Around Town

Prints charming

Old city photos are popping up in cafés, galleries, shops and books. Time Out finds out why we’re so enchanted with black-and-white Bombay

At the Banyan Tree Café at Gallery BMB, your order comes with a side of history. You can nibble on gnocchi or sip on a kaffir-lime infusion and take a little trip into the past before the banoffee arrives. On the café’s sunlit walls are framed pictures of Mumbai in the 1940s. The show, “When It Was Bombay”, features stately cars driving up outside Eros and down Marine Drive, Dhobi Talao’s Framjee Cawasjee Institute in its Wellington Talkies avatar and Bandra station before it fell apart and had to be painstakingly restored. The café’s next display will hark back to a time even more removed from the present – curator Kanchi Mehta will put up old Mumbai photos showing people kissing in public.

Visions of old Mumbai are suddenly all over the place. At the Museum’s Premchand Roychand Gallery, the display area has some 30 photos of Mumbai in 1929. Visitors just can’t keep away from images that show Oval Maidan abundant in dhoti-clad cricketers,  Green’s Hotel before it was pulled down to build the new Taj and Mohammedans in flowing whites, hurrying to catch a double-decker on what is now DN Road. City images from the Alkazi Foundation’s exhibition “The Artful Pose” are on permanent loan to the Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Byculla, where they have their own room on the first floor. In addition, the Foundation will also exhibit old photos byIndia’s first female photojournalist Homai Vyarawala in February and “100 Vintage Views of India” the month after.

Even if you miss every one of these shows, there’s still hope. Dilnavaz Mehta of Rare Finds sells antique Mumbai photos, maps and lithographs, many of which were part of her December show at Cymroza Gallery. She even has old pictures of Kandivali, anglers at PowaiLake, Vasai, Antop Hill and Mahim Fort. Phillips Images sells photos of old Mumbai and is getting more and more requests for scenes of Bandra. The furniture store Paradox Pink has 12 limited-edition sepia-tinted photos of the Gateway, Victoria Terminus and Fountain. More cheaply, you can buy collector Kamy Shah’s “Bombay 100 Years Ago” line of vintage-Mumbai-themed greeting cards, mouse pads, letterheads, coasters and even bed sheets when they hit stores later this year. He showcased his images on giant canvases at the Oberoi in September and is also planning a coffee-table book. It will share shelf space with the recently released books like Bombay Then Mumbai Now and Raghu Rai’s Bombay/Mumbai – Where Dreams Don’t Die, both of which are bursting with old photos of the city.

“Pictures of the old city are popular because there’s a lot of nostalgia attached to whatBombayused to be,” observed Muneera Daya of Phillips Images. “It was prettier, cleaner and less crowded.” The metamorphosis ofBombayfrom a trading post into a big city in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries coincided with the rise of photography, which means most early images depict a shiny new city, full of promise and optimism. The Museum’s pictures, shot by British photographer Emil Otto Hoppé, depict in his words, “the well ordered beauty of the modern city” and a Bombay“charged with the atmosphere of progress”.

The images don’t have to be as old as the buildings to evoke nostalgia among Mumbaikars. Fashion photographer Asheesh Chawla’s 12 lavish photos at Paradox Pink feature Mumbai heritage buildings, but were shot as recently as 2010, using contemporary low angles and tight crops, and have been digitally tinted a familiar shade of old-photo brown. “Sepia freezes a picture into timelessness,” explained Raseel Gujral, who owns Paradox Pink. “It softens and tones it down, making the monuments appear like pools of calm and solace.” 

Venkatesh Pate, who launched Anvil, a line of souvenirs with old-Mumbai images, a decade ago, said that his merchandise was a “jaag utho insaan” wake-up call. “Everybody began to realise that vintage pictures were good business,” he said. It perhaps explains their popularity today. “We went through a phase when we rejected everything colonial,” said Dilnavaz Mehta. “But we’re excited about old pictures now because many of us are not happy with what we see around us – hardly any open spaces, no town planning. So evidence of a Mumbai that was pleasant to live in makes people realise that they have messed up their city.” The fact that the city’s heritage committee and heritage activists have also been working to get citizens to appreciate their old structures has also played a role. Kamy Shah pointed out that while infrastructure in most of the city has deteriorated, the British-built Fort area still remains well-designed and beautiful.

“What do we have to show for 60 years of Maharashtra?” Shah asked. “We haven’t been able to make another VT. This becomes evident when you see these pictures.” Mehta said that after the deluge in July 2005, she was startled at how many people came to her asking for old Mumbai maps. “They didn’t know there was a river in their city,” she said.

Of Chawla’s 12 photos at Paradox Pink, each image is available in a limited  edition of eight and costs R80,000. That’s “cheap for an original artwork”, Gujral said, which may well be true. At the Rare Finds show, where tiny city photos cost R15,000 a piece, images bearing archaic spellings like Sewree and Chinchpowglie, logs on Chowpatty beach and street scenes featuring Jews, Arabs and Armenians were sold out before the week was up. BMB’s photos, shot by unknown photographers, are also in editions of eight and cost between R4,000 and R5,000. Phillips Images bestselling prints of the Fort, Rajabai Tower and the High Court retail from R2,000  and the souvenirs from “Bombay 100 Years Ago” are cheaper still. While Shah’s canvas prints cost R 60,000, postcards will be available for as little as R200. “For a long time, old Mumbai images were available only to wealthy collectors,” Shah said. “Now even the masses can afford them.”

Rahaab Allana, the curator of the Alkazi Foundation, believes that at a time when the city and the country are changing so dramatically, it’s our common history that binds us. Old pictures not only show what the city looked like in the past, but “dwell on how the city in the present will be viewed in the future” and will  “enable us to dwell on urbanity more seriously”.

New images reveal different sides of the city at different points of its past, allowing those in the present to follow its development differently. But nobody believes that we’ll ever run out of old pictures to display. “There were so many professional and amateur photographers shooting important buildings and documenting aspects of the city that even government records don’t show,” said Faroq Issa of Phillips Antiques. “New albums keep coming up and there are always surprises.”

Meanwhile, if you have an old photo of Bombay, hold on to it. Kamy Shah bought his first vintage picture of the city for five pounds in London in 1995. Today it’s worth more than 20 times as much.

By Rachel Lopez on January 06 2011 6.30pm
Photos by Amit Chakravarty

Post your opinion now