In search of Bombay

Sooni Taraporevala’s latest show liberally dips into a 40-year old archive, tracing what has changed and what remains in the city that she calls her own

October 13, 2017 08:16 pm | Updated 08:17 pm IST

Every city photographer worth her salt, who has walked through blazing afternoons and balmy evenings through streets and bylanes looking and hoping to make an image, would know what a world of surprises these spaces hold. Unpredictability is part of the draw when one steps out into the street, armed with a camera, a keen pair of eyes and an open mind that’s raring to soak in all that might be thrown at you. Life on the street unfolds before you in all its glory and mayhem, one moment at a time. You could be cued in well enough to catch it or distracted enough to lose it, but know that the moment won’t repeat itself in the exact same way ever again. There’s no prep here, no rehearsals and no double takes, for the street is nothing but pure theatre of the absurd playing itself out. Bracing up, racing against yourself to get a glimpse through the eye of your lens, you can decide to dive in, head-on into the midst, or glide in gently, inching in slowly from the fringes towards this whirlpool of ceaseless bustle.

A Home in the City, photographer, screenwriter and filmmaker Sooni Taraporevala’s new show, recalls her tryst with and trajectory within this city of chaos and calm, which she calls home. Opening today in collaboration with Sunaparanta, Goa Centre for the Arts, (where it will eventually travel to next), the show is supported by patrons Dipti and Raj Salgaocar and curated by writer Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi. The 100 odd images, of what was then Bombay and as it is today, give you a ringside view to the life and times of the city, through its streets, culture, people and spaces over the years.

Exploring home turf

Taraporevala’s journey of documenting the city started in 1977 when she first took to making photographs in and around the streets. Equipped with a Nikorrmat, “the cheaper version of Nikon”, bought with money borrowed from her Harvard University roommate, a homesick Taraporevala returned home on a leave of absence for a semester, “ostensibly to take pictures”. And pictures take she did, of an almost empty Marine Drive - save for a camel and a lonely white fiat chugging along, of horse carriages lined up on a street or a barely recognisable Queen’s Necklace that resembles more an airstrip with lights shimmering off the night sea. There is an unbridled freeness in these initial images, a freshness of a way of seeing that makes it easy to guess that these were Taraporevala’s very first set of photographs. The show spans work created over the past four decades of the artist’s career, from her days of ambling around the city, to film stills that she was commissioned to shoot, to images made of her family and back again to her favourite haunts - Girgaum Chowpatty and Marine Drive.

Everyday beauty

“It’s usually a moment, or a situation or a hint of a story in the photos, like you spin a story around that moment…I think I always isolate individuals within crowds”, elucidates Taraporevala on what she is most drawn to in a scene. Her peopled frames tell of the artist’s ease of being in a crowd and still being able to get a frame with a definitive central point of focus. Even images that might look like quick snapshots at the first go, have a structure and a balance of content. Reminiscent of a Bombay as seen in popular Amol Palekar movies of the 70s, her earlier images are also a realisation of the irreversible – of windows at the Taj Mahal Hotel which will never be flung wide open without a care again, or the promenade at Marine Drive that one wouldn’t find empty unless its in the wee hours of the morning.

A return to the days of yore always runs the risk of obvious love that stems from our affinity to nostalgia. But one only needs to look at work made by some of the most revered names in street photography to understand the elements that aggregate nostalgia. From William Klein, Helen Levitt, Garry Winogrand, Joel Meyerowitz to Saul Leiter, Henry Cartier Bresson and Raghubir Singh himself who mentored Taraporevala, they have all shot their cities, be it New York, Paris, Bombay or Benares, with an insider’s knowledge. Images of children at play, people on their way to work, reflections of passersby, the curious gaze of the bystander or the ennui of a streetside vendor/shop-owner, their images are not just mere moments caught in the right fraction of time and light, but also a study in un-choreographed real life drama and the beauty of the everyday.

Past continuous

Looking through Taraporevala’s images, you can not only find yourself asking when was the last time you spotted a country bar in the city, or caught little boys playing with toy-guns but also what might have taken their place today. Even images of a superstar at a premier are less an ode to his persona and more noteworthy for its recording the awe a fan feels in a real life encounter with a star. In a film still from The Perfect Murder, a young Naseeruddin Shah shares a light moment with his co-star Stellan Skarsgård. The photograph is clearly made mid-shooting on what looks like a chai-break, with the actors in shirts drenched and sticking to their lean frames wiping the sweat off their faces. Far from glamorous, moments like these are a celebration of the real, of realism, of humanity with all its oddities and flaws as opposed to the created candidness that pervades today’s everyday. The only Photoshop really put to use in Taraporevala’s work is in cleaning up scratches and marks made over the course of time on some of the older negatives.

True to style

Without any glaring markers separating the digital from the analogue, Taraporevala’s images made as recently as two to three years ago resemble her older work in content, composition and form. “The reason why you’re not able to make out which is contemporary and which is past is because I don’t think my style has changed and I’m sort of shooting the same way as I did 40 years ago. I’m pretty boring that way!”, she chuckles, adding, “The same things interest me…”.

Save for the one odd new structure looming in the background or an absence of grain – which she claims she isn’t a big fan of anyway, the images are a cohesive lot. Taraporevala’s newer work, shot on her Leica Monochrome shoots only black and white, adding another layer of homogeneity to the work. She unexpectedly turns out to be quite fond of digital technology, a rarity among photographers in general and especially most of the experienced ones that one is likely to come across. She explains, “…in the old days shooting Tri-X (Kodak Tri-X, a popular film used by most photojournalists/documentary/ street photographers, back in the day)…one, I could never print more than 16/2o. The image just won’t hold up. But now thanks to digital technology, you can scan those same negatives, or those same prints and blow it up to any size. For me that is just fabulous. That is why I’m able to have this show,” she reasons, asserting how this would’ve been an impossible feat in the pre-digital era. She also stresses on her love for shooting on really wide apertures and high ISOs without having to worry about any distortion, grain or noise.

Large prints and small, grain or no grain, Taraporevala’s show has the promise for anyone who’s looking for the Bombay in Mumbai.

A Home in the City opens today at Chemould Prescott Road until October 31

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