Show of hands: The public clocks of Bombay
(An edited version of this article was first published in The Hindu Business Line.)
The city clocks point out the hours
They look like moons on their darkened towers —
And I who was shown my destination
Thrice, but have no sense of location,
Am back again at one or the other
Looming clocks that have changed the figure.
— From ‘The City Clocks’ by Irish poet Padraic Colum
I stumbled upon this poem just a few days after I saw photographer Chirodeep Chaudhari’s magnificent new show Seeing Time: Public Clocks of Bombay. It seems to describe so well his own process of finding and documenting 81 public clocks over 23 years. The photographs from this journey are on display at the Max Mueller Bhavan in Mumbai, and are a treat for anyone interested in exploring the urban landscape through a unique vantage point.
The story Chaudhuri wants to tell is about technological change — and how that manifests in the public sphere in a city where time is money. In the days before mobile phones, or even wrist watches, these public clocks performed an important service for people rushing to work or back home, keeping appointments, or praying at a specific time. A special feature of this show is the city’s religious diversity summed up through images of places such as Shree Ram Mandir in Bhuleshwar, Hasnabad Dargah in Mazgaon, Maghen David Synagogue in Byculla, St Thomas Cathedral at Horniman Circle and Anjuman Atash Bahram at Dhobi Talao.
“Bombay is the city I have grown up in. I know my way around, and I understand it better than most cities. I keep going to Calcutta because I have family there but I feel like an outsider in that city,” says Chaudhuri, who has lived in various neighbourhoods, scattered all across the length and breadth of this bustling metropolis. Now 47, he spent his early years in Chembur, moved to Mazgaon thereafter, and has now settled down in Thane.
Shifting from one workplace to another also ensured that he got to experience different parts of the city. He has worked in the Fort area of South Bombay, Saki Naka, Mahalaxmi, Lower Parel and Marol Naka. He has an independent practice now, and is no longer required to make those long commutes that were a quintessential feature of his life as a full-time photojournalist and editor.
“I have regularly been asked about how I found these buildings. I could say — with tenacity. But perhaps, I should just say that it was a combination of observation, legwork and sometimes, a feeling in the gut,” writes Chaudhuri in his artist statement. “As a photographer of the streets, it isn’t uncommon to develop an instinct for a somewhat 180 degree vision of happenings on the ground. My peculiar pursuit, however, with time trained me to include in my line of vision the additional 90 degrees of the vertical plane.”
It is only someone with immense passion who can follow a project for over two decades. What he has constructed with skill and care is a precious archive of the city itself. The exhibition includes clocks mounted on office buildings, at railway stations, in educational institutions, on religious buildings, and in many other places. He ran into most of them by virtue of serendipity, or while walking in the direction of an architectural detail such as a spire or minaret that he was fascinated by. What helped him was the fact that he used public transport. It made him slow down, and observe carefully.
This project has benefited from the generosity of several people. His mother led him to “the Prince’s Triumphal Arch, an arched gateway which stands at an awkward angle, surrounded by hawkers’ stalls and its clock concealed by a tree, near Cadbury’s junction,” he notes. On another occasion, he was at his friend’s office just glancing at a scan of a vintage postcard on a soft board when he learnt that the Dwarkadhish Temple in Kalbadevi had a clock. In 2016, he put out a call on social media, inviting friends to alert him about any public clocks they might come across. Most of these were in the Fort area, a thriving business district in the colonial period, but his exhibition also features clocks in Vile Parle, Nagpada, Sion and Mulund.
In 2017, Chaudhuri felt the need to bring on board an assistant to interview people who used the public spaces wherein the clocks were situated, and record how they made meaning of those clocks. At that time, he was teaching a course in photojournalism at the Social Communications Media Department of Sophia Polytechnic College. His colleague, writer Jerry Pinto, recommended a young media student called Suryasarathi Bhattacharya who was new to Bombay but showed much sincerity and promise.
“I was thrilled to work on the project. I got to know the city in a really intimate way, and ended up having long conversations with all kinds of people who welcomed me into their shops and homes, shared about their lives, and fed me as we talked,” recalls Bhattacharya, who is now a journalist covering the arts and culture beat for a prominent digital publication. He conducted over a hundred interviews for Chaudhuri, and was enchanted by the way in which memory, conjecture and imagination came together in people’s narratives about the public clocks. Chaudhuri’s photographs and Bhattacharya’s interviews will take the shape of a book to be published later this year.