‘Images you can smell’ – novelist Orhan Pamuk on Dayanita Singh’s mesmerising photos of India’s disintegrating archives

Where does a state’s power truly reside? Not in its military, says the celebrated writer, but in the Kafkaesque files it keeps on its citizens – and no one showed this more brilliantly than Singh

I first met Dayanita Singh in India in 2011. Her house was an hour’s drive from a place I used to rent in Goa every January and February to write. As we stood in her half-lit studio looking at black and white photographs of what she called “archive work”, we could hear the hum of the small gathering Singh had organised: a dinner party that had spilled out on to the terrace and included the writers Kiran Desai and Amitav Ghosh. Earlier, the conversation had touched upon a crocodile that had been seen roaming around a swamp near the house. Outside, the night was dark and navy blue. Inside, as I studied those photographs in the gloom, some very old and very familiar memories began to surface in my mind. But no, the word “memories” does not suffice. What was coming to life inside me was an emotion stirred by those memories – and it seemed as if those photographs had been taken precisely to capture it.

What has most drawn me to Singh’s work are the photographs collected in her books File Room and Museum of Chance. In these, we find black and white images of India’s vast state archives, storerooms and registry offices. As we leaf through these books, we become filled with an idea of poetic decrepitude and a sense of profundity: once upon a time, people slogged and toiled; they submitted countless requests; they sent petitions and filed lawsuits; they wrote about and classified each other’s activities; and, at the state’s encouragement and behest, they kept an uninterrupted record of it all.

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