new museums.
In pocket museums, images have been grouped together to create various visual narratives – Little Ladies Museum, Godrej Museum and Museum of Men – and each one has appeared in her previous exhibits or picture books under different categories. The smaller museums all emerge from the one over-arching, mother of all, Museum Bhavan and in Singh’s mind are related to each other like family members. “File Museum and Little Ladies are sibling museums, and Furniture and Photography are cousins… Museums also give birth to other museums.”
The most important thing though is that the museums must emerge organically.
The accompanying Conversation Chambers is indispensable for those engaging with Singh’s museum for the first time. It explains, through transcripts of Singh’s conversations with Sen and Gerhard Steidl of Steidl Books, the thought process behind Museum Bhavan, how Singh’s mind works and why is it imperative for the photographer to be able to carry her work around.
In a blog on her website, Singh explains her process of curation: “Since we had already published File Room, we took images of the Godrej cupboards from the File Museum and made a Godrej Museum. Similarly, having made Museum of Chance, we made a completely new edit and this became Ongoing Museum…I still wanted to see if it was possible to make a mass produced book or museum and yet have each one be unique. We achieved this impossible task by making in India 3,000 unique boxes for the Museum Bhavan book.”
In the black and white folds of the Little Ladies Museum, you will meet girls clad in frilly white frocks, school uniforms and in saris made for smaller frames. Some of these “little ladies” are accompanied by the older ladies who shape their lives, while others seem like they are on the cusp of adulthood themselves. Playing, resting, posing or hugging their mothers, all these girls appear in caption less portraits allowing the viewer to imagine their stories based on the house they stand in, or the clothes they wear, the expression on their faces.
Singh’s work is not about labels which, according to her, is seen as important “because of the photojournalism element in the history of photography”. It makes information necessary. “So, when I say that my work is not about what is in the image, it becomes a bit of a challenge to the viewer or the reader,” she told Sen.
In another conversation with Sen a week later, Singh explained how each booklet in itself is a museum with its own curator, registrar and trustees and it is only when it travels together that it becomes Museum Bhavan. And while Singh has made peace with the fact that the siblings won’t always travel together, she has ensured that the images within each museum stay connected and are viewed together. “You see, I have always seen my work in contact sheet of 12 or 36 images – contact sheets that I can read horizontally, vertically, diagonally, with the reading of the image changing, depending on its context,” she said. “A contact sheet could start in Kyoto and end in Varanasi. It was an art-world thing to present an image as a single image, and I could go along with it a while I made silver print. But now that I make digital prints from scanning my negatives, I am somehow more free with my images and with the associations I allow them to gather.”
The fluidity of what a picture could be is also demonstrated in how some of the individual museum books have been given two titles. The Museum of Photography, for example, is also the Museum of the Departed. Containing images of framed photographs, film posters and portraits adorned with garlands, this body of work by Singh is about preservation of memories and of those associated with the dearly departed. The Godrej Museum with its images of steel cupboards in every frame is also the File Museum, indicating the piles of documents contained within these dependable, strong cabinets.
“The emergence of the new museum from within what already exists is not just chance, but also has to do with the way I edit the larger museums,” said Singh to Sen. “...always leaving room in them, enough breadth of scope... for other threads and associations and themes to emerge, depending on who I am with when I’m looking at them.”