— All images, unless indicated otherwise, courtesy of Chirodeep Chaudhuri
TIME — popular adages inform us — wreaks all manner of things. It is spoken of as “the great healer” but more often than not, the dictums associated with time are of life slipping by, of opportunities never to be grasped again — of the inescapable change it brings. Is there an irony then in the fact that, of all the things the passage of time has changed, it has changed few things as much as the tools of timekeeping?
In early 2017, I found myself asking people around the Churchgate area in Mumbai if they had seen any striking public clocks around. I was gathering material for a project by the noted photojournalist Chirodeep Chaudhuri; Chaudhuri had been shooting public clocks in the city for over two decades at that point, and I had been given an opportunity to conduct supporting research for it.
Above: Chirodeep Chaudhuri. Photo by Abhijit Bhatlekar
Right next to the Churchgate station is a public clock, at the top of the Industrial Assurance Building. And yet, on that day, as I tried to elicit responses from passersby, most would indicate the iconic Big Ben-like clock at the Rajabai Tower some distance away. None noticed the clock they were standing under. “I never looked up in all these years to realise this clock existed,” was the common refrain.
Startling though it then seemed to me, to be oblivious of a large clock (even one in such close proximity to you) was maybe only natural. Public clocks have for too many years now, not been required to serve the purpose they were originally built for. Where once an entire locality or the people passing through it might have kept track of the hours in their day by these sentinels, now they were of little more than ornamental or historic interest. Time had made these clocks invisible.
Above: Indian Sailors Home, Masjid (East)
Because I’m not constrained, unlike time itself, to proceed in a linear manner, I’d like to rewind a little, to the point in my narrative when I first encountered these public clocks. Fittingly enough, it was at a time of great transition for me: I had just moved to Mumbai, in 2016, for a mass media course. Chirodeep Chaudhuri was among the instructors, and during one class, he shared the photographs he had made over a long and fulfilling career. One set stood out in particular: A series of black and white images, of the public clocks in the city.
As my classmates and I attempted to identify (or guess) which parts of the city the clocks might be located in, what opened up that day for me was a new way of seeing things — an attitude that translated into my approach to capturing photos and stories around Mumbai.
Then, in 2017, I received a call from Chaudhuri: "Would you like to join me in my public clocks project? Jerry Pinto [also an instructor] has recommended your name," he said. The prospect of the collaboration overwhelmed and excited me. The next day, Chaudhuri and I met at a café, and he explained his vision for the project. As for what would be required of me, "I want you to interview people and note down their experiences and memories of these clocks," Chaudhuri said, sharing an Excel sheet with the names, location and photographs of the clocks. Some of these photographs had been made in the 1990s, others were as recent as 2016. His passion for the project was very evident.
Above: Magen David Synagogue, Sir JJ Road
I started off near the Oval Maidan, in the Churchgate area. After all, what could be a better starting point than the city’s best-known public clock, at the Rajabai Clock Tower? Speaking with over a dozen people — taxi drivers, joggers, a cobbler, residents of the many Art Deco buildings that surround the Maidan — I gleaned that the clock and its chimes were tangible entities in their daily lives. Literally and figuratively, the Rajabai Clock Tower loomed large in their day-to-day.
But just a little distance away, at the Industrial Assurance Building, I came up against indifference, or ambiguity. If no one had anything of note to say about the clock, what was the point in recording it?
Above: Khoja Shiya Imami Ismaili Jamatkhana, Masjid (West)
When I discussed my experiences with Chaudhuri the next day, he gave me a copy of a book called Detachment, by Sophie Calle. Calle’s little red volume — “exploring the topic of artefacts vanished from public view and how those familiar with these objects felt about them” — changed my perspective on the project. With Calle as a guiding force, I found my interviews developed layers. I realised the import of all kinds of voices — voices of nostalgia, voices of ignorance, voices of apathy, voices of concern, voices of remorse.
Above: Aurora Cinema, Dr Ambedkar Road, King’s Circle, Matunga (East) | CLOCK MISSING
Some of my respondents talked about how a certain clock in their neighbourhood was a token of a past marked by fewer crowds, traffic, noise and chaos — a time when they could hear clearly and distinctly, the chiming of the clock. Some lamented how the ever-mushrooming high-rises in Mumbai had obscured their once clear view of a clock that they grew up observing every day. Some clocks were part of residential buildings, so the accounts and anecdotes I gathered about them were more private — built on lived experiences and spanning multiple generations. Some clocks were mounted atop commercial towers or office complexes, and the stories I heard about them mainly came from a place of utility (basic timekeeping, regularity, discipline).
Above: Shridhar Bhalchandra & Co., Prarthana Samaj, RR Roy Marg, Girgaon
While I certainly learnt a great deal about the city’s past as Bombay/Mumbai, Chaudhuri's clocks project got me closer to its living, breathing heart — the inhabitants of this megapolis. In mining their memories, I was also making my own: chatting for hours with the fisherfolk at the Sassoon Docks, climbing to the top of the Rajabai Clock Tower and being startled by the loud ringing of the bells (12 times), surreptitiously taking pictures of the interiors of an agiary, long evenings spent with the maulvi of a mosque and witnessing namaaz... I met people from all walks of life and realised just how many stories there were to be told — something our teacher, Jerry Pinto, would always tell us in class. All one needed to do, was listen and be willing to share one’s time.
Since I started work on Chaudhuri’s project, seldom have I passed an old building without looking up to see if it houses a public clock, or at least the remnants of one. As for the ones we documented (Chaudhuri has photographed 81 of them thus far), I look out for them every time I’m passing by — to see if they’re all right, functional or otherwise.
Having spent almost two years with the city’s timekeepers, and uncovering people’s stories about them, I am reminded of a quote attributed to HG Wells. It isn’t about clocks, but seems oddly appropriate in this context: “We all have our time machines, don’t we? Those that take us back are memories...And those that carry us forward, are dreams.”
Above: Laxmi Building, Pherozshah Mehta Road, Fort
— Bleed image: Tejookaya Park, Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Road, Matunga (West)
Chirodeep Chaudhuri's Seeing Time: Public Clocks of Bombay is currently on display at the Max Mueller Bhavan, Kala Ghoda, Mumbai. The exhibition will be on till 20 February.