Postcards from the Edge

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Dayanita Singh

I Am as I Am series, 1999

In the tight circles of art photography and photojournalism, Dayanita Singh has the serious whiff of legend. Born and raised in India, she earned her stripes from the International Center of Photography in New York City, has shown the world over (including at the Tate Modern) and in 2008 earned herself a Prince Claus Award (the Dutch government prize given for "artistic and intellectual quality"). The recent publication of Dayanita Singh adds elegantly to her emerging canon.

The book collates images from a career spanning more than 25 years, organizing them into photo-essays, with illuminating commentaries by journalist Aveek Sen, academic Sunil Khilnani and others. It opens with I Am as I Am, Singh's visual record of a Varanasi ashram, distinguished by the fact that it is for women only. The intimacy of her gaze — girls in open terraces, faces of solemnity and mirth — carries through to the more posed study, Ladies of Calcutta. Here are women in a constellation of generations, in bed, against a bookshelf, in rooms of remarkable light.

Singh's eye finds its most unsettling recourse in portraits of the hijra (transvestite or eunuch) Mona Ahmed, castrated, one suspects, without full anesthesia ("Blood was flowing like anything," Ahmed writes in the accompanying text). Singh documented Ahmed's life as a member of a eunuch community over the course of 13 years. Most moving is the descent from celebration to grief after Ahmed adopts a child, Ayesha, only to have her eventually taken away. Later, in the throes of loneliness, Ahmed clutches a pet monkey, embracing it as though a baby. Singh captures the scene in a poignant, riveting study of thwarted parental desire.

Myself Mona Ahmed could easily be filed under gender studies, although it is more accurately a record of a friendship between photographer and subject. This makes it tempting to give Singh peerage with Diane Arbus, who also formed intimate bonds with those on the margins of society. While Singh does not yet possess the range of her American compatriot, she can be every bit as compelling, even when excluding people from her viewfinder. In Blue Book, she offers a dazzling sequence of unpopulated industrial vistas, which, as Sen says, possess the "warm gloom of a Flemish still life." Her most recent work, Dream Villa, elaborates on this same glacial stupefaction, featuring streets and curious urban abstractions shot at night. There is darkness here, and the ineffable disquiet of great, harrowing art.