Singh is perhaps best known for her portraits of India’s urban middle and upper class families. These images of people working, celebrating or resting at home, show Indian life without embellishment. She explores another side of India – the place that she belongs to and understands. Her recent work has concentrated on another form of portraiture, of places rather than people. These photographs are taken in a diverse range of interior spaces: from the ballroom of an 18th Century palace to the humbler surroundings of a private home or from museums, libraries and seminaries to the specially constructed wedding ‘stages’ of the traditional marriage ceremonies. An abiding image of India is that of a teeming crowd of humanity. However, all but a few of Singh’s images are devoid of the human figure and they are typified by composure rather than restlessness. The work’s subtle formality is the product of intense and intimate observation, communicating a unique sense of time and place.
How does this actually work in practice? Consider this blurb about her seminal book Privacy:
What can a photographer in India capture on film other than disasters or the exotic? After many years spent documenting the poverty in her homeland, Dayanita Singh was preoccupied by this question. Her answer here is a return to the world from which she came, to India’s extended, well-to-do families and their fine homes. Both on commission and on her own, she photographed friends and friends of friends, creating a portrait of another society, complete with its traditional and post-colonial symbols of prosperity. The self-confident elite of India is nearly unrivalled in the West. Privacy provides great insight into a closed world characterized by tight family solidarity. Singh shows the people as they would like to see themselves, in the middle of splendidly decorated rooms and surrounded by possessions that represent their self-image. At a certain point in her work, Singh realized that even without their residents, the rooms were occupied by the invisible generations that had lived there before. The book closes with photographs of interiors, empty but still filled with spirits.
Her work has been displayed at several galleries both inside and outside India, including Firth Street Gallery, Ikon Gallery, and Gallery Chemould. I should have seen her art in 2005 when it was at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, but I didn’t. You can read a review from Tiffinbox.