I first met Dayanita Singh in India in 2011. Her house was an hour’s drive from a place I used to rent in Goa every January and February to write. As we stood in her half-lit studio looking at black and white photographs of what she called “archive work”, we could hear the hum of the small gathering Singh had organised: a dinner party that had spilled out on to the terrace and included the writers Kiran Desai and Amitav Ghosh. Earlier, the conversation had touched upon a crocodile that had been seen roaming around a swamp near the house. Outside, the night was dark and navy blue. Inside, as I studied those photographs in the gloom, some very old and very familiar memories began to surface in my mind. But no, the word “memories” does not suffice. What was coming to life inside me was an emotion stirred by those memories – and it seemed as if those photographs had been taken precisely to capture it.
What has most drawn me to Singh’s work are the photographs collected in her books File Room and Museum of Chance. In these, we find black and white images of India’s vast state archives, storerooms and registry offices. As we leaf through these books, we become filled with an idea of poetic decrepitude and a sense of profundity: once upon a time, people slogged and toiled; they submitted countless requests; they sent petitions and filed lawsuits; they wrote about and classified each other’s activities; and, at the state’s encouragement and behest, they kept an uninterrupted record of it all.
Eventually, all this vigorous activity came to an end, and what was left behind were these documents, these files, these bags, and the metal shelves and cabinets that hold and preserve them all. Singh’s black and white images of those stacks of lead-grey folders, of metal, of old and faded papers – all of which seem to be covered in dust even when they were not – make me aware of what I would call “the texture of memory”.
Whether we preserve old objects, stones and crockery, or commission full-colour paintings to hang up somewhere in the belief they are permanent, whether we painstakingly collect every scrap of paper we have ever written anything on (I am one of those people) or trust naively in the endless capacity of photography and digital storage, the preservation of the past is, in truth, an impossible endeavour. Memory never leaves us much to hold on to.
But perhaps it is not the details within memories that appeal to us, so much as their aura – of being somehow bottled inside objects that populate our present. Inevitably, the aura will elicit in us a kind of melancholy, just as when we look at ancient Greek and Roman ruins and at abandoned monuments. The reason we find these dirty, dusty, colourless files to be so “beautiful” is that, thanks to Singh’s skilful camera, they reveal the accumulated melancholy within us.
When this mood is captured in the same frame as the faces and shadows of some of the clerks who worked in these old storerooms, cellars and archives, we begin to sense that the feeling of melancholy these archives evoke in us is, in fact, closely connected to a certain way of life. As well as that particular emotion that I have been seeking to identify, Singh’s photographs also convey a sense of humility in the face of life, of stepping back, of dignified resistance even when the passage of time makes everything meaningless.
Take the image of the clerk surrounded by files and folders from File Room. The woman – who spends her life among heaps of yellowing documents, bundles of folders tied together with string and shelves heaving with papers – is wearing an optimistic smile that gives the feeling that there is something both logical and necessary in her Kafkaesque exertions.
But alongside this poetic and allegorical sensibility, I also see a realist element in Singh’s photographs. Those, like me, who are mesmerised by her images will find that they can smell the particular scent of those towering piles of ancient, yellowing papers stacked in archive rooms and in and on top of metal filing cabinets. In his essay on old, decaying archives and the photography of Singh, the writer Aveek Sen reminds us that the main source of that singular smell that pervades India’s state archives is the rice paste used in the production of paper.
Invisible creatures known as house dust mites like to gobble this rice paste up, leaving holes in their wake, and eventually filling archive rooms with clouds of dust made of minuscule paper particles. The cooling breeze of a ceiling fan (that quintessential emblem of the government office that we can usually spot somewhere near the top of Singh’s shots of archive rooms) or even the force of a person’s cough (for it is impossible not to cough in an archive) are enough to disintegrate what is left of these old papers, long since turned to dust by the ravages of these mites and time.
Indian archives – places capable of turning even the healthiest person into an asthmatic – also acquire their characteristic scent from the flooding that follows monsoons. Waterlogged folders, when left to their fate, will start spreading a peculiar smell of mushrooms and damp. If the files are taken out one by one (a near-impossible task) and put out to dry in the sun, a smell we might describe as river muck and fish slime will soon materialise.
I am drawn to these details because of the similar scents I would smell as a child. I saw the same cabinets, enormous folders and mountains of files in the Turkish government offices I visited in the 1960s with my mother and brother whenever we had to collect vaccine records or property deeds or register a birth. Even as a child, I could feel that the spell of that vast and monstrous entity we called “the state” exerted a far deeper pull in these places than it did at school, in military ceremonies, or during Republic Day celebrations.
What primarily made the state a state were not its soldiers and police, but these folders, records, documents and papers. Sometimes our lives would fail to align as we were told they should with all the papers mouldering in those ageing buildings, when there was an error or a gap in my vaccine records or, as would happen later, in my file at the conscription office. This would prompt the police or the army to come and punish me. In other words, the true source of the state’s power were not soldiers and policemen, but these official records that had accumulated over hundreds of years.
The stern, imperious tone that most of the clerks in these government offices took with us – as well as the fact that nothing ever went smoothly (there always seemed to be a mistake or something missing) – all heightened our perception that the state was powerful and we were weak. Even though these records, these masses of documents, were destined to turn into dust within 60 or 70 years, they were still stronger than we were. Perhaps that is why Singh’s photographs felt like memories to me.
The aura contained in what Singh calls archive work seeps into her other shots, too. We see this most clearly in Museum Bhavan, a series of little booklets arranged in a box. Like me, Singh likes things that are framed, objects seen through panes of glass. When I leaf through the 26 images of museums, vitrines, display cabinets and framed objects collected in one of the booklets, The Museum of Vitrines, it seems clear there is something museum-like in Singh’s world. That soft light that comes from registries and archive rooms, as well as a particular style and manner of framing, are also coherent with the Little Ladies Museum, a series of portraits Singh took in the homes of Indian families.
It is as if the way to fully absorb India’s infinite crowds, its never-ending traffic jams and commotion, its mighty sunshine and its distinctive history, is to withdraw to places whose atmosphere is the very opposite, to spaces protected by frosted glass, by tulles and curtains, by closed or half-open windows, by night, fog and shadows. In these spaces – as in the old archive rooms that embody the history and the politics of a nation and the texture of its memory – we may not be able to see the actual cacophony of the world outside, its chaos and its quarrels. But what we do find, bathed in strange light, are people and objects that are detached from that world while reminding us of it.
The objects captured in these images seem to exude a kind of silence. But, ultimately, what reminds us of the whole of India, as well as the whole of the past and the halo and aura of archive rooms, is that special light Singh’s camera deftly captures. It is the unmistakable signature of this great photographer.