It’s 4p.m. on a Friday evening. We’re making our way to one of the city’s most famous landmarks, surrounded by tourists of every size, shape and colour. Tiny children with kohl-lined eyes trail behind their mothers, a swarm of schoolgirls wearing red-and-white checked uniforms huddle in a corner, and folks sporting bib-sized pins of B. R. Ambedkar and blue Gandhi topis (caps) make their way past us in the golden evening light. Above their animated chatter we hear, “Aapka mundi thoda left pe karo, phir Gateway ekdum sahi milega.” (Turn your head to the left, so that the Gateway can be seen properly.)
If only the walls could talk, the Gateway of India would have 90 years’ worth of tales to tell. We’d hear about the British viceroys and governors who used to pass under its arches, about the bustling Bombay harbour and the millions it draws from the subcontinent, about the fabulous guests at the adjacent Taj Mahal Palace and Tower Hotel – and also the terrible terrorist siege of November 2008.
There are, however, the stories from those who work in the shadows of the heritage structure – the photographers of the Gateway. They have been pacing the cobblestones of Colaba since the 1970s, capturing Kodak-moments of families happy to strike a pose in front of the monument.
Mumbai-born Yogesh Sudhir, who’s been in the business for 20 years, told us that it all began with a man nicknamed “Punjabi,” who used an instant camera, “jis me se photo upar se nikalte the (which would print photos from the top)”. Buoyed by this “Punjabi’s” success, vendors in the area traded in their chana stalls for cameras. Like Nitesh Kumar from Bihar, who started out selling popcorn and then toys before finally becoming a photographer, a vocation that he’s stuck to for 17 years. There are also others, like Mohammed Akbar – also from Bihar – who have always had an interest in photography, even before they found their way to the Gateway.
These men are part of about 300 photographers who work the area daily from around 9a.m. to 8p.m. While they are registered – each photographer has an ID card issued by local authorities – we didn’t get a sense of there being any overarching body in charge. And despite all the differences in hometowns and histories, they all have the same technique when it comes to taking pictures.
They will tempt you with their glossy photo albums of customers positioned so that they look like they’re holding up the turrets of the Gateway, or the tip of the Taj hotel dome. Once you’ve fallen for their charms, they will make you stand in the right spot, appropriately position you against the structure, and capture that picture-perfect moment – all for Rs30 per photo. Each photographer has his own DSLR camera and an on-the-go printer that resembles a portable ice-box. The entire process takes less than four minutes.
Back in the day of the analog camera, polaroids used to cost Rs50, while pictures taken on film were Rs15. Photographers would snap a picture, develop the film at a local studio, and post the prints to tourists at their temporary addresses in the city. Sudhir recalls the Yashica Electro 35 that he used when he first started. It was a much simpler time.
But now these photographers have to hustle to take a picture. Thanks to the wonders of technology, everyone with a phone is now a photographer in his or her own right and can share images instantly. “Whatsapp ne sab badal diya (Whatsapp changed everything),” according to Kumar, who now loses out on printing multiple copies for large groups. The patrons are now mostly Indian travellers who aren’t as gadget-equipped as their foreign counterparts.
Technology isn’t all that has changed; the landscape has too. The garden adjacent to the monument has given way to a barren plaza, and metal detectors and cops have become a constant presence after the terror attacks.
On our way out, we asked one of the photographers, Gangaram J. Chaudhury who’s been around since 1986, where he would be in a decade when the Gateway turns 100 years old. “Hum bhi idhar hi rahenge, aur kidhar jayenge?” he replied. (I’ll be here too, where else would I go?) That confident sense of belonging was the common denominator through all our interactions that evening.
We have both been born and raised in this city, and have walked past the Gateway multiple times without taking a moment to pause and examine it. We’ve rolled our eyes at tourists as they posed for pictures. But today we became tourists too. It isn’t just the structure that anchors the city, but the people who spend their lives here to earn their daily bread and the ones who come here to revel in the glory of the city’s history. The Gateway stood tall against the fading light, towering over the port and a crowd that had its captive attention. We didn’t want to let this memory fade away. Fortunately, we had about a hundred photographers handy to capture the moment.
Fabiola Monteiro was formerly a member of National Geographic Traveller India's digital team. Since then, her words have featured in The Hindu, Mint Lounge, Roads & Kingdoms, The Goya Journal, and Condé Nast Traveller India. She tweets as @thefabmonteiro and is on Instagram @fabiolamonteiro.
Kamakshi Ayyar is a former member of NGT India's digital team. She is partial to places by the sea and desserts in all forms. When she isn't raving about food, she's usually rambling on about the latest cosmic mysteries. She tweets as @kamakshi138.