For the past two decades, photographer Dayanita Singh has been the subject of exhibitions and retrospectives at museums around the world. Her poetic images of Indian family life and architecture, abandoned spaces and private moments, are the kind of classically beautiful works coveted by curators and collectors.
But in recent years, Singh became frustrated with the conventional gallery format. “Photography is such a magical form but it’s gotten a little stunted,” she says. “The most magical experience of photography is when it’s in your hands, because it’s here — you’re touching it, you can hear it, you can smell it.”
In her latest exhibition, Museum Bhavan, Singh set out to recreate the tactile experience of leafing through an old family album. Instead of a brick-and-mortar space, her galleries are housed in a small box you can purchase at a bookstore. Each box contains nine slim accordion books that expand into a 7.5-foot-long gallery of black and white photographs. The images are drawn from across Singh’s career, and feature characters and themes from her previous collections in new storylines. Singh calls them portable “pocket museums.”
“I’m inviting you — you — to be the curator of my work,” she says. “And certainly when you have an exhibition of my work in your house, it’s a great privilege for me. It’s a privilege to be in a museum, but it’s also a privilege to be in a domestic space.”
Mario Kramer is a curator at the Museum of Modern Art in Frankfurt, Germany. He’s been collecting Singh’s work for years, and he acknowledges that with her new book she’s defying the authority of institutions like his own. He says, “It’s a whole exhibition in a pocket format … and this intimacy in your two hands with a book is something totally different than standing in front of a wall.”
Singh was born in New Delhi in 1961. From a very early age, she rebelled against what was expected of her as a young woman from a “good” Delhi family and pursued a career in the arts. She studied with the classical musician Zakir Hussain and found a community among writers and musicians. With the encouragement of acclaimed documentary photographer Mary Ellen Mark, she enrolled in New York City’s International Center for Photography.
Although Singh began her career as a journalist, she eventually abandoned that approach for a more evocative view of Indian life. She says, “Too often, and partly because of photojournalism, the photograph is too much about the point that it’s trying to make. So the photograph, if it leaves you sort of not quite sure about what else is going on, or if it hints at that, you know it doesn’t give you a finished experience, then obviously it’s going to linger with you. And that really is the magic of photography, when it can go where there are no words.”
The writer Teju Cole describes Singh’s work as an invitation to see a culture through the eyes of an assured insider. In 2016, he published an essay in The New York Times Magazine criticizing the limitations of the exotic pictures of India featured in magazines like National Geographic. Cole says Singh’s choice to work mostly in black and white, and to focus on poetic portraits and private spaces, defies the expectations of the predictable Indian photograph.
“I adore the way Dayanita Singh’s work is able to capture the quiet moment,” he says. “There’s nothing exotic about it, and it embraces all sides of Indian life. And because of her instincts for what picture should come after which picture, all of it feels like it belongs.”
In addition to defying the exotic frame, Singh has constantly challenged the limitations of the modern photography exhibition. Her previous works were a series of large cabinet-like structures that open and close like Japanese screen doors and contain dozens of thematically connected images. Singh described them as giant hardback books. (Last year, New York’s Museum of Modern Art acquired one of those works.)
Now, with the new pocket museums, Singh says she’s finally found a form that allows her to adapt the gallery experience for every collector. Each small Museum Bhavan includes almost 300 images and can be purchased for less than $100. Last fall, Museum Bhavan won the Paris Photo Book of the Year Prize, and it has recently been awarded the International Center of Photography’s highest honor.
In the digital age when images are created and forgotten so quickly, Singh says she wants to recreate the tactile music of leafing through an old family album. That, too, is a museum, she says.