September 16, 2009

Coloured Worlds at Cymroza Art Gallery

Bus number 63 operates between Chunabhatti in Kurla and J.M. Mehta Road near Churchgate. The Breach Candy Hospital lies enroute. We could have boarded the bus outside Byculla (West) railway station but chose to hire a taxi instead for Bhulabhai Desai Road, a little under five kilometers from Byculla (W) station. Located in Hormuz Mansion, the Cymroza Art Gallery is across the road from the Breach Candy Hospital bus stop on Bhulabhai Desai road, an up-market address in South Bombay.

We passed Mahalakshmi on the way. Past Heera Panna at Haji Ali circle we turned right. Tirupati Apartments rose to our left at the turn. I kept my eyes peeled out for the seemingly nondescript art gallery tucked away above corner shops on Bhulabhai Desai road, next door to Breach Candy Club and Miami Building on one side, and Battery House and Skyscraper Building on the other. A blue board announces the gallery in white letters. A tree partially obscures the view at an angle. It is easy to miss the gallery if you’re not paying attention or are unaware of the landmarks along the road. Established in 1971, Cymroza Art Gallery is among the city's older galleries.

A short stretch of bustling market largely characterized by residents flocking in the evenings for spicy Chaat and a delectable array of Donuts at the Right Place and Mad Over Donuts respectively lay opposite the gallery.

I remembered this much from an earlier visit to Cymroza when it hosted Mario Miranda’s works. The road is named after Bhulabhai Desai, an erstwhile freedom fighter and an accomplished lawyer active in India’s struggle for independence from British rule.

Designer showrooms, art galleries, exclusive boutiques, and fruit vendors among others line the street. To many their first trip to Bhulabhai Desai road is occasioned by an appointment at the U.S. Consulate General for an American visa. Affluence rests easy on the street and so does style and the stylish in certain pockets. Residents on the street will likely identify more with Bombay than Mumbai.

We were headed to Cymroza Art Gallery for Coloured Worlds, A Photographical exchange between India and Germany, comprising works of photographers Sudharak Olwe and Helena Schatzle.

Helena Schatzle studied visual communication at the University of Kassel for five years, finding her way through India, South-East Asia, Australia and Eastern Europe, her camera keeping her company. Since 2003 her photography has found acceptance with Brand Eins, Spiegal-online,, Taz, Sudkurier and Medio.

Sudharak Olwe is the Chief Photographer with the Bombay Times, his works drawing from his travels through India, Bangladesh, Sweden, Portugal Holland, the U.S., and Japan. He has authored Spirited Souls: Winning Women of Mumbai and was honoured by National Geographic with the All Roads Photographers Award for his work on conservancy workers of Mumbai.

I was unsure of what to expect at the exhibition. With photography exhibitions it is usually a hit and miss affair, more likely a miss than a hit. Each time I hope to be rewarded with images on the Indian street that go beyond the predictable. If it has to be predictable then it might at least be a fresh perspective.

Sometimes, to successfully photograph India on the street you’ve to step off it, into the shade for, it is in the shade that Indian streets make sense in the Sun outside. If you’ve seen Raghu Rai’s works you’ll know what I mean. Steve McCurry did it with some success. The American photographer Betsy Karel tried it with her Bombay Jadoo series, scratching the surface, sometimes barely, other times delightfully, seemingly ‘getting it’ before ‘losing it’ in the next frame and so on. She missed out on the shade and that told in her work. Most miss out on the shade in the street, and they’re legion, Indians and foreigners alike.

India’s pulse throbs as much in the street as off it so I was curious to see how Helena Schatzle, a German photographer from Kassel, approached India through her lens. As for Sudharak Olwe, the Bombay-based photographer trawling the streets of Germany with his lens, prying open the German street to a curious eye would present a difficult challenge, probably having less to do with skill and more with the society’s acceptance of candid photography on the street. At least that is a factor.

Aside of events where purpose infuses a picture with dynamics there’s very little I’ve seen of European or American streets in the works of photographers that can pause a breathing moment into taking in an everyday moment, a moment that would interest a native as much as it would an outsider. It’s anybody’s guess if the Western street, with its notions of privacy and the laws governing it, is conducive to candid street photography anymore.

From Sudharak’s images of Germany it quickly became evident that he didn’t even manage to get to the surface let alone scratch it. If these pictures were not hanging in an art gallery they might’ve been mistaken for works of someone who happened to find himself accidentally offloaded on a German street and eager to get off it. I haven’t seen Sudharak’s earlier works so there’s nothing I can compare with.

Helena Schatzle had no such barrier. The Indian street in most parts is welcoming, and vibrant. Where individual space derives from shared space the ownership of a moment is often that which is snapped up in a candid take by a roving eye looking through a viewfinder.

Helena’s India series was only marginally better. In her case she had the opportunities but rarely the eye except maybe for the life her image from Dhobhighat breathed into the quiet hall. It was a riveting moment. The turbaned washerman gazed fixedly while a mound of clothes beckoned his effort at the washing platform while the colour of his turban lit up the grey of his washing block, contrasting strongly with the rigour of his profession. It helped that I once spent a morning with the dhobhis at Dhobhighat.

Her take on fisherwomen on the beach was close behind. And so was the quiet on the river where a boat stilled the waters while a monkey lorded over the moment in a tree on the banks. Beneath the tree an elderly woman was seemingly finding her steps. This was an India moment. The technical quality of this particular picture left a lot to be desired but the essence more than made up for it.

The rest of her works made little impression. An opportunity missed.

Her choice of a featureless market littered to high heaven with rubbish was inexplicable. And so was a garbage dump. There was no coloured world I could possibly relate to in those two and in a few others as well.

Interest the country to the native and you’re through.

Note: Coloured Worlds: A Photographical exchange between India and Germany is organized by Goethe-Institut, Mumbai and is exhibiting at the Cymroza Art Gallery, 4th-17th September, 2009.

Related Links

1. Coloured Worlds: A Photographical Exchange between India and Germany
2. Goethe-Institut, Mumbai
3. Helena Schatzle’s Work

September 07, 2009

The Doctor is Out

Except on Sundays Dr. K. S. Porwal opens his clinic opposite Digvijay Textile Mills in Lalbaug at ten each morning, leaving for lunch at 1 p.m. before returning to reopen it at six in the evening, continuing until nine in the night before retiring home. Thursday evenings are an exception. He does not return to the clinic. On Sundays it remains closed all day.

His clinic is on the ground floor of an old building in the formerly bustling mill ‘town’ of Lalbaug where Digvijay Textile Mills once employed thousands. In time the mill died, robbing Lalbaug of vitality and most importantly, hope. But once every year Lalbaug comes alive during Ganesh Chaturthi as hundreds of thousands of devotees descend on it over eleven days to offer prayers to Lalbaug cha Raja (The King of Lalbaug), the largest Ganpati around town, actually the largest anywhere. This year the Ganesh Chaturthi festivities in the city kicked off on August 23.

For over seventy years the tradition has survived in Lalbaug. It will survive Lalbaug too now that former mill lands are making way for residential high rises. Lalbaug merits a story of its own, many stories of its own actually. Maybe I’ll return to Lalbaug another time when there’s no music in the air and dancing in the streets.

The queue of devotees come to pay obeisance to Lalbaug cha Raja ran around the corner, past the New Sardar restaurant and Eastern Metal Works, all the way to Byculla station.

We stayed out of the queue. There was much happening on the streets of Lalbaug and I was not about to let my camera rest easy in the confines of the queue for hours on end while it inched along, past the entrance to Digvijay Textile Mills. It was day seven of the Ganesh Chaturthi festival when thousands of households pour into the streets to parade the genial lord on their way to immersing him to the cries of Ganapati Bappa Moraya.

The street was full of people. Trucks stood on standby awaiting families carrying Ganapatis for immersion at Girgaum Chowpatty.

“It is crowded off Dadar so most of us head to the sea at Girgaum,” a man told me in Marathi while the Ganpati he had arrived with was gently hoisted aboard the truck to join other Ganpatis brought by other families heading for immersion. There was much merriment around and much sadness too. In the days that Ganpati graces homes he becomes a part of the family. Imminent separation as per tradition leaves behind many a choking voice.

It began to drizzle. We stepped off the street to shelter on the narrow platform fronting Dr. Porwal’s clinic in an old building. Steps cut into the platform led to the clinic. On either side there was space enough to settle down and watch the world go by. The door was bolted. A well used Navtal lock contrasted starkly against the white of the door. Devotees continued to stream past us. A loudspeaker announced over the festive din, exhorting devotees queuing up for darshan of Lalbaug cha Raja to be beware of pickpockets. Guns holstered, the Police watched over devotees. Every once in a while their wireless sets crackled to life.

A woman passing by stopped in front of the clinic, reached for a piece of paper lodged in the bolt, read it and deposited it back before going her way.

A few minutes later another woman, leading her little daughter, stopped in front of the clinic, reached for the same paper, read it and deposited it back after writing something on the back. We learnt from her that the doctor was probably away at home that day preparing for visarjan (immersion) of Ganpati installed in his house.

After she left, curious, I had a look at the piece of paper that was actually a railway ticket. On the back were scribbled five names of patients who had come looking for the doctor that day.

Later a girl in a colourful orange salwar kameez did likewise, reaching for the paper before leaning over and using the door for support she wrote her name down on the back of the ticket and folding it she wedged it in the space between the lock and the door.

I wondered as to its purpose. Was it to tell the doctor on his return that so many patients had come looking for him? If so why not phone him? Maybe he was not available on the phone. The other possibility was to ensure a queue was in place when the clinic opened the next day. For that to happen all the patients who had written down their names on the back of the railway ticket had to present themselves at the same time when the clinic opened the next day else the list would serve little purpose. Moreover what were the chances of that happening?

Or could it be that if the doctor happened to get to know of the list of patients who came looking for him he might decide to open up earlier assuming someone informed him.

It was apparent that Dr. Porwal’s clinic in Lalbaug was a long time resident on the street, long enough to get to know families well, long enough for families to leave their names on a piece of paper tucked behind the lock.