The big city life of little people

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Mumbai’s street children find a freshness in Amit Madheshiya’s lens. Samrat Chakrabarti looks at the man behind the camera

Street nation Raju and Shinu, best of friends, play near Dadar Railway Station

IT WAS A moment of magical reality that returned Amit Madheshiya, 29, Mumbai-based independent photographer, to a subject he had dabbled with in college. Standing at the busy traffic intersection opposite Mumbai’s Metro cinema, Amit watched the impatient traffic hurry past, waiting for the opportune moment to cross the road to a café on the other side. A group of street children, paying no heed to conventions and unconcerned by the precarious position of pedestrians on India’s roads, stepped up to the busy road with intent to cross it. When Amit asked them to wait for the traffic to halt, one of the children smiled back, “We don’t need to wait.” For the 10 seconds that it took the children to cross the road like a ‘moment from a Murakami novel’, all traffic at the intersection stopped. As if pushed, by the children’s chutzpah, into a moment of indecision, the ready symbols of the powerful, stood rooted, impotent in their gasoline growl.

 

Participant observer Photographer Amit Madheshiya

“That was the signal and the impulse,” says Amit. Like modern renegades, the street children, it seemed to him, had effected a fascinating inversion of reality — turned out on to the streets, the children had taken ownership of the city; without a house, but not without a home, they seemed to say.

Amit was not new to street children as photographic subjects. As an English literature student at Delhi’s Hindu college, he had tried his newly acquired camera on the city street’s most willing subjects. But it wasn’t until six years later and until the epiphany of “the little magic outside Metro cinema” that Amit seriously looked at street children as more than simply the easy, photogenic subjects of city life.

‘The documentary photographer cannot be completely invisible. I think it’s an unworkable ideal,’ says Amit Madheshiya

AMIT TAKES TIME to arrive at a project. He immerses himself in a subject until a moment arrives that reveals the underlying thread connecting his experiences. For instance, living for the first time and for months in the cramped space of a ten-by-six chawl (tenement) in Mumbai, he found himself a character caught up in the defining battle of Mumbai: Space. This experience led him to a photographic meditation on the Mumbaikar’s interaction with the open beach, its cathartic value to a space-deprived city.

No direction home Bound for Mumbai on a Kolkata train, the unidentified boy lay in a drug-induced stupor. Vishal’s favourite story is of his methodical escape from an ‘abusive and nosey’ father back home in Nagpur


Featured here is the first phase of Amit’s project on Mumbai’s street children that won him a fellowship this year from the National Foundation of India. The fellowship will allow Amit to embark on the second, more focussed phase of his work — Mumbai’s streets through the story of a single family.“I don’t believe that the documentary photographer can be completely invisible. It’s an unworkable ideal. People are always aware of the camera. You have to become a participant observer of sorts.” Even with his work on street children, Amit’s constant effort, he says, is to build rapport, establish a relationship.

Young man and the sea A monsoon sea brings junk and business to the Mumbai ragpicker. One of them takes shelter at Versova sea front(left). Unidentified boys play at a mela organised by the Don Bosco shelter in Wadala, Mumbai(right)

“This is the life they know and in it they find contentment. That’s why I don’t portray them as a community that needs us. This is something that we need to realise and appreciate and that’s what I’m trying to do,” says Amit.

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