IIt was Ernst Battenberg, a German publisher, who gave Dayanita Singh her first camera. Singh used the Pentax ME Super wisely. In the 1980s she had no other choice: “Am NID [Ahmedabad’s National Institute of Design], I would create my own contact sheets. No one could afford to give them to labs. Also, making prints was an unimaginable luxury.” Instead of the usual 36, she would try to tease 38 frames out of a roll of film. Singh was neither greedy nor thrifty. Times were frugal.
Homeless during the pandemic, Singh pored over her contact sheets, “the heart of her work.” Looking at the photographs from 1981 to 1993 laid out in front of her, she knew instinctively that she was holding a photonovel. “But I didn’t want the book to have a nice picture on one page and another nice picture next to it,” she says, “I wanted the photos to do what text does.”
A photo from Dayanita Singh’s Let’s See
For Milan Kundera, “the spirit of the novel is the spirit of continuity – a thing made to last, to connect the past with the future”. Of the many novelistic things Singh has Just take a look does, it satisfies this Kundera requirement first. For example, when we see Singh’s subjects flipping photo albums, we think of the photographer herself hunched over her contact sheets – but we also see our reading self mirrored. This book doesn’t consist of dramatic acts, but of these small gestures. And almost all are generous.
Singh’s images are often characterized by an abundance of affection. At her NID hostel where she stayed or at the weddings and wakes she attended, people would lean into each other for comfort. They physically demonstrated the intimacy they felt. “If I just put my hand on your hand today you’d freeze, but putting your arm on someone’s shoulder while you’re talking to them was the most normal thing we could do — that’s how we were all in the ’80s and ’90s,” says Singh.
Like any “great novel,” Let’s See covers the range of human experience with all its ups and downs, but with a perceptible ease
reading Just take a look, it’s hard not to yearn for a time when conversation was effortless and smokers weren’t pariahs, but Singh clarifies that she never intended the book to be an ode to simpler times. “I’m not a sentimental person, so it was very important that this couldn’t be sentimental nostalgia.” Like any “great novel,” Let’s See covers the spectrum of human life — from childhood to death, from fun to the point of sadness – but with noticeable ease.
Given the limitations of reality in their work, photographers often find it difficult to have a flashy sense of humor. However, Singh will make you chuckle with her cheeky editing. Although the guns we see in her portrait of KPS Gill are all real and menacing, she is quickly followed by the image of a man showing off his gun-shaped lighter. A few pages later we see Sanjay Dutt on set. Much like the guns in the foreground, his cop’s uniform is also hilariously fake.
Photos from Dayanita Singh’s Let’s See
“I think all photographs are fiction,” says Singh. “And I wanted people to read the book like a thriller. When something got too predictable, I had to pull the rug out from under you. I learned that from Hindu classical musicians. You have to stop a concert just before people say ‘Bahut ho gaya (that’s enough)’.”
For her first project as a graphic design student, Singh spent six winters photographing Zakir Hussain and other classic Hindustani Ustads. In Let’s See we meet these maestros behind the scenes. In the Green Room we see them inhabiting a separate space, between preparation and performance, between private and public. Refreshingly, Singh focuses on the mahaul (ambiance), never on the mehfil (gathering). “When I’ve traveled with musicians, I’ve probably been a little weird. Nobody thought I was a photographer. Photographers were big men with big cameras. I didn’t use a zoom or even a wide angle. For me, taking photos became a way of listening, of continuing the conversations.”
There are a few pictures in there Just take a look one cannot forget – a disheveled Kishori Amonkar being comforted by an elderly woman, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan watching Ustad Vilayat Khan sing – but it’s only when Singh himself appears in the mirror that one is frightened enough to ask : “Are we reading a novel? or a memory?’ Singh says, “It’s partly a memory. I didn’t intend to. But since it was a conversation, I couldn’t stay out of it. It wasn’t me and her. It was us. It was our world.”
After winning this year’s Hasselblad Award, Singh recently watched photographer Palini Kumar receive the inaugural Dayanita Singh-PARI Documentary Photography Award. Singh is not swayed by recognition, Singh says, “Often I don’t even call myself a photographer because I don’t like the limitations that photographers have put on photography. I can’t let the boys’ club push me to be a ‘photographer’.”