Can you “see” time? In Mumbai, you certainly can – in the blurred movements of its residents hurrying from one place to the next, the trains (almost always) running to the timetable, and the disrupted circadian rhythms of a city that famously barely sleeps.
Seeing Time is the title of photographer Chirodeep Chaudhuri’s fascinating new show, which provides evidence of the literal way in which Mumbai measures the day’s march. Chaudhuri has photographed 81 clocks that are fixed atop buildings, decorate the facades of offices and watch over residential societies. The exhibition will be held at Mumbai’s Max Mueller Bhavan between January 8 and February 20. All the images are in black and white, in the eight-by-12-inch format.
With this exhibition, Chaudhuri has come full circle. His debut photography show, in 1999, was also about clocks. Over the years, he has worked with such publications as Sunday Observer, Time Out Mumbai and National Geographic Traveller. His photographs of Mumbai city have appeared in a range of print publications, books such Bombay Then, Mumbai Now and in exhibitions such as One Rupee Entrepreneur, about public telephones, and The Commuters, a series of portraits of people travelling on the local train network. Chaudhuri also has to his credit A Village in Bengal, a book-length documentation of his ancestral home. He plans to expand Seeing Time into a book.
In an interview with Scroll.in, Chaudhuri explained his magnificent obsession with Mumbai and his experiences of putting together Seeing Time, which involved craning his neck upwards, perching on roofs, barging into people’s homes to get the best angle, and understanding how India’s busiest metropolis reacts to the machines that mark its hours.
“My first show about clocks, in 1999, came out of a sense of boredom. I had been photographing clocks since 1996. I was working at the Sunday Observer newspaper in those days. All the newspaper offices were in South Bombay at the time, and that was our stomping ground. Many photographers tend to photograph architecture in South Bombay when starting out, and I was no different.
I developed an interest in walking around Mumbai, and I started noticing clocks around the Fort neighbourhood. There were the usual suspects initially, like the ones at Lion Gate, Rajabai Tower, and Crawford Market.
A colleague, Sunil Nair, knew the urban historian Sharda Dwivedi. The Mumbai heritage movement was just starting at the time. I met her and took along around 10-odd prints. She got really excited, especially since there were some clocks in Fort that she didn’t know about.
A few months after meeting Sharda, she commissioned me to photograph the book Fort Walks. She also advised me to continue photographing clocks – whatever that meant, since I didn’t know how many there were. For my first exhibition, I had 16 pictures. I remember thinking at that point, this is a body of work, and that’s the end of it.
I never realised that I was onto something, to be honest. There were phases over the years when I wasn’t actively looking or shooting. I became aware that there are certain buildings, older buildings, that are likely to have clocks.
It is a bit like being on a hunt – you become aware of little movements. I am sitting in a taxi and my eyes are looking 180 degrees around me but also 90 degrees upwards.
People have also pointed me towards clocks over the years. I gave a talk on the subject a few years ago, and afterwards, two people came and told me about clocks I didn’t know about or had forgotten about. My mother once spotted a clock.
There are many reasons Mumbai used to have so many public clocks. Not too many people had wristwatches in the old days, and many more people negotiated the city on foot. The chances of noticing a public clock were higher.
There aren’t too many active clocks on the list – very few of them chime, if at all. I’ve also taken pictures of sites a clock used to be.
I did worry a lot about whether the project would dip into mushy nostalgia. For me, the larger story is about technology and redundancy. I remember a trip to Switzerland, where I saw buildings with clocks. Wherever I went, I would see a clock – it was a part of daily life, and I remember checking my time according to the clock. These days, people look at the time on their mobile phones.
People in Mumbai really don’t have the time to stop and stare. I remember when I did my first show on clocks. There was a picture of the clock at the Victoria Terminus station. A visitor couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Until you put it out there, people don’t believe it. This is a city that is running all the time and not looking at what is around it.
I have realised since I did my first show that apathy is not the only reason we have such few functioning public clocks. The reasons are far more complex. A lot of the clocks are from the British era, and there are no spare parts since the manufacturing companies have shut down. Not too many landlords can afford to maintain clocks, even when they want to.
Who owns the clocks in multi-tenant residential complexes? There are also very few experts in Mumbai who can maintain the public clocks, such as the one at the Victoria Terminus.
Many of the photographs work as cityscapes that locate a building and its clock in its surroundings. The pictures necessitated a kind of broad and expansive view. But other things happened along the way. The picture of Crawford Market, for instance, is an architectural study. The design of that clock is complex, it is not as clean as the one at VT, and the position of the clocks is at an awkward angle.
When I started shooting, it was in black and white, since it was cheaper in those days and that was the limit of my technical proficiency. I stuck to black and white even after the move to digital, more because of the synergy. The pictures would not have worked in colour in terms of the mood.
In my previous shows One Rupee Entrepreneur and The Commuters, I used close-ups and tight shots. This time, you needed to get a sense of the city. I wanted a mix of broader shots and close-ups. Some of the photographs were taken from the ground up, others were from vantage points. Some of the photos are tighter frames, which work as interludes, such as the one at Hallai Mahajan Bhatiawadi Chawl in Kalbadevi. Here, I have chosen a close-up instead of a picture of the entire building.
I often went into people’s homes to photograph clocks seen through their windows. In today’s times, when we are so suspicious of people and our trust is shrinking, it was incredible how many people opened their doors to this one guy with a strange request to photograph a clock from their balconies. I was very touched by that.”