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Mona and Myself
An excerpt from a conversation with Dayanita Singh (D.S.), Josh Ginsburg (J.G.), and Francisco Berzunza (F.B.) held online.
Digital publication 23 July 2023
Title Mona and Myself Dates 2023-07-23 Location Online Tagline An excerpt from a conversation with Dayanita Singh (D.S.), Josh Ginsburg (J.G.), and Francisco Berzunza (F.B.) held online.
Installation photograph that shows Dayanita Singh’s video work ‘Mona and Myself’ projected onto a wall in a darkened room.
Artwork: Dayanita Singh, Mona and Myself (2013). Moving still image. 3 min 45 sec (looped). Courtesy of the artist and Frith Street Gallery.

D.S.     I met Mona in 1989, and I photographed her until she passed away in 2017. Even now, she's still very present in my work. She fills my montages and my file room. Mona was my best friend.

We made a book together in 2001, and I continued photographing her because that's what I do and that's what she liked. This moving still image of Mona was made by chance. I had not set up to make a film.

I was not prepared to make a film – that's not what I do. But I've always missed the sound in photographs… or more than sound, I've missed the breath.

And how the face changes… How to bring a little breath and a little sound in the photograph? I would have wanted to find this for years, but didn't know how I could do it. Any conscious attempt seemed certain to come off as intentionally ‘arty’. It's as though chance heard me and presented this work to me.

Mona had come one day to the studio. She often came in the summer because I had air conditioning and it would cool her down. And so she was lying on the bed and I was taking photos of her just by the by, as I often did. I played her her favourite song, which I found online. I found it and I played it, and I was taking her portrait and I forgot to lift my finger, or I pressed the wrong button. I'm still not even sure what happened.

At first, Mona is not able to hear or quite understand what is going on. She's trying to remember it and then she finds it – and she becomes the song. At some point, I lifted my finger and I continued making pictures. It was only when I sat down that night to review the images, to look at the stills I had made that day that, suddenly, there was this piece. Just imagine! I'm looking at still image after still image. And then…I see this. I see it again and I see it again. The next day, I told Mona that she had to come back – something amazing had happened. She saw it 100 times over, and she was crying and I was crying and, and that's when I thought that we have created something – and whatever this something was, it wasn’t about taking pictures of her. This was something else.

As for love, I could say, Mona was – is – the big love of my life. I could show you all those photographs I have taken of Mona. I could make a museum for Mona. But this moving still image, I feel, is the culmination of three decades of work – that all the other work could be put aside. It’s not great resolution, it’s not great sound. But when I heard about this exhibition, I thought, this is what I’d like to show.

Mona was the most unique person I've known in my life. It would be fair to say that I'm the artist (or whatever other name you want to give for what it is that I do) in no small part because of Mona. She lived against all the odds.

J.G.     It’s such a beautiful story. I was going to ask after the moving still image but that no longer needs qualification – it was in the context of making stills that a moving image emerged. It's an astonishing situation. And what's fascinating is that both parties were unselfconscious by default because neither of you knew this was happening.

D.S.     When we talk about romantic love, intimacy and photography, there's a photographer and there's their beloved, and there is self consciousness on the part of the photographer and the person being photographed. But what happens when both people are photographers? I think I chanced on something like that with my partner. This unselfconsciousness and intimacy – how do we get to that in photography? It is almost impossible. And yet when it happens, like here in this moving still image, it's such a gift. Because we didn’t know this was happening, we were both so unselfconscious.

J.G.     Considering the usual dynamic of the photographer and the subject, here there's something else going on. There's this unique case where neither party is the subject because, in some sense, Mona is also photographing – or witnessing – you. You have to receive this unexpected event and be open to it. I'm also curious about the fact that you photographed Mona over a life and does Mona function as a photographer of you by default? Because of this lifetime of engagement?

D.S.     Mona was very aware of the camera. In time, people will say, did she construct all this in the graveyard for the camera? I haven't shared this publicly before, but in 2017, I was at the Guggenheim in Venice and I got three missed calls from Mona. But because I was on a guided tour, I couldn't take the call. So I came out, got onto the vaporetto to Giudecca, and called her. Her nephew picked up and said something had happened. We've been trying to call you, he said, we think she's going. And I said, it's not possible. She'll wait for me. I'm coming back in five days. I said, put her on speaker phone and so he put her on video. When I saw her, I realised that this was serious.

Mona, Mona, what are you doing? Wait for me. I'm coming, I'm coming.

All this time, somehow, I was taking screenshots while I was talking to her and, and she was opening her eyes and trying to say something but was unable to talk. And then I started to get hysterical and luckily I had friends with me on the vaporetto, holding me. I kept saying, Mona, Mona, talk to me, talk to me. Then her nephew took the phone and said, she's passed. So even in her death, she waited. She realised the importance of a life documented. She realised that even her passing somehow had to be documented.

That is why I say that I am informed by her – my work, my work ethic, everything – the way I think about museums, even, you could stretch it that far. Mona built a house in a graveyard because she was thrown out of her community. Besides, she was so special that she couldn't be part of any community. She built herself a house in the graveyard because she'd had some aunts buried there. She said, I'm a caretaker. It grew and it grew. She made things out of what she had.

J.G.     She lives amongst those that live forever.

D.S.     Yes. She’s buried there too now. She’s buried in her house.

J.G.     In both a conscious and unselfconscious way, she became some kind of configuration of self. It sounds to me that Mona was, whether in front of the camera or not in front of the camera, that life was continuous. There was no effect of the gaze, that she was entirely comfortable.

D.S.     Or it was entirely for the camera – life.

J.G.     As if life was all lived in the realm of perception? That is a beautiful notion – to live in such a way that the gaze is integrated. That it is continuous as opposed to a life that is faceted by a gaze, whether you become alive for the camera or you don't become alive, whether you're alive you continuously – whatever the case, here it is integrated. The feeling you're perhaps responding to, is one of freedom. A person pushed to the perimeter of the periphery of society, who finds an ultimate expression of freedom.

D.S.     Absolutely. With so few means, she truly freed herself from society in a way that I don't have the courage to do. I couldn't go and live in a graveyard and then build myself a house and live there with my monkeys and ducks and dogs. A remarkable person, not like anybody else. I sometimes feel I have failed, not being able to put the pieces together or articulate them.

For the book release, since Carlo is a Swiss publisher, I said to her, let me ask the Swiss ambassador if he will launch your book. In my mind, I was thinking, would the Swiss ambassador even agree to release her book at the Swiss embassy? Not in some little cafe somewhere in Old Delhi? But he agreed. Fantastic, I thought, and told Mona. She said, I'm not going to the Swiss embassy. If he wants to release my book, he has to come to the graveyard in his black Mercedes with the red-and-white Swiss flag flying. I said, you know, he's not going to come to the graveyard. And anyway, why are you asking me to do that? And she said, because at the Swiss Embassy, all your friends will come, they will appreciate what you have done and they will shake my hands and that's it. But if it's in the graveyard, then all the local police stations will know that Mona is an important person because they will need security. You’ll have to inform all the police that the ambassador is coming. And so that's what happened. The Swiss ambassador came to the graveyard to launch the book. Mona decorated the entire graveyard with marigold…even the ducks were made to wear marigold garlands. That's where her book was released.

I'm very happy to be sharing this with you because I don't know, maybe the time is right. I haven't been able to put it all together like this in years.

J.G.     On a slightly adjacent note, it’s both a really beautiful and powerful gesture, but also very pragmatic. The artwork, this collaborative artwork, went on to have a real effect in the community because it was not isolated in the world of books. The function of this event is going to evidence that we're actually doing something of merit and meaning and we can communicate that to our entire community.

D.S.     And we did this a second time, following the precedent Mona had set. And it felt great. Rather than going to the French ambassador’s home to receive an award [editor’s note: Singh was awarded the Chevalier dans l' Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 2014], I said, no, I have an exhibition of my book objects at the National Museum and I'd like you to come there. The ambassador came to the National Museum and Mona was the chief guest sitting right in front in a wheelchair, whereupon the ambassador kissed her hand in front of all the staff of the National Museum.

Yes, Mona is still omnipresent.

J.G.     Can people exist without labels attached to them, or preceding them? Mona sounds like the most astonishing person, a person who moves freely having found a way to become released. How do you think it's best to refer within this exhibition, to Mona? Is it best to sidestep any labelling or do you think it's still important to qualify her conditions?

D.S.     This becomes important if one is doing a larger text on Mona, and what it means to be an outcast of society.

When you are an outcast among the outcasts, you are really pushed to the limit.

You have the audacity to demand that the Swiss ambassador will come here to release my book! Or you're alive, you stay alive, until you know that your photographer is somehow documenting your death – that it has been witnessed by the same person who has witnessed most of your life. That's an amazing character.

J.G.     On the one hand, there's releasing Mona from being essentialised, which is a powerful gesture for the individual and it's a powerful gesture for the work at large. I wonder if, to understand how far flung Mona was from the centre of society, one has to process what she faced – that some aspects of her resistance are only fully understood with a detailed understanding of her position.

D.S.     Perhaps any labelling of Mona could be only a footnote at the end of the text – like you would have Dayanita was born in New Delhi. This fixation with her physicality, this was all that people wanted to talk about in relation to Mona: I want to protect her from this. She wanted to be treated as I am treated.

F.B.     In the context of this work, Dayanita, I remember you once told me about the song, which is quite important. Can you tell us more about it? What is its title? Perhaps we can research it further.

D.S.     The song is called Rasik Balma. In English, it all sounds very corny! Why did you break my heart? Oh, it sounds so stupid in English. Why did you hurt me? Why did you break my heart? Why did you go away? It’s from a wonderful film. The actress who played in the film – Mona actually met her once – her name was Nargis and she was probably the most beautiful woman of Indian cinema. This was Mona's favourite song, but I've forgotten many of the words now.

F.B.     But it's quite particular what Mona was singing at the time?

J.G.     Perhaps you could translate it in the way it feels to you, rather than the direct English translation. Let it just be what you want it to be.

D.S.     Why, oh why, oh why did you hurt me like this? Why, oh why, oh why – well see, it now sounds whiny. The song is not whiny.

F.B.     So then what is the song, if it’s not whiny?

D.S.     There's a word in Hindi called ‘dard’. Mona seems to me like the epitome of dard. Sweet pain is not quite the same. It's that overwhelming emotion when you see a beautiful flower or a sunset – or a piece of music, more a piece of music – when you're reduced to tears and you forget yourself.

You forget where you are, what body you're in. It's another kind of experience.

This song is very much about dard. It's a limitation of the English language that it can't be translated. Maybe it can be translated into French or something else, but not English. But still, I'll try, I'll listen to it again and I'll see if I find something.

Mona seems to me like the epitome of dard.

J.G.     …

What are you working on at the moment?

D.S.     I'm working on these montages. They are architecture montages, but Mona is probably invading those as well. It's like she won't leave. I don't think she'll ever leave, you know. I made these montages – of Mona in family portraits – which she would love. In the Sao Paulo Biennale, I'm gonna show the montages of Mona and her Bollywood Stars. She would be most thrilled about those. However, I suspect she's going to enter the architecture montages as well.

It's interesting that this exhibition came up at this time. I met someone that I was deeply in love with 22 years ago and I'm deeply in love with him again. There is a sense that there was nothing in between. Through this experience, I'm thinking a lot about how intimacy and love is represented. I've been looking at all this photography and realising that the problem is that there is always a photographer and a subject. What happens when both people are photographers and they're working in an unselfconscious way?

Where are the stories that are not about a photographer and a subject?

I'm very interested in intimacy and love. Some things are in the process of emerging. I have to study it more.

F.B.     I have one final question before I forget, Dayanita. The man who the show is about, asked me something and I’m not sure how to honour it. He said, please do not turn me into a character. But as I’ve been writing these texts, it’s unavoidable, he’s become a character. And my question is, is Mona a character?

D.S.     Certainly not to me, but I could imagine that for the viewer she is. Though she wouldn't see herself as a character, but the reader could, the viewer could.

J.G.     What's interesting about the case with Dayanita and Mona, which I think, Francisco, is important for you, is where is the reciprocal edge in your story? Because Mona speaks back. Mona controls the lens. There's a reciprocity there that she's aware of and in conversation with.

D.S.     She’s actually leading the process.

J.G.     Yes, there’s a director-actor relationship, where both parties are subject to each other. And the film – the moving still image – is the quintessential moment within that because it collects you both, unannounced. So Fran, I wonder if the question is, where’s his voice? The subject of your exhibition? That may reconcile that question of characterising him because if he can speak back, then you're not characterising him. He is present and has a voice of his own.

F.B.     Yes, of course. Well, here we are.

D.S.     Here we are, that's a good title. It's a very good title.

J.G.     What you're moving through now sounds like a beautiful twenty-two year reflection on where you were and where you are now, trying to make sense of that.

D.S.     In some ways, twenty-two years just vanished.

It was like, either we had been together for twenty-two years and not known it or twenty-two years didn't happen.

I was experiencing this at the time when I was sent the email for this show. So that's why I asked for a conversation because I thought that was a sign as well. Why is someone curating a show about love and why is he asking me to be part of it?

F.B.     I have to say that this exhibition has a very mystical quality. We just carry on with the flow of things.

D.S.     That’s what I’m doing. I'm going with the flow of love. I really miss Mona because she met this person twenty-two years ago and she asked him – and this connects to Mona’s song, Rasik Balma – she said, is this English love or Hindustani love? And he said, you have to tell me what the difference is. And she said, if you don't know, then there's no point telling you, or something like that. She really grilled him to know whether he could become capable of Hindustani love, but she also adored him. He came to Delhi last week. The whole graveyard would have been full of marigolds to receive him. She would be so happy that what she predicted twenty-two years ago came true, has been true. Only he and I were not paying attention then. Wanting to share this with her makes me miss her terribly because, otherwise, Mona's in my heart. She's with me all the time1.

1 Throughout this conversation with Dayanita Singh we talked about how public scrutiny and fascination with the state of Mona’s physical body and status pulled focus away from Mona, herself: her extraordinary, rebellious, and revolutionary life. At the same time, we worried together if making no mention of Mona’s identity undermined her courage and diluted the bigotry she faced. We landed on this footnote: “I am the third sex,” Mona told Singh. “I am not a man trying to be a woman. It is your society’s problem that you only recognise two sexes.” Mona Ahmed was born in 1947 and died in 2017.