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Portraits of Modern India

Gayatri D. Acharya

By Dayanita Singh
Steidl Publishers, Gottingen Germany, 2004, pp. 128, $30.00


Dayanita Singh’s previous work made us look at what we don’t want to see—the marginal figures of Indian society. Meherunissa, a child prostitute was photographed over two years. Mona Ahmed, a eunuch, was followed through her “changing worlds” over thirteen years. Now Dayanita’s camera has moved from the margin to the centre—to the urban middle and upper classes in various parts of India. We are now made to look at ourselves. This transition is explained in the introduction. Troubled that her pictures did not change any lives, she “could not go on earning money from the distress of others.” She also questioned what she had been showing her predominantly western audience: “For eight years I worked as a photographer in India catering to western perceptions of what India is. I got fed up with working in worlds that I did not truly belong to—I could empathize with but never really understand what it means, say, to be a Bombay prostitute or a child labourer. I wanted to look at the India I come from, at the changing styles and relationships, which are taking place inside well-off families who live in big cities, and particularly my own city, Delhi. When I showed this new work to some American editors, they couldn’t believe it was India (or if it was, then I had a gall to be photographing such people in a poverty-ridden country!) That made me more determined. There are many versions of India, and this is mine.”   This declaration of independence was made in Granta in 1997. Dayanita’s new approach to India, via her urban elite, was exhibited in Berlin in 2003 and Privacy is its catalogue. Privacy is mainly a collection of portraits of family and friends through which she gives the West “images that affirmed family.” This is her declared intention and she makes clever use of gestures and expressions to demonstrate that ‘The Family’ is alive and well in India. In no.40 three generations of the Chopra family are shown touching each other in what might still have been a standard group photo with everyone staring at the lens. But Mr. Chopra breaks the pattern by kissing his wife and the effect of a spontaneous private snapshot is worked into a formal portrait. The cover picture is another staged composition. A girl looks affectionately at her mother who looks affectionately at ...

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