I was in love with the city, long before I decided to move in here. With the calming sea waves, the chaos on the streets, the other-worldly architecture, its people from all walks of life, Mumbai always has a visual montage to offer. All it needs is mindfulness, observation and attention to see it in its richest and most inspiring form.
It’s the perfect canvas and stimulation for artists and photographers alike. Pick any lane and go for a slow walk. You will be immersed in inspiration. I did a few photowalks like these and they have always been an enriching experience.
The last one I did was suggested and led by my good friend and a passionate photographer, Ronak Punjabi (@ronak_punjabi). Tom Varghese (@the.lightbinder), another curious photographer and friend joined us. The walking route was- meet near CST, walk through the Crawford market, by the Mumba Devi temple to Chor Bazaar.
We started around 8:30 am so the streets had started getting busy. After passing through some Victorian Gothic architecture, we entered the narrow lanes of old Bombay, surrounded by rustic buildings.
The morning light was rich and warm. Shops were being dusted and opened sporadically. After a block, we stumbled upon the most popular spot in that area- the tea stall.
The chai-wala was happily making tea and pouring liquid goodness while chatting with his customers. We asked for his permission to take a few images. He agreed readily but his protective friends started teasing him about how he is being taken advantage of.
One taxi driver who had stopped for tea chuckled and shouted through his window, “Yes, take pictures of him but none of you would buy his tea.” At that, I retorted, “Of course, we will buy his tea. Won’t we?” Ronak and Tom nodded in unison. We took some images to our satisfaction and soon after, we were enjoying hot tea on a Sunday morning.
While walking through the streets, we could not miss the busy barbers in every lane. They were shaving facial hair, cutting damp hair, spraying mist and giving their clients their most groomed looks. Their shack was portable and minimal, just a chair or a step stool and a humble toolkit. Sunday seemed like the perfect day for everyone to get some self-care.
Further down the lane, we found some ready-to-model faces in the form of handcart pullers. Young and middle-aged men were relaxing and chatting with their friends. Probably, work doesn’t start for them until later during the day or it’s meagre on a Sunday. They did not mind posing for a couple of portraits while getting teased by their friends about how they have become a celebrity now.
Then we saw this older handcart puller in the perfect subdued lighting in a narrow lane further down the road. He had a kind, quiet face with beautiful sharp features. Even though he was leaving for his work with a cart filled with jute bags, he obliged us with his time.
We met more interesting people down the road. There were small traders such as the sugarcane juice seller, the streetcleaners, the candy-floss seller, the Bhajan singing old couple, the flower sellers near the Mumbai Devi temple, and the paan sellers, before entering the Chor bazaar.
Most of the people on the streets were welcoming and did not resist having a conversation. They allowed us to click them when asked for permission. It felt like a responsibility to deliver our best work for their precious time and consent. In such elusive moments, if you hesitate, you lose.
In all this, I was also wondering if I would ever do this solo, in India. I can easily interact with strangers and make the first move when it comes to getting a good portrait. But being a female photographer, would I feel comfortable and safe doing it all alone as compared to, in a group. Would I be taken seriously, ridiculed or remarked at? It would be an interesting topic to write about in my next blog.
During this walk, I did get a few inquisitive expressions from a few men on the street but that gave me some intriguing portraits as well. It’s amazing how the expressions change depending on how your subject perceives you as a person. Nevertheless, I am happy because it adds variety to my street portraits.
Coming back to the route, we entered the Chor Bazaar. The light was getting harsher as we were approaching mid-day. We were feeling challenged now. There was the possibility of creating some high-contrast black and white street images. But for some good portrait lighting, we would have to look for open shade scenarios.
It was my first time visiting the Chor Bazaar in Mumbai. Walking through the myriad vintage, lost and found articles, I was regretting why I did not come here earlier. We were intrigued by the hundreds of artefacts, handicrafts, old gadgets, tools, hardware, décor items and whatnot! It was a flea market set in another period of time and space. Amongst those were the interesting people selling and buying the articles. Thankfully, the lane was not crowded. The sellers were in a meditative mood, decorating and dusting their goods for the day.
We were excited but exhausted as it was already three hours since we were on our feet. After taking some environmental portraits and snapshots of the bazaar, we concluded that we need to come here again and early. That way, we can get a more immersive experience of the intricacies of the wonderful Chor Bazaar.
We wrapped up the Photowalk by taking a yellow cab to the old Parsi café and bakery, Kyani & Co. Refreshing cold coffee, freshly made bun maska, chicken puffs and keema pao were the ultimate prizes for the morning. We felt accomplished.
For me, the best part of this area of Mumbai was its people. I loved how approachable and warm most people were during the walk. At the most, they were nonchalant or inquisitive but that did not hurt either. Almost all the people did not mind getting clicked. Some were feeling grateful and flattered for the attention. It won't be an exaggeration when I say that this city is indeed a street photographer’s paradise.
How are people in your city? Have you ever tried street portraits of strangers in your city? Let me know in the comments below.