Saturday, 16 September 2017

A Postcard From India 3 - Mr Tikam Chand, Jaipur's famous street photographer

Every year when I was growing up I would be taken to a photographic studio with my brother and sometimes cousins for a family photograph. It was an occasion. Few people had cameras then and photography was a serious, professional business. Today it seems that anyone can be a photographer. Mobile phones snap away millions of times a day and images are quickly circulated on Facebook Twitter, Instagram and whatever other channels I have yet to catch up with. Few people bother to print hard copies of pictures, preferring to stick to digital files, understandable in a way as millions of images can be kept electronically without the need for any physical space. But convenient as all of this may be, it has none of the romance of having your photograph taken in the old way.

Today in Jaipur I stepped back into the glorious past of photography and took advantage of the excellent services of Mr Tikam Chand, a third generation street photographer who, since 1977 has been using his grandfather's 160 years old German Zeiss camera. Pahari Lal (the grandfather) and then his father occupied the same spot outside shop 120 on Hawa Mahal Road in the old city. Examples of his work are attached to the side of the camera, whilst pictures of the previous two generations of photographer are affixed to the wall behind him. These include a picture of his father, strikingly handsome with a mop of wavy black hair. 

The process is not rushed. Mr Chand explains a little about the camera. Then he positions clients on an 80 years old black metal chair, also purchased by the grandfather, disappears briefly under the hood and makes sure all is well before removing the lens cover for just a few seconds in order to take the picture. Black and white images are developed immediately using a bucket, water and various chemicals to complete the process. Sepia pictures can also be produced but take 2-3 days to be developed. This kind of business is always a tough one and as time goes on more challenges are presented.  He can no longer obtain the chemicals he needs in India and has to import them from France at some expense.

As I waited for the picture to develop, Mr Chand spoke to passing tourists, inviting them to look at the camera with its internal darkroom, developer and fixer. He also asked me to re-take the seat so that they could see me "upside down". Many of them are too young ever to have had their picture taken in this way and few will have much experience of seeing black and white photography. 

In just a few minutes my picture is ready. For just 300 rupees - about £3.40 I am handed a black and white image together with a negative. Using my camera, Mr Chand kindly took a picture of me standing beside these two images. I am delighted. I was also delighted by his proximity to Pandit Kulfi - a little shop selling this delicious Indian dessert. For just 30 rupees - less than 50p - I enjoyed a very satisfying almond and pistachio kulfi on a stick. Only in India.

If you visit Jaipur, don't just come and see the camera - have your picture taken. Mr Chand also has a Facebook page - the Old Photography

My picture cost 300 rupees. Three sizes of photograph are available at varying prices.

With the exception of his portrait, all the pictures on this post were taken by Mr. Chand.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

A Postcard from India 2 - The People of Spice Alley, Mumbai's Lalbaug Market

Mumbai's Lalbaug neighbourhood was once home to several mills employing many workers in a range of industries. Today, the mills are gone and many of the chawls, communal housing built to house workers who moved to the city are being demolished and replaced with expensive high rise apartment buildings. However, some of Lalbaug's more interesting characteristics have survived, including the wonderful market with its spice alley of shops and stalls selling every spice you could ever want.

I visited Lalbaug in the afternoon after the main business of the day was concluded. Most of the  stalls were still open although one or two of the owners were napping on sofas or mats set out in the shops. I normally enjoy watching the drama of busy markets, watching people haggle about the price, choose and reject items or stand and gossip with the shop keepers and each other. However, visiting during the quiet time brings other delights - the possibility of more time to talk to the merchants and to walk freely without struggling through the crowds.

Strolling along the alley, you can see chillies being prepared for sale, with the non-usable parts being stripped away from the red or green fruit. This is done by hand. It is hard work and can result in painful burns if not done carefully. Most of this work is done by women who sit at the front of the stalls where the chillies will later be offered for sale. Once the customers have bought their spices, they take them to one of the small businesses at the rear of the market for mixing and grinding. I saw a young man heating a huge cooking pot before adding chillies and other spices under the watchful eye of the gentleman who had just bought them, stirring and folding them in the fierce heat.

In this part of the market, there is a constant loud, industrial, pounding noise as the cooked and mixed spices are then ground by young men operating powerful machinery. This results in spectacular red, yellow and other coloured ground spices ready for use in Mumbai's kitchens. The smell is intoxicating.

As with other markets, Lalbaug offers many opportunities for candid photography. The content looking  vested man sitting in the front of his store reading the newspaper made me think of a character from a Narayan novel whilst the man with the small general store noticed me taking his picture and responded with what must be the biggest smile in the market. Of course sometimes I ask for permission before clicking as I did with the lady separating the parts of the chillies. She gave her permission with a smile but then assumed a very serious pose for the camera before laughing when I showed her the result. 

Lalbaug also has a fish market which begins early in the morning and was practically concluded at the time of my visit. A number of cats were prowling the fish section, looking for any leftover treats. I noticed what might be the smallest kitten in the world, asleep beside a discarded chappel which might just have been a little bit bigger than the cat. Whilst looking at the kitten a man seated on a stone bench pointed out other kittens, took one on his lap and smiled into the camera.

Just across from the man with the kitten a woman was frying fish, liberally adding spices no doubt obtained from the alley. Not only did she say hello she also offered me some of her cooking. Sadly I had to decline. Disappointed at first, she understood when I explained my vegetarian leanings. She explained that she was not selling cooked food but was preparing a dish for her helpers now that the day's work was completed. An older man in a yellow and purple bandana sat beside her, grinding garlic and onion with a wooden mallet. When he saw me photographing his boss he moved towards me and positioned himself for a picture too.

Despite its name, the alley offers more for sale than spices. You can pick up your supply of paan - a combination of betel leaf and areca nut combined with herbs, spices and sometimes tobacco and then chewed and either spat out or swallowed. It is widely used in Asia although it can be injurious to health depending on the level of use and on what is included in the mixture. Other shops offer earthenware jugs for keeping liquids cool during the summer or grinding of wheat to make flour. Everything is laid out to attract the attention of shoppers. They goods are fresh and of high quality and the alley is clean unlike many similar markets across the world.

The spice market at Lalbaug is something to treasure in a city that is rapidly changing. Let's hope the creeping gentrification of the area does not impact adversely on this wonderful slice of old Mumbai. 

You can see more pictures from Mumbai here.

Friday, 8 September 2017

A Postcard From India 1- Mumbai's Cafe Britannia

It is believed that the first Parsis came to India some time between the 8th and 10th centuries, fleeing persecution in what is now Iran. Together with the Iranis, the Parsis are one of two groups practising the Zoroastrian faith. They have been extremely successful in India, particularly during the period of British rule when several members of the community achieved positions of prominence including in science, industry and the military. In recent decades the community has declined significantly in number due to emigration and an extremely low birth rate, but their presence is still felt though their historical achievements, the remaining Parsi temples and through their contribution to the city's cuisine.

Boman Kohinoor, proud owner of Cafe Britannia and fan of the Royal family
During the middle decades of the 20th century, Mumbai was home to several hundred Parsi/ Irani cafes serving authentic dishes including sali boti (mutton pieces cooked in a special gravy), fish patra, berry pulav and Parsi chapatis. Whilst most of these cafes have disappeared, some have survived through reinventing themselves as places to drink beer and to have snacks and a few have clung on to their roots. 

Cafe Britannia is one of the few remaining authentic Parsi cafes in the city. Founded in 1923 by Rashid Kohinoor, a Zoroastrian immigrant from Iran, it was originally established to serve continental dishes to British officers during the colonial period. Rashid's son, Boman, the current owner and still working despite being in his 90's tells a story that the name of the cafe was chosen because eating places needed to be licensed by the British and his father thought the name might encourage them to deal quickly and positively with the application. He was proved right and the cafe has been operating since then.

Some of the keynote dishes are advertised at the entrance
I ate lunch there a few days ago. I was charmed by the peeling paint, the beautiful bent wood chairs imported from Poland decades ago and the idiosyncratic rules and regulations displayed on the wall and on the menu all of which give a glimpse of a world almost disappeared. The rules include sensible stuff such as not allowing outside food to be brought in and a requirement to vacate seats as soon as you have paid to allow others to sit down but my favourite was a little less expected - do not argue with the management. I wish I'd thought of that when I worked with the public.

My food was delicious - vegetable biryani with a lemon soda - but perhaps the most memorable part of my visit was meeting Boman Kohinoor. He took my order, asked me where I am from and said I'll be back. A few minutes later he returned to the table saying I am back before proceeding to show me a number of laminated press clippings picturing him with Prince William and Kate Middleton as well as other articles about the cafe.  He is a devoted royalist and recently made the press when he was invited to meet the Royal couple when they visited the city. The invitation came as a result of a video appeal he made explaining how thrilled he would be at the opportunity to meet them in Mumbai. He continued to come and go from the table to speak to other customers, but always saying I'll be back and I'm back at the appropriate point before telling me a little more or even teasing me a little about where I come from. So are you from England, Britain, Great Britain, the British Isles or the United Kingdom he asked me. I told him London and he agreed that this was a good answer. Before I left he asked me for three favours - to ask the Queen to visit Mumbai, to kiss the children of William and Kate when I see them (!) and to come back and eat there again. I will definitely deliver on the third request, the first two will be more difficult.

Cafe Britannia can be found at Wakefield House, 11 Sport Road, 16 Ballard Estate, Mumbai 400038. Note - the cafe opens only between 12 and 4 and payment must be made in cash.