“I guess I’m a mixtape of sorts,” Meena Kadri writes in the about section of her website. Her work is difficult to straitjacket into a genre, and, she hopes, it keeps people guessing what her next track might be.
One of the most popular tracks on the mixtape, then, appears to be the graphic designer-photographer’s Flickr page, The Meanest Indian, on which she documents life and graphics on Indian streets.
Once ubiquitous, the hand-painted advertisements on the walls and shutters of various cities have largely been replaced by computer graphics and neon-lit billboards. Kadri, however, remains obsessed with the aesthetic of painted street art.
“My heart beats faster for images from the street,” said Kadri. “Although I often try to frame things closely to highlight something or someone that’s caught my eye. In India I’m drawn to street vendors, cycle commerce and handmade graphics. I look for a human element to shine through. They all contrast to the bland, replicated corporate commerce we see in much of the world.”
Kadri's subjects vary from walls splashed with faint streaks of red and blue, an old logo for a cola drink, auto-rickshaw mud-flaps with images of Bollywood stars from the 1980s, to Mumbai’s dabbawalas and ear cleaners.
Kadri has shot for publications such as The Guardian, Monocle and Works That Work, but believes deep dives into the lives of her subjects are more important than simply being prolific.
Among her most memorable encounters, she lists meeting a group of Bollywood poster salesmen in Mumbai's Tilak Nagar. One of them, 78-year-old Abid Hussain Vora, had arrived in Mumbai from Bhopal many moons ago with the same dream shared by millions in the city – he wanted to become an actor. Like many others who are forced to give up on celluloid fantasies, Vora settled for working behind the scenes. Later, he began selling posters for movies, and bought his own store.
"Like me, his all time favourite Bollywood film was Mughal-e-Aazam," Kadri wrote, in the post accompanying Vora's story.
Hand-painted Bollywood posters, that essential piece of kitsch art in every hipster's home, occasionally still make an appearance on auto-rickshaw and truck mud-flaps. Among these, the recurring motifs are Amitabh Bachchan in Don, Rishi Kapoor, Vinod Khanna and Bachchan in Amar Akbar Anthony.
Kadri's images are not unique, in fact they are so common that the eye tends to miss them when they occur in their natural habitat. It is her discerning gaze, along with the obsessive documentation, the organising of old advertisements for candies and colas, film stars and gods into photo-sets, that themes begin to emerge.
Kadri enjoys involving random strangers into her photographic efforts.
"I like the challenge of finding something and isolating it, often finding a passerby to help me stop foot or road traffic around what's caught my eye," she said. "I'm very bossy but I try and keep people laughing and engaged along the way. I also like provoking curiosity, if I'm fascinated by something or someone on the street, people will be equally fascinated by what I might be seeing. It sparks all sorts of conversations and we usually learn a little something about each other."
Despite her stilted Hindi, Kadri's obsessive attention to detail has taught her plenty of secondary skills – like when she used to photograph ear cleaners, she taught them how to use a camera, they taught her the best angles for getting ear wax.
Kadri doesn't like following maps, choosing to "follow her nose" instead.
"I sit in one spot for a bit, like near a paan or chai stall, and see what comes by while asking the stall owner questions," she said, "Stationery vendors tend to be a great source of local information."
The decline in hand painted street graphics, has made Kadri's photography series a bit harder, but not as hard as those of the painters themselves.
"I think technology has always been alluring to humans and some creatives will always do interesting things with it, both for the street and beyond, but most street painters I've photographed want a better life for their kids," she mused. "I'd like to think that India might increase its funding for creative ventures, reaching right through to low-income communities."