If walls could talk, the Gateway of India would have an unending story to tell. It would speak of the hundreds that have passed under its arches and the millions that have sat in the adjoining harbour. Fortunately, those that work under the shadows of these walls have some stories they can tell us. Meet the ever-active photographers of the Gateway.
These are white-shirt-black-pants uniformed men who will entice you with their glossy, immaculate photo albums and greet you in a variety of ways – “Hello madam, madam ji photo, very good photo madam, only 30 rupees, madam, ek photo please madam.” Rising above the babble of the tourists, you hear, “Haath thoda aur upar karo, thoda left, haan bas, ab smile karo.”(Raise your hand a little more, a little to the left, that’s it, now smile.)
Having pacing these cobblestones for the last 36 years, Dashrath Choudhary is eager to talk while you strike poses in front of the monument. “Hum sab dekha hun, aur idhar hi seekha hun,” (I have seen and learnt everything here) he says while talking about his good ol’ days. From Polaroid to Kodak, to reel camera, to the DSLR and the portable Epson printer he now carries on his back, this man has come a long way, in terms of skills, experience and humour.
Dashrath ji, as he is fondly referred to, makes between Rs 300-400 on any given day, barring public holidays and “lucky” days. For someone whose entire income depends solely on these photographs, mobile phones are the adversary. With each picture costing Rs 30 and a 70% depreciation in business brought about by the dawn of the smartphone era, even young photographers make only about Rs 1000 a day.
Persuading customers to get just one picture clicked is becoming increasingly daunting with each passing day. Tourists shoo them away rudely. Dashrath ji feels just saying ‘no’ to a photographer is enough, shocking them by telling them that their phone is worth “Rs 75,000” is unnecessary. “Bohot dukh ho jata hai kabhi kabhi,” (I feel very sad sometimes) he says while talking about the behaviour of some tourists.
But then why rely on photography to fill his stomach? He says his options for alternative jobs are limited. He tried getting a job as a security guard once, but companies rejected him because of his age.
A father of four, Dashrath ji thinks old age is a curse and can’t stop himself from reminiscing about his halcyon days when he came to Mumbai as an 18-year-old to work as a hawker and popcorn seller. “Dandiya, Rajasthan mela (fair), Christmas mela, Bandra mela,” are amongst the most cherished events he has captured through his aging lenses.
He has lived in the same place for the last 30 years – a slum in Shivshakti Nagar, Nariman Point, where the monthly housing rent has skyrocketed to Rs 5000 in recent years.
Following in their father’s footsteps, three of his sons are keen photographers today, of which two work right here at the Gateway. Most photographers one bumps into here share surnames and also native towns – Bihar and Uttar Pradesh seem to produce and export the most number of photographers.
Pankaj Choudhary, Dashrath ji’s son and ‘leader’ of the 406 photographers here, flaunting a sky blue shirt, is the only colourfully dressed photographer here. The registered photographers of Gateway have elected him as the leader of the Mumbai Port Trust (MPT) Welfare Association to settle their squabbles.
One of Pankaj’s duties is to cover losses – by asking some of the photographers in the cohort to leave and seek other jobs. Youngsters are usually the first ones cut as they have the privilege of options. “Newcomers can be stopped with the help of the police and BMC (Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation),” pronounces Pankaj. “I am a B.Comm graduate,” he tells me. Why is he here then? “Passion profession mein badal gaya” (Passion transformed into a profession), he explains.
He adds that he’s been been to Malaysia on a photography tour and has contracts with Play and many other night clubs where he works to supplement his income from Gateway tourists. “You will be surprised to know that 20% of people working here are well-educated and many have done photography courses,” says Pankaj. Why would they want to continue working here at marginal rates then? “To learn, and follow their passion freely,” is his reply.
Another seasoned photographer, Kedarnath Choudhary, still lives in hope. He finds it everywhere – the reporters that come to speak to him, the positive change in the policemen’s attitude towards the photographers, the few pictures he succeeds in clicking. He excitedly exclaims, “One photo in 30 seconds”, talking about the speed of the Epson printer that spellbinds him. He, along with Dashrath ji, is among the few veteran photographers that struggled for years, knocking on commissioners’ and ministers’ doors to grant them some form of registration or legal acknowledgement. As a result of their efforts, the police and BMC have now stopped harassing these photoraphers.
When Dashrathji complaints, “Paisa hota toh hardwork kar leta” (I would have worked harder if there was any money), Kedarnath lends him a drop of his overflowing optimism, “Aaj nahi toh kal hoga.” (If not today, definitely tomorrow.)
He, like many other photographers at the Gateway of India, believes in destiny – if they are meant to get a picture, they will.
Shreya Gupta is pursuing a PGD course in Journalism and Mass Communication at the Xavier Institute of Communication, Mumbai.