Still Bombay

Image Courtesy – Mayur Tekchandaney

Still Bombay

Mayur Tekchandaney’s Still Bombay traces a trail of light through the city, capturing it just as it is waking up to the day. Caught in soft halos at dawn and dusk, are rare moments of stillness in a city that can be hard to imagine without its everyday bustle. The book started on a series of therapeutic walks, growing into an archive of over 18,000 photos that document the many shades of life across Bombay, from its arterial suburbs to its lesser-known villages. “The book isn’t functional, not in the sense that you can use it to see the sites. But there is an instinctive mood here,” Mayur shares. The mood is Bombay, seen through an intimate lens that pays attention to happy accidents of colours and patterns. 

Still Bombay is an unflinching love letter to its canvas, even as it considers deeper questions of sharing space, infrastructure and light in a relentless metropolis. We spoke to the artist about the work, both behind and beyond the camera, that a book of such breadth calls for. 

How did you start taking photographs?
I am a little bit of a dreamer. Sometimes, I’d like a certain way light is falling on something, or I’d like a certain image for how it made me feel. They always tend to be images of everyday life. I look for something that is calm, less dramatic, that is the kind of image I am drawn to. I was always seeking these out through my day. Even when I was travelling or commuting, I would notice details in architecture, how light fell on clothes drying in the balcony. I would notice quiet moments. Life in cities can be quite chaotic, so these were my escape. So, when I did pick up a camera, that’s the sort of image that appealed to me. I am not a photographer – I learned photography while doing it. I was able to find patterns in things which shaped the kind of photograph that I liked taking. Then, I just kept at it. 

Many of these photographs came from walking around the city in the early hours. What is it about Bombay at this time of the day that makes it different from Bombay at its busiest, or Bombay at night?
It’s quieter. Bombay is a geographically beautiful place. It’s by the coast, it’s islands. But not all of it is pretty. To be able to extract its beauty, I needed some mind-space, some time, and a little less traffic and noise around me. What I wanted to do for sure, was paint a pretty picture of Bombay. I was making a document, but I wasn’t trying to be journalistic in any way. I was trying to be impressionist with my work. In the morning, the light is much more complimentary because it’s tropical, so the sun is up. Once it’s twelve, the direct sunlight means images automatically have a lot more contrast, which can be nice, but that is not what I was going for. It is also an oppressively hot city – Bombay is dirty, noisy, messy. I didn’t want to make the exercise so painful that I didn’t enjoy it!

Does this visual overload in the city make it easier or harder to find your subjects?
I would say, for me, it’s easier, because I have that much more to work with as my box of tools. I found it easier because I was able to find that many variations of the same idea or image. As someone who is trying to capture the city, and talk about its diversity and complexity, it wasn’t so bad. Now, to live in it, that doesn’t help. But for an artist, there’s a lot of things to write and think about, and to look at. The city gives you a lot of material. I also had to manage a balancing act when I was writing and photographing. Even as I was putting the book together, I had to ask myself, am I being inauthentic? I tried to balance that in the writing, and the editing of the photography as well.

Still Bombay Image Courtesy: Tara Books

Image Courtesy: Tara Books

The book is colour-coded as you move through it. Would you say this is not just a way of depicting Bombay, but also a way of understanding it by bringing a sense of order through colour?
In the writing and the design, we’ve tried to be authentic to my feelings throughout the project’s journey. There is intent behind trying to get the reader to start appreciating the city again. When I started photographing the city, I was a bit jaded. When you’re commuting or going to work, you don’t really appreciate the city that enables all of this. It’s a city where people come from all over, and you can — if you put your head down, and if you get lucky — do some amazing things! And that’s enabled by the hotchpotch that the city is. It’s not in spite of it. It’s not just your hard work. There is an attraction that brings all these people to a city that’s as tough.

The act of looking can be quite invasive, and with a camera, even more so. How do you navigate consent in your work?
I was trying to shoot something candid. I always captured the entire experience, so, I would take the pictures, and then engage. For all my subjects, there wasn’t really an issue because from the beginning, it was never about the individual pictures. They were always part of a larger story, which was building a collage of the city.

What do you think gets lost in translation when you capture a photograph?
I wouldn’t know. Even though the book is about a city, it can’t possibly capture all of its narratives. When I was taking photographs right in the beginning, some of the feedback was that a lot of the pictures didn’t look like Bombay, because everyone has a lived memory of the city. That is something that is lost in translation. It is not a book that reminds you of your everyday life in the city, but I liked that aspect of it. I was nudging you to think of Bombay as another part of the country. When you see these photos, does it feel like a village from Goa, or the ghats of Varanasi when you go to Banganga and do a path? Do parts of it make you think that you’re in parts of Europe? I didn’t find that negative, but it could feel like a loss in translation to some people, because it’s a very personal take. For me, this is my Bombay.

Still Bombay Mayur Tekchandaney

Mayur Tekchandaney

Is there a photograph in the book that stands out for you?
There are a couple of pictures. From a scale point of view, there’s a facade of a building in the Parel section, which is a great photograph. You see all these pigeonholes of houses in this giant building. That structure fascinates me. I think of the myriad of lives – every other window is another family, another home. There’s also a picture of two girls. They are these twins in their pink uniform. That was a really sweet one because they were following me when I was photographing, curious about what I was doing. Everyone was going to school or setting up shop, and I was photographing, pointing my camera at the typography on a building or a bucket lying on the floor in the corner. I wasn’t photographing what other people might photograph. They were probably not going in my direction, but they started following me. And when I noticed that they were shadowing me, I quickly turned, and took a snap of them. It turned out to be really beautiful because they look the same, they were staring at me, and they were in this pink uniform before a pink background. I really liked that photo. There were many little moments like that one throughout the whole exercise.

Can you walk us through your creative process?
There was a structure to how I photographed. Once I had photographed most of my suburb, I wanted to be a little methodical. I would go to a certain area, and cover about five-six kilometres and map it as I went. That’s how I did Bandra. It was a little mechanical exercise. There were times when I missed a frame or an interesting image, but I decided that that’s fine, let me trust that the city will throw me another image. I wanted there to be some element of serendipity or improv to it. I would go to one pin code or one small area, and then not return. Sometimes I would pass through there, and see a nice light on an image I took earlier, but I wouldn’t stop. It became like an act of faith. It was fundamental to how the book turned out, in addition to choices of lenses or camera. Technically, the photography and the post-process was very simple – just a little bit of touch up in terms of light and colour. Then, an editing process once a week, wherein I isolated a few of the shots that worked for me from the larger bank.

What did the writing add to this process?
As it happens, Tara Books suggested I write as I go deeper into the city, away form the parts I was more familiar with, and then, let the photography and writing inform what the book was going to be. It wasn’t difficult to trust them knowing that they would bring a lot to the project. And as I went into certain areas I hadn’t been to, certain areas out of my slightly more suburban comfort zone, the photography automatically became different. When I was photographing in the avenues of Fort and Bandra, my images were wider. When I got into some of the older parts like Bohri Bazaar, Mohammed Ali Road and Dongri — these were essentially barracks that serviced the colonial city —  the space was lesser, the light more focused. In the bastis, the time moves different. People are up earlier because they need to put their house in order before they come work for everyone else in the city. So, I had more people in these photographs because there were people in these places in the morning, unlike the other places I had walked. 

Tara pointed out that there was a different sense of life to these photos, a different synergy. They insisted that I write, and initially, I had been reluctant. But throughout the exercise of photographing, I would make notes on my phone if I noticed something, or if I had a philosophical or conceptual take on a shot. I went back to my notes and tried to emerge in that experience again. I looked at the photographs and asked myself, why do I like this?

Still Bombay is a fascinating title for a city that’s always on the move. What evokes this stillness for you, in that sense of the word here?
Once we had cracked the journey of the book, we started bouncing titles around. We wanted to think about this book as a reflection or an introspection in some way. The idea of walking, slowing down, extracting something from chaos, and taking a moment. While we were jamming, Geeta, my editor, suggested Still Bombay. As of today, I don’t have a take on the name of the city. I call it both in the book too. The reason we went with Bombay and not Mumbai, is because it suggested the mood for me. It’s not a political statement. It’s Still Bombay because that is the emotion for me. I started with a certain amount of jadedness and judgement about the city and its inequalities. But through the process, I fell in love with it again. And therefore, it’s still Bombay. It’s still the city I grew up in and loved as a kid.

What are you working on next?
I decided that I would stop at a certain part of Bombay, because it could have just gone on. I have been photographing other parts of Bombay before the lockdown. That will be something I’ll continue, although I don’t know what it will come to. I also draw and paint. There’s a series of paintings where I’ve come up with a narrative. These things will take up my time, alongside my work. I don’t know where these exercises will end up, but the idea is to keep doing them and let them evolve. 

Text Nikita Biswal
Date 03-05-2021