Self proclaimed bookmaker working with photography, Dayanita Singh is the first Indian photographer to have a solo exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in London

Dayanita Singh is an Indian photographer who was born in 1961 in New Delhi. She pursued her higher education in Visual Communication at the Indian Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. Thereafter, she traveled to the United States to study Documentary Photography at International Centre of Photography, New York.

Dayanita has to her credit ten books as also several solo and group exhibitions. Last year, the self proclaimed “bookmaker working with photography” added to her kitty the grand honour of being the first Indian photographer to have a solo exhibition at the prestigious Hayward Gallery in London.

dayanita singh Bookmaker Working with Photography : Dayanita Singh

In a blog post titled “Dayanita Singh dazzles at London’s Hayward gallery” published by The Economic Times, it is mentioned “Music is important to her (Dayanita’s) work. The great tradition of improvisation in Indian classical music inspires her to keep reinventing and form fresh narratives using the material she has.

This intimacy which Dayanita shares with music has been central to her creative work and started becoming evident right from the very beginning when she published her first book containing images of Tabla maestro Zakir Hussain and his accompanists whom Dayanita had photographed for over 6 six years, an exercise which began as an academic assignment during her graduation days in the eighties.

By her own admission, Dayanita is “an artist who happens to live in India” rather than an “Indian artist”. Dayanita’s reluctance to subscribe to any form of territorial restrictiveness seems to suggest her Universalist approach to art and photography. In her book Chairs (2005), Dayanita has published photographs of chairs which she clicked at Boston’s Gardner Museum.

chairs dayanita singh Bookmaker Working with Photography : Dayanita Singh

This particular work of Dayanita is interesting to the viewer because it manifests her innate openness and liberal attitude. She has captured photographs of chairs which are unoccupied and tables and racks with bundles of books kept above them.

These images tend to send an invitation to the viewer to come and assume a position of comfort on those empty chairs and to also enhance their wisdom by perusing through the books which have been left totally unattended. Hence, through the photographer’s perspective, we are ushered into a world which is not hegemonized by a select few but rather consists of an accomodative environment where knowledge and space is available for those who dare to step forward.

Despite her Universalist stance as visible from the words “I’m not an ambassador for India,” Dayanita’s Indian association cannot be discounted. Former diplomat turned Member of Parliament Dr Shashi Tharoor has often argued in his speeches that the beauty of India rests in the fact that whatever you say about India, the opposite of it is also true.

Dayanita’s Go Away Closer (2007) is an attempt to document the paradox called India which has been aptly described in the following words on her website, “Go Away Closer is a novel without words. It concerns series of opposites in Singh’s India: presence and absence, reality and dreams, tradition and progress.”

go away closer dayanita singh Bookmaker Working with Photography : Dayanita Singh

In Go Away Closer, is a photograph famously referred to as “A Sulking Schoolgirl” which The Guardian had described as “Dayanita Singh’s best photograph.” The subject of the image is a girl whom Dayanita knew personally and whom she photographed in her school uniform at her place in Kolkata. Dayanita mentions that by the time this photograph was clicked, the girl had become irritated of her and had gone to her bedroom.

The moment the photographer captured that moment, the words Go Away Closer struck her mind as they symbolized what “happens between people: I can’t live with you, I can’t live without you.”

But what is it in the image which connects the photograph with the thoughts expressed by the photographer? In the photograph, the girl is sulking and she doesn’t want to be photographed and hence, she has hid her face in the bedding. This posture appears to be an attempt to run away from the world and live in a reclusive shelf but simultaneously, the girl is conscious of the fact that she hasn’t taken off her footwear.

Dayanita Singh Go Away closer a sulking school girl Bookmaker Working with Photography : Dayanita Singh

Hence, what she does is that, she doesn’t keep her shoes on the bed. This posture of the subject is a reaffirmation of her earthly presence. In her irritation, she might not be in the mood to mingle with anyone or to get photographed but she is mindful of the world she lives in and the accompanying etiquette which dictate certain behavioral patterns that the subject imitates. Therefore, the subject tacitly, recognizes as also derecognizes the presence of the photographer.

While writing for The Telegraph, Mark Hudson claimed that “Dayanita Singh is obsessed with paper.” The comment was obviously in context to the lady’s latest publication titled “File Room” which is a sort of a visual documentation of the textual bureaucratic archives of the government in electronic age. While speaking to Hudson, Dayanita stated, “I want people to relate to my images in a more physical way” and in File Room, Dayanita has tried to achieve exactly the same.

While images of endless bundles of paper make the viewers ponder over how their own fate is caught up among one of those files as a result of red tape, the other part of the work gives them a ray of hope by acquainting them with the initiatives underway to preserve and maintain archives, thereby, aptly justifying File Room as an “archive of archives.”

– Saif Ahmad Khan

Image Source: Dayanita,  Chairs, Go away closer, A Sulking School Girl


Kumar, T. (2013) ‘Dayanita Singh dazzles at London’s Hayward Gallery’, The Economic Times, 14 October. Available at: [25 August 2014].

Malone, T. (2013) ‘Dayanita Singh’s best photograph – a sulking schoolgirl’, The Guardian, 10 October, Available at: [25 August 2014].

Hudson, M. (2013) ‘Dayanita Singh interview’, The Telegraph, 5 October, Available at: [25 August 2014].

(This article was originally written as part of an academic exercise at AJK Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia.)

Custom Search

Do you have any contrary opinion to this post - Do you wish to get heard - You can now directly publish your opinion - or link to another article with a different view at our blogs. We will likely republish your opinion or blog piece at IndiaOpines with full credits