When have I ever seen a clock in Mumbai, I wonder, as I enter the Max Mueller Bhuvan at Kala Ghoda where the genius photographer Chirodeep Chaudhuri’s portraits of clocks around Mumbai are put up in an exhibition called Seeing Time. My answer is, I only know one. All that “Bombay girl” pride feels a little shameful, as I approach Chaudhuri for a chat and to see Mumbai through his eyes, or rather, his beautiful pictures. It’s not just the clocks, which he’s found 81 of in the city, in case you missed my sassy introduction here. It’s the mood of when the clocks existed, the buildings around it, a bridge that probably doesn’t exist anymore. His photographs show you a Mumbai that has immensely changed, and how you were so oblivious to these existing clocks that you didn’t even know they disappeared.
Chaudhuri’s love for Mumbai started with his first job as a news photographer. “What happens with most photographers when they start out is they shoot architecture. You will see close-ups of windows, a pillar and so on in their pictures. During my first job as a photographer at The Sunday Observer, I figured out my focus and understood how I can do photography as a career,” he says. But this sudden observation of the clock scene actually originated from Kolkata, Chaudhuri’s hometown. “I was in Kolkata on an assignment and I was doing a picture in this area called the Esplanade. There’s a building called the Metropolitan building, which has two clocks. That’s when I first became aware of a public clock,” he recalls, and adds, “If the Metropolitan building didn’t exist, I don’t think this project would’ve happened.”
Those were the days when newspapers carried standalone photographers, he remembers, which involved him being on the streets a lot more. “I started noticing clocks here, started going beyond Rajabhai towers and Lion Gate. I met historian Sharada Dwivedi through a friend who encouraged me to show her my pictures. Dwivedi, in many ways, instilled the love of Mumbai in me. She showed me that a city is worth looking at consciously. So, though I had walked around Fort before, now, I was actually seeing things,” he says.
Chaudhuri believes his work is not a very direct look at Mumbai, it’s more interpretative. But why clocks, I ask. “The way that I began to read the city has become more nuanced. It started out without me even realising that I’m going to be obsessed with this for 23 years. When I showed Dwivedi these pictures initially, she got very excited because she didn’t know about two buildings with clocks, and Dwivedi knows everything. The project has developed over time,” he smiles.
When he got his first show three years into his career, he didn’t think he will find 81 clocks, and he still feels like there may just be a clock somewhere he is yet to discover. “Even two years back, or 10 years back, I thought I’m done. Even now, I feel like maybe there’s one more,” he says. Chaudhuri feels his discovery of clocks has turned into an excuse to discover the city. “I went into gullies I didn’t think I’ll go into, to spots I never knew,” he adds. Over 23 years, Chaudhuri’s approach to these buildings hasn’t changed much, but he has not made his pictures one-of-a-kind. “Between close-ups in some, mood shots in some, and showing the city, it’s a mix of perspectives. A lot of the photographs have evolved with time, and have been shot at different times from different angles,” he states.
Yes, he has documented clocks, but the emotional connect is still Mumbai, not the clocks. “I think the project comes out of love for the city, and sometimes these projects also make you question the city. Also, just because I love something doesn’t mean I make it look pretty. I did a project on the cancer ward of patients who camp outside Tata hospital. It’s a harsher reality, but it also brings out an aspect of the city,” he says. But what about Mumbai does he connect with the most? “The people. There’s a certain tenacity that people have. It’s an immensely tough city to live in and you won’t realise it unless you start living here. At a more tangible level, I love that this is a city by the sea,” he explains. Chaudhuri, like most people brought up in Mumbai, believe that the city he grew up in and the city today are two different worlds. “It becomes unlivable, but also, where else do you go? Every Mumbaikar’s biggest dilemma ever,” he laughs.
Chaudhuri aims to expand these photographs that uses technology as a prism into a book, and we’ve been lucky enough to have our own coffee table version through these pictures he has shared, with some stories about the book. “I think this project has got so much going for it now, it should really be a book because there’s so much relevant information about these pictures, so many stories that can’t come out through the exhibition alone. At one point, I was actually worried that I’ll discover a clock after the book is out, but I can’t be worried about that anymore,” he says.
I ask him a spot that he’d want to be at when he wants to steal a minute away from the city’s chaos, and he says, “I would really like to be at the top of the Rajabhai Towers. When you go up there, the sound of the city disappears. Earlier, you could hear people talk, but now, it’s noise. However, it’s still just like a drone-ish sound, so it’s still peaceful,” he tells me. As we take a round to look at the photographs again, I wonder, what are other things that we might have not noticed in the city? “It’s incredible that you’re asking me this now because somehow, with every project I’ve done, people have always told me it’s something they haven’t noticed. At present, I’m photographing abandoned helmets on the streets of Mumbai. It started out as way of seeing if something’s developing. Now that people know I’m doing it, they send me pictures of abandoned helmets, and see, they’re noticing something they wouldn’t have otherwise. That’s my job as a communicator, as a photographer, to show them the city they live in, but have no time for,” he explains. There’s so much more to the maximum city. I guess you just have to open your eyes and, without making it your Insta story, actually see.