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Indrajit Hazra is a writer and journalist. His latest book is 'Grand Delusions: A Short Biography of Kolkata' (Aleph)

Inside rooms with Dayanita where paper is made flesh

From Dayanita Singh’s File Room

lood is quite a special fluid," I recall Goethe›s Mephistopheles telling Faust while wrapping up a special deal as I turn the pages of Dayanita Singh's File Room (Rs 3,000, Steidl). It is a bit odd to think of blood — or any liquid, for that matter — while lingering over black and white photographs of stacks and bundles and heaps and rows of what is essentially paper. The teeming population of files — harder paper folded to hold softer paper in each of them — are the opposite of liquid, conjuring up the opposite of blood: they are dry and dust-laden.

As the title of Aveek Sen's opening text emphasises, it is not a sea of paper, but a "Forest of Paper". "...the saddest smell is that of wet paper, when after the monsoon floods or a super-cyclone, soggy files, books, maps and newspapers have to be cleaned out. Or, when they are laid out to dry in the sun, the strange, fungal smell of river muck and fish-slime that wavy-wet paper can give out," he writes, pointing to variations and palpable possibilities that Dayanita's heaps of paper could take.

But the photographs in this book, each and every one of them — starting from the first one of files bundled in knotted cloths and heaped like decapitated heads on the floor with four stacked up on a wooden shelf closer to the window light, to the last picture where we find similar bundles, more scattered now (one marked "Kalu Saray" and another partially showing "-nhwala" in Devnagari) with paper files heaped in the background — hum with dryness. Dayanita's photographs have rarely been simple depictions.

Be they her black and white photos of girls at the Anandamayi Ashram in Varanasi in the I Am As I Am series, or her exploration of "belonging to" in Go Away Closer, or the phantasmagorical hyper-colour night visions in Dream Villa, they have been erupting narratives stopped on their tracks as if for a breathalyzer test. It is no different in File Room.

At one significant level, Dayanita seems to share her own hypnotised state on being face to face with serrated, anarchic shapes held and controlled by gravity's unnamed archrival friction. On the left hand of a pair of pages in this book (see picture), we encounter a room with shelves stacked with files along. The ante-room behind it seems to be bursting with paper vegetation that can no longer be contained in that small dark room. The sense of standing at a particularly crucial spot inside the Cretan labyrinth where the Minotaur is an embodiment of thousands of file-pushing bureaucrats is strong.

n the right of this photo is a closer-up picture — from another Cretan labyrinth perhaps — of stacks of files on standard knobbly but efficient steel frames with tags marking "Personal Files" hanging on strings like numbered cards tied to a dead man's toe in a morgue.

There are some photos in which chaos is only hinted at, or even kept at bay. A rectangular wooden unit (made square by the four stacks of paper on top of it) sits Zen-like with its zen-like paper inhabitants in front of a frosted window. The composition is straight out of a Piet Mondrian painting with its horizontals and verticals seemingly holding up Dayanita's photo. But the eye never escapes the building storm at the centre: the unruly paper held captive and motionless by the weight of files on files on files....

Humans are the outsiders in this paper Dandakarnya. One photograph shows a middle-aged man looking into the camera while carrying a typewriter as he negotiates with what seems like the last remaining path unclaimed by files. Both the man and the black metal machine are intruding this world, although an ashtray-paper weight in the foreground corner hints at more human intervention. (Will they one day take over this world ruled by paper?)

In all this dust and dryness, of course, there is the blood. Human records, stacked up and tucked in, are what Dayanita's files contain. Each tells a story, each holds a fussy or deadpan memory. The Greeks, the Romans, the Christian monks along with Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes practised the "method of loci" ("loci" being the plural of "locus" or location), a mnemonic technique that used memorised — and mostly imagined — spatial relationships to store and later collect content. What Dayanita Singh has masterfully done in File Room is to capture the architecture that allows plying of this old art of memory; an architecture which its wardens, who have no taste or time for other less tactile and non-immersive data-storing devices, extract information from.

So File Room itself is a file holding information of a giant, specialised — and dying — storing-cum-extracting technology that Dayanita, in the manner of miracles, has made flesh.

Dayanita Singh's "NSDS Book Museum", a single-structure composition comprising 55 images from her "File Room" and "Privacy", and 15 images from her mother and photographer Nony Singh's "The Archivist", is on display at the National Museum, New Delhi, until May 10.

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