In an age of Google Maps, hardly anyone gets lost. Yet on a bitter January morning, I find myself asking for directions in a Japanese supermarket in London’s Soho en route to a show by Dayanita Singh.
The experience could have been the fruit of Singh’s imagination: no one is better than the Delhi-based photographer at hinting at labyrinths beyond the image in her lens.
Her exhibition, when I do find it, encapsulates those metaphysical gifts. Entitled File Museum, it gathers photographs of the archives of India’s public offices prior to digitalisation. Taken over decades, Singh has chronicled a neglected kingdom: shelves sinking under box files; a cupboard colonised by volume-spilling sacks. Room after room walled in by racks of documents: abandoned, dusty, unseen by all but their elderly custodians.
There are no captions but none are needed. The pictures conjure a tribe of authors who roam the territory of the invisible and the infinite: Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges, WG Sebald.
When I meet Singh in Delhi, it is clear that the rapport between word and image is fundamental to her vision. On arriving at her studio in a villa in one of Delhi’s residential quarters, I am barely over the threshold before she is gesturing at a pile of volumes on a coffee-table in a room lined with groaning shelves. “Look, these are my favourite books,” she says. And there are Calvino and Sebald alongside Michael Ondaatje, José Saramago, Junichiro Tanizaki and Alexander Kluge.
And we are off, on a marathon conversation that scythes straight to the big issues: books, politics, friendship, love. Along the way we will consume coffee, biscuits, sparkling water and – downstairs in her (book-free) apartment – salad and baked fish, but such material matters barely register. Eclipsed, too, is Singh’s diminutive but demanding beauty, her onyx-black eyes and glossy bob with its Arctic-white streaks; the crystalline voice that helps to make her a consummate storyteller.
Among her favourite authors, she says, is Ondaatje. “For structure, for editing. It’s about knowing what to cut, what to withhold, what to leave out. Ondaatje is the absolute master,” she says.
These days Singh’s own gift for distilling her images down to their essence is winning worldwide praise. In recent years, there has been a flurry of exhibitions, including ones at the biennales of Venice (2011) and Gwangju (2008), Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and the Pompidou Centre in Paris.
This year, she will return to Venice where, alongside Ai Weiwei, Romuald Karmakar and Santu Mofokeng, she will exhibit in the German pavilion. In October, London’s Hayward Gallery will host her most important show to date.
Yet Singh never intended to be a photographer. Born in Delhi in 1961, she grew up on her father’s experimental farm. Although her parents “weren’t hippies”, her “freethinking and progressive” mother – who “took photographs obsessively” – encouraged a liberal atmosphere around Singh and her three sisters. “My mother said, ‘Don’t let any man make you feel less of a woman because you don’t have children.’”
She enrolled in design school with thoughts of becoming a typographer before, literally, falling into photography. Attending a concert by the tabla player Zakir Hussain in the hope of shooting him for a project, she was pushed over by an aggressive official.
Spying Hussain later, she recalls: “I shouted, ‘Mr Hussain, some day, I’ll be an important photographer and then we’ll see!’” Captivated by her brio, Hussain invited her to photograph him privately the next day. For the next six winters she documented the man she now refers to as her “true guru”. By 1986, she had her first book, Zakir Hussain, but more importantly she had learnt Hussain’s golden rule. “He taught me how important it is to focus. How all you have in life is yourself and what you do.”
A stint in New York studying photojournalism saw her pursue that field initially. One of its surprising results was her 2001 book Myself Mona Ahmed, a unclassifiable mix of photobook, biography, autobiography and fiction – she describes it as a “visual novel” – based on the strange life of an Indian eunuch. But the international press’s predilection for “certain kinds of images of India: the children of prostitutes ... Maharajahs” was never going to satisfy her.
“Photography was always about the other and that made me uncomfortable,” she says, explaining her decision to start making portraits of “friends and friends of friends”, a rapport that necessitated “some kind of equality”.
The pictures that resulted, gathered in her 2004 book Privacy, capture the privileged classes at home in moments of intimate, off-guard intensity. Yet the interiors are as captivating as their occupants. With their antiques and old ceiling fans, they are elegies to invisible generations who have walked on these polished floors.
That transcendental sadness is a leitmotif in Singh’s oeuvre. At one point, touching on her distaste for being stereotyped as an Indian woman artist, she makes clear that her themes transcend borders: “I don’t think loss has a nationality.”
Nowhere does she approach the theme more luminously than in her book Go Away Closer (2007), a sequence of spaces that soundlessly express the transience of the hopes and dreams that once resided there. The book’s genesis was a photograph Singh took of a friend’s teenage daughter, face down on her bed, her coltish legs angled across the coverlet in silent, vulnerable fury.
“As soon I made this photograph, I recognised this emotion,” remembers Singh of her model (who had appeared as a little girl in the Privacy portfolio). “It’s love; it’s ‘can’t live with you, can’t live without you’. I came back to Delhi and pulled out the images that make up the rest of the book.”
Just 16cm x 20cm in size, with plain taupe covers and a grey spine, the formal minimalism of Go Away Closer is in tune with the mood within. The peerless production stems from Singh’s collaboration with Gerhard Steidl, the renowned German publisher and printer.
Matching Singh’s own perfectionism – “you could go down naked when he’s on press and he wouldn’t notice” says Singh – Steidl’s skill has fostered Singh’s sense of herself not as a photographer but as a “bookmaker”.
“Photography is not enough for me; it’s just my language but unless I can make poetry out of it, or a novel, what good is all [my] vocabulary? Photography is 10 per cent of the work. The rest is all the reading, all the films you are watching ... ”
Another cornerstone is friendship. Although she guards her solitude, she stresses that “conversations are enormously important”. Her close friends include writers Vikram Seth and Aveek Sen – who has written the text for her latest book House of Love. “If one says ‘I am going to Libya next week’, I will go because I get so much from that conversation.”
Those rapports feed into artworks such as Chairs (2005), the book that was distributed in sets of 10 to friends with instructions to give them to recipients of their choice.
Such a notion begs comparison with more overtly conceptual artists such as Alighiero Boetti. Also of the moment is Singh’s fascination with archives, which inspired her recent custom of displaying photographs in specially made structures. Impeccably crafted in teak, they are simultaneously cabinets and filing systems that permit the owner to change the sequences; to tell their own story using Singh’s lexicon.
Unlike many artists, Singh’s contemporary sensibility never tips her into mannerism. She shoots on traditional film, usually in black and white, although of late has ventured into colour, notably with her bestselling Dream Villa series. That unselfconscious fusion of past and present is Singh’s reward for prizing integrity over fame.
“Walter Keller [the international curator and co-founder of Scalo publishing] gave me very good advice,” she recalls. “He said, ‘Just think about your work. Don’t think about books and exhibitions. They take up a lot of energy and it will all get dissipated.’ I didn’t have a show until 1999. I just kept photographing and somehow I had faith.”