Mumbai is a city easy to recognize. Its landmarks have heralded the beginning of a million Hindi films. Its skyline is easily identifiable, both in daylight and at night. Herded into buses and trains, guarding glitzy new shopfronts and shepherding declining old trades, walking, crowding, even posing in harmony, its workforce is its most photographed attraction. Mumbai’s appearance changes constantly, but its visual identity somehow remains intact.
“Photographing Mumbai is easy because it’s always crowded; any angle you find will be an interesting one,” says M.S. Gopal, also known as Slogan Murugan, who runs a photo project called Mumbai Paused. Gopal, who moved from Bangalore to Mumbai in 2009, carried with him his interest in street photography. The city burst into technicolour for him, as it has for so many others. But the challenge lay in defamiliarising such a place.
Gopal, with his small Lumix camera, finds and shoots its transitional landscapes. His subjects range from quiet bylanes in busy neighbourhoods to businesses and professions that are phasing out of bustling marketplaces. He photographs suburbs connected with Greater Mumbai through the local railway lines. These places form part of the “new” Mumbai, but have ancient rural histories themselves.
Quotidian city life sometimes becomes the basis for nostalgia kitsch, as cute, trivial reminders of a past whose imagery we can safely reproduce on notebooks and pillowcases. But in Gopal’s photographs we see city life in populated, vibrant, thoroughly everyday spaces. These unvisited but much lived-in neighbourhoods spring to life when we take the time to see them, as the title of his project suggests, in pause.
“Nobody bothers you, except in high-security zones, like around the Taj (hotel),” Gopal says of how easy street photography is in Mumbai. “People are so relaxed about being photographed that it actually becomes a bit of a problem when they start to pose for you.”
No one poses in Dhruv Dhawan’s photographs. He captures Mumbai’s people doing something that deeply contradicts the city’s reputation—sleeping. Over the last year, Dhawan, dressed in black and carting around just a couple of lenses, has walked quietly through south Mumbai—one of the wealthiest urban areas in India—and photographed its homeless.
Ubiquitous but ignored by so many, the people sleeping on Mumbai’s streets are framed in Dhawan’s pictures with both tenderness and respect. There is something anthropological about his lens—Dhawan, indeed, has an academic background in cultural anthropology—but his pictures do not intrude on his subjects. These sleepers are not studied; they are simply made visible.
His photographs frame moments of fitful peace in chronically insomniac public spaces. Dhawan has been asked to leave neighbourhoods where people would prefer not to be photographed, particularly women; he has been questioned by policemen, and in one memorable instance, hauled in for interrogation. But he takes it in stride. “They were just doing their job. I’d be surprised if they hadn’t asked me the questions they did.”
Dhawan knows about the obstacles to photographing in the city too, given its security risks, both real and perceived, after repeated terrorist attacks over the years. But among the people he photographs, in places to which no one really pays attention, he says: “I’ve seen more friendly faces than not. People invited me to sit and chat with them, to eat and drink.”
And in a city that, like the ancient Athenians, neither knows rest nor lets others know it, sometimes, when they wake up, they pose for him too.
M.S. Gopal’s photography can be found on his blog, Mumbai Paused, at Mumbaipaused.blogspot.com
Dhruv Dhawan’s photography can be seen on his website www.film-real.com