photo roll

A photographer captures the mood and style of Delhi’s working women

Vatsala Manan has been photographing passengers as they read, wait, dream and sleep on the Delhi Metro.

For some people, looking into their cellphones is a way to distract themselves from their surroundings. For others, like Vatsala Manan, a cellphone is a window into the lives of those who surround her.

Whenever she travels on the Delhi Metro, Manan does not listen to music or tune out. Instead, she photographs the passengers in the ladies’ compartment (mostly women, but also some #LonelyBoys) and shares the images on Instagram in a series.

The series, which began nearly a year ago, shows her subjects staring into their phones, reading books or lost in thought while waiting patiently for their station.

Image credit: Vatsala Manan
Image credit: Vatsala Manan

“It’s the best thing about the Metro,” Manan said. “There are all these working women who dress up in different ways. I like to think about how their day has been or what they do. Once I photographed a group of girls wearing chef’s coats. They were students of a culinary institute. For me, what women wear to work is endlessly interesting.”

Image credit: Vatsala Manan
Image credit: Vatsala Manan

A writer and photographer, Manan and her twin sister Vartika (along with their best friend) regularly conceptualise, shoot and star in photo features for online art magazines, including Tavi Gavinson’s Rookie Mag. Manan said she and her sister have always thought of the camera and photography as extensions of their lives, not something they consciously decided to do.

One time, Manan noticed three young women returning from a game of cricket held on the grounds of Gargi College. “They kept moving around,” she recalled. “I was not being able to take a picture and I really wanted to, so I went up to them and talked to them. They were very interested in the Instagram images and started following me too.”

Image credit: Vatsala Manan
Image credit: Vatsala Manan

“I try to never intrude into people’s personal space,” said Manan, referring to her subjects. “Sometimes I do think I’m being voyeuristic and that maybe I should ask them before taking their picture. If they do notice me taking their pictures, then I tell them what my Instagram handle is about and ask them if they would be alright with having their picture uploaded on social media. Most are quite happy to let me.”

Image credit: Vatsala Manan
Image credit: Vatsala Manan

Manan said her primary fascination is with women’s clothes, but the photographs convey more than just the pattern on a pair of tights or the twirl of a skirt. In most pictures, Manan’s subjects are immersed in their phones, oblivious to the rest of the world. She said this behaviour was not something she intended to document, but unwittingly, the series tells a story about the ways in which women occupy (and close themselves off from) public spaces in the city.

Inspired by the Instagram accounts of photographers David Luraschi and Ed Templeton, Manan said she would like to migrate her Metro series to its own Instagram handle soon – right now, she posts them under her own handle.

“Luraschi’s Instagram is all about photographing people on the streets of Paris and his shots are always taken from behind,” she said. “His handle is really quirky. Ed Templeton, on the other hand, posts a picture almost daily from the Huntington Beach Pier with the #DailyHBPierPhoto.”

The response Manan has received from her followers has been positive. “I have people messaging me that on their visit to Delhi, travelling in the Metro was another experience altogether because they have been following me on Instagram and have been seeing the metro in images,” she said.

Apart from the daily Metro series, Manan also shares gifs on a handle called Stars_From_Another_Sky, which is dedicated to women in Indian cinema.

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London then and now – As experienced by Indians

While much has changed, the timeless quality of the city endures.

“I found the spirit of the city matching the Bombay spirit. Like Bombay, the city never sleeps and there was no particular time when you couldn’t wander about the town freely and enjoy the local atmosphere”, says CV Manian, a PhD student in Manchester in the ‘80s, who made a trip to London often. London as a city has a timeless quality. The seamless blend of period architecture and steel skyscrapers acts as the metaphor for a city where much has changed, but a lot hasn’t.

The famed Brit ‘stiff upper lip, for example, finds ample validation from those who visited London decades ago. “The people were minding their business, but never showed indifference to a foreigner. They were private in their own way and kept to themselves.” Manian recollects. Aditya Dash remembers an enduring anecdote from his grandmother’s visit to London. “There is the famous family story where she was held up at Heathrow airport. She was carrying zarda (or something like that) for my grandfather and customs wanted to figure out if it was contraband or not.”

However, the city always housed contrasting cultures. During the ‘Swinging ‘60s’ - seen as a precursor to the hippie movement - Shyla Puri’s family had just migrated to London. Her grandfather still remembers the simmering anti-war, pro-peace sentiment. He himself got involved with the hippie movement in small ways. “He would often talk with the youth about what it means to be happy and how you could achieve peace. He wouldn’t go all out, but he would join in on peace parades and attend public talks. Everything was ‘groovy’ he says,” Shyla shares.

‘Groovy’ quite accurately describes the decade that boosted music, art and fashion in a city which was till then known for its post-World-War austerities. S Mohan, a young trainee in London in the ‘60s, reminisces, “The rage was The Beatles of course, and those were also the days of Harry Belafonte and Ella Fitzgerald.” The likes of The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd were inspiring a cultural revolution in the city. Shyla’s grandfather even remembers London turning punk in the ‘80s, “People walking around with leather jackets, bright-colored hair, mohawks…It was something he would marvel at but did not join in,” Shyla says.

But Shyla, a second-generation Londoner, did join in in the revival of the punk culture in the 21st century. Her Instagram picture of a poster at the AfroPunk Fest 2016 best represents her London, she emphatically insists. The AfroPunk movement is trying to make the Punk culture more racially inclusive and diverse. “My London is multicultural, with an abundance of accents. It’s open, it’s alive,” Shyla says. The tolerance and openness of London is best showcased in the famous Christmas lights at Carnaby Street, a street that has always been popular among members of London’s alternate cultures.

Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)
Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)

“London is always buzzing with activity. There are always free talks, poetry slams and festivals. A lot of museums are free. London culture, London art, London creativity are kept alive this way. And of course, with the smartphones navigating is easy,” Shyla adds. And she’s onto something. Manian similarly describes his ‘80s rendezvous with London’s culture, “The art museums and places of interest were very illustrative and helpful. I could tour around the place with a road map and the Tube was very convenient.” Mohan, with his wife, too made the most of London’s cultural offerings. “We went to see ‘Swan Lake’ at the Royal Opera House and ‘The Mousetrap’ by Agatha Christie. As an overseas graduate apprentice, I also had the pleasure to visit the House of Lords and take tea on the terrace.”

For the casual stroller along London’s streets today, the city would indeed look quite different from what it would’ve to their grandparents. Soho - once a poor suburb known for its crime and sex industry - is today a fashionable district of upmarket eateries and fashion stores. Most of the big British high street brands have been replaced by large international stores and the London skyline too has changed, with The Shard being the latest and the most impressive addition. In fact, Shyla is quite positive that her grandfather would not recognise most of the city anymore.

Shyla, though, isn’t complaining. She assures that alternate cultures are very much alive in the city. “I’ve seen some underground LGBT clubs, drag clubs, comedy clubs, after midnight dance-offs and empty-warehouse-converted parties. There’s a space for everybody.” London’s cosmopolitan nature remains a huge point of attraction for Indian visitors even today. Aditya is especially impressed by the culinary diversity of London and swears that, “some of the best chicken tikka rolls I have had in my life were in London.” “An array of accents flood the streets. These are the people who make London...LONDON,” says Shyla.

It’s clear that London has changed a lot, but not really all that much. Another aspect of Indians’ London experience that has remained consistent over the past decades is the connectivity of British Airways. With a presence in India for over 90 years, British Airways has been helping generations of Indians discover ‘their London’, just like in this video.

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For more information on special offers on flights to London and other destinations in the UK, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of British Airways and not by the Scroll editorial team.