Monday , 22 January 2018
The Mistress of the Pocket Museum
One of India’s most prolific photography artists, Dayanita Singh has on display her Museum Bhavan, at The Project Cafe in Assagao. NT BUZZ finds out more about these museums in a box

The Mistress of the Pocket Museum


Janice Savina Rodrigues|NT BUZZ

Perhaps her most prominent work the Museum Bhavan was conceptualised by Dayanita Singh to counter the existing system of museums. A collection of museums by themselves – folding expanding wooden crates, these several display photographs arranged according to various themes range from the Museum of Photography, Museum of Vitrines, Museum of Furniture, Museum of Machines, Museum of Men, Little Ladies Museum, Godrej Museum, Printing Press Museum, and Museum of Chance among others. These museums hold images from when she began photography in 1981.

She set out building these museums as a stark contradiction to the whole concept of museums and art galleries that are generally fixed in one space for near eternity. Devising the crates to ensure that the images can be moved, so that no curator could tell her that she cannot add or remove a photograph. “This is a real problem when you work with galleries and museums, everything gets very fixed. I want it to be organic; I wanted to have a structure and a way to change the images. So I had my Museum Bhavan, with frames in my house and people would take an appointment to view shows and it was a serious museum,” says the artist.

Slowly, other museums took keen interest in her museums and thus began the acquisition process. “I never imagined though that other museums would want to acquire my museums. About a year ago, I found that almost all my museums had been acquired by other museums, which was a bit odd, because my museums were really a critique of the existing museums,” says Dayanita.

The Museum of Chance was the last to get acquired. She calls it the ‘mother of all museums’ because she could create many museums from that monumental museum, which she was very reluctant to part with. “I said to my gallerist, the Museum Of Chance we must never sell, unless something like MOMA (Museum of Modern Art, in New York) comes along. And I guess I’m a black witch, because that’s exactly what happened,” she laughs.

What does an artist do when their work of art is bought or acquired by a museum? The artist generally paints more, despite the pain of parting with something that consumed so much of their time and energies, almost akin to bringing up a child. In the case of Dayanita Singh, she felt the same pain and loss.

And so when the frames left her house, with the thought: “How are my friends going to see my museums?” she was struck with the idea of a miniature version of the museums and thus the pocket Museum Bhavan took shape. She approached her German friend and book publisher Gerhard Steidl to create a miniature Museum Bhavan, “So this is the pocket museum version of all those museums that got acquired by other museums.”

Each of these museums or books, nine in number, comes in the accordion fold format that opens up to display the photographs. “I used this format 10 years ago with ‘Sent A Letter’. I wanted a book that would also be the exhibition, but everyone told me don’t mix the two. Then an art gallery in London collaborated with Steidl and thus Sent A Letter came about,” she says.

She replicated the format with the Museum Bhavan and thus these museums hold 270 photographs, 30 images spread across nine books. “You can display them in your home or wherever you travel and however you want. It is for you to decide what you want to show, thus I am inviting you to be the curator of the collection,” she says.

Some feel that since the book is mass produced it loses its value as a piece of art. To counter this idea, she wanted each book to be unique. “I wanted to really challenge that notion, but even Steidl said that I was asking for too much, and he wasn’t going to make 3000 different books,” she says. She was then kept the books the same but housed in unique boxes. “So I got 3000 unique boxes made. I initially thought I’ll go to the Khadi centres across India and buy different fabric to cover the boxes, but that would take ten years to buy and make,” she smiles.

Thus she concluded that each box would be designed in different colours and patterns and thus be personalised. “Each of these boxes is unique and I want the acquiring process to be a personalised one as well where you can choose your box,” she says.

Speaking about the advantage of having a book museum over a full-fledged museum is that they are convenient for shipping and insurance purposes. “There needs to be a space in the future between the publishing house and the art gallery, the mass-produced and the unique. And this format is the best suited. It is priced at `6000; it is a lot of money but is not the absolute end of the world if one book gets damaged,” she says.

About the relevance of a book to photography, she says: “I love the ‘book’, as that is really my work. The exhibitions generally come after the book. And for all photographers, I would say that book is the best way to understand what is going on with your work. Whether it gets published or not the exercise of making a book is absolutely crucial if you want to be a good photographer.”

Dayanita’s tryst with her work never seems to end, after compiling her own museums and the subsequent books, she takes it further and wants to sell the books as a travelling salesman, “I enjoy the selling process and the collecting of the money very much, thus I made this travel box that I can also use as a display for the books,” she says. Sometimes the possibility of travelling with and displaying books in a suitcase is bleak and that coaxed Dayanita to innovate further and thus get a jacket custom-made. “I put on the jacket with these pockets to hold the books and a line at the back saying ‘my life is a museum’. Thus, I wear the museums and show them to people. I plan to do this in Dhaka,” she concludes.

(The Museum Bhavan by Dayanita Singh – The pocket museum will be on display and sale till March 15, 2018, at The Project Café, Assagao)

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