Rebel with a pause

Gopal M.S. (left), with a passer-by, at Govandi in Mumbai. Photo: Supreet Sapkal  

You walk down this street, every year it’s different,” Gopal M.S. says. “This was an automobile hub. Today it’s restaurants. In two years it could be something else. The city keeps changing, the people keep changing.” We are standing outside a new café on Palm Beach Road — which has few palms and doesn’t border a beach — in Vashi, Navi Mumbai. He is explaining why street photography has unlimited potential. “I haven’t even touched 1% of the city; there are hundreds of stories waiting to emerge.”

This city isn’t his muse, though; that would be the island city we would have seen through the Diwali smog, shimmering across the Thane Creek, if we had been a kilometre or two south. Navi Mumbai is still mostly planned — though redevelopment, with all its pros and cons, has changed the city Charles Correa, Shirish Patel and Pravina Mehta designed — and “better than Bombay to live. Kids can be kids, enjoy their childhood.” But Gopal finds the unruly chaos of Mumbai, which he commutes to for his ad agency job, more visually interesting.


Gopal’s photo journey started in another city, his home-town Bangalore, where he and his wife had moved for work reasons; in 2006, his wife gave him a digital camera as birthday present. Back then, photography was something you reserved for holidays or special occasions, at least in his head. But the point-and-shoot was small enough to slip into his pocket. As he rode to work on his scooter, “If I spotted something interesting, I would stop and shoot: wall paintings, a shop, trees, some story, not the usual parts people shoot. I didn’t realise it, but it was basically what you call street photography today.”

He had a blog, Slogan Murugan, about advertising and politics. “So I started a photoblog: Which Main What Cross (because in Bangalore roads are main roads or cross roads). Within a year, I had 600, 700 posts. It became quite popular. Interestingly, the people who read were mostly regional journalists, because I was shooting pictures others were not, the city that they knew, which you would never see in a movie or newspaper photograph.”

In 2009, the couple returned to Mumbai with their baby son. “I started shooting this city, and started Mumbai Paused.” The next year, he quit advertising to become a photojournalist. A year later he took a reality check. “It was not paying me enough, and the freelancer’s life was a little difficult. So I went back to advertising and since then, have done photography only for my blogs, for fun.”

Digital photobooks

Mumbai Paused, now an Instagram handle, has over 24,000 followers, many of whom have followed him from other platforms. The loyal readership prompted him, last year, to start making digital photobooks. But he chose to bypass the conventional route: no exhibitions, no publisher, not even the well-known online retailers; just his photos, his text, his layouts, and his own site,

The Internet lets you make and sell things, Gopal says, so why not? He wants to destroy conventional publishing. “They are gatekeepers who will not talk to me. You need to be of a certain background, a certain college, a certain community.” Later, mellower, he says, “I don’t blame them: there’s no money in it unless you’re a famous photographer. Photobooks are vanity projects. If you’re a full-time photographer, it becomes your calling card; even if it doesn’t sell, it gives you a name. I don’t need that, because that’s not my job.”

He likes down-playing his identity — most people don’t know the name and face behind the handle, he says — and his skills. He still uses a point-and-shoot, and says, “I’m not a photographer photographer or a writer who writes. I’m just a copywriter, a blogger who takes street pictures.”

The smell of fish

The books are rooted in the blogs where, over time, themes sprout. “I find a pattern, put a hashtag to it, and continue.” Five such e-books have coalesced thus, with photos from his bank plus a few shot for particular books: Plastic People explores consumerism; Vishwakarma documents work; The Ghost of Good Things is about how children play in a city with no space; Aam Artist Gallery is the art of workers; and Mumbai Turmeric is about the Pochamma Panduga festival celebrated in the Kamathipura precinct (the last is free, the others cost ₹100 or ₹350).

And he’s just launched Matsyagandha, which means the smells of fish, which Gopal thinks is the odour that underlays all the other smells of the city. (It is also, he says, another name for Satyavati, a character in the Mahabharata, and the name of an express train that runs down the Konkan coast to Mangalore.) The book tries to pull off a difficult ask: capture olfactory impressions through visual cues. There are fish, of course, fresh, rotting, drying, salted, cooking. And also the smell of work, of worship, of a disappearing past threatened by spaces, of rain, rivers, rust, and rot.

Future books are germinating in the hashtags: #RedRemains, #DalitBlue, #SaffronTide, #IndianMale, #TreesOfMumbai. Or maybe not. But they will about this city; or if life takes him elsewhere, other cities. “Wherever you go, migration to the cities — the city story — is the biggest story in India.”

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Printable version | Nov 29, 2020 11:13:22 PM |

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