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.
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.