`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

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"

John Travolta is a qualified airline captain and employed the pilot with his company, Alto
people'That was the lowest I’d ever felt'
Life and Style
healthIt isn’t greasy. It doesn’t smell. And moreover, it costs nothing

Other places that have held independence referendums
Jonas Gutierrez (r) competes with Yaya Toure (l)

Newcastle winger reveals he has testicular cancer - and is losing his trademark long hair as a result

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Blossoming love: Colin Firth as Stanley and Emma Stone as Sophie, in 'Magic in the Moonlight'

Actors star in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

peopleThe Times of India said actress should treat it as a 'compliment'
Arts and Entertainment
Maxine Peake plays Hamlet at Manchester's Royal Exchange
theatreReview: Maxine Peake brings emotional ferocity to Shakespeare's most starring part

Watch this commuter wage a one-man war against the Circle Line
We are phenomenally good at recognising faces; the study showed that humans have been selected to be unique and easily recognisable

Human faces unique 'because we don't recognise each other by smell'

Home body: Badger stays safe indoors
lifeShould we feel guilty about keeping cats inside?
A male driver reverses his Vauxhall Astra from a tow truck

Man's attempt to avoid being impounded heavily criticised

Arts and Entertainment
US pop diva Jennifer Lopez sang “Happy Birthday” to Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, president of Turkmenistan
musicCorporate gigs become key source of musicians' income
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
filmsDaniel Craig believed to be donning skis as 007 for first time
The Guildhall School of Music and Drama is to offer a BA degree in Performance and Creative Enterprise

Arts and Entertainment
Pulp-fiction lover: Jarvis Cocker
booksJarvis Cocker on Richard Brautigan
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Portfolio Analyst - Prince2

£45000 - £50000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client, a glob...

Project Co-ordinator - Birmingham - Permanant

£20000 - £25000 Per Annum Plus excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions...

Head of Maths

Negotiable: Randstad Education Group: Head of Maths position at a prestigious ...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Birmingham - Huxley Associates

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Huxley Associates are currentl...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week