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Show of hands: The public clocks of Bombay

Chintan Girish Modi | Updated on January 17, 2020 Published on January 17, 2020

Witness to time: The Keshavji Nayak Pyau (public drinking-water fountain) and clock tower in Mumbai   -  CHIRODEEP CHAUDHUR

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 Chaudhuri’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 black-and-white photographs from this journey are on display at the Max Mueller Bhavan in Mumbai, and are a special treat for anyone interested in exploring the urban landscape through a special 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 wristwatches, 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 Kolkata because I have family there but I feel like an outsider in that city,” Chaudhuri, who has lived in various neighbourhoods scattered across the length and breadth of this bustling metropolis, tells BLink. Now 47, he spent his early years in Chembur before moving to Mazgaon and then Thane.

Shifting from one workplace to another also ensured that he got acquainted with different parts of the city. He has worked in the Fort area of South Mumbai, 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.

Only someone with immense passion can follow a project for over two decades. What Chaudhuri 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 serendipity, or while walking in the direction of a spire or minaret that he was fascinated by. What helped the photographer 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. Chaudhuri’s 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, Chaudhuri 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 what they made 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, the writer Jerry Pinto, recommended a student named Suryasarathi Bhattacharya, who was new to the city but showed 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, talked about their lives, and fed me as we spoke,” 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 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 which will be published later this year.

Seeing Time: Public Clocks of Bombay is on view till February 20

Chintan Girish Modi is a Mumbai-based writer, educator and researcher

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Published on January 17, 2020
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