The best way to experience Dayanita Singh’s book of photography, File Room, is to first inhabit its mis-en-scene and live in it for a considerable time. It is both a visual and spatial experience, one that extends far beyond the book itself. It is as much about perception as it is about tactility, as much about photographic frames as it is about paper, texture and the hidden narratives contained within their disintegrating spines.
File Room is part of a much larger exhibition project called the ‘Book Museum’. The book contains seventy black-and-white photographs (all the same squarish size), interspersed with three meditative text-pieces—‘Forest of Papers’, ‘Sea of Files’, and ‘Paper Dust’, all by Aveek Sen—and a three-way interview with the artist herself. The book could have quite easily assumed a square format too, but adding the white space on top of each frame lends length and verticality to the content’s subject matter.
The black-and-white’s matte-grained quality adds a raw, musty edge to the photographs—one can almost imagine them in predictable sepia or faded monochrome, untouched by human hands for years, and diligently worm-loved during their papyrus lives.
As an installation, the series of photographs, with their tall linen-and-wood folding panels as backdrop, appear very different in dynamics from how they are presented in File Room. What are we filing away, archiving, storing, and for whom and for what? The answers to such questions lie in the way the photographs are shot, cropped and presented. What is presented in the frame is of equal importance to what is left out, left out for our imaginative mind and eyes to fill in and construct a larger architecture around them.
This 88-page, large-format book comes with ten different linen covers. “It’s what you make of it,” says Dayanita Singh in an interview. “If you feel bored by the existing cover image, you can carefully cut out one of your own choosing from inside the book, and paste it on the front. You can even put your own title.” So this single book can become seventy different books depending on what image and text you ascribe to it, and one that would vary from viewer to reader to viewer.
Some of my favourites images are those that convey a sense of claustrophobia, oppression and listlessness. An abandoned bicycle among rows of rolled paper; a empty chair facing away from us as if sitting in absent judgement of a court case fought long ago; sacksful of paper heaped in a corner of a prison-like cell looking up for illumination from the small grill-window; clerks sitting idly among paper heaps, counting time for closure; and yet others wrapped in linen and inked-marked, their nomenclature even meaningless to those who inhabit or surround them. All this is a sharp comment on the state of Indian bureaucracy and litigious affairs as they ordinarily stand for the common man—miles and miles of duplicated paperwork, trails that lead to frustration and helplessness.
In another image, a man stares gloweringly from behind a paper column; another one rolls a map crouching on the floor as if his act would change cartography or terrain—only the earthen water surai, with a stainless-steel glass lid guarding its spout-neck—provide hope for his parching thirst; and yet another person in another frame looks startled from behind the papier-mache heap of somnolence.
These evocative photographs reek of hidden or incomplete narratives, stories that will never find their end, their end heaped up in files of disarray and by the burden of time. They tell stories of the forlorn lot who are gainfully employed for hours of vacuous stare.
The other striking feature about the photographs is the sense of absence and desolation, of how unpopulated these vast rooms are, apart from the few who are on the government rolls merely to keep vigil. Vigil for what? Keepers of history? Neither. This is mere stasis, a Godot-like desire to wait-wait-and-wait for nothing really to happen.
That the one-dimensional nature of a flat, printed photograph can evoke such immense volume and depth-of-field speaks of the remarkable gift of the photographer and her highly nuanced art. These images are much more than three-dimensional—they are a hallmark of Dayanita Singh’s highly skilled technique, her world-view, her deep passion for documenting time, and the art of photography itself as a timeless polyphony.