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.

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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.

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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.