One of the more striking images in photographer Gopal MS’s new e-book Matsyagandha is a close-up of a cat sprawled across a fishing net. Gopal found the feline in a fishing village on Mumbai’s Madh Island in 2011. For more than half an hour, he watched the animal as it alternated between stretching and straining to catch the smells of fish and salt on the net.

That sight set off an idea in the street photographer and blogger, who has been documenting Mumbai’s different shades on his blog Mumbai Paused. He wanted to take pictures that evoke the city’s distinctive smells and its essence. Matsyagandha (Smelling like a Fish), a collection of those images, which was released online on November 5, achieves a difficult feat: capturing an intangible by association. “Mumbai has always been associated with the smell of fish because of its fishing villages,” said Gopal.

That unmistakable odour of the city had received a purple description in Australian author Gregory David Roberts’s popular novel Shantaram: “The first thing I noticed about Bombay…was the smell of the different air…the sweet, sweating smell of hope…It’s the smell of gods, demons, empires, and civilisations in resurrection and decay. It’s the blue skin-smell of the sea, no matter where you are in the Island City, and the blood-metal smell of machines. It smells of the stir and sleep and waste of sixty million animals, more than half of them humans and rats. It smells of heartbreak, and the struggle to live, and of the crucial failures and loves that produce our courage.”

While Gopal initially wanted to base the book on his personal experiences, he broadened its scope to include how those staying in Mumbai related to it through its various smells. The book begins with the intriguing question: “What is the one smell that defines Mumbai for you?” followed by responses from several people in the city. “It was not humanly possible to track all the smells of the city because it is too large, and I could miss out on smells that mean something to somebody else,” he said. “That is why I spoke to around 50 people on Instagram…. I wanted it to be a shared experience.”

Gopal uses an image of a man curing and drying fish at the JB Nagar fish market in Marol to conjure up the smell of salt. Another photograph of an assortment of spices and condiments at a masala market suggests the idea of food.

The book is divided into several sections, including Bombay Duck, Food, Nostalgia, Textiles, Rivers and Monsoon. The images featured in it have been shot over a period of 10 years. Apart from the neighbourhoods of the city, Gopal also wanted to capture less obvious concepts like the smell of fear and sweat.

“Instead of just taking pictures of places in a geographical structure, I included different elements like the smell of fear, the smell of men, or the smell of sweat for example,” Gopal explained. “Under smell of fear, I tried to capture the 26/11 attacks. I realised that the incident changed Mumbai in the sense that there was a fear in the air. Ideas like this made me explore the city through smells in a different layer.” An image under Smell of Fear includes photographs of wall writings and graffiti advocating non-violence.

The smell of rivers.
The smell of rivers.

Gopal moved to Mumbai from Bengaluru in 2009, and his first significant olfactory encounter was with the infamous Mithi River, as he went past it on a crowded local train from Mahim to Bandra. “The smell of the Parle biscuit factory was another memory,” Gopal recalled. “My introduction to [Mumbai’s] smells came from these.”

In Bengaluru, Gopal would capture the city for his blog Which Main? What Cross? “While photographing, I realised I had a knack for spotting things,” he said. “I came to Mumbai and continued the habit. I fell in love with the city when I started seeing it with the camera. It became a love story that has continued for a long time.” His naturalistic pictures have attracted over 24,000 followers on his Instagram.

From time to time, Mumbai Paused engages deeply with a specific subject. The series #DalitBlue captured the visual imagery of the Dalit movement, #AamArtistGallery featured art made by the working class, and #SaffronTide delved into Hindutva imagery.

The smell of Bombay Duck.
The smell of Bombay Duck.

The intention behind his pictures, Gopal explains, is to create something “long-lasting”. “My images are very ordinary. In isolation, they do not make much sense. They are not beautiful pictures like a Raghu Rai’s. I wanted to do something that is the equivalent of what is called slow journalism, where you take a story and do it for a long period of time. In my case, Mumbai is the larger story, and within that I have many stories.”

Gopal prefers the simple digital or phone camera to a professional camera. “I shoot streets and a smaller camera is easier to carry around,” he said. “Most of my pictures emerge out of me walking around. For example, if I have a meeting in Parel, I reach there early and take a stroll and shoot. This happens at any place I go to. The smaller camera also does not intimidate people. The phone camera allows me to be invisible.”

The smells map of Mumbai.
The smells map of Mumbai.

Looking at the city through his camera helped him capture it through its transitions. “The city is growing fast,” he said. “If you take the advertising agencies, they have shifted from Lower Parel and Fort to Goregaon. I use that as an example to say that the median of the city has shifted from the South to somewhere in the West and North. The new Bombay is the suburbs and it is a very different city from the nostalgic South Bombay or the city from Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s films.”

For Gopal, the smells during low tide are what best define the city, and his inspiration for the title of the book. In Matsyagandha, he writes: “The salt scented air from the sea provides the foundation on which the smells of the city of Mumbai rest.”

The city with seven islands.
The city with seven islands.

All photographs by Gopal MS. Courtesy Matsyagandha.