A Private Photo Gallery with a Difference

"I was pleasantly aware of being one of them... anonymous, alone and on my own clock."–K Madhavan Pillai

“I was pleasantly aware of being one of them… anonymous, alone and on my own clock.”–K Madhavan Pillai

This article was originally published in August 2016.

A few weeks ago, I made an early morning trip to Mumbai’s infamous Chor Bazaar with three rather incongruous goals. First, I wanted to get breakfast and a cup of chai at B. Merwan & Co., one of the oldest running Irani cafés in the city. Second, I desperately needed time alone from everything, to do some quiet hunting of frames, in the manner in which street photography ought to be practiced. And third, I was hoping to find something of value and strike an interesting deal. The narrow, crowded alleys welcomed me. They bustled with almost every kind of human specimen. I was pleasantly aware of being one of them… anonymous, alone and on my own clock.

That’s when I chanced upon a tiny shop, hidden behind layers of food vendors, old furniture and broken stereo systems. What caught my attention was a pile of old, ornately embellished but worn out covers. They were unmistakably family photo albums, stacked on a plastic sheet on the floor, along with a lot of ancient textbooks on anatomy and medicine. An elderly, severe looking shopkeeper, with a long, exceptionally fine, white beard, sat on a folding metal chair, still and unmoving, just like his books. Despite his age, he looked fresh and new, in the midst of all his second-hand wares. As I sifted through the albums, appreciating the burnished covers on some of them, he sized me up instantly (strange looking camera and all… the Sigma dp3 Quattro, on test in this issue). “Dekhne ka dus rupaiya. Inme se kuch loge, toh dekhne ka keemat discount mein doonga.” (10 Rupees for a look. If you buy any of them, I shall discount the price for looking.)

It seemed fair enough. I asked him for half an hour. After watching me bend over the albums for ten minutes, he got up, and offered me his chair. After half an hour, he offered me a cutting of chai, which I was quite happy to accept. Finally, I ended up paying him Rs. 20 for an hour of browsing. Some of the albums were damaged and mouldy, as though they were lying in water for a while. They offered me a glimpse into another time. The photos there were once loved and treasured. There were some wonderfully made family portraits. One album was dated 1945, and contained photographs printed on handmade emulsions. It made me wonder why these albums were abandoned at all. Beyond that, walking around, I enjoyed a veritable gallery of faces, spaces and experiences. I made a few good pictures too. Of all the photographic exhibitions and galleries I visited this year, this one easily stands out as the best. Money well spent!

Tags: K Madhavan Pillai, Edit note, August 2015