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Scenes from a city

Suketu Mehta and Khalid Mohamed get a sneak peek into Ketaki Sheth's new book Bombay Mix: Street Photographs.

books Updated: Jan 28, 2008 12:23 IST

Suketu Mehta writes a foreword for Ketaki Sheth's just-released book Bombay Mix: Street Photographs.

There is a haunting photograph of two little girls, angel and imp (cover photo). The girl in the centre is gaudily attired, fair, pristine; she could be any of the middle class children of the city cosseted and pampered.

But she is sad, a sad angel. Behind her is another girl in a shaggy dress laughing mockingly, out of focus - dark, cheaply shod - the excluded.

<b1>The one girl, still, composed, pensive; the other manic with energy; and in the background, an older lady sitting on a cot, indifferent to either one of them.

And there you have the whole story mix of Bombay the fortunate, lost in contemplation, the unfortunate, whose only defence is laughter, and the rest of the city, choosing not to see.

The thrill of Bombay is the thrill of contrast. The streetscape of Bombay as much psychedelic as it is kaleidoscopic. There is great danger here for a documentary photographer; there is so much to see, it can all become a clutter.

What is most difficult to discern is geometry, the internal order amidst the clutter. Such as Sheth's picture of the dab- bawala hoisting his tray of meals, framed against the light cut into panels by a large window covered in grillwork.

Sheth's children are angelic in the most unsentimental, literal way. These are Bombay angels; angels in a tough neighbourhood.

<b2>Her work also captures the pure exuberance of childhood. A smiling boy runs with a bottle dripping water, Bombay cousin of Cartier- Bresson's French urchin with two bottles of wine.

In another image, Infant and Flautist (Haji Ali), there is a child sleeping on a parapet by the sea, using only his arms as a pillow. Next to him, a man plays a flute, seeding his dreams.

It is the Krishna image, but split among two human beings. In this schizophrenic city, everything is bifurcated, almost cubist.

Sheth's Bombay is subtle, considered, and thoughtful, even when it is outwardly brutal. There is an incidental beauty in its streets and its people, in the midst of the grime. Hers is a clement gaze upon a turbulent town.

Ketaki Sheth talks to

Khalid Mohamed

Why have you restricted yourself to the black-and-white medium?
It's the only medium I know. It's the medium used by the photography masters I respect and admire .. like Helen Levitt, Robert Frank, Gary Winogrand, Diane Arbus, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Lee Friedlander, to name just a few, even if that makes me a bit of a dinosaur in today's times.

Which years do the photographs in Bombay Mix cover?
From 1989-1992 and then 2001-2004 . From my perspective, the dynamics of the streets have remained the same.

Your first book of photographs - Twinspotting - was internationally feted. Was it easier finding a publisher the second time?
Not really. Photography books are expensive to produce and are costly on the shelves. I was lucky that Sepia Gallery in New York and the British photography publisher Dewi Lewis, believed in the project, came together and made the book a reality. But none of this happened instantly. It had its own gestation, it took its own time.

You have won major photography awards, the Sanskriti Award for Photography in India and more recently, the Higashikawa Award in Japan. Do you think Indian photography is being increasingly recognised?
Several Indian photographers have been critically acclaimed and are successful both in India and abroad: (the late) Raghubir Singh, Raghu Rai, Pablo Bartholomew, Homai Vyarawala, Mahendra Sinh, Sooni Taraporevala and Dayanita Singh. I'm certainly not the first. But winning an award is always an encouragement, an acknowledgement of one's work.

What next?
I've been working these last two years doing portraits of the Sidis, an African community in India. I'm working on putting the photographs together as a book and hope that this can become a reality.

It would be very different from my two books so far, but it would still be black-and-white. I'd better finish photographing this project before the paper and chemistry run out!