The gaze of the salesperson

When you look at a person from behind the viewfinder of your camera, you sometimes find an appraising gaze looking back at you. Such eyes belong to people who make a living by selling. I like long zooms for such photos, because you can see the initial appraisal still going on. The featured photo is of two auto drivers in Ujjain, a really ancient temple town. For about two thousand years the locals have made a living from the people who pass through. The best salesmen survive; others move away.

A colonial-era town in Myanmar may not have quite the same history of trade, but the calculation behind the cheerful call of the women trying to sell you a snack is clear. As you can see in this photos, their eyes appraise you, and the smile switches off the moment it is clear that you are not buying.

A walk through pre-Diwali street markets is always productive. In this photo, the young man, probably a recent arrival to Mumbai, is still trying to figure out whether a man with a camera is a likely target for a sales patter about fluffy toys. I wouldn’t have bought one, but I’m more excited by the neon pandas than the plush pikachu.

This photo of a man in Jodhpur’s market is one of my favourites. He’s pretty sure that I’m not part of this target demographic, but he’s still interested in figuring me out. I probably fall at some borderline between the various categories of tourists who visit the town.

An uncertain place

Watson’s Hotel, later called the Esplanade Building, was built between 1867 and 1869. It is the world’s oldest cast iron building. For years it looked like it would fall down at the slightest touch. Something is happening to it now, behind high barriers. I can see a scaffolding above the blue metal sheets. I hope it is repairs and renovation rather than demolition. It’s been a Grade II heritage structure for decades, but that did not apparently force anyone to keep repairing it.

The Doors: One More Time

Your ballroom days are over, baby
Night is drawing near
Shadows of the evening
Crawl across the years

Regensburg, Germany

Yeah, walk across the floor with a
Flower in your hand
Trying to tell me no one understands

Jantar Mantar, Jaipur, India

Trade in your hours for a handful of dimes
Gonna’ make it, baby, in our prime
Come together one more time
Get together one more time

Jorasanko, Kolkata, India

Hey, come on, honey
You go on along home and wait for me, baby
I’ll be there in just a little while

Punakha Dzong, Bhutan

You see, I gotta go out in this car
With these people and
Get together one more time

Amer Fort, India

Love my girl
She lookin’ good, lookin’ real good
Love ya, come on

by The Doors

Featured photo: car doors, vintage Ford at the Mumbai Vintage Car Rally

Mumbai- an overview

Each and every time when the plane begins its descent into Mumbai I feel excited about it. Coming back to the city I live in is always exciting, whether I’m back from a weekend in the deep jungles of Central India, a holiday in a big city in some other part of the world, a relaxing time in the middle heights of the Himalayas watching the sun rise over the world’s highest peaks, or the fussiest week of work away from home. Not for me the ennui that comes from the realization that I can have only four hours of sleep before I have to get in for a meeting. On the first day back in Mumbai even that work seems exciting.

As the plane glides over the densely packed apartments in the suburbs, the vast stretches of high density housing clutching desperately to hillsides (only to slide off sometimes in the monsoon) I realize that I am in a minority here. For some the four hours of sleep are a part of their daily routine. But even so, there is something miraculous about an enormous mass of people so focused on work that everything goes like clockwork. You don’t find this in Delhi, Kolkata, Bengaluru. So, as the plane slides over the blue tarp covered roofs on hillsides, the multi-storied acres of the suburbs, as a taxi speeds past the stalled development in mid-town, I love coming home.

But which part do I love? The calm oases of gardens, full of flowers and trees, birds and insects? Or dense crowds, sometimes a crush? Everything, I suppose. I started carrying a camera in my backpack years ago to capture every mood of the city. I’m glad that over the years that equipment has shrunk to a little phone in my pocket. Mumbai offers an unending cascade of images, if that’s what you are after.

Or, if you want, there are lovely restaurants and specialty food shops. Once upon a time, word of mouth was the uncertain means of getting to know them. Now, of course, the right new is just a thumb swipe away on your phone. There are foods, fusion of India and the world (Lebanese influenced on the left, Norwegian inspired on the right), which you cannot get elsewhere. I see a touch of this in Bengaluru too, a smidgen in Delhi, but the taste for the new is definitely more widespread in this city. It gives odd hybrids, but some really good stuff.

I know a few people who visit once a year, and love to walk the streets of Mumbai, looking for the odd and zany. One of them told me of a street vendor selling used dentures. I haven’t seen something that crazy. But the oddest of graffiti (why would you even bother to write down that particular stray thought?) or odd evidence of constant hustle (not exactly a Lincoln Lawyer, yet) can come your way even when you aren’t looking. That’s why a camera in your pocket is useful.

Hustle is the way of life in the city. The guy around the corner from your workplace, the chap who serves you the best vada-pav in town, or the bhel-puri guy setting up his stall there, they are all in the city seeking fortune. They are totally focused on it, like the cabbies who take the late night shift and have time to talk to you. They come here, thinking of making money and going back to their failing farms. But they stay. Their wives come to the city a few years later, they raise their children, who, sometimes, get the kind of job they want. But they never go back to the dust bowl they left behind. If you really look, under the blue tarp roofs you will find the Indian middle class. Everyone else in the city is the one percent, even if they spend two hours commuting to work, or think hard before buying their first phone in five years.

That’s Mumbai for you, the Mumbai of an old film song in the voice of Mohammad Rafi and Geeta Dutt. That’s the Mumbai that doesn’t stop even when terrorists attack. Hustle drives Mumbai. Everyone came here to find fortune, the Portuguese, the British East India Company, the Scotsmen who followed, the Armenians, the Baghdadi Jews, the Parsis, the Chinese traders. And it will remain the happy hunting ground of fortune seekers until the sea reclaims the city that was raised on the sea bed. It’s this transient place that I love coming back to.

Night Market, Ramnagar

Our train deposited us at Ramnagar railway station an hour before its scheduled arrival time. Not only was this unprecedented, it was also unwelcome. I certainly hadn’t had enough sleep to be able to spend the day watching tigers. We staggered out of the station with our baggage and into a taxi. I needed a chai, but wasn’t sure that I could get one at this time. I was surprised.

A night market seemed to be in progress right outside, on the sides of the highway that led to Corbett, Ranikhet and further north. One food cart was ready with the usual trimmings: chai boiling in a pan, ready to be poured into the usual thick-walled glass, eggs and bread for a quick omelette, or the packet of instant noodles. The man looked sleepy as he looked up at my phone, and I felt quite as tired as him.

Fruits, a quick meal, and packaged food seemed to be the big thing here. I was slow in interpreting what I saw. I looked for bananas and oranges, a few apples. Food in these jungle lodges can be very good, but usually lack a bit in fruits. I found several carts and distributed my custom between them.

Eventually it struck me that there were too many people on the road. Could they all be going to the jungle? I didn’t think eco-tourism had caught on so widely. I eventually realized that this was a day for a pilgrimage, and people from several districts around here had arrived to visit a temple which stood in the middle of one of the rivers which thread the western Terai before they merge into the Ganga. The number of eco-tourists was miniscule.

Managing crowds

In the featured photo I wanted to capture a story of resilience in the face of the enormous economic turmoil that the pademic brought. These two women had probably lost their incomes, but, between waves, they had started a new business: catering quick lunches for office goers from the back of their SUV. The womens’ faces are roughly at the points where the horizontal and vertical thirds intersect. Horizontal and vertical lines of thirds divide the picture into nine rectangles. The interior of the car sits in the middle rectangle, where your eye first lands, before it is drawn away to the visible faces, and then to the bananas in the lower right rectangle, and finally the off-camera man with his open wallet. There is movement in the photo, but knowing the rule of thirds makes sure you are not distracted by these compositional rules as you take the photo that you want. Rules of composition are always useful. We use a fullstop to tell people where a sentence ends. It makes reading easier. I don’t break this rule, ever, … unless my thoughts interrupt themselves. The rule of thirds is also a compositional rule. You use it as much as you need to. Any rule is meant to make communication easier, not to distract you endlessly. What is important is the message you want to give. Especially in shooting street scenes, you need to do things fast. Practice the rules, but don’t let them distract. Distil the scene in front of you to an image as quickly as possible.

After the first wave most people thought the pandemic was over. Just before Christmas day of 2020 I took this photo in a lovely open space outside Panchgani. Nothing much to the photo if you see it out of context: just ordinary people out having a nice time. But knowing the date gives you a sense of how forced this spontaneous fun was. I had my eyes on the couple and the photographer. As soon as the second couple walked past, I realized that I had my image, and clicked. The rule of thirds is roughly achieved, each couple is aligned along the vertical third. The face of the man in front is at the intersection point of the lines of thirds. He looks back at the photographer, leading your eye there, and from him to the other couple.

A year before that, on a crowded beach in Kochi, I captured two fishermen playing a game of chess. Tourists were busy taking photos of the Chinese fishing nets behind them. I took time off to watch this game. The background was too crowded and busy and I didn’t know how to bring out a sense of two people battling. Then one of them made a move that the other didn’t like, and I got my photo. The man’s open mouth is at the intersection of two lines of thirds. The other person’s hand is at the diagonally opposite intersection. The man’s eyes give you the movement that is essential in a photo. The tension is more important than the rule. Use the rule, but don’t be lost in it.

China is full of people taking photos. I began to develop my ideas on ambush photography in China: it gives you a sense of what life there is like. Here’s a couple on the city wall of Nanjing, posing for their wedding shoot. Standing well away from their photographer and his crew, I got this shot which looks like they posed for me. The photography crew was moving back and forth, the couple were walking. I didn’t have time to measure the picture space (I switch off the guide lines on my viewfinder; they distract) but clicked. The woman’s face is at the intersection of the lines of thirds. The slight fog behind them sets them off from the city, and I was really lucky with the light. November 2019, China. A poignant photo.

A few days later, in Wuhan, another wedding shoot, and another opportunity for ambushes. This spot in front of the Old Customs House was always crowded with photo crews. I had to work quickly to isolate my subjects. I’d spent a few days in the most crowded places in the city, and I was feeling a little under the weather. I put it down to tiredness, as I took this photo. The photography crew takes the center of the photo, but I created a little movement by placing the couple’s faces in the intersection of the line of thirds, and balancing it with empty grey space at the lower right. There’s a personal addendum to the story of this photo. A few months later, when the media was saturated with advise on how to tell if you have been infected, I realized that I’d already been infected when I took it. Too many symptoms matched for it to have been anything else. I spent the next few days feeling very tired, and unwilling to drag myself out of bed. Fortunately, I’d begun to recover by the time I caught my flight back.

I don’t take street photos in portrait mode very often, but this one needed me to turn the camera round. On a visit to Ujjain in July 2018, on the banks of the Shipra river, one of the holiest of places for Hindus, I got this image of the patriarchy which is part of the religion. In the center is a linga, being worshipped by a young, perhaps newly married, young woman. She is in colourful clothes, matching the flowers that she’s putting on the linga. Behind her is an old widowed lady in her mandated white. Without thinking much, I put the young woman’s face at an intersection of two lines of thirds, the other woman’s hand at another. The barge below draws the eye towards the empty third of the photo. Don’t be distracted by rules, use them as you tell the story that you see in front of you.

An odd thing happened on the way to the forum

Can’t you even go out to buy a loaf of bread without being waylaid by something odd? Two lanes across from the High Court, this notary public has come to public places. The sun shade over the car is reassuring. At least you know that the chap is not ready for a quick get away.

I wonder whether he gets the same parking spot every day? I should take this route to the baker again and check.

Walking, waking

When The Family told me I was looking like a couch potato, sprawled across a sofa, remote in hand, binge watching Network, I realized it was true, and I wasn’t really enjoying myself. I’d stopped going out in the wave of omicron infections which swept the neighbourhood. But that had passed in two weeks. It was time for a walk again. So, after finishing my meetings in the afternoon I went out for a walk from Kala Ghoda to VT through the small lanes that thread the old business area of Mumbai. Right at the start I realized that the city was recovering well from the pandemic. The stock exchange and the high court must have just closed for the day, and the streets were filled with brokers and lawyers having a small celebratory snack.

Business was starting up again. The numbness after the horrendous second wave seems to have disappeared after third. The city is almost fully vaccinated, and the lesson that vaccines protect effectively has been learnt. A new shop was being built in this road behind the stock exchange. I looked at the moon gates under construction. They looked incongruous in the four-storeyed Art Deco building called Seksaria Chambers. As soon as you look up you see the clean sweeping lines, the beautiful geometric detailing, the simple but elegant rectangular windows of this 1930s era style. Some changes have accumulated on the upper floors: box grills around windows, ugly air conditioning units, but unlike the street level, the architecture is still visible. Just across the road is a building in which the grand sweep of the Arts Moderne style of Surya Mahal is hidden behind boxy windows tacked on later. Interestingly, the architects in Mumbai often used corrugated metal to protect against rain. That feature is still visible at the top of the buildings.

I went around the stock exchange on a road which is lined with more Art Deco on one side and the old style traditional architecture on the other. Fort Chambers C has a delightful terrace grille just above the street level. Just across from it is a nameless but wonderful old building. I often stop to admire the structure: cast iron beams and pillars bear the load of a superstructure made from wood and sheet metal. The metal has been worked to reproduce the look of traditional wooden fretwork. I wish this modernization of the traditional style had been worked out fully. But, like its contemporary cousin, Art Nouveau in the west, it was arrested by the new construction techniques that were invented in the next decade. Just before the style died, it began to take on the more minimal looks that you see in the balconies just across from it (the last photo in the set above). This T-junction in the road is one of my favourite places to stand and muse about the turns that architecture never took.

This area is deserted enough in the evenings for guerilla artists to constantly try something new. The last months have been quiet, though I did find one piece of street art which I hadn’t seen before.

I stopped to pick up a coffee before walking on. Some months ago I’d photographed a restaurant which I thought had closed forever (photo on the left above). Now it has opened again. The place has a new signboard, and every surface has been repainted. I take it to be a hopeful sign. The city seems to be coming back to life.

Walking on I came to an older part of town, perhaps half a century older. The two parts are separated by a Parsi memorial in the center of a cross road. On Sundays the junction becomes a cricket ground. Now it was a place full of hawkers and scooter repairmen. I threaded between them to take a photo of one of the Parsi sphinxes around it. I’d never noticed before that its flowing moustache and beard hide a receding chin.

This the older part is Bora Bazaar, an area built before the spaces around it were cleared for the new construction during the cotton boom caused by the American civil war. Today I was not interested in the monumental offices and government buildings that came with the boom. Instead I looked at the homes built by the newly rich. In the 1880s, as F. W. Stevens and his ilk were developing the Indo-Saracenic style (you can see a bit of it in a dome of the GPO in a photo below), the native Indian architecture had already started on the upward expansion that Mumbai still retains. Four and five stories became more common as the traditional stone was replaced by lighter brick. These brick walls still carried the lovely ornate wooden box balconies that you see across western India. Notice the beautiful traditional roof line in the photo, raised high above the street. The regular rows of simple rectangular windows on the side face are innovations adopted in the city from the British. This was a lovely new style, which I wish had developed into the 21st century. The wooden window frames migrated for a while into Mumbai’s Art Deco style, but eventually disappeared as pre-fab elements became available.

The roads were beginning to empty out. The pandemic mentality is not completely gone. People still go home early. A last chai, a vada pav before the commute, and then cross the road to CST to catch a train; that’s the to-do list for most people. I could just walk back home. This had been better than binge watching an inane serial.

Akali

When we entered the gates of the Golden Temple I immediately spotted the armed Akalis in their distinctive blue and saffron gear. Traditional histories of this armed sect trace them to Baba Fateh Singh, the youngest son of the Guru Govind Singh. In the early 18th century, when the Sikhs battled the Mughal empire, he and his brother, Baba Zorawar Singh, are said to have formed an elite band of fighters. Other histories trace their origin to the Akaal Sena founded by the Guru Hargobind Singh, the sixth Guru, in the 17th century. The ferocity of this militia earned them the epithet of Nihang, a word which means either a crocodile or a sea monster in Persian.

The traditional uniform of the Akali/Nihang soldier was designed so that different parts could be used to stab, slash, or maim. Most of these weapons are still worn by Akalis today as miniature symbolic pieces. I saw a few shops around the temple complex which were selling some of these symbols. There is no longer an unified line of command now. For almost two hundred years now, in the absence of a real enemy, they have fissioned into different deras, each with a different leader. Their lifestyle, and commitment to arms and warfare sets them at odds with a settled society. The sect is somewhat controversial, sometimes in the news for involvement in violence. The deep blue clothes with saffron turban and sashes are part of their traditional clothing. The blue is said to symbolize courage, the saffron, sacrifice. The intention is certainly noble.

People of Amritsar

As soon as you enter the doors surrounding the Golden Temple of Amritsar you see the devout. We entered from the east, with the setting sun in front of us. All around the lake people were facing the temple with a beatific look on their faces. The lake water was clean, perhaps kept clean not only by the filters around it, but also by fish which attracted the cormorants and kingfishers that I saw.

We’d been thinking of a trip to Amritsar for several years, and mid-December seemed to be a good time for it finally. I’d imagined spending a long time around the lake, scoping out good views, waiting for the right light. I was down in the dumps when I read that photography is not allowed in the temple. Even though I was ready to travel without equipment, The Family convinced me not only to take it with me to Amritsar, but also to carry it when we went to the temple. Amar, the chatty Sikh who drove us to the temple told me that I was allowed to take photos anywhere in the temple except inside the Harmandir Sahib. The coir mat and cold marble on which I was supposed to walk felt like billowy clouds under my feet when I understood that.

Two conventions are strictly enforced when you enter. You have to be barefoot, no shoes no socks, inside the temple. And your head has to be covered, not with a cap but by a piece of cloth, either a simple piece tied as you see in the photos here, or in the form of a turban. There is an advise to be dressed simply. This threw me, but we interpreted it to mean that we should avoid conspicuous red clothes. We were also familiar with a dress code that many places of religion enforce, which is to wear clothes which cover your arms and legs. In any case, it was cold enough that I had to wear jeans and a sweater. The Family decided to wear a salwar and kurta, with a dupatta to cover her head, and a warm shawl against the cold. We were dressed like the thousands of others that we saw. Masks were another point of concern. We could keep our masks on except when we stood in front of the Adi Granth.

One of the pleasures of people watchers like me is to take ambush photos. These are photos of photographers and their subjects. There was ample opportunity for that. I was glad to find couples looking for the best angles for selfies. They are so absorbed in their quest that they never notice, or even mind, a photographer using them for local colour.

I was not so certain about what the guards armed with pikes would think about being photographed. But once one of them smiled at me and told me that I should stop taking a photo as close to the Harmandir Sahib as I happened to be, I realized that they were as polite as any other guards. A few steps away I managed to take the ambush photo of a guard watching a group of young men taking photos of each other against the temple.

That blue uniform of the guards looked wonderful with the Golden Temple in the background, but the light was hard to manage. In this photo I was happy to catch the trio in an unguarded moment, just being the young men that they are. The colours turned to be an added visual interest.

That light is just what I’d been imagining I would spend days trying to get. I was so fortunate that our first visit to the Golden Temple was in that golden hour of the day when every image seems to be magic. Walking around the Golden Temple I realized that I’d been missing street photography for half a year. This was a great place to re-enter that immersion in images of crowds.

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