Shahid Datawala is a photographer and furniture designer. “Schizophrenia” is how he attempts to explain the fact that he designs ultra-modern, swanky furniture four days a week for an exclusive interiors store, and spends the other three walking around Mumbai with his camera, capturing images of ramshackle chairs and couches. “I live in both realities and enjoy them both,” says the 35-year-old photographer when we meet at the Matthieu Foss Gallery, Mumbai’s first devoted to photography.
Starting 17 February, the gallery will host Datawala’s latest solo show Where the City Rests. As the title suggests, Datawala has aimed to chronicle the city’s resting places. But not many people actually get to do the resting. In most images, the havens which should hold tired limbs are unoccupied or seem abandoned, as if the chaotic city gives no reprieve to its weary inhabitants. Datawala says he shot the scenes as he found them: “I never believe in set-ups.” With dilapidated streets or surroundings as the backdrop, there are images of chairs with broken legs and backs, and twisted seats. Couches lie with their guts spilling out on the streets. There are also pictures of abandoned houses with unclaimed post lying in the dust or unpaid bills stuffed in the metal grill outside the doors.
Camera friendly: Datawala at the Matthieu Foss Gallery which will host his latest solo show; (below) Let it Grow. Kaushik Chakravorty/Mint
Among the more arresting images are those of improvised beds made of scavenged odds and ends—a canvas poster for a television show is tacked on to a broken bed frame. In Let it Grow, a security guard has used two large rectangular flower troughs as the legs for his bed, while a plank laid across them forms the mattress. The point of shooting these makeshift beds, explains Datawala, is to show how “people hire people, but don’t provide place for that person to rest”.
Datawala says he was not trying to make a statement about a certain culture or economic class, and so affluent or middle-class homes are also featured. You and I and Breathturn both feature two comfortable unmade beds, while in Foregrounded, a plump ceramic teapot waits on a wooden table for the residents of the house. There are seven vintage Chanel shoes, all meant for the right foot, lying on an old-style dresser in At Ease.
With these images, Datawala has tried to look beyond poverty, and they are poignant in that they seem to be about loneliness. The street images, on the other hand, are indicative of their owners’ lasting state of fatigue and deprivation, and are much more powerful.
Datawala is showing colour photos for the first time—his previous shows have been in black and white—but he has used colour at such a de-saturated level that besides a faint wash in some images, the pictures look black and white. “I wanted to convey a dream-like feeling, because some people see this aspect of the city, while for some it doesn’t exist,” he says. “I still see the beauty in the dilapidated aspects of the city.”
Besides shots of Mumbai, Datawala has also included a few of Goa. The most optimistic of these is Skinned Music, showing faint outlines of palm trees and villas in the background, while the foreground has lines of washing put up in a field, with a stray dog in the frame. The true impact and brilliance of Datawala’s de-saturated images shows in the pale washes of colour on the drying clothes.
Some of the images will be framed for display on the gallery walls; others will be put in boxes, so viewers have to move around discovering them. There too, he does not want the city to rest.
Where the City Rests will be on at Matthieu Foss Gallery, Ballard Estate, Mumbai, from 17 February to 13 March.