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Photography

Shot Story

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NIGHT SHIFT: Singh explores cityscapes in her nocturnal colour work

Earlier this year at the Pompidou Center in Paris, I attended Paris-Delhi-Bombay-Paris, an expansive show of Indian art. In one part of the museum a room painted jet-black was hazily lit, as if by streetlights. Here, Dayanita Singh showed photos of Delhi, of spectral potency, a cinematic palimpsest, images from a personal diary of what may or may not have been a love affair with place if not person. It was difficult to not come away impressed, by the singular way the work had been hung as well as by the artist, who seemed a few inches ahead of the curve. Standing in that same room of streaked yellow light I recalled Singh's trajectory: over 20 years her photographs have gone from representation to fighting representation. Singh started out with a handsome documentary record (she trailed a highly regarded musician). Then came a memoir of the performer Mona, a robust, invasive, tear-drenched story exploring the responsibilities of friendship, the parameters of gender identity, and our obligations to found families.

Singh also watched women closely: in the upper echelons of Calcutta, for instance, or in the solitude of ashrams. There was a search for absence, an elusive notion so everywhere it is nowhere, to borrow from Updike. To record this absence, photographically, Singh spent time in rooms, on beds, with chairs;those images seethe with private histories unspoken but not unheard. Now, perhaps in admiration or affection of cherished writers, she has put together House of Love, an ode to the nocturnal cosmology of desire and loss, to the opaque pleasures of reading fiction, to the sass of having everything to say but nothing at all.

Photography has won a hard battle. First, to be regarded as an art unto itself, a status it has long achieved. Second, to go past the rhetoric of representation: how is a photograph more than a record of circumstance or individual? Now, the photo book is in peril: considered an artist's vanity, or worse, a coffee table accessory (I can almost overhear an interior designer assigning a young intern, 'Get me six of those thick glossy books published by P____________ '). In House of Love she delivers a suitable rejoinder. She rescues photography from the detritus of fact and assigns it narrative and curiosity. Simply put, the photographs in House of Love act like visual clues or parts of a puzzle the reader must put together to craft a story, or even a memory. How one arranges the parts of this puzzle is by concert: artist and audience come together to create a story, each in their own imagination and with their own imagination.

Take the short story Portrait of a Marriage, which shows two older men together (dude, are they shacking up?) or a photographer's self-portrait with her camera (she's definitely married to her craft). Or Mistaken, a jazz riff on a poem by Vikram Seth, which implodes on the poem's central idea of who we love is more about how we love, and that love is a brief, accidental invasion of our solitude marked by its ability to heighten colour and scar for life. In the photo anecdote The Ambulance or Return to Sender the author plays a private game with her friends - many of whom feature in the book via their work, either sculptural or literary, heightening the possibilities of this book (this gives House of Love echoes of a roman ? clêf, if you read it in a known, knowing light, although you shouldn't ).

The writer Aveek Sen contributes essays - or counterpoints and illuminations - to Singh's photographs. His work is direct and lyric, enlightening and fineboned;there is little to do but to read him, and read him again. Sometimes it feels as if Sen's words offer some form of clarification to Singh's images, not that it needs it at all, but gifts of friendship are difficult to return and forever beautiful. On other occasions he whips in his own memory and biographic insight (sharing anecdotes from his own childhood, for example) that build on the visual clues the photographer has collected over the years in alien cities. Together, they are carriage and horse, bow and violin, each offering the other balance, gaiety, intelligence.

Toni Morrison offers two insights into how she makes her fiction;both might interest Dayanita Singh. When asked about her favourite writers, the African American Nobel Laureate speaks highly of Angela Carter or James Baldwin - but clarifies that painters inspire her more. Frequently returning to an admired painting, Morrison looks and looks until she finally sees what she loves, and perhaps can take from canvas to page in a way that is both homage to the artist and a secular, original way of thinking about a shared theme or idea. Singh does something similar in House of Love: she reads and reads until she can borrow from the storytelling of writers she esteems, like Italio Calvino. Her images in addition to visual strength also have a literary quality, and while this is not as direct as narrative art - as practised by Sophie Calle, for instance - it has indistinctness and enigma. This breed of photography reminds me of the other thing Toni Morrison has said about the literature she pursues: 'In order to be as free as I possibly can, in my own imagination, I can't take positions that are closed. Everything I've ever done, in the writing world, has been to expand articulation, rather than to close it, to open doors, sometimes, not even closing the book-leaving the endings open for reinterpretation, revisitation, a little ambiguity. '

Shanghvi is a Matheran-based novelist and photographer (House of Love is on at Nature Morte, Gurgaon, till January 29)

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