Dayanita Singh’s photobooks are architectural—both physical objects and sequences of images, like her Pothi Box (2018), an unbound book that includes 30 photographs as single cards inside a custom wooden box with an opening at the front that reveals one visible card. The black-and-white photographs show documents and archival materials, as in File Room (2013) that documents the shelves of papers in file storage archive rooms, a subject she has returned to throughout her work. Pothi Box and File Room are more concrete examples of Singh’s interest in the photograph as object, archive, and personal memento. But this method traces back to her very first book about the musician Zakir Hussain.
Zakir Hussain Maquette
Zakir Hussain: A Photo Essay by Dayanita Singh, published by Himalayan Books in 1986, tells the story of Indian musician and composer Zakir Hussain. It intimately chronicles his family, including his father, also a famous musician—part documentary photography book, part family album. As Singh describes in her original notes for the project, “Photo document on Zakir Hussain as a person and therein the musician. Text would comprise of quotes from Z.H. and people connected with him. I would be involved in taking photos, collecting text, designing the book page by page in terms of layout, typography, printing + at end having produced a final book!!” From the outset her interest was in a complete project, not just images or narrative, but the entirety of the process.
Singh produced the book while she was studying graphic design at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad. Many of the images display the early seeds of Singh’s attention to the stories personal objects and ephemera tell. The opening sequence of images includes closely cropped photographs of Hussain but also a photograph of a small pile of pocket items: a wristwatch, box of Band-Aids, and a bottle of medicine, with his tabla in the background. Opposite this image is a Plato quote, “Music and rhythm find their way into the secret places of the soul.” The book itself has a rhythm, flowing between action shots of Hussain performing on stage and still portraits of him as a father, husband, and son. Quotes from his father, Alla Rakha (“His mother wanted him to be a doctor, but I knew from the start, that he would be like me—a tabla player.”) are followed by pictures of Hussain with his own kids playing, creating a narrative of family lineage and relationships.
The final book displays many of Singh’s unusual use of space, arranging the photographs and narrative text (often quotes from Singh’s own interviews with Hussain and his family) in unexpected ways that eschew the expected grid structure. “When grid is too strong - you forget the picture + simply see the pattern,” she writes in her notes. Within the book, the cover image of Hussain rapturously playing is reproduced nearly full page, but opposite the image, down in the bottom right corner, is a small, quiet, rectangular photograph of the performer lying with his son. To the left of the image, also filling only the bottom quarter of the page, is Hussain’s reflection on working to provide for his family. The spread creates a striking contrast between the oversized image of the performer and the smaller one of the father.
The new publication Zakir Hussain Maquette (2019) reproduces in facsimile Singh’s original maquette for the book, showcasing her cut-and-paste working method with handwritten text and her class notes for the project published as an accompanying reader (that also includes an essay by curator Shanay Jhaveri). Together, the maquette and reader reveal the centrality of craft and sequence to Singh’s practice. The maquette offers insight into the bookmaker’s specific and meticulous choices. Published by Steidl, it underscores tactility—the sense that the book object Singh built is not just a sequence of images within the architectural structure of the book, but itself a product of image and text puzzle pieces she has carefully shuffled together.
As she writes in her notes, “Need a lot of breathing space. Each page should not be full. Emptiness should speak + give relief.” We see her working with contrast, building this momentum consciously: “The space between photos does not have to be uniform” and on another page a list:
- Contrast of value + tone
Contrast of size/contrast of mood
Contrast of photo + text
Captions must never explain the photo
These guidelines create an unexpected reading experience. The selected texts illuminate the images without being redundant, painting a complex and layered picture of a man, true to Singh’s notes for the project to show “Hussain as a person and therein the musician.” The maquette facsimile offers insight into process, and in the case of Singh’s first book, reveals it to be just as sculptural and meticulously built as her later books.