June 24, 2007

Outside the Taj

I waited long for the balloon seller that day.

Behind me the stone archway of Gateway of India rose amidst the multitude milling about its base among pani puri, salted peanut, and ice-cream vendors, and looked out on the Arabian sea in the direction of Elephanta caves. Streams of visitors, some regular, others occasional, crowded the Apollo Bunder like they do every day of the week, coming from far and wide to lounge against the stone parapet and look out on colourful vessels, sea-worthy and otherwise, bobbing in the waters off Apollo Bunder.

The road runs by the Taj Palace Hotel where horse driven carriages, known as Victoria, await tourists - families and young couples - visiting the Gateway for a ride on Bombay’s old streets. The stiff breeze bends back their carefully set hair and blows it free, taking away with it inhibitions, and shrieks and excited cries swirl in the competing cacophony of revelers amid the noise of Taxis and sundry vehicles, drowning the sound of hooves cantering on the asphalt to the steady rhythm of the city – never rushed in all the rushing.

It is perfectly possible to be hearing all of this and still be deaf to it all, for such is the atmosphere in the evenings at the Gateway that it floods the senses with the joy of the outdoors, so much so that if not for an accidental glance at my watch I wouldn’t have known that it was over an hour now that I had been waiting for the balloon seller, my camera slung from my shoulder and a bhutta (corn head roasted over coals) spiced with a spit of lemon and chilli in my hand. Rains threatened overhead but hadn’t breached the bank of clouds that now rolled into the harbour. I had set out for the Gateway imagining in my mind just such a setting, only the colourful balloons were missing. All along, the monsoon breeze washed over me, invigorating me with the promise of life. It was then that I first realised that the three chauffeurs outside the hotel The Taj Mahal Palace adjoining the relatively newer Taj Towers hadn’t moved far from their cars in over twenty minutes. I had traveled a long distance by train that day hoping to capture on film the bounce of brightly coloured balloons in the stiff monsoon breeze against the grey of clouds rolling in from the west while faint light played out the evening.

I waited for a break in the traffic before crossing the road to where The Taj Mahal Palace rose from the sidewalk to tower over the skyline in a mix of Oriental, Moorish, and Florentine styles. Three chauffeurs waited by their gleaming black cars, talking. From across the road while I waited for the balloon seller, every once in a while I would pull my eyes away and look up at the majestic hotel, tracing my eyes along its contours, occasionally catching some movement in the rooms that together with the adjoining annexe number over 550. The stone shows no visible signs of aging from looking out to sea since 1903, the year Jamsetji Tata, a Parsi Industrialist, completed its construction to counter European prejudice that had kept Indians out of hotels and clubs frequented by Europeans who looked down upon them as royalty would commoners. The adjoining annexe, Taj Towers, was completed in 1972 and now stands where Green’s Hotel once did.

I find stone magical and it delights me no end to look at stone structures. In my travels across India, meandering in towns from long ago, stone houses seemingly belie the passage of time. I have grown to like the feel that such structures bring to the lanes they reside in. They imbue the locality with a permanence of an optimistic, letting time echo in the bends that curve away beneath Gulmohar or Copper Pod canopies in the middle of spring, washing sidewalks with their blooms and filtering sky light to dreamy hues that promise endless possibilities.

But there are no trees tall enough to tower over the Taj Palace, nor spacious gardens with flowering trees fronting its arches and framed windows. Instead the Taj sits in the middle of the street by Apollo Bunder like a petulant child reluctant to leave behind his candy floss blown asunder by strong monsoon winds. If I were new to Bombay, coming upon the Taj at the turn in a busy street would have startled me for I would least expect such majesty to sit so easily or so it seems among ‘commoners’.


Unknown said...

There is a magic and a majesty to stone structures - buildings, bridges and walls.

gulnaz said...

hey i enjoyed reading that and i like your photographs!

Pearl C. Pritchard said...

What a beautiful writer and photographer you are!

Anonymous said...

Even I was outside the Taj last weekend..but Taj Mahal - in Agra :p.. some pics are up on flickr. :)

Unknown said...

Feels like a different era with all those B&W Photos et al. This is my fav area of Bombay. But Gateway does get crowded on weekends! A lot!

Lakshmi said...

Gateway is one of my favourite haunt in Mumbai...whether to stop by and watch ships or people or for my shoots ..Another favourite is carter road in Bandra .Thanks for the images - both photographic and verbal..they bring back memories

Lakshmi said...

and I must add that I really enjoy your posts ...

kenju said...

Anil, you are such a good writer. You paint images with words and I alwys enjoy viewing them.

I like what you said about stone structures, and I feel the same way about them. Permanence, rooted to the earth, for the ages.

Anonymous said...

Anil, you write so well man, I almost felt like being at 'Gateway of India'. It's been a while I have been there. I guess, you did not get a chance to click the pictures of the balloon seller, though. You must be missing all this, right?

cheers, Shekhar

Dawn said...

Cool writing n pics too

Anil P said...

Seamus: Yes, there is a certain majesty to stone, especially if the stone is not polished and made to gleam. I like a rugged feel to stone used in structures. And prefer sandstone over marble anyday.

India has some magnificient stone temples at Pattadkal, Halebid, Belur, Badami, Hampi in the state of Karnataka.

Gulnaz: Thank you.

Pearl Pritchard: Thank you :)

Twilight Fairy: The Bombay Taj is in the middle of the city street, right in the middle :)

Smita: Black and White reels back time for sure. It's a nice place to be. I would have preferred fewer people there than what one sees there on weekends.

Backpakker: Thank you. Yes, memories, nothing quite like them. More so if that landmark is one that a Bombayite has grown up with over a period of time, and seen it in innumerable Bollywood Hindi films picturing The Gateway of India in song and dance sequences.

There is even an old B&W Hindi Film from 1957 called 'Gateway of India' starring Bharat Bhushan, Pradeep Kumar, Madhubala, Raj Mehra, and Johnny Walker. :)

Kenju: Thank you. It's been a pleasure to know that you enjouy reading my travel accounts and pictures.

One other thing stone ensured is that stone structures in various parts of India are drawn from stone locally available, making for a diverse architecture and aesthectics across the country.

So, in Jaipur we have an unforgettable shade of pink, Goa abounds with Laterite structures, and Karnataka showcases, possibly unparalleled anywhere in the world, some of the most exquisite sandstone temples ever created.

Shekhar: Thank you :) No, the balloon seller did not turn up that day. Maybe he had sold off his stock by the time I arrived. Missing very much indeed :)

Dawn: Thank you.

anish said...

true, stone is the material of grace, style and beauty. That what I keep telling friends... how can there be any beauty in concrete!! Thank god at least some parts of bombay still retain their old-world charm.

Ms.N said...

Was by the Gateway and Taj just last sunday.... and if i may say so, the whole area is majestic! and more so at night.... and i absolutely hated myself for leaving my camera behind... next time for sure !

lovely description of the place!

Shantanu said...

I have been here and strolled around, so I get the feeling completely. But you describe the experience so well! Another great post.

BTW, I have tagged you in my blog. Hope you play along.

dharmabum said...

i been there too and all i could look at was the sea. this is a beautiful perspective, worded even more nicely. such a pleasure being here anil. wud like to join u in one of your sojourns someday...:)

Hermit Chords said...


It's difficult for me to explain this, but there is a silence about your photographs, especially in this post and the previous, that I find very beautiful. Do you use a prime lens? Which camera do you use? I'm a software specimen who's trying to start life afresh; what you're doing in these posts is similar to what I've always wanted to do. Let me know if I can email you to know a little more- I don't see your ID on the blog page.


Kay Cooke said...

Stone buildings have a symmetry and a ruggedness I admire too. Thanks for the great post - as always.

Lakshmi said...

Thats interesting Anil...didnt know there was a film...yes the famous song in CID has made Mumbai popular featuring Johnny Walker is all that I remember .. by the way I love seeing cities picturised in the old B & W movies...there is a certain feel abt them

Shruti said...

Travelling notes always attracts me..
Lovely narration..

Take care..

Mridula said...

Anil, though I loved the piece as usual, why did I feel it was incomplete? I guess because I thought the balloon person will finally arrive or I expected a chat with the drives :) Lovely piece still.

Anil P said...

Anish: Very true. In parts of old cities around India, more so in the South of India, homes were built from stone. I have stayed in some of these houses. Try leaning against their stone walls in the summer. I used to do so in my vacations from school, feeling the uneven edges digging into my back :)

Ms. N: Thank you. In Bombay a camera is a must. There are so many things happening all at the same time.

Shantanu: Thank you. I'll try and pick up the tag, would have preferred a travel tag though :) The next time you're around there, check the attar shop a further way up from the Gateway. If I recollect well, the name of the shop is 'Inshallah Mashallah'.

Dharmabum: Sure, why not. You're welcome to. Thank you. I tend to meander a lot at a spot though :)

Hermit Chords: Thank you. Yes, you got it correct. I do look for a certain silence in places I photograph, to try and capture a stillness that freezes the moment.

I used a Nikon FM10 fitted with a Sigma 28-110 mm lens for all the pictures on the blog until now. Couple of them were shot using a Quantaray 500 mm. I'll be using a Nikon D80 outfitted with a Tamron 28-300 mm lens for forthcoming posts.

It's nice to know that this is what you would like to pursue, keep going.

Chiefbiscuit: Very much so. Thank you.

Backpakker: I couldn't agree more. I like the old B&W hindi films. Like you said, not only is there a certain feel to them, I find their innocence very appealing, a certain freshness that is timeless. And some of those scripts are structured very well. Moreover I always felt it is more of a challenge to film a movie in B&W than in colour.

Shruti: Thank you.

Mridula: Thank you. Maybe you're right after all. The balloon seller did not turn up that day. I have his pictures from a previous trip.

They were immersed in their talks that I thought it best not to interrupt them. And I was too busy trying to get the 'proper' angles 'on them'. :)

bluemountainmama said...

i agree with the above comment that these photos seem from a different era. i really like these black and whites....they capture the subjects perfectly. although i would love to see the colorful balloons someday. maybe you'll catch them next time... :)

inspired said...

interesting ;o]

GMG said...

Interesting post and beautiful B&W pictures!

Anonymous said...

I like so much how the photos are framed with the faces of the drivers at the base of the buildings as well as the timelessness (and urbanity) of choosing black and white for the city scene.

Red said...


You have been tagged by me. please read http://tambramred.blogspot.com/2007/07/tagged.html and do the needful !!



Lakshmi said...

Talking about black and white pics and memories...I found some old B&W photographs from my college days, an assignment actually for my photography class ...inspired by your post...I'm going to post some of them , just for ole times sake

Anil P said...

Bluemountainmama: Someday, hopefully. There're enough children visiting the Gateway of India for the balloon seller to stay away. Actually I do have his pictures from an earlier trip but they're on transparencies.

The tricky thing is that not all scenes lend to black and white photography.

Inspired: Thanks.

Gmg: Thank you.

Taylor: Thank you. Urban landscapes do lend themselves well to B&W photography, only the elements need to fall into place. Try checking out Raghu Rai, the Indian photographer par excellence. In 40 years I doubt if anyone has captured the essence of India in B&W the way he has.

An Ienger Chick: Thank you. But I do wish it was a travel related Tag!

Backpakker: That would be wonderful indeed, will look forward to see what you'll come up with. Do let me know. Thank you.

Lakshmi said...

hi anil ..Ive posted one set of them ..not too much of story telling there , but the pics themselves are old and rusty .....ive got some more left, but they are all old prints and need to be scanned ..bit of a writers block now ..:)

Anil P said...

I'll be taking a look.

Mark R said...

Yes, the Taj Hotel is an inspiring building.

Indeed, I've often wondered why the Gateway seems to be preferred by tourist organisations and the like, when they seek an icon for Mumbai.
The Taj is surely more representative of the city, especially when you have in mind its story, and then compare it to the story of The Gateway

Anil P said...

Mark Righter: I agree with you. Thanks.