Every winter in the early 1980s, a sturdy bus departed Kolkata, India, for a concert tour of provincial towns. On board were some of North India’s finest classical musicians, world-recognized artists like the vocalist Girija Devi, the flutist Hariprasad Chaurasia, or the tabla player Zakir Hussain.
They traveled at close quarters. The musicians napped on mattresses in the back of the bus, improvised roadside cricket matches and gathered for post-concert music sessions in hotel rooms or spartan dormitory halls.
With them was an outlier: Dayanita Singh, then a design student in her early 20s, with a camera. Six years in a row, from 1981 to 1986, she rode with the musicians, witnessed their debates and small talk, watched them ready in green rooms — and she photographed.
Singh would become one of the world’s most distinguished photographers, winning the 2022 Hasselblad Award, whose past laureates include Wolfgang Tillmans, Cindy Sherman and Henri Cartier-Bresson. She photographs families across generations; shopkeepers, society ladies and students, often in groups, mid-conversation; file rooms full of dusty folders; and subtropical modernist buildings.
But those musician tours, Singh, 61, said recently via video from her home in Delhi, instilled the core values of her work. “I learned life,” she said. She absorbed the respectful conviviality among the musicians, their generosity toward audiences, their ethos of daily practice. “All that became my training,” she said.
Singh’s largest-ever exhibition, “Dancing With My Camera,” is currently on view at the Villa Stuck museum, in Munich, through March 19. It presents her signature aesthetic — instinctively composed black-and-white images that always feel close yet never prying — and the themes and characters that recur in her oeuvre, like her friend Mona Ahmed, a hijra, or third-gender person, who lived in a Delhi cemetery. But it also reaches back to images from the bus, and from other formative experiences, that she is showing for the first time.
The exhibition showcases Singh’s inventive production and display techniques, too: hinged teak structures, displaying multiple photographs, that can be moved around and reconfigured; towers of cubes with images on all sides; boxes of swappable image cards; and hybrid “book objects” that work equally well on the wall or in the museum store.
She has honed these methods for nearly two decades, exhibiting her work in flexible, accessible forms. The inclusion of Singh’s early photographs fills out an understanding of her career, showing how her style emerged and how recurring characters like Ahmed first appeared — and offering a personal immersion into a certain India before the globalization of the 1990s.
For Singh, digging through her early work was no idle pursuit — it was an encounter with …….