Mumbaiwale: Chirodeep Chaudhuri’s Seeing Time is much more than an exhibition of clock photographs
The photographs are really a way to look at a changing city, at public memory, and to see how Mumbai has lived with clocks. How did he manage to do it?
If you walk into the Max Mueller gallery in Kala Ghoda and catch Seeing Time, allow your personal clock to slow down. The 81 black-and-white images shot by Chirodeep Chaudhuri require more than fleeting glances. Sure, each features a clock – indoors, outdoors, operational and otherwise – on a public façade. But timekeeping is merely the show’s subject, it’s not the theme.
Public clocks belong to an era when a workforce needed to be at the office on time. It represents a city that thinks time is money. “But this isn’t some mushy nostalgia show about time gone by,” Chaudhuri is quick to clarify. The photographs are really a way to look at a changing city, at public memory, and to see how Mumbai has lived with clocks. How did he manage to do it?
It took a while. “The show represents 23 years of research,” says Chaudhuri. He first exhibited his photos in 1999, 20-odd shots of South Mumbai clockfaces. His quest didn’t end there. He’s tracked down more clocks since – one shot, of a clock at the Western Railway’s Lower Parel workshop, required a year of chasing to get permission to shoot. Chaudhuri photographed it a week before the show opened. And since 1999, Mumbai has changed too. “People are more engaged with their city now,” he says. “They’re paying attention.”
It’s not about the clocks. It’s everything else in the frames that make Chaudhuri’s images so rich. One shot, of the clock at the Indian Sailors’ Home in Masjid Bunder, captures the mood of the mohalla – trucks, hawkers, labourers – with the Ghadiyal Godi Timeball (a timekeeping system for departing ships) by the docks on the horizon. “I shot it in 1996, one of my first pictures in the series,” he says. Other images look at clock-hands that stand still as life whooshes past, skylines and neighbourhoods you’ll no longer recognise.
It’s been a public project. “I love the engagement!” Chaudhuri says. Over the decades, friends and family have alerted him to clocks they’d started noticing. “People opened doors to me, a complete stranger with an odd request to photograph the clocks visible from their windows or balconies,” he says. “They trusted me, spoke to me for hours, and ended up looking at the clocks and their city differently. They realised they were part of something bigger.”
His image of a clock at Bhagat Bhavan, a Vile Parle home, is one of only two private residences to have an exterior clock. It’s a German make, its mechanism housed in a cupboard-like alcove inside the living room of the family who were in the clocks business. At his shows, viewers display surprise that he’s found 81 clocks. They’ll share memories of old habits of looking up to a particular one on a commute, and of their memories of the city they knew.
The show measures time. The series is essentially an archive, recording what we increasingly ignore and what disappears without us knowing. Early in the project, the now-deceased city historian Sharada Dwivedi had encouraged Chaudhuri to “carry on this work”. He didn’t know what she meant then. Today, some city clocks exist only in his images. “When you look at a picture from a certain period, there’s a kind of value-addition,” he notes. “For years I passed a shop outside my home in Thane. Six years since it disappeared, I can’t even recall what it used to look like.”
Some things never change. Chaudhuri has been comparing the visitors’ book at Seeing Time with the one from the show 20 years ago. “The comments are largely the same!” Outtakes, family anecdotes, views of clock mechanisms, and comments by people who’ve passed public clocks for decades are part of Chaudhuri’s in-progress book. And there might be clocks he’s missed. “This project is far from complete.”
Want to see the world differently?
Start with a basic curiosity, Chaudhuri says. Don’t think about where you’re headed, but pay attention. A pattern will emerge.
Enjoy the hunt. Ask questions with your eyes. An eye for detail takes time to develop and changes you.
Ask what you’re in it for. An exhibition is not the end goal. Work on how the world reveals itself differently to you through a project.
Do the legwork. “For 20 years, people have warned me that someone else might steal the idea and shoot clocks,” he says. “Many have shot 10 or 12 clocks. None had the interest to go on.”