Every time someone got hauled up for a traffic infringement, the dog would run to the car and stand guard, lest the offender escaped. The grateful policemen at the busy junction that connects Fountain to Churchgate in Mumbai appropriately named him Traffic.
Traffic is one of several stray dogs in Mumbai helped by the non-profit organization Welfare of Stray Dogs (WSD). Abodh Aras, chief executive officer of WSD, uses Traffic’s example to explain that the term “stray” does not apply to street dogs. “Most dogs that roam the streets without a collar owe their allegiance to someone—a homeless person, a shopkeeper, or as in this case, traffic policemen,” he says.
WSD decided to bring out a calendar last year with pictures of street dogs regularly encountered by their volunteers. The attempt was, Aras says, to “improve relations between dogs and humans through stories told by the photographs”.
1. Pinky is one of those rare dogs unaffected by firecrackers. It took a while to get this picture at the Islam Gymkhana on Marine Drive, with Pinky looking away from the camera and the flashes from Diwali crackers in the background. She features in November. 2. Chipku (foreground) and Whitey at their favourite bus stop in Borivali. Chipku usually accompanies women from the nearby colony to the bus stop and waits till the bus comes. The two dogs feature in March. 3. Satya’s home was at this cooking gas agency near Famous Studio in Mahalaxmi. The delivery man (in the background) used to take care of Satya, who features in February. 4. Cookie in Chembur is friendly only with two women, who accompanied the photographer Rohan Mukerjee on this shoot. Mukerjee got only three snaps, two while she was sleeping, before she woke up and ran away. Cookie is the face of the month of September. Photographs by Rohan Mukerjee / WSD
Last year, the initial 1,200 copies sold out quickly and another 500 reprints went just as swiftly. Encouraged by the response, WSD decided to do it again this year. Already, only a few hundred of 2,000 copies, priced at Rs150 each, are left. They also added a desktop calendar this time.
“They (the strays) have names, given by people who live in the neighbourhood. They have their own personality, which is what we want to show through the calendar,” adds Aras.
WSD works to sterilize stray dogs, which it believes is the way to control their population. The trust also encourages people to adopt abandoned or homeless dogs.
Photographer Rohan Mukerjee, who works for a non-profit eco-conservation outfit in Amravati, drew on his five-year experience with WSD and selected his subjects with the help of volunteers and local residents. He travelled across the city, from south Mumbai locales of Worli and Priyadarshini Park to the north-central suburb of Chembur and deep north-western Borivali. He looked for dogs with “interesting stories” and found the right moment to shoot them so the picture did not look “posed”. (No dog’s photograph has been used more than once.)
Cookie in Chembur, for instance, was so shy that she would hide every time she saw Mukerjee. After many attempts, the photographer finally found her sleeping behind some bushes. He clicked three frames, the last shot as soon as she woke up to the sound of the shutter, before she went back into hiding. That picture features in the month of September.
His other “models” were not so shy. Pinky (November) at Islam Gymkhana, for instance, was the other extreme, unperturbed by the sound of firecrackers during Diwali, which usually traumatize dogs. Mukerjee shot her sitting calmly as the crackers went off in the background. In Borivali, Mukerjee found Chipku (March), who earned his name because he would follow girls from the colony to the bus stop and wait with them.
Volunteers one day found a new dog, “adventurous” Clipper (May), in Priyadarshini Park on Napean Sea Road. They did not know where he had come from nor how he had managed to make it without being attacked by other territorial strays. Clipper now has an enviable sea-facing “home” and is the face of May in the Welfare of Stray Dogs Calendar.
“I find dogs particularly challenging,” says Mukerjee. “If they don’t know you, then they back off as they find the camera intimidating. If they know you, then they just want to play. Like this dog near Eros cinema in Churchgate who I have never been able to shoot because he would not give me adequate distance.”
The 30-year-old says he had to work hard to get the background right. “I know this deaf-mute man who delivers cooking gas cylinders. He initially cared for two dogs, Kalu and Max. They both died and so he got another one, Satya. He was so good with dogs that I wanted him in the frame as well with Satya. After many attempts, I finally got a good shot of the dog, with the cylinders and him in the background (February),” says Mukerjee who later found out that Satya too has died.
Aras and Mukerjee want to find a different theme for next year. Short on time, they stayed with the subject of the 2009 calendar for this one. They say that the unique love-hate relationship people of Mumbai have with street dogs gives them the scope to experiment.
While civic authorities in the past have believed killing stray dogs is the solution, at almost every street corner, sympathetic pedestrians feed and pet strays. Aras now also dreams of a book, with pictures and text by dog lovers. He is confident that too will be sold out.
The Welfare of Stray Dogs,
C/o Akanksha, Voltas House
‘C’, T.B. Kadam Marg,
Chinchpokli, Mumbai 400033