If I had my sketchbook with me that Sunday evening, I would have made a quick drawing of the scene, a bad one no doubt, and given it a vague title, something like Man with a Book.

The next best thing was taking a photo with my phone camera, which I did. And then I moved on, as one does right after clicking a photo, disengaging from the scene just as abruptly as I had chosen to engage with it, continuing my walk on the streets of South Bombay.

Before taking the photo I had noticed that the man was a cobbler. The tools of his trade were scattered around him: shoe brushes (black and brown); leather insoles of various colours; a pair of black sandals, freshly polished and, I suppose, ready for pick-up; and a cast-iron shoe stand placed front and centre, like an abstract sculpture, its usefulness lost on the lay observer. Then, there was the object in the cobbler’s hand, a book, which had stopped me in my tracks and triggered the impulse to make some kind of a visual record of the scene.

It was a Sunday, and maybe he wasn’t expecting any customers at that hour. But he did not look up even once to acknowledge my presence as I stood there and took the photo. He seemed transfixed by the text. It was the kind of readerly absorption that I am always on the lookout for – in libraries, in art galleries (Manet’s Woman Reading) – and myself aspire to attain, being a chronically distracted reader. In Bombay I encountered it where I least expected it: on a street corner in Fort.

A photograph is like a dead end for the imagination. Unlike a drawing, a photo has little room for ambiguity. It confronts us not as a record of reality but as reality itself – which is better observed than analysed. A title like Man with a Book would never work for a photo, because the visual elements in photographs scream at us in all their specificity. The man is never just a man in a photo but someone unmistakably particular – a man who has a name, a job, a life; and the book is not just any book but that very book that you see in that very photo – a book that can be identified, picked up and read.

Later that evening, I opened the photo on my phone and soaked in the details. What Roland Barthes called the “studium” of a photograph began to crystallise before me in relation to the picture I had taken. The studium can be defined as the “meaning” an image instantly conveys to the viewer, through the principal elements within the frame. It is what makes a viewer superficially interested in a photograph. “Polite interest” was the phrase Barthes used in this context.

The book in my photo stands out as an unexpected object in the light of the studium – unexpected because of the way our society links literacy to class privilege, even regarding the former as a stepping stone to the latter. The cobbler was at the lowest rung of the class/caste hierarchy, and yet he had access to the power of the written word. Wasn’t this completely out of the ordinary?

I was reminded of the original definition of surrealism: a combination of two things, two ideas, two worlds, that seem to not belong with each other at all. Wasn’t this overlap of extreme privation and literacy surrealism of a kind? Or was I misreading the scene?

The Hindi poet Dhoomil wrote a great poem about a cobbler, titled “Mochiram”. It features a sharp-tongued philosopher-cobbler for whom “no man is big or small, dark or fair. Everyone is merely a pair / of shoes that stands before me / awaiting repair” (my translation).

Dhoomil’s cobbler, too, has access to the power of language. This, the cobbler reports in his poem, baffles especially those who are more privileged than him, who sometimes compliment him by saying, “You’re not a cobbler but a poet . . .” But then, the cobbler tells us that whoever thinks that way is a victim of an “interesting misconception”: that language is the birthright not of human beings but of socially advantaged communities.

The cobbler in my photograph is reading a book of poems. I noticed the name on the cover only when I zoomed into the photo later: Guru Ravidas. We don’t have anything close to a biographical record of Ravidas’s life. It’s difficult to even determine which century he lived in: it could be the 15th or 16th. This kind of indeterminacy, this play between recorded and forgotten and invented history, defines our engagement with Bhakti poetry. It’s less a history than a mythology, with its own set of legends and fabrications, and its own demigods, despite the iconoclasm of this deeply polemical literary tradition.

Ravidas at work as a shoemaker (Folio from a series featuring Bhakti saints. Master of the first generation after Manaku and Nainsukh of Guler, Pahari region) | Public Domain

Was the cobbler reading Ravidas in my photo attached to, and maybe responding only to, the latter-day, apotheosised reputation of the Bhakti poet – to “Guru” Ravidas? Or was his imagination engaged with the other, more human and less divine side of Bhakti, which is at once worldly and world-weary – like the philosophy of the Sufis or the blues that originated in the Mississippi Delta?

What do I wish for,
When nothing will stay?
The show passes before the eyes.
It all goes the same way.  

These lines are not by Howlin’ Wolf but by Kabir, in Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s rejuvenating translation. One of the poems in Mehrotra’s Songs of Kabir has this Lead Belly line as its epigraph: “It take a man that have the blues to sing the blues.” As you read Mehrotra’s Kabir, you realise that there’s nothing shocking or unnatural, nothing surreal, about this juxtaposition, of Bhakti and the blues, as if these were different iterations of the same artistic tradition, centuries and languages apart. (Many Bhakti poets actually sang, rather than recited, their verse.)

Having trained my ear with Songs of Kabir, I could, for instance, hear the blues in this translation of a Ravidas poem by JS Hawley and Mark Juergensmeyer:

Brother, says Ravidas, the world’s a game, a magic
and I am in love with the gamester,
the magician who makes it go.  

Or in this verse by the same poet (and same translators):

Peddler, the body is bent

And what to do?
Bad thoughts have settled inside.
Bad thoughts have settled inside,
evil fool, a life completely lost.  

There’s an echo of Kabir here as well, a sentiment that resonates with the opening of my favourite poem in Mehrotra’s Songs of Kabir – a haunting, haiku-like verse that manages to encompass a whole life in a few syllables, like an epitaph:

You had one life
And you blew it.  

I shared my photograph, of the cobbler reading Ravidas, with Mehrotra, and he drew my attention to a fact that lay completely buried in my memory (in keeping with the spirit of Bhakti historiography). That detail sent me back to Barthes’s theory of photography, for which he had coined two crucial terms.

One was studium, which we have already dealt with above; and the other was “punctum” –a fortuitous detail that “punctuates” the studium. The punctum appears uninvited; it’s an added resonance supplied by the moment or the context of the photo, something the photographer hadn’t planned for; and it can only be spotted by a careful eye, for it is often found away from the centre and towards the margins.

But in my photo, the punctum lies not along the margins but entirely outside the field of the photograph. It is to be found in the sketchy record of Ravidas’s life; more specifically, in the widely known detail supplied to me by Mehrotra, that Ravidas – whose poetry the cobbler in my photo seems immersed in – was himself a cobbler.

Vineet Gill is the author of Here and Hereafter: Nirmal Verma’s Life in Literature, published in 2022 by Penguin Random House India.