It’s 9 a.m. The crowd is just starting to spill on to the road outside Chembur station. I try to move ahead, deftly avoiding the swathes of people on the way out, but Gopal MS has already bested me. He points to a newspaper stall that sells only Tamil magazines and talks about the local residents. Most of the shops are closed at this hour, barring an oil trader getting ready for business.
“The trick is to keep an eye out,” says the man behind Mumbai Paused, the much-loved chronicle of everyday Mumbai. I spot a bright yellow wall, mosaic tiles, and rather inviting wrought-iron staircase. We both lean, trying to make out the space. When I glance sideways, his camera is out. There’s a black and white sketch of a girl, with a tape stuck to her mouth on the adjoining white-washed wall. “This represents the silence before #Metoo perfectly, doesn’t it?” he asks. It does. I am surprised at the quick association, wondering if I would have even spotted the sketch if it hadn’t been for Gopal.
Circling back to the foot overbridge, we decide to cross over. There are posters of the Elphinstone stampede victims beside one of Ambedkar in blue. “The colour blue and Ashoka Chakra are part of Dalit imagery everywhere,” he tells me as we find ourselves inside a chawl. There are women washing clothes and some selling fish; men with fruit baskets and some sleeping amid the din of the tracks nearby. The narrow alleys have a few empty spaces that fill up with kids in the evenings. Walking past, I can’t help but see #DalitBlue on hoardings and banners.
This isn’t the only iconography Gopal is mapping across the city. The street photographer has a series of hashtags: #SaffronTide for Hindutva, #MeemGreen, commonly found in Muslim areas like Govandi, even #MumbaiTurmeric depicting Deccan folk. These colours are ubiquitous, their associations clear. Yet the narrative is lost in the sea of everyday sightings, pushed back by the pace the city demands. “My work is all about life in the city,” he says. “How people travel, eat, interact with public spaces, their political affiliations: these are things everybody sees but nobody pauses to give another thought.”
So when Gopal does exactly that, it sparks instant recognition. Be it the auto with a saffron flag you took to work (#SaffronTide), the old man you passed on the street (#MumbaiGreying), a nose buried in the newspaper (#NewspaperreadinginMumbai) or the “eyesore” Duranto whizzing by (#RailRomeo). No fancy facades or histories, just everyday pictures taken sans fanfare, scenes captured just as they are seen.
Gopal’s own journey started from Bangalore in 2000 when his wife gifted him a camera. The burgeoning pictures gave birth to a blog called “Which Main What Cross”. By the time the move to Mumbai happened, there was no getting away from the camera. A copywriter by profession, he walks at least 6km a day, before and after work, capturing stills for posterity. The hashtags come easy given his line of work, but the bespectacled ad-man is not big on interacting with people he photographs.
The camera in his hand, a Canon G7X (a point-and-shoot), is hardly noticeable. He stops to photograph a cart of milk cans and some idols under a tree. We are back near the overbridge and he draws my attention to a bar. “You will see these establishments usually have curtains,” he says. “As do barber shops and lottery homes.” I am stunned at the level of detail, but can’t help but smile when he calls it “the purdah system in the city.” It is clear he has walked this path many times. The idea, he says, is to explore as many streets as possible, taking a different path each time. The Kurla-Mankhurd stretch is the mainstay, simply because it’s closer to home and work.
No matter where he is, a stream of photos is added to daily. While he says he doesn’t have favourites, the work he finds interesting or layered is compiled into a picture book sold on The Footpath Bookshop, a website Gopal created. “There’s a deluge of photos on Instagram. Shorter attention spans mean most of the photos and stories get lost. These books are a way to reach out to more people and also to make photo books more mainstream.” He has compiled four digital books so far. The bulkiest of these is #AamArtistGallery, a 454-page collection of everyday art by unsung artists that fills the streets, commutes and common spaces we inhabit.
Gopal has the right idea. Maybe a closer look – a pause – is what we need. In barely 30 minutes, the city has taken on a new sheen for me.