Camera Indica

A photographer looks at Mumbai’s Premier Padmini taxis and discovers a lot about the city

Markku Lahdeshmaki’s images provide an amazing insight into the people behind the steering wheel.

For foreigners visiting India, one of the most visible markers of change in the past few decades has been cars. From a time when just two models ruled the highway, the country now has an endless variety of automobiles. Still, a part of the soul fondly clings to those simpler times.

It remembers the Hindustan Ambassador, the plain-looking giant that dominated the market in every corner of India with one prominent exception – Mumbai.

In India’s most modern, urbane and glitzy metro, the preferred vehicle of the cashed-up (for, only they could afford them) was the svelte Premier Padmini. Introduced in 1964, and at first marketed as Fiat 1100, the car was rechristened after Rani Padmini of Chittor in the 1970s.

The Padmini or the “Pad” was, in many ways, a technological herald, prefiguring a day when the country would prefer consumer choice, style and design sense above socialist planning and policy.

As it happened, as the millennium turned, the beloved Padmini too had to make way for others. Its factory was shut down, swept aside by a flood of Fords, Hyundais and BMWs.

In Mumbai, the taxi industry kept their fleets of Indianised Fiats rolling despite the shifts of time. Now it too is moving away from the Padmini.

The city fathers, according to Bob Dylan, once endorsed Paul Revere’s horse. But in Mumbai, their counterparts have legislated against the Princess. Like the sun setting into the Arabian Sea, the day of the Padmini is over.

Markku Lahdeshmaki, a Finnish photographer from Los Angeles, had the chance to come to India on assignment in 2011. “I was so excited,” he remembered, “I had been waiting to travel to India.”

His mission was to photograph solar fields for a large New York financial company. Which he did. But, as is his wont, he tacked on three days to the overseas professional assignment for personal work. With so many potential options in such a vast country, Markku wondered what he could focus on. And then, he found his subject – the Padmini.

Camera Indica caught up with Markku through Skype to chat about his wonderful project Mumbai Taxi Company. Though the project was completed in 2012, many of the images in this article are being published for the first time.

What was the inspiration of Mumbai Taxi Company?
Whenever I’m on assignment, I always try to fit in at least 2-3 days for my personal projects. I had been wanting to come to India for a long time and this project grew out of one of my commercial assignments in 2011.

How did you choose taxis?
When I first came into the city from the airport all the little taxis really caught my attention. One evening I was sipping beer in the hotel bar. I scribbled ideas on a napkin. I couldn’t shake the vision of all those taxis. So I sketched one of them with a man standing next to it. Immediately, I knew I wanted to do this project. The idea was different.

The photos are special and very sensitive. They reveal the city of Mumbai, its landmarks, the shady boulevards as well as congested industrial areas. Was this part of the plan?
I wanted to tell the story of the location and people and environment. With a simple setting. The combination of the car and the particular environment makes the picture.

It seems you posed a lot of the drivers. What was your interaction with them like?
I had a translator who was very helpful. But there wasn’t a lot of discussion with drivers. I wanted to get as many images as possible in the short time I had. So I was really looking for the taxi. And yes, sometimes I asked driver to get out and took the photo with him in it.

They are clearly quite proud.
Yes, they were all so happy to do so.

You captured so many great images in such a short time.
I have a lucky cloud over me! Everything went extremely well. It was lots of fun. Once we were driving to a location. I jumped out and left the driver and translator behind. It was a super busy street. The sun was coming through the trees and kids were playing cricket. But the taxi was on the wrong side of street for the light, so I waved him over. He thought I wanted a lift and maybe was disappointed when I asked him to pose! But he cooperated really nicely.

Were you aware of the special bond of the Fiat/Padmini with Mumbai?
No, I wasn’t aware of that at the time. But I am now. The colour – black and yellow – was also attractive. It suits the car so well. As I learned more about the car afterwards and the project became even more exciting. I made some enquires about buying one, and found out how much it would cost.

How much?
$3000.

Another thing that struck me about these pictures: where are the crowds?
I was choosing the locations carefully. But I was a bit lucky too. I guess. On my website, the lead image is a taxi and driver at the Gateway of India. The place is completely deserted. Apparently there was no one around because of a cricket match between India and Pakistan. India won, by the way!

When you come to new city, is it hard to find your rhythm?
I have built a habit over the years. I worked from early to late. I moved around a lot and sometimes the locations didn’t work. I do look for a bit of a story and then use my imagination to create a scene that could happen in this location.

You have another related series called The Havana Taxi Company which makes a nice companion piece. Its interesting that the taxis of Havana seem to be in great disrepair. Whereas in Mumbai, the vehicles are all shiny and in good nick.
Yes, in Mumbai, I was struck that when the drivers are waiting they are out washing and polishing the taxi. Making it look good. There’s a real pride in their vehicle.

Which series came first and what is the relationship between them?
Mumbai came first. It was my wife’s desire to see Cuba. It’s related in a way, but the car is much more the focus in Havana. In Mumbai, as I said, the images were as much about the environment.

That’s right. When I first came across your series I was reminded of Raghubir Singh’s project/book A Way Into India. Your project has a similar feel... Your website says: "Most of [Markku’s] ideas are based on values he wants to share; joy of life, peace of mind, sense of humor and appreciation for our existence, basic good things that too often are taken for granted." Did you find these in India?
When in Mumbai and, as always, I am trying to catch images which are positive, hopefully with slight humour. I was very impressed how open, friendly and happy people seem to be and proud of their taxis and the work they were doing. Also always willing to help.

Have these photos been exhibited in India? If so, what was the reception?
No, they’ve not been shown in India yet. But I am interested in the idea. We have a nice little booklet about these images. It is a really nice series. People respond very well to it. We are planning a gallery show and would love to have a Padmini taxi outside the venue.

I understand you’ve also put the Padmini on T shirts?
Yes, we have made some really cool T-shirts with different views of the taxi. In fact, I’ve set up an entire website dedicated to the Mumbai Taxi.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

From catching Goan dances in Lisbon to sampling langar in Munich

A guide to the surprising Indian connect in Lisbon and Munich.

For several decades, a trip to Europe simply meant a visit to London, Paris and the Alps of Switzerland. Indians today, though, are looking beyond the tried and tested destinations and making an attempt to explore the rest of Europe as well. A more integrated global economy, moreover, has resulted in a more widespread Indian diaspora. Indeed, if you know where to look, you’ll find traces of Indian culture even in some unlikely cities. Lisbon and Munich are good cities to include in your European sojourn as they both offer compelling reasons to visit, thanks to a vibrant cultural life. Here’s a guide to everything Indian at Lisbon and Munich, when you wish to take a break from all the sight-seeing and bar crawling you’re likely to indulge in.

Lisbon

Lisbon is known as one of the most vibrant cities in Western Europe. On its streets, the ancient and the modern co-exist in effortless harmony. This shows in the fact that the patron saint day festivities every June make way for a summer that celebrates the arts with rock, jazz and fado concerts, theatre performances and art exhibitions taking place around the city. Every two years, Lisbon also hosts the largest Rock festival in the world, Rock in Rio Lisboa, that sees a staggering footfall.

The cultural life of the city has seen a revival of sorts under the current Prime Minister, Antonio Costa. Costa is of Indian origin, and like many other Indian-origin citizens prominent in Portugal’s political, business and entertainment scenes, he exemplifies Lisbon’s deep Indian connect. Starting from Vasco Da Gama’s voyage to India, Lisbon’s historic connection to Goa is well-documented. Its traces can be still be seen on the streets of both to this day.

While the Indian population in Lisbon is largely integrated with the local population, a few diaspora groups are trying to keep their cultural roots alive. Casa de Goa, formed in the ‘90s, is an association of people of Goans, Damanese and Diuese origins residing in Lisbon. Ekvat (literally meaning ‘roots’ in Konkani) is their art and culture arm that aims to preserve Goan heritage in Portugal. Through all of its almost 30-year-long existence, Ekvat has been presenting traditional Goan dance and music performances in Portugal and internationally.

Be sure to visit the Champlimaud Centre for the Unknown, hailed a masterpiece of contemporary architecture, which was designed by the critically-acclaimed Goan architect Charles Correa. If you pay attention, you can find ancient Indian influences, like cut-out windows and stand-alone pillars. The National Museum of Ancient Art also has on display a collection of intricately-crafted traditional Goan jewellery. At LOSTIn - Esplanada Bar, half of the people can be found lounging about in kurtas and Indian shawls. There’s also a mural of Bal Krishna and a traditional Rajasthani-style door to complete the desi picture. But it’s not just the cultural landmarks that reflect this connection. The integration of Goans in Lisbon is so deep that most households tend to have Goa-inspired textiles and furniture as a part of their home decor, and most families have adapted Goan curries in their cuisine. In the past two decades, the city has seen a surge in the number of non-Goan Indians as well. North Indian delicacies, for example, are readily available and can be found on Zomato, which has a presence in the city.

If you wish to avoid the crowds of the peak tourist season, you can even consider a visit to Lisbon during winter. To plan your trip, check out your travel options here.

Munich

Munich’s biggest draw remains the Oktoberfest – the world’s largest beer festival for which millions of people from around the world converge in this historic city. Apart from the flowing Oktoberfest beer, it also offers a great way to get acquainted with the Bavarian folk culture and sample their traditional foods such as Sauerkraut (red cabbage) and Weißwurst (a white sausage).

If you plan to make the most of the Oktoberfest, along with the Bavarian hospitality you also have access to the services of the Indian diaspora settled in Munich. Though the Indian community in Munich is smaller than in other major European destinations, it does offer enough of a desi connect to satisfy your needs. The ISKCON temple at Munich observes all major rituals and welcomes everyone to their Sunday feasts. It’s not unusual to find Germans, dressed in saris and dhotis, engrossed in the bhajans. The Art of Living centre offers yoga and meditation programmes and discourses on various spiritual topics. The atmosphere at the Gurdwara Sri Guru Nanak Sabha is similarly said to be peaceful and accommodating of people of all faiths. They even organise guided tours for the benefit of the non-Sikhs who are curious to learn more about the religion. Their langar is not to be missed.

There are more options that’ll help make your stay more comfortable. Some Indian grocery stores in the city stock all kinds of Indian spices and condiments. In some, like Asien Bazar, you can even bargain in Hindi! Once or twice a month, Indian film screenings do take place in the cinema halls, but the best way to catch up on developments in Indian cinema is to rent video cassettes and VCDs. Kohinoor sells a wide range of Bollywood VCDs, whereas Kumaras Asean Trades sells Tamil cassettes. The local population of Munich, and indeed most Germans too, are largely enamoured by Bollywood. Workshops on Bollywood dance are quite popular, as are Bollywood-themed events like DJ nights and dance parties.

The most attractive time to visit is during the Oktoberfest, but if you can brave the weather, Munich during Christmas is also a sight to behold. You can book your tickets here.

Thanks to the efforts of the Indian diaspora abroad, even lesser-known European destinations offer a satisfying desi connect to the proud Indian traveller. Lufthansa, which offers connectivity to Lisbon and Munich, caters to its Indian flyers’ priorities and understands how proud they are of their culture. In all its India-bound flights and flights departing from India, flyers can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options, making the airline More Indian than You Think. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalised by Lufthansa to the extent that they now offer a definitive Indian flying experience.

Play

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.