'I don't want to be a print on the wall'

Updated: Jan 11, 2020, 11:12 IST | Dalreen Ramos | Mumbai

Photographer Dayanita Singh on her new book exhibition Zakir Hussain Maquette, travelling with the virtuoso in the '80s and why she considers herself an offset artist.

Zakir Hussain Maquette
Zakir Hussain Maquette

An art space is often synonymous with frames you know you cannot touch. The aversion to tactility is understandable. The frame stays — not just as a guard keeping watch but also as a symbol that what is done cannot be undone. One of the first things I see Dayanita Singh do at ARTISANS' in Kala Ghoda, is walk up to a wall with books fixed against it, and flip the pages of one of them. The works are all hers. But how often do you see an artist do that? That's the beauty of Zakir Hussain Maquette, Singh's new book exhibition in the city.

Published by Steidl Verlag, the book is based on her handmade maquette (a preliminary model) crafted in 1986 for a student project at NID, Ahmedabad, where gallerist Radhi Parekh was also a batchmate. It emanated from her travels with the musician and his peers over six winters in the '80s, photographing him in performance and at home with family. The Steidl facsimile edition comprises the original maquette featuring her pencilled notes and images made in a darkroom, as well as a reader and poster. And just when you think there are three parts to it, seated by a centre table, Singh shows us the fourth. Each copy is encased in a red cover, which can very well serve as a frame. This isn't just another book to be sold for reading, for copies of the maquette with different facing pages make up the wall. Another wall has pages of her diary on it. "I didn't know where I had placed it but ended up finding it three years ago at my home in Delhi. The process of putting this together began last summer," Singh says.

Hussain with father Ustad Alla Rakha. He writes, "To start work with the Guru’s permission and blessings is to ensure success"
Hussain with father Ustad Alla Rakha. He writes, "To start work with the Guru’s permission and blessings is to ensure success"

More than the maquette, the diary fascinated Singh. It not only contained her notes on how to go about making the book, but also seemed to predict her future actions. "It was a strange feeling. The opposite of a déjà vu, no?," she says, standing up to walk towards the display. Then, she shows us a line that reads, 'base it on envelope size mailer!' To our right, the wall has copies of the posters — each can be folded and fit into an envelope. "I feel like I've come full circle because I never made prints of the Zakir work. It was meant to be a book and after all these years I can have an exhibition, which is a book. Maybe nobody cares about it but I do. That's why I call myself an offset artist."
The genre of photo books, contrary to monographs, didn't exist in the 1980s. In fact, when she embarked on this mission with Hussain, when the norm in the field was photojournalism or advertising, she faced some disapproval. "My colleagues told me that I couldn't become a photographer by photographing one person. And I did, and how!" she says, flashing a wide smile.

Can you ever capture one image that encapsulates all the experience a maestro possesses? "You can't do that in a still photo. I am in no means saying that this is Zakir's life. This is the Zakir that I experienced and that he chose to share with me, at that time," she reveals. The artist maintains that Hussain was very supportive of her exploration. He didn't like to pose and neither did Singh suggest any. "The pictures were sort of incidental. I didn't have to think of whether he would like it because I was making it in collaboration with him."

The page of Singh's diary which foretells the work she would go on to do
The page of Singh's diary which foretells the work she would go on to do

Singh's encounters with the artiste plays like a movie. Looking back, she thinks she could make it happen because from the first day, she understood that photography is akin to raw material — "You can have the best raw vegetables but it doesn't always make a great dish." At end of this encounter, she takes a moment to sign our copy. She ponders before penning down the word 'riyaaz'. It's one that her guru, Hussain, equates with breathing. And so, she makes clear her purpose in the world. "I don't want to be a print on the wall. I don't want to be a book in your bookshelf. I want to be something in between."

On February 9, 11 am to 7 pm
At ARTISANS', 52 – 56, Dr VB Gandhi Marg, Kala Ghoda.
Call 9820145397
Cost Entry (Free); Zakir Hussain Maquette (Rs 3,500)

Dayanita Singh
Dayanita Singh

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