`I thought, I am never going to know hunger, I am never going to be a 10-times-a-day prostitute. I want to capture the world I am familiar with' - photographer Dayanita Singh talks to Yasmin Alibhai-Brown about her work
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The Independent Online
Dayanita Singh's pictures of India are shocking. Because they are so ordinary. They mock our preconceptions and unsettle our fantasies. After years of our gorging on televised and photographed India, certain images (even the discomforting ones) have become like comfort food. We know what to expect. This is a country full of aching memories and the muddle that distracted E M Forster; of royal palaces and trains turned into hotels; of (isn't it a shame?) large-eyed Salaam Bombay street children dancing for rupees or in bonded labour; of filmy posters with fleshy heroines and corpulent tyrants; of timeless villages and fatalism and superstition; of people who slice off their limbs to make begging more profitable; of powerless women, prostitution, pollution, poverty, and of heat and dust which clasp and cover you like a lover.

How can such a panorama accommodate an image of a middle-aged blonde with fluffy, pampered dogs at her expensively clad feet? Or sultry Indian teenagers in mini-dresses who clearly never learnt the coyness of Indian womanhood? Little wonder that magazine editors in America were apoplectic. Singh describes with forbearance how they reacted: "First they accused me of dishonesty, saying that these were Indians in New York or Canada. Then they got quite angry, and asked me how I had the gall to take these pictures when there was such poverty in India. One told me these would never see the light of day."

It has become a vicious circle, says Singh. People like these set the agenda and photographers, including those from India, provide them with the images which reinforce what they believe to be the only truths. She includes herself: "I catered to this for eight years and I'm not agitated about it. My work with AIDS victims was incredibly important, though it drained me." The media coverage of the 50th anniversary of the Raj is a perfect example of who still sets the agenda. The most authoritative programmes and articles are in the reliable hands of white Britons who somehow "own" India. So we get Dimbleby's India, Mark Tully's India, even Jeremy Clarkson's India.

But Singh, a complex character who never allows you to predict her moves or thoughts, does not resort to resentment. She feels that such ownership is fine as long as it does not confine and exclude.

So was she challenging the prevailing images when she started on this work? "I wouldn't use the word challenge. It is too arrogant." The idea began quietly as a personal collection of snapshots of people she knew. It then became a conviction: "I thought, I am never going to know hunger, I am never going to be a 10-times-a-day prostitute. I wanted to capture the world I am familiar with." Unlike western photographers, who can only capture streets, markets, railway stations - the outside - Singh has access to the homes of "well-to-do, metro business people and their families" (Not middle class. She hates that word). Hence the lack of irony and the intensity, and intimacy, in these pictures. She took over the walls in these homes and started hanging up the pictures. A homage to the families and their lives. And change. This is a faithful account of where city life is heading 50 years after independence.

One man - Colin Jacobson, the erstwhile picture editor of this magazine - recognised how extraordinary the work was. Singh is overwhelmed with genuine gratitude: "He told me, `Don't you see what you have done here? You have presented alternative images to what editors think of as the only real India.' There are so many Indias. I could photograph India for 10 lifetimes and that might just be enough, I think. There is layer upon layer in each story." That is certainly true of the pictures. It was not long before others saw what Jacobson had seen. This year, Singh received a hefty and prestigious grant from the Andreas Frank Foundation for the Visual Arts.

As a British Asian, I find these pictures tragic. We so want Mother India to remain eternally static - traditional - so we can hold her in our memories and guilt-trip our children if they become too wayward and "Western". She is our bastion against modernity and the fickle and flighty civilisation we find ourselves living in.

Singh, too, is saddened by the fact that joint families have broken up and "that grandparents who read to you from the scriptures have been replaced by colour television sets". But she undoubtedly feels that many Asian immigrants are living in a time warp: "They are amazed when they see these pictures, or when I light up, or to hear that I live with my boyfriend in my mother's house." People I know in this country have been maimed, even murdered, for much less, for not being good at being Indian.

Perhaps what we fail to understand is that Indianness has simply absorbed the cordless phones, the frilly frocks and piano lessons, the live-in boyfriends, leaving the rest intact. Especially the bonds, the proximity, joy and invasiveness of Indian family life. These are not Naipaul's mimic men and women. They know who they are and the choices they are making. They are like Nehru, who said: "I am able to be international because I am so rooted in India"