Mumbai: mutating, never mute

On most weekends, Gopal MS, copywriter at Tailor, a Chembur-based ad agency, ambles through Mumbai’s streets, not looking for anything in particular, waiting to be surprised. Instead, he is often bowled over. Gopal, 40, says street photography is the best way to find out how people change their cities, one day at a time. Currently, he walks around Mumbai’s villages to see how the old is being elbowed by the new. Gopal runs the popular blog, Mumbai Paused.

As the city grows around it, Desai Village on the road between Sheel Phata and Dombivli has this statue welcoming newer residents moving into the high-rises in areas surrounding it. PICS/GOPAL MS

Interestingly, it all started with Bangalore. “In 2007, I moved to Bangalore and my wife gifted me a modest digital camera. Just to put it to use, I began taking photographs of the city and over two years, I had at least 700 images and my Bangalore blog, Which Main What Cross Road became really popular (streets in Bangalore are named after ‘mains’ and ‘crosses’). When I returned to Mumbai in 2009, I continued doing the same thing —taking to the streets whenever I could.”

Art as territorial marking on the boundary wall of a sardine-packed fishing village in the heart of the city’s financial district in South Mumbai

Mumbai Paused is about a city on the run. “I love cities. Being an advertiser, I think I took to photography so keenly because the people I write for are all out there. It is an extension of me wanting to know how they live, interact, perceive and consume.”

Residents of Borla Village in Chembur still congregate and mark important days in the Hindu calendar with performances like these

The photographer, however, largely keeps advertising and street photography separate. Advertising, after all, is about consuming, and the people Gopal usually shoots and captures don’t have extravagant means. “Advertisers who get over-sensitised have to move on to films and art to express themselves better, like Prasoon Joshi and R Balki,” he chuckles. “I try keeping moral dilemmas at bay.”

In Vashi Gaon, Navi Mumbai, the statue of a fisherman represents the residents of the village. This ambitious statue stands out in an otherwise calm bay and is in sharp contrast from the modern art sculptures that dot the more planned parts of Navi Mumbai, such as Vashi

Shooting in Mumbai is a heady, but an equally flabbergasting exercise, says Gopal, and one cannot afford to be judgmental. “Bangalore was relatively easy to shoot — not many people know about its secrets. But Mumbai is an over-photographed city, the rest of the country knows its quirks and whims because of Bollywood, for instance. But then, this is also the one city where things keep happening around the corner — point your camera anywhere and you’ll get a great picture.”

The Madh Fort rises high above the Madh fishing village where fish has been laid out to dry 

Of all the surprises Gopal has received from this city, his favourite is the metro’s approach to water. “Mumbai is very democratic about water — you can go up to an Udupi and ask for it, it is lined at the food stalls at railway stations, there are piaus all around the city. You do not have that in any other city. I love that about Mumbai, and that’s the reason I hated a certain mineral water bottle ad which went against sharing water. That’s just not us,” smiles Gopal.

These images can be found on the walls of an old school in Mankhurd village, bordering the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC ). Most village schools in Mumbai, like these walls, need urgent repairs

Photographing the city, however, has become a tad more difficult, he adds. “I can’t just go to Hill Road any longer and begin clicking. I sense weariness around me. It is palpable, how the middle-class in gated complexes fears the unknown. We are friendly, but we are also moving away.”

A Christian shrine at Bandra’s Chuim Village. Many old villages in Mumbai are East Indian and dotted with similar shrines 

Security in the city, feels Gopal, is sold rather cleverly to an anxious people. “It makes good business sense to keep people afraid,” says Gopal with a smile. “I think 26/11 has changed Mumbai forever; it was a defining moment. The psychosis is gone, but security agencies continue to make the best of the lingering anxiousness. You just know how friendly or unfriendly a city is when you take the camera out,” says Gopal.  

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