'Bombay': A visual artist's homage to the city that was, before the lockdown took over
Through a set of 64 Instagram stories, visual artist Linesh Desai has attempted to juxtapose what Mumbai was before the lockdown, with what it looks like right now, when life has seemingly come to a halt
In his 2002 book Truth, Love and a Little Malice, Khushwant Singh wrote that a majority of Indian metropolitan cities are like "oversized villages". All except Mumbai, for which he had this to say:
"It is true that Bombay has many more high-rise buildings than any other Indian city: when you approach it by the sea it looks like a miniature New York. It has other things to justify its city status: it is congested, it has traffic jams at all hours of the day, it is highly polluted and many parts of it stink."
The city that never sleeps has perhaps fallen into deep slumber for the first time in recent history, owing to the nationwide lockdown put in place since March 2020, after the coronavirus outbreak hit India. The hustle and bustle of the city has been replaced by a lull: roads, characterised by traffic, lie deserted; sea-fronts which invited the most extraordinary mix of people, from maalishwallas to young lovers, to become spectators of the majestic Arabian Sea, now lie vacant. Mumbai, or Bombay as some residents still call it nostalgically, is not the same anymore.
Since most city dwellers are locked inside their homes, it is likely that they have lost touch with the city they call home. There is a palpable disconnect.
As we traverse the uncertainty of a 'new normal', our collective memory may begin to exclude what our lives looked like outside in the city, in an attempt to acclimatise to what our lives look like within the confines of our homes. Do we remember what the city was like before?
Mumbai-based visual artist Linesh Desai has posted a collection of snippets of Mumbai in a set of 64 Instagram Stories, to address the idea, or rather the haunting possibility, of cities fading into oblivion. Simply titled Bombay, Desai's project comprises 15-second videos, set in a fixed frame, capturing what the city looked like pre-lockdown.
In a conversation with Firstpost, Desai explained that unlike most photography or video projects, Bombay was not guided by a well-thought out idea or etched plan. As a visual artist, his perspective is usually shaped by his observations of the world around him. This is why his photographs are centered on visuals rather than concepts, process rather than result. His mantra is clear: more instinct, less thought, akin to shooting a film before writing the script for it.
He regards this project as being an extension of his everyday routine over the last six years. In fact, even the lockdown hasn't managed to put a halt to his process. "I am a cinematographer, and photography is a daily practice for me. I make sure I shoot something every day," he says.
The videos and images featured in Bombay have been shot over the last two to three years, and were originally part of an exhibition of photographs with Method Art Space, Mumbai. Desai put up a range of "detail-oriented images of people from the city", giving the viewer insight into their lives and cultures, while leaving a lot open to interpretation. Titled Ob(li)vious, Desai's set of photographs, which went live on 10 June this year, uses textures, patterns, clothes, accessories, etc to tell a story about who these people are and where they come from, "providing a micro as well as a macro view; disjointed in a way, yet complete."
It is this larger project through which the idea of Bombay was born. "While working on Ob(li)vious, I considered including some videos for an Instagram takeover. As a matter of fact, I have always aspired to put up a video installation somewhere, either at a gallery or a biennale," Desai says.
As luck would have it, Desai had already shot plenty of videos that were aligned with his larger project. "I ended up uploading some 64-odd videos. But I wasn't thinking of the relevance or immediacy, everything just fell in place at the right time," he adds. These videos garnered much interest on social media, taking the project from being a subset to a larger idea. Eventually, Bombay became an independent endeavour.
This project has struck a chord because of two reasons: it makes one nostalgic, and unlike other moving portraits of the city which have been circulating on social media, Desai's seem to have a different tonal quality — more intensity. When asked if he had employed a certain theme or narrative device while capturing these live portraits, Desai says, "There is a certain visual grammar to all the videos that I have been shooting all along, and it comes very naturally to me. Why phones? They are always with you, readily available at your disposal. Why vertical? Instagram stories are the only widely accessible format where we see videos in a vertical aspect ratio. It is an interesting way to compose visuals, too." The 15-second duration is a result of the maximum time limit of Instagram stories.
These videos also differ from still photographs in that they are not an attempt at capturing perfect moments, where everything in the foreground and background is in place. "In this 15-second format, you see the action building up to a point and then falling gradually — you get to see an arc, which is an interesting way to look at it. There is some sort of narrative taking place in a very subtle manner. It is like capturing the mundane with a certain sense of aesthetics," he adds.
While shooting, Desai isn't concerned with who or what the subject is, or what the subject is doing. Instead, his focus is on the more basic, technical aspects of visual storytelling, such as the form, lines, design, negative space, etc. "There is a kind of disconnect with the subject, which helps me to capture things in this style," he says.
While there is a sense of newness in terms of visual treatment, the project owes a lot to Instagram and the way the app allows users to post content, which can enhance its overall effect. In fact, Desai began shooting video after the Stories feature was introduced.
A lot of these videos were individually posted by Desai, and they did earn considerable engagement, but the experience was entirely different when they are watched collectively, as part of a larger collection.
Bombay is an ongoing project. "It is important to document cities, the place where you live, especially because of the way cities are changing with every passing day," he says.
He recently shot a series of videos documenting what people were doing on their terraces and rooftops during the lockdown. "I felt it was important to document this time in our lives, when lifestyles have been altered so much. There should be something to tell the future generation, about what 2020 looked like during the pandemic."
Revisiting the nostalgia called Bombay:
"Mumbai smells of ten thousand restaurants, five thousand temples, shrines, churches and mosques, and of hundred bazaars devoted exclusively to perfume, spices, incense, and freshly cut flowers. That smell, above all things - is that what welcomes me and tells me that I have come home." — Gregory David Roberts, Shantaram (2003)
“Mumbai is different! It’s busy, it’s dusty, it’s posh, it’s different from everything I’ve ever known. You can barely see the sky, hidden behind the tall buildings, the moon seems so detached, the trees look indifferent and distant.” ― Debalina Haldar, Wrinkles in Memory (2016)
“A city like Bombay, like New York, that is a recent creation on the planet and does not have a substantial indigenous population, is full of restless people. Those who have come here have not been at ease somewhere else. And unlike others who may have been equally uncomfortable wherever they came from, these people got up and moved. As I have discovered, having once moved, it is difficult to stop moving.” ― Suketu Mehta, Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found (2004)
“In this city, every deserted street corner conceals a crowd. It appears in a minute when something disrupts the way in which the world is supposed to work. It can disappear almost as instantaneously.” ― Jerry Pinto, Em and The Big Hoom (2012)
“Maybe I should go home. I miss Bombay. But the Bombay I miss isn't there to go home to anymore. This is who we are. We sail away from the place we love and then because we aren't there to love it people go with axes and burning torches and smash and burn and then we say, Oh, too sad. But we abandoned it, left it to our barbarian successors to destroy.” ― Salman Rushdie, Quichotte (2019)
"Tommy Sir's eyes grew tired. He felt that up there, on that seemingly never-ending bridge, shadowy figures were moving toward obscure destinations, possibly only to return to their point of origin, like in an architectural sketch of infinity by M.C. Escher. Hell is a choice, made daily and by millions, and breathing slowly and watching this aerial cage, Tommy Sir saw Mumbai, minute by minute, unbecome and become hell." — Aravind Adiga, Selection Day (2016)
To watch Linesh Desai's Bombay in its entirety, click here.
— All images and videos courtesy of Linesh Desai. All rights reserved.
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