Like Daughter, Like Mother

What links the works of Nony and Dayanita Singh

A self-portrait of Nony Singh from 1960. Her work often captured expressions of feminine sensuality. Nony Singh / courtesy Dream Villa productions
01 February, 2014

ON THE COVER of Nony Singh: The Archivist is a photograph that appears within the first few pages of Dayanita Singh: Go Away Closer, the book that accompanied Dayanita Singh’s first major retrospective in London’s Hayward Gallery. The photograph shows Dayanita as an infant and the photographer is Nony Singh. Contained between these two reproductions are the stories that Nony and Dayanita Singh imagined and created.

Nony Singh, born Ranjit Kaur in 1936, is Dayanita’s mother. Like her daughter, she takes photographs of the world around her and, so far, some of her strongest work has been in black and white. Both have an aptitude for photographing people and spaces. Guarded and unguarded expressions play an elegant game of hide-and-seek in their images. A patina of nostalgia, enriched by the monochrome palette, gleams from their photographs.

Dayanita is a celebrated photographer who, over the past 25 years, has established herself as a talented photojournalist, a brilliant artist and a gifted bookmaker. In contrast, Nony Singh’s photographs are from family albums. Her photographs don’t always have the precise frames and sharp compositions that Dayanita’s do. They’re carefully annotated with dates and captions, while Dayanita frequently dismisses such conventions. And yet, despite these differences, there’s a vein that runs through the works of both these women, and it’s deeper than the simple fact of bloodline and shared surname.

Dayanita describes the process of photography—the setting of the scene, the framing, the click—as “making” a photograph rather than “taking” one, which is the conventional term. To take a photograph suggests that the photographer captures a scene that exists on the other side of the viewfinder. The term “making” a photograph, on the other hand, carries with it the implication of having created something that exists in the form of an image. The emphasis is upon an act of fabrication or manufacturing. Even a cursory glance at Nony Singh’s photographs makes it obvious that these are photographs that, like Dayanita’s, were made rather than taken. Yes, there is the occasional straightforward point-and-shoot shot (like the one of a light fitting in the Presidential Suite of the Oberoi Palace Hotel in Srinagar, dated 1961), but most of Nony’s photos are carefully crafted moments of fiction.

In a photograph Nony Singh took of her mother in 1947, she imitates the appearance of her colonel husband. Nony Singh / courtesy Dream Villa productions

The cover photograph of Nony Singh: The Archivist is a striking example. It’s another shot of the Presidential Suite mentioned earlier. From a distance, it seems to show a sumptuous, empty hotel room. The light is mellow, softened by the drapes at the window, with smooth, dark shadows. The neat geometry of the precisely arranged furniture is disrupted by the very same furniture, whose curves, detailing and dark wood unsettle the straight lines of the room. At the heart of the image is a baby. The little figure is all curves, from the chubby knees to the full cheeks, the little nose and the miniature hands—a stark contrast to the lines and maturity of the room. She’s on her back, her arms by her head in an unconscious gesture of surrender, and she’s staring up at the ceiling. It’s as though she’s as dazzled by the splendour of the room as Nony is herself. The photo would have had all the signs of luxury had it been taken without the baby in it, but by placing little Dayanita in the frame, Nony subtly but unmistakably made herself present.

This desire to record one’s own presence through photography runs through many of Nony’s shots, most of which are of her family members. She appears occasionally in shadows and shimmering reflections, but mostly she makes herself present by virtue of being absent. And though the book’s title may describe Nony as an archivist, her photographs are not a simple record of the people in her life.

In his telling foreword to Nony Singh: The Archivist, the critic Aveek Sen writes of Nony’s photography:

She set up every detail of the roles, postures and settings in which she photographed her subjects (or herself), who found themselves caught between documentary truth and whimsical fiction in her photographs—creatures of her fantasy, rather than their own.

In 1979, Nony Singh shot Dayanita in a halter top that her authoritarian father had forbidden her from wearing. Nony Singh / courtesy Dream Villa productions

The curator John Szarkowski wrote in The Photographer’s Eye that photography is “work incapable of narrative, turned toward symbol”. However, his belief that the medium, inept as it was at telling a complete story in the conventional sense, contained the possibility of making things feel real, resonates with an idea that lies at the heart of traditional folk arts practised by women in patriarchal societies. The constraints placed upon women in such social systems have allowed them few platforms for expression, and perhaps because of this, folk arts like Rajasthan’s Thapa and Bihar’s Madhubani came to be claimed as women’s activities. These were often honed into professions by men, but within the cloister of women’s spaces they were performed informally and rigorously, allowing women to express themselves using symbolism rather than conventional narrative. With its ability to turn an object into a subject and its flexibility of perspective—photography could both record reality or realistic fiction—the medium offered a creative space similar to that traditionally offered to women by folk arts. From the way Nony Singh created scenes in her photography during the 1950s and 1960s, it seems as though she was transferring to photography the tradition of obscured self-expression that may be glimpsed in folk art.

PHOTOGRAPHY HAD FEMALE PRACTITIONERS from very early on, with women setting up photo studios as far back as the 1840s. Since the early 19th century, affluent women have had access to the medium; portable cameras like the Brownie, which entered the market in 1900, were very distinctly targeted at women. Nony Singh’s photographs continued in that tradition. In the brief but neatly written biography of Nony in Nony Singh: The Archivist, the academician and curator Sabeena Gadihoke writes about Kodak advertisements in the 1960s. She points out that they frequently featured a young woman, a “collector of memories”, who could well have been Nony in real life. But Nony isn’t only collecting fragments of the past—she’s creating a fictional present in her photographs.

Ostensibly, Nony’s existing oeuvre presents a simple and pretty account of sophistication and privilege spanning three generations. For example, the casual reference to royalty in the caption of a 1956 photograph of Nony’s sister Ramjan, leaning against a two-seater airplane, which belongs to “the Maharaj-ji of Beas”. In another photograph, two young boys (Nony’s cousins) pose at the Doon School, an elite educational institution. Nony herself appears in one photograph in a pair of shorts and a fitted, off-the-shoulder blouse; her outfit speaks of her privilege as much as her pose does, making it seem as though she’s on a Mediterranean beach, not a tree-lined riverbank in India. Her mother, Mohinder Kaur, is photographed sitting on a chair with the hills of Srinagar in the background. Taken from a low angle, the humble cane chair in the shot seems almost throne-like, lending regality to the sitter. There are picnics: beautifully dressed women, men in formal suits—all carefree, all smiling.

A photograph from Dayanita Singh’s 2010 series Dream Villa, which explored the effect of darkness on ordinary sights. Courtesy the artist and Frith Street Gallery, London

The clues pointing to the reality lurking under the fiction in Nony’s photographs may be found in the words in the book, many of them Nony’s own. Captioning a photograph made in 1955, Nony writes:

Climbing trees, though great fun, was not meant for girls those days. I asked them to sit on the tree to make an unusual picture.

Suddenly, there’s an air of transgression in what was at first glance an image of childhood merriment.

The studied nonchalance of Nony’s sisters’ in different photos contrasts with the photographs Nony made of her daughters when they were children. Both sets of models are conscious of the camera, but while Nony’s sisters help her fabricate a façade and act their parts, Nony’s daughters look belligerently into the camera. They submit to being dolled up as different characters (ranging from a Maharashtrian woman to Queen Victoria) and giving Nony the time she needs to take the photo with her camera, a Zeiss Ikon—but they’re also not posing. These aren’t poster kids, but real children. There’s compliance but also the honest admission of this being a photo-op, particularly in the photos of little Dayanita, who described herself in her photo book Privacy as “the most photographed child in my family”. In Privacy, which Dayanita has described as a companion to Nony Singh: The Archivist, she photographed in beautiful black and white a class of prosperous, elegant and modern Indians. It’s easy to see Privacy as a sequel to the world captured by Nony in her early photographs. Dayanita’s subjects, like Nony’s, are very aware of and comfortable in the presence of the camera. The curious blend of the candid and the choreographed is common in both women’s photographs.

While the photographs Nony took before she got married in 1960 seem to fit prettily into the “family photo” genre, the photographs of her daughters are unusual for the details in the frames. Instead of stuffed toys, we see tiger skins and the taxidermically preserved cubs of a man-eating tigress shot by Nony’s father-in-law. The little girls are often alone in the photos, as though they’re fantasy creatures in an isolated wonderland. In most of Nony’s photos of her daughters, it’s just her and them; there’s no hint of their father’s presence. Though the intimacy between mother and daughters is poignant, it sows questions in the viewer’s mind about the father who was excluded from these flights of fantasy.

The slippage between reality and fiction that is evident in Nony’s later photos of her daughters is more subtle in the photos she made with her mother, sisters and cousins. For example, the trauma of Partition and leaving the family home in Pakistan in 1947 has no place in the one photograph in the book from that year. It shows Nony’s mother impersonating Nony’s father, wearing his clothes and a fake moustache and holding his policeman’s baton. It’s a playful moment, but one can’t help but wonder what lies under the humour of that scene. Is the playacting the family’s attempt at distracting themselves from the difficulties of post-Partition life?

It’s also worth noting that Nony shows her father, Colonel Gurpuran Singh, in an authoritarian avatar—signified by the baton her mother carries in the dress-up photo and the uniform and stern expression on her father’s face in the actual photo of him. Remembering her father (who gave Nony her first camera), Nony writes:

He was so strict that sometimes even when she [Nony] sat near a cousin brother he would glare at her with his big eyes wide open.

(Intriguingly, Nony refers to herself in the third person in all her own writings in Nony Singh: The Archivist, as though she was a different person in the past. It’s only in the captions that she uses the first person singular when referring to herself.)

Informed by this nugget, Nony’s 1956 photograph of her teenaged cousin sitting on a rock in the middle of a river, wearing only his underwear, can be seen as a very bold snapshot. Four years later, Nony took another photograph in a location remarkably similar to that one. This time, it’s a portrait of herself, chest deep in the river, her shoulders bare. She’s looking away, as though unaware of the camera drinking in her beauty from the bank, projecting the gaze of a stranger who has just chanced upon this scene. From a simple shot of a young man frolicking in a river, the photograph of Nony’s barely-clothed cousin is now layered with secrets and untold stories. We see a clear rejection of the conservatism preached by her father, but the intrigue intensifies when we notice the similarity between the young man’s photo and her self-portrait. In the photograph taken in 1956, is her cousin standing in for Nony herself? Did she long for the ease with which her cousin could strip down and step into a river? When she made him strike a pose, did she want to be the one in the photo, radiating that innocent but decidedly sensual allure? Is it just a coincidence that four years later, at what looks like the exact same spot, she took another photograph? This time, the frame is a little wider, the rock upon which her cousin sat is empty, and Nony is the one in the water, looking like a river nymph and creating the suggestion that she’s wearing nothing.

That longing to let feminine sensuality unfurl appears repeatedly in Nony’s photographs. It’s evident in her photographs of her sister Guddie, whose poses are inspired by Sophia Loren and Scarlett O’Hara. It appears most dramatically in a photograph Nony took of Dayanita wearing a halter top. Nony’s caption tells us that her husband forbade Dayanita from wearing that article of clothing. The diktat resonates with Nony’s own father’s restrictions on his daughters’ access to films and magazines, and his glares at Nony for sitting next to a male cousin. The following photograph shows Dayanita as a young woman about to leave home to study at the National Institute of Design. She radiates confidence as she looks straight at Nony’s camera. There’s a shadow upon a part of her body: it’s of Nony, the photographer. Unlike in the photos in which Nony took care to disappear in order to let the stories emerge, this time Nony takes care to mark her presence.

Among the most intriguing photographs in Nony Singh: The Archivist are those that Nony didn’t take but preserved. They’re in a section titled ‘Husband’s girl friends’ albums’. It’s made up of pages of a photo album that has this note in Nony’s handwriting:

Girl friends, till he married Nony. Hope so! All these photos had been carelessly thrown in a box! Hey some respect for photography at least!


The tone seems light-hearted, but the three exclamation marks suggest nervousness in these lines. According to Dayanita, her father, Kanwar Mahenderpal Singh, was an enthusiastic photographer until he married Nony. The proof lies in the pages of ‘Husband’s girl friends’ albums’. He posed for candid photographs with all his girlfriends. Nony found these lying around in a trunk and was, Gadihoke tells us, horrified—not by the number of girlfriends he’d had (a rather high number, if the photographs are any indication) but because he’d treated the photographs so callously. Her generosity is sweet, but in the context of the covering note’s exclamations, it’s also tempting to read between the lines of a note that Gadihoke quotes in her essay. On the back of a picture of a woman her husband almost married, Nony wrote sympathetically about how the woman was now trapped in an unhappy marriage. The last line read, “When I met her after he married me, I told him she would have been a better wife to him.” What, if anything, her husband had said in return, we’re not told. All we have are photographs of him having a good time with other women, and the knowledge that Nony pasted a photograph of herself dancing with him onto the last page of the album.

These nuances make Nony Singh: The Archivist a fascinating experience, especially because the text accompanying the photographs tells the reader just enough to make Nony seem familiar, but not enough to solve the mysteries in the images. Gadihoke’s essay and Sen’s foreword introduce us to Nony and her life, and Nony has written a paragraph titled “Story of a Camera Family” about herself and her daughters. The book ends with a piece by Sen titled ‘Sea of Files’, in which he adopts Nony’s voice to describe her life after her husband’s death. This is the only time that the first person is used in the book to describe Nony. Nony’s own words tell us little beyond what Sen and Gadihoke share, but what lingers in every alphabet of the “Camera Family” paragraph is the sense that much has deliberately been left unspoken. She ends the paragraph by quoting herself— “Life has more than made up!” And although she gives no explanation of what life needed to make up for, there are hints, like when she writes about how she loved taking photographs but also longed to be an actress, to be in front of the camera. However, she didn’t dare tell her father, fearing his disapproval. There is also a line about her husband’s Leica, which he barely used, where Nony mentions that she didn’t dare try her hand at it, “in case she made a mistake”.

Dayanita Singh’s 2009 series Blue Book was made up of photographs of industrial landscapes in India. Courtesy the artist and Frith Street Gallery, London

PERHAPS FITTINGLY FOR A WOMAN who chose fiction over documentation, Nony’s own story progressed like a novel. It began with the gift of a camera at the age of seven, continued into her becoming a passionate photographer who would shoot incessantly but only as an amateur, and didn’t conclude when her models—her daughters—grew up and left home. One of them decided to become a photographer, despite her father’s frowns and the obstacles she faced in a profession that was overwhelmingly male. Nixi, which is Dayanita’s nickname and is the name that Nony uses for her daughter in her captions, grew up and carried forward her mother’s dreams.

Photography required Dayanita Singh to be as belligerent and tough as she sometimes appeared in her childhood photos. In one of the essays in Go Away Closer, the writer Geoff Dyer recounts how, as an 18-year-old photographer, Dayanita wasn’t allowed to approach the tabla maestro Zakir Hussain at a concert:

…the organisers tried to prevent her and she tripped over. Embarrassed but undeterred she called out ‘Mr Hussain, I am a young student today, but someday I will be an important photographer, and then we will see.’

The confidence Dayanita exhibits in this episode is a far cry from the attitude of Nony, who didn’t dare use her husband’s Leica and made her peace with the constraints that were placed upon her. However, it isn’t too much of a stretch to imagine Dayanita’s determination emerging in response to her mother’s conviction that her daughters must have the freedom that she herself didn’t. The connection between mother and daughter is also an aesthetic one, as Dayanita realised when she discovered Nony’s old photographs and noticed how Nony’s imagery had unwittingly influenced her own. The shades of melancholia, the tenderness, the grain of mystery—there’s much that their photographs have in common, particularly in Dayanita’s older series like What Happened is This…, Ladies of Calcutta, Chairs and Privacy. Later, at around the same time, both women would end up photographing files. Dayanita photographed archives across India over the course of around three years for File Room, while Nony turned her camera upon her home, overrun with documents related to the litigation that her husband had started and which she inherited when he died.

It’s particularly interesting to see how Nony’s ability to obscure reality while retaining the air of an archivist has surfaced in Dayanita’s photography. If Nony’s snapshots attempt to establish a sense of record, Dayanita’s photographs are determined to defy organising principles. Often the same photograph will appear in more than one series. And rarely does Dayanita share the dates or names of the works. At best, she may disclose a location, like in Sent a Letter, in which each volume is named after an Indian city, but even then, she steers clear of providing the viewer with specifics.

There’s an inherently enigmatic quality to Dayanita’s photographs that comes from her gift of noticing the visual poetics of an otherwise unremarkable scene. Whether of machinery or a human figure or a tree, Dayanita’s photographs acquire a curiously timeless aspect that makes it impossible to place them outside the distinctive world seen through her camera. “I often say that a photograph has two dates, like the photograph of ‘Zeiss Ikon 1996’,” says Dayanita in Go Away Closer about the cover image of the book. “That was made in 1996 but it’s really gaining its form now…” In this way, depending on where and how she decides to use them, Dayanita’s photographs tell different stories, often becoming more mysterious (rather than less) with repeated viewings.

Most of the individual photographs reprinted in Dayanita Singh: Go Away Closer, brought out by Hayward Publishing, are familiar because they’ve been exhibited numerous times (as is bound to happen with a publication accompanying a retrospective). Still, the image of the girl on the bed, which first appeared in 2007 under the title 'Go Away Closer' in an exhibition and book titled after it, is no less fascinating, whether you see it hanging in an exhibition or in the pages of a book. Everything about the frame is perfectly in place and no matter how many times you come back to it, it seems as though the girl in the photograph has just flung herself upon the bed. It evokes an immediate reaction in the viewer—one of insatiable curiosity, because it’s so beautiful, so intimate and so intensely enigmatic. Is the girl crying? Is she feeling shy? Does she not want the sun in her face? Is she hiding from the camera, or perhaps the photographer? Although this is one of the few Dayanita photos with a title, the phrase “go away closer” doesn’t help viewers reach any conclusions about what’s happening in the photograph. Yet it encapsulates the sense of stepping across a boundary and, simultaneously, the tenderness at play in the image.

Dayanita has some spectacular photo books to her credit and placed alongside them, Dayanita Singh: Go Away Closer pales in comparison to the vision and emotional richness of titles like Sent a Letter. With its text and photographs, however, it passes muster as an adequate memento of Dayanita’s career so far. The book has a number of examples of the sophistication of Dayanita’s photography over the decades, including a photograph of a young Zakir Hussain—he was so impressed by 18-year-old Dayanita’s confidence that he let her follow him around with her camera—and a wonderful photograph from the File Room series. However, Go Away Closer, like all catalogues, is mostly a myth-making project with a narrow focus on the exhibition that was on display at the Hayward Gallery in London between October to mid-December 2013. The book contains no overviews, only a succinct, press release–type foreword by Ralph Rugoff, director of Hayward Gallery; an elegant paean to Dayanita’s work by Geoff Dyer; and the transcript of a conversation between Dayanita and Hayward’s chief curator, Stephanie Rosenthal. Dyer’s essay works as an introduction, but reading his words, you can’t help but wish there were more full-page photographs to leaf through and study. Most of the images in Go Away Closer are of “museums”, the “photo-architecture” designed by Dayanita to display photographs in an unconventional way at the Hayward Gallery. The “museums” look like cabinets that can open out, like oversized books a viewer can almost enter. The photographs in each museum have been carefully selected by Dayanita and adhere to themes: File Museum has photographs of archives; Little Ladies Museum 1961–Present shows photos of women and girls (some of the older ones in this display are Nony’s photographs); and so on. The experience of actually wandering into these museums must be enchanting. However, seeing only their photographs, compressed from a height of 21 centimetres on the page, is far from satisfying.

The conversation with Rosenthal is engaging, even though it does feel a little too smooth to be spontaneous. Dayanita discusses her inspirations and heartbreaks, her desire to be more than a simple photographer and her dreams for her museums. Speaking about books as a medium for photography, she says:

To me, it’s the best way to look at photography. I would rather give up on print quality, but I cannot bear the glass that comes between the print and me. So I love the book, I love that you can handle it …

Dayanita connects her fondness for photography books to her mother’s obsession with organising photographs into albums, but it seems there’s more than childhood memory driving the photographer to books and photo-architecture. In her conversation with Rosenthal, she says:

I must say that I get a slight twinge when I read, ‘Dayanita Singh, photographer’, because of course I photograph, but so do you and so does everybody else … There’s a whole process of preparation, involving reading from that inspirational bookshelf that I showed you [Rosenthal] in Delhi, and listening to music. Only then can I go out and photograph. Just as writing down words doesn’t make you a writer, making photographs doesn’t make you a photographer.

For her series File Museum (2012), Dayanita Singh photographed archives across India over three years. Courtesy the artist and Frith Street Gallery, London

It could, of course, be argued that similar cultural influences inform the average user of Instagram too. But the title of “bookmaker”—and now, designer of “photo-architecture”—sets Dayanita apart, and the book offers a form that allows the different facets of Dayanita to be recorded. Additionally, the book travels and circulates easier than an exhibition.

WHILE LAUNCHING HER BOOKHouse of Love in Mumbai in 2011, Dayanita had posed a question to the gathered audience. Why do we depend upon words for narrative, she asked. Why couldn’t a novel be made up of pictures? Perhaps she was channelling her inner Alice and in the process ignoring the answer suggested by some of her best work. Good photographs are filled with so many possibilities and so few answers. Restricting them to a straightforward narrative reduces their impact, and attempting to highlight their affinity for the poetic, as Dayanita tried to in House of Love for instance, makes them too ambiguous.

In Go Away Closer, there’s an attempt at engineering an interplay between text and photograph. As we read Dayanita in conversation, images surface on the page. They have no captions, but they nudge the reader into mixing the imagery of the photographs with the thoughts in the words. There are moments when this works beautifully, like when we read Rosenthal talking about how walking through a house feels like “walking through somebody’s mind”. Below the text is a fantastic black and white photograph of windows, a tiled floor and curtains rendered diaphanous by a magical light. The thought and the image match perfectly. Unfortunately, that’s not a story. As Susan Sontag wrote in On Photography:

Photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality that anyone can make or acquire.

Dayanita Singh: Go Away Closer is an exhibition catalogue that does its best to masquerade as a book. Dayanita’s attempts at bookmaking have had mixed results. Some, like Sent a Letter, Privacy and Blue Book, are keepsakes that become more precious with every reading. Others, like House of Love and Dream Villa, are more perplexing. Dayanita Singh: Go Away Closer falls somewhere in the middle. While it doesn’t stand particularly steady as an independent publication, it’s a wonderful mnemonic for those even vaguely familiar with Dayanita’s work.

The best part of the book is, predictably, Dyer’s essay. He is at his insightful best when he says the defining quality in Dayanita’s photography is that it is “an art, increasingly, of absence”:

The dominant suggestion in Dayanita’s rooms is not so much of the absence of people so much as the lack of their absence: the idea of people, I mean, doesn’t rush in to fill the vacancy. The wide-awake day-bed, the armchair never passing up a chance to take the weight off its feet, the books wanting nothing more than to curl up with a good book—all are perfectly content with the prospect of an evening on their own, undisturbed by human intrusion.

‘Museum of Chance’ is a part of the “photo-architecture” designed by Dayanita Singh for her retrospective at the Hayward Gallery. courtesy Stephen White / the artist

The idea of symbolising presence rather than articulating absence using objects is an idea that takes centrestage in Dayanita’s work, but its beginnings lie in Nony’s photography. No wonder, then, that the cover photograph of Nony Singh: The Archivist, the one of baby Dayanita in the Presidential Suite, has a page all to itself in Go Away Closer. Crowding the emptiness of that hotel room are the unfulfilled longings and secret hopes of a generation, a fragment of a changing society and perhaps the kindling of a future photographer’s imagination.

In Go Away Closer, Dayanita tells Rosenthal of four “keywords” that act as her touchstones. They are, in order of importance, “secrets”, “accidents”, “conversation” and “privacy”. Looking at Nony’s photograph, it seems all four are hovering, like invisible fairy godmothers, over the infant Dayanita. It’s as close as one can come, perhaps, to printing a memory.