28 September 2007

Absence Presence

Go Away Closer
By Dayanita Singh
Pages 32
Price: Rs 2500

Go Away Closer, the latest book by Dayanita Singh, one of India’s most celebrated photographers, is a slim volume, the size of a small notebook, with unnumbered pages of thirty-one palm-sized, square, high-quality, uncaptioned black-and-white photographs. Except for the cover, which carries the author’s, the book’s and the publisher’s names, and the fine-print publishing information on the last page, there is no text in the book. Singh laconically informed this reviewer that the publisher’s catalogue describes Go Away Closer as “a novel with no words.”

One could call the whole build up, including the title, a tease: a foolproof marketing device. Another word the book elicits is ‘mysterious’ -- an attribute that, according to Susan Sontag, the aphoristic oracle of photography, makes a photograph more interesting, or less, if the element is absent. Mystery is certainly one of the most recognisable features of Singh’s photographs. But to call what looks like a pricey catalogue a novel seems at first to be an instance of artistic whim.

Singh’s initial journalistic works were more literal: She documented the life of the child-prostitute Meherunissa, and later, photographed the reluctant eunuch Mona Ahmed, ‘the queen bee of Turkman Gate’, for thirteen years before she came up with Myself Mona Ahmed (2001), with text by Mona herself.

Sometime in the 1990s, Singh decided that she didn’t want to live off Indian disasters and exotica, the two staple demands of western editors. It was then that she developed a more personal portfolio that led to the ironically titled Privacy (2001), a series of formal portraits of urban middle- and upper-middle-class Indians along with their possessions and pets -- a peerless record of urban Indian life as lived behind closed doors.

It was with Privacy that a new thread emerged in Singh’s work; more poetical, less literal. Among the lush pictures of dressed-up women posing self-consciously amidst the accretions of lived lives, there were pictures of more spartan settings. Pictures of vacant rooms and spaces, four-poster beds, antique chairs against plain, damp, discoloured walls, chairs in a foyer with light bleeding through the windows, bookshelves bending under the weight of the books they held.

One could see Singh’s growing fascination for absenting the human form. In a set of two photographs (68 and 69) of Barganza House, and Mrs Barganza (Goa, 2000), the reader or viewer can see the artist groping, and finding transcendence: It is the same setting captured with and without Mrs Barganza.

Singh has decided to cull this hide-and-seek motif from her earlier work, and to articulate it precisely, consciously. Like the opening image of Go Away Closer: A girl lying on her side on a bed that hardly seems to be an item of household furniture, rather a part of a museum display. The young girl, her face hidden under a white pillow, her plain school-dress revealing nubile arms and legs, her crumpled socks slack around her ankle, her school shoes still on her feet. A Lolita in distress? Or a schoolgirl who has flounced on the bed in a museum to amuse her friends as the guard looked the other way?

The ambiguity makes this and other self-conscious, mnemonic images in the book ‘writerly’, making demands on the ‘readers’ to come up with their own meaning. But do they form a novel? Perhaps with a bit of imagination; after all, the novel and the short story are still evolving and description-eluding genres. One thing is certain, though: Go Away Closer is certainly literary in its impulses. The book does offer a narrative that -- whatever it is, wherever it is going, however it is paced and plotted, with characters in no rush to develop, if at all -- is as varied and textured as that found in any modernist novel.

Singh’s unsentimental, unromanticised images seem to bounce visual and metaphorical correspondences and contrasts off each other, forming a narrative ‘of sorts’, the kind modern literature embraces.

A new bride clings to her mother (?) as she departs for her new life; an industrial warehouse full of newly manufactured scooters standing in endless rows; grainy stone-laid streets with intriguing play of shade and light. There is a conscious use of contrast, perspective, ‘voices’, and the ‘writer’ makes her hand visible without making her presence overt. There is a restructuring of reality, not just in the individual images, but in the way the images are arranged and juxtaposed in relation to each other: An image of an empty showcase is placed besides one with human-shaped, cocoon-like, pall-covered forms lying on a dormitory floor, playing out the theme of emptiness and fullness, absence or presence.

These literary qualities stem directly from the abstraction and transcendence Singh gained earlier, but did not consciously assert in her work. She seems to have understood at last where the power of her pictures lie, or at least where she wants it to lie.

Singh believes that the best training for any photographer is reading more and more books. Here’s one.

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