Mumbai based photographer Natasha Hemrajani is interviewed by Bhumika Popli on her work and her project ‘Hello, Goodbye’ which was showcased at the Delhi Photo Festival 2013.
Bhumika Popli: Nostalgia! Does it disturb you? How do you jostle with it?
Natasha Hemrajani: I share a beautiful and complex relationship with nostalgia. I come from a lineage that is immersed in it. The house I live in is my grandparents home; my entire family as I know it was born in this house, my mother and all my aunts and uncles, my brother and I, all our cousins. When my parents ran away and got married, they came back to live in this house. My aunts lived with us, and my cousins. My childhood was filled with various relatives staying over for weekends and vacations; there was always a large assortment of visiting family and guests in residence. Because the house I live in is very old and full of many memories, the past surrounds me at every turn. My room is still filled with my grandparent’s antique furniture, books from the 1960s, objects that have been preserved for their age alone, albums of black and white photographs, mysterious and beautiful relics of bygone eras. Nostalgia is not just my indulgence; in many ways it defines me. My roots are so deeply entrenched in my family’s shared past that nostalgia is a part of who I am as a person.
BP: Where do you fit in this ever-changing physical space?
NH: Today, most of my family no longer lives in this house. My parents do not live together, my grandparents have passed away and the remaining members of my family have grown up, married, moved out, and left the country. I still live in this house that I was born in; my building is ageing but unchanging in an area that has changed completely. What used to be a part of old Bombay: the textile mill land of Parel, has become the centre for new urban development. Along with the scattering of my family, and the passing years, most of these old mills have been torn down and shiny new residential towers have risen in the place of smoking chimneys; flyovers have replaced roads and all the trees have disappeared. My struggle as an individual and as an artist is finding ways to let go, to make peace with the past, to understand the present and accept a new future.
BP: What do you remember about the Bombay of your childhood? What is your feeling of your adult Mumbai?
NH: When I recollect the Bombay of my childhood my heart always fills up with love. My memory of it is of being always drenched in soft golden sunlight, broad tree-lined pavements lined with perfectly cut paving stones, wide roads that were freshly tarred every few months, and very few cars. I remember standing in my balcony watching bright red bulldozers smoothening down the gravel on Sundays and creating perfectly ironed grey roads; I remember trees having nests of different birds, and how there were always mynahs and sparrows flitting in and out of the corridors of my house. There were always birds on my terrace in the evenings, drinking water from the bowls my grandmother placed for them, and how some crows she’d tamed enough used to come peck at the grain she left by her chair when we sat outside watching the world move by slowly, much slower than the way it moves these days. There was time then, as Davies said, to stand beneath the boughs and stare as long as sheep or cows. It was a peaceful city in the 80s and early 90s. But by the late 90s, business and terrorism changed Bombay completely. Mumbai – my old city’s new avatar – is a city I don’t feel quite connected to. The pace of life is frantic, ugly, aggressive, incessant, and exhausting. There’s too much of everything: concrete, squalor, money, traffic, people, dust, noise. My memories of the city of my birth and the actual city of my adulthood are at loggerheads with each other. I’m confused about my feelings most of the time; though my love for it stems from nostalgia, I am ambivalent about Mumbai, I’m tied to it and yet feel this tie is more of a leash at times with me at the other end chaffing to get away. And at other times the connection is umbilical, intertwined deep into my personality that it’s undeniable and inescapable.
BP: The Past – was wonderful & haunting! Why?
NH: The past – unless it has been unfortunate or horrific – is always wonderful and haunting. Because the best memory we will ever have is always of our youth, and the nature of youth is magical, it’s joyful, alive, and to the young the world is always new. As each generation ages, it always looks back upon its youth with nostalgia because the past is defined by how young you once were, and is always seen through rose-tinted glasses.
BP: What sucks you back to the past?
BP: Who/what has to be blamed for the change?
NH: Change is inexorable. But there’s little excuse for changing for the worse. The incompetent governance of Mumbai is inexcusable. And so is the apathy of its citizens. The city has a great amount of spirit, yes, but it’s being systematically stripped bare through exploitation and neglect. Somebody once said to me, the more you bend your knee to the world the more the world will make you bend your knee and sadly this is being played out in Mumbai on a daily basis. We as a city should not stand for the kind of things we have let happen to us: from the shoddy inefficient governance, to the wholesale corruption, apathetic police force, low-grade infrastructure, exploitative working conditions, remarkably ugly living spaces… I could go on but to summarise: as a people, we’ve stood up for nothing and now nothing has stood up for us.
BP: Any childhood vignettes about Bombay that have vanished now?
NH: I miss the trees the most. I remember my area especially as streets full of great raintrees, 200 years old, and golden copperpods raining soft yellow blossoms down onto the streets. A city with no trees is such a sad, sad thing. I wish, if truly our government is capable of solving nothing else, that it would at least plant more trees, they cost nothing to grow, and they make the world literally a better place.
BP: Is change wonderful? Does it upset you? How much and for how long?
NH: I think change is wonderful as long as it’s for the better. For Bombay, planned change would be a wonderful thing: in terms of creating better living spaces, increasing civilian infrastructure, passing laws that protect instead of exploit, preserving cultural heritage spaces that allow us to reflect upon and appreciate our past instead of simply tearing down old architecture to cram box-apartments onto over-crowded real estate. I wish we had a government that cared about urban planning, with a vision to preserve what used to be a beautiful city, adding to it with sensitivity: by passing ordinances that shape how buildings and roads and public spaces are designed to best reflect the spirit of this huge, complex, fascinating, cosmopolitan city. I wish, for example, we cared more about the fact that Mumbai is lined by the sea almost along its entire western length and that we developed our seafront enough for people to actually enjoy it: live music spaces, restaurants, benches and promenades for citizens to spend their evenings unwinding. I wish the sea was protected so we actually had marine life flourishing in it instead of the toxic sludge dumpyard of waste it has become. I wish the government would build piers and jetties for water traffic to develop as transport along the city instead of cars on roads. I’m all for change, I just wish it was for the better.
BP: Is transformation necessary? If yes, at what cost?
NH: Transformation is inevitable; it’s just a bigger word for change. It’s impossible to stop the world, to freeze time, to keep things as they are. People get older, houses age, streets shrink and grow; the earth itself is constantly changing. But at what cost is a question we have to answer for ourselves. If we developed more sensitivity, it’s possible to change and transform with less damage. Then again, I’m a dreamer and I may just be naïve.
BP: How do you cope with things that are fast vanishing… familiar trees, broad streets, colonial bridges, old buildings and the like…?
NH: On an emotional front, not very well, I’m afraid. When the flyover outside my building was proposed to be built, I campaigned all I could to save the tree that grew right outside my house: this tree was a copperpod, always leaving little yellow flowers on the road and on my terrace, I was 6 or 7 when they planted it, I’d seen it being planted in a little mesh cage as a child and in 20 years along with me it had grown into a strong tall tree. So I went from the BMC to the MMRDA, to the MHADA to the Tree Authority of India, and back to the BMC, and I met only bureaucratic indifference and endless referrals to some other department. Then I talked to green activists and the BNHS and the press who wouldn’t cover the issue (‘it isn’t much of a story, there’s no action happening you see’), after appealing to neighbors and friends to stand vigilante with message boards to help save our neighborhood trees who – to me – were as legitimate residents of our city as we were – one night, men with chainsaws came and chopped the tree down anyway. And, ironically, a few days after that, the newspapers carried a story about how we as citizens had protested the chopping of these trees because now it was a story. That was a watershed moment for me, because after that day I started to hate the city I was living in.
As an artist, Hello Goodbye is one of the ways in which I am exploring my own feelings about this disappearing city of mine. In a way, it’s my homage to dreams and nostalgia. It has a certain surreal quality that expresses visually how I feel about the twin cities I inhabit: the city of past and present. The technique I’ve employed in making images for Hello Goodbye : the superimposed layering of the same image data repeated at random in a frame, the black and white form, always taking a picture in transit as I pass through the city in transit: these rules of creating have been set for a purpose: to best express the fleeting glimpse I see of Bombay/Mumbai.
BP: What would you bring back to Mumbai – the city lost in transition?
NH: Open space. Green cover. Architecture with soul. More benches on public streets and open parks. Tolerance of citizens using public spaces when they wish to – whether its walking down the beach at 2am or sitting in a garden at midnight. No car zones and no car days. Better public transport so the roads are decongested. Lanes for cyclists who don’t wish to add vehicular pollution and would like to use green alternatives to travel. Broader pavements so people can actually walk on them and not on the road. It’s a source of mystery to me why the government in its ineffable wisdom has shrunk pavements into 1 meter wide spans – how do they think people will actually walk on them? Also, I’d really like to bring back all our Double Decker buses – they were space effective for travel and absolutely charming to travel in.
BP: Are you desperately trying to hold on to something as evidenced in your images?
NH: I think, in my images, I am trying to create a memory of the city I used to love as I once loved it: something that it is not, right now. Perhaps because I never shot it the way it used to be, this is my attempt at creating a visual collage of my emotions and memory of it. It’s strictly an architectural / geographical rendition of Bombay. I haven’t attempted to tell a story about its people or explore anything besides how the city looks to me, and the areas I’ve shot in are the ones that I am most fond of. It’s a very subjective and personal expression of the city, like being inside my head for a dreamscape.
BP: Holding on to the past, living in the present, the caught-up in the flux experience… where do you find yourself? Do you move with the past or does the past move with you?
NH: I feel like a horse moving forward with blinkers on. I don’t want to see some things so I simply don’t see them. It’s hard to rid myself of the past when I am such a product of it. I truly love things that have the patina of age; however ruined the years have left them. I’d rather live in an old house with character than a modern apartment that is identical with a million others. This is not to say that I am against modernity: I just wish there was a way of marrying the past with the present in a more respectful manner: a way in which we preserve our architectural lineage without losing the modernity battle.
BP: Your journey in the process of Hello, Goodbye and its imagery?
NH: It’s an ongoing one. In a way it’s kindled an excitement to see Bombay again, after years of trying not to see it, and this time I’m seeing it with a wand of sorts: I can weave a spell over a place and make it what I want it to be, a dreamy rendition of something that uses what exists to express what doesn’t. I find myself seeking out the city everyday, I want to engage with it visually, I want to explore it as an artist who’s moved beyond framing it as it is and into creating it into what it is not. It’s also the sort of project that doesn’t have any definite end; it’s a journey I can stay on for my entire life, as long as I live in this city. I’m very attached to Hello, Goodbye because it’s a very personal Bombay that nobody else shares except me. And the challenge to make people who look at my work experience this city in this way fills me with a sense of not satisfaction but validation in a sense. Like, when you wake up in the morning and try your best to describe your dream: you will never describe it in the complex, intriguing and beautiful way it actually unfolded in your head but the act of describing it validates your experience of it somehow, and somehow that is enough.
BP: The super layering of data from each exposure, as a comment on the multiplicity of structure in the city in your series. What does it convey to the viewer? Is this an effective technique?
NH: The technique for me is an aesthetic choice as well as a marriage of technique with content. I wanted something that would allow me to not portray Mumbai as it really is, that would let me in fact have chaotic development in the way architectural structures in the city would develop as form in the images, and that would do so in a way that was beautiful as opposed to the actual hideousness it is in reality. I wanted to both, have control and relinquish control in the technique. Often I take 5-6 pictures of the same scene in quick succession and pick the one that resulted in expressing best what I feel captures the spirit of the place. I hope it conveys a sense of space and beauty to the viewer, and also allows for thought about the reason behind the form.
BP: Who are your most admired photographers? Why?
NH: Henri Cartier Bresson has always been and will always be my favorite photographer. My love for black and white photography comes from him, and his ability to capture the human condition and the decisive moment is unmatched.
The ‘In Conversation’ feature is an attempt to know more about the motivations and thought processes of photographers featured on Aksgar as well as other photographers undertaking narrative photography projects.