How the Book Has Become a Museum Piece—for Its Own Good

S Prasannarajan is the Editor of Open magazine
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The Hawa Mahal in Jaipur is an unlikely backdrop for the book reborn as a visual sensation. Still here I am, braving the labyrinthine alleys of souvenir kiosks and other kitschy delights on a dusty winter afternoon for my moment with a book within a book within a… panelled rectangular space of pictures. Does this sound incomprehensible? Then any conversation on the future of the book—or the possibilities of reading—is nowadays caught between the techno-optimism of the market-savvy and the hardbound despair of the traditionalist. This afternoon I am walking into a space where arguments about the future of reading are made redundant by the language of viewing. A space where definitions—of ‘book’, ‘art’, ‘canvas’—collapse in a whirl of perceptions. In the hall of book(s)—which is not a Borgesian labyrinth but a zen master’s resonant austerity—you begin with an object, inconspicuous. Well, with a book.

I am in Dayanita Singh’s Museum of Chance. And what I chance upon first, before I see the walls and read them, is a book. Or, is it one? It has the appearance of a usual coffee table. On the cover is the mournful ‘faces’ of a calf, a frozen sculpture, a suspended animation. What you miss—sorry, what you do not miss—is a name. No title, no author name, to prepare you for the journey, and sometimes, it is pure bliss not to be hooked. Turn the pages and you are inside Dayanita Singh’s Museum of Chance, published by Steidl, and there are no words to distract you in the rustle of pages, only the randomness of black and white, held together by the viewer/ reader’s sensory powers.

There is every chance that you may linger here, an afternoon lost in the pure austerity of images, in the measured slowness of storytelling. The freedom is immense. The harmony between a sari blown in the wind and the last pause of the wave leads you, at first sight quite incongruously, to the arrested curiosity of a woman faced with a perceiving finger. An umbrella hanging on the wall accentuates the absence in a room, and you move from this confined bareness of memory to an open space where everything reminds you of time stagnant.

I can go on as far as the pages let me, but I need to close the book before I realise that every image is a prelude, an intimation, not a situation but a partial glimpse of it, to be completed elsewhere, pages later. Here you are watching an idea multiplied, a moment in life stretched across seemingly incompatible but intimate pairings. So before I close the book, I see what I have left behind through different, rearranged objects. A lone Ambassador car in the dark is an image trapped between abandonment and apprehension, and a page later, a house in the dark gives it a past, a future and offers a million possibilities of the present. Such pleasures are usually denied in a book of words, for words have restrictions. Here everything, be it an enigmatic gaze or the ordinariness of a reunion or the eroticism of stillness, is moving in unadorned pages of freedom, and it is this movement that shifts and shapes the stories.

Do not ask me how many of them; I have closed the book. That is not true. The book is around me, each page mounted on the wall. That is not true either. The frames are teasing deceptions, and their attempt to individualise the pages cannot hide the beauty of this enterprise, or what Dayanita calls the ‘Museum of Chance’. Every page has become a book, and every book has become a piece of art. The limits genres impose on forms are undone by a visual narrator’s audacity—or freedom— to make the story as elastic as the style of its telling, and without words. Dayanita empties a few frames and, to twist the plot a little, asks me, where shall we put these books, how shall we make some new pairings? When she does, it is as if sentences are breaking out of printed pages and rearranging themselves. The story is a puzzle. The book is a permanent work in progress. You never finish reading; you take only a pause.

What else can you do in a museum of chance, which itself is a layered experience in a larger museum Dayanita has built. What makes this afternoon in Hawa Mahal special is the manner in which she has made the book an object of art—and vice versa. Some time ago, the author died when the post-structuralist anatomised the text. For Roland Barthes, the text is not the deliverance of the Author-God, but the experience of the reader. ‘The unity of a text is not in its origin,’ he writes, ‘it is in its destination.’ The death of the author, in post-structuralist text, empowers the reader, to put it in simplest terms. In Dayanita’s hall of framed book(s), the author-visualiser does not offer you the luxury of a finished text. She keeps herself alive by constantly subverting her own narrative, by rewriting, by making the reader-spectator a partner in a rare project in the art of storytelling: A moveable museum where you are not worried about the book being an object—not to be preserved but to be reread.