In 1976, I moved to Bombay (now Mumbai) from Delhi to make a living as a photographer. I was 21. Delhi was provincial and bureaucratic —all it had was Connaught Place; the Defence Colony market had a halwai (sweets seller), some grocery shops and many estate agents. Bombay, on the other hand, was rock ‘n’ roll—it was a real, densely packed city where, to my great relief, no one cared whose son you were.
I found work in the film industry as a stills photographer through friends such as Jalal Agha and Tinnu Anand. The masala movies being made required photographs to ensure there was visual consistency in scenes shot over a number of days, and also for publicity purposes. Later, I expanded on my stills work out of Bombay on films such as Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi and Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj ke Khiladi.
Bombay was an escape from the drudgery of Delhi. With buses, taxis and suburban trains, you could navigate the city swiftly. From downtown, I could go home for lunch near Haji Ali and be back in Colaba after a nap. In Delhi, people normally ask: Where do you live? What do you do? How much do you earn? It was, and is, stratified. Whereas in Bombay, at an industrialist’s party, you could spot secretaries—nice-looking girls—who worked in offices. It was hard not to like the city’s texture and cosmopolitanism. Like Paris or New York, people flocked here for economic opportunities.
Between jobs and assignments, I took the pictures that are in this—discovering a city and engaging with it with my camera. Taken between 1976 and 1983, the photographs of Bombay are of the same vintage as the images in my earlier show, Outside in, 70s & 80s, A Tale of 3 Cities, which featured photos taken mostly in Delhi. Those photos were about my inner or private world, capturing my friends and family, whereas the Bombay images are about the outer world—mostly street photography in documentary style, of places and people on the margins such as street children, hijras (eunuchs), film extras and opium dens.
The marginalized and the minorities attracted me. As did the new world of different communities— Anglo-Indians, Parsis, Gujaratis and Maharashtrians.
The camera slung around my neck, I would navigate the Parsi enclaves of Dadar, the Jewish community in Byculla or the Christian village of Khotachiwadi in Girgaum. When taking pictures, I was seeking the visual spirit of a certain time that we were going to lose. Now, 25-30 years later, some of them have a time-warp aspect to them—the architecture has moved on; the shape of cars has changed.
I finally left Bombay in 1988 for two reasons—my father had died in 1985 and the world of photojournalism beckoned. Wanting to exit advertising, I was doing more magazine, editorial work and the big news stories were all happening in north India—the Khalistan movement, Mrs Gandhi’s assassination, Bhopal. While the money in advertising was good, it just didn’t feel right any more. So I found myself back in Delhi.
Bombay: Chronicles from a Past Life will be on display at Sakshi Gallery, Mumbai, from 19 February-7 March. For details, log on to www.sakshigallery.com
As told to Himanshu Bhagat.
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