Tuesday 26 September 2017

A Postcard From India 5 - A Morning in Old Delhi

Old Delhi. Narrow streets. Very narrow streets, heaving with people, rickshaws, motorcycles, wheelbarrows, cows and donkeys. Noisy. Dirty. Magnificent. Off every narrow street there are several even narrower alleys. At first they seem a little dark and forbidding but inside many of them lie treasures - 18th century havelis, Jain temples, the best chaiwallah or snack seller in Delhi or someone who wants to tell you a story.

One man with a story is Mister Ramesh, owner of the New Gramophone House shop on the main Chandni Chowk Road. His family established the business in Lahore in 1930 but moved to Delhi in 1947 during partition when their home city became part of Pakistan. Old fashioned gramophone players are sold on the ground floor whilst the tiny first floor room is packed with vinyl records from days gone by.

I went there to look for some favourite Bollywood songs from the 1950's and early 1960's. He had them all. Very formal at first, once he realised that I was genuinely interested, he warmed up, drinks were sent for and he explained that after several hard years, business is showing sings of improvement. This is due in part to the efforts of several older Bollywood stars who no longer receive royalties from their films but can receive payments from sales of the soundtracks. He was very proud of his collection saying "If you can't find what you want here, you won't find it anywhere". I did find what I wanted and left with copies of the soundtracks of Pyaasa and Mr and Mrs 55 as well as a recording of some of Geeta Dutt's most famous songs.

Mr Ramesh, New Gramophone House
The School Run, Old Delhi style
Moving away into the lanes, the atmosphere changes. The streets are still crowded and it can be difficult to pass through them but perseverance brings rewards. Everywhere there is colour from the piled-up goods, window displays and the blue, pink, green and yellow painted walls that form the backdrop to street stalls. Even a humble banana stall can be a thing of beauty with the bright yellow of the fruit contrasting with the pale pink wall and the brightly coloured packets of snacks hanging behind. Taking a rickshaw ride though the lanes of Old Delhi is a great way to see all of this as well as to experience the friendliness of the people.  Expect lots of waving and shouts of "hello". One family squeezed onto a scooter looked up at my rickshaw and called out "good morning sir have a nice day" as they passed by. And speaking of rickshaws, look out for groups of school children piled onto them at various times of day as they go to and from school.  

Bananas with pink background
Green shirts and blue doors
Pink walled snack stand
Haveli Khazanchi
The shady lanes or "galis" leading from the old city's main arteries conceal some of its best kept secrets such as Haveli Khazanchi. Despite its terrible condition, this haveli (mansion), tucked away in the tiny Gali Khazanchi remains an impressive site. Once home to the Mughal Emperor's accountants, known as khazanchis, its central courtyard once boasted a marble pool. This is now drained but still overlooked by a series of beautiful balconies. Influential people including members of the royal family would have been received in the courtyard whilst accountants worked in the surrounding ground floor rooms. Today the haveli is crumbling but still striking due to its blue painted courtyard. One descendant of the khazanchis is said to still live in one of the ground floor apartments whilst others have been rented out, evidence of this being the several lines of washing on display! 

The entrance to the haveli is through two huge carved wooden doors, left open to the street. On the morning of my visit, the bright Delhi sunlight spilled through the door, casting pools of light into the dark alley to reveal two figures - a young man using a mobile phone in the courtyard itself and a street trader crouched in the alley, preparing his huge basket of poppadoms before hoisting it onto his head and moving on to begin the day's business. Old and New Delhi together.

Hawker outside Haveli Khazanchi
Nau Ghara
Nau Ghara
Nau Ghara is another small lane in the old city, leading off Kinari Bazaar Road. It contains nine beautifully maintained havelis (Nad Ghara means nine homes) all belonging to Jain traders and merchants. The Jains are a religious minority, whose beliefs include non-violence, non-absolutism and non-attachment to worldly goods. They were originally invited to Delhi by the Mughals due to being known for their enterprise skills. 

The homes in Nau Ghara feature traditional latticed balconies, marble staircases and imposing wooden doorways. The entrances are painted pink, blue and yellow and have  beautifully decorated surrounds featuring flowers and fruits in the Persian style. The three-storeyed Jewellers Temple stands at the end of the lane. It is perhaps the most beautiful of all the buildings in Nad Ghara, its walls covered in gold filigree and murals showing life in the Mughal courts as well as scenes from various scriptures. Photography is not permitted inside the temple. This and a list of other rules is handed by the caretaker to visitors for reading before they enter. The list is laminated and framed and includes instructions about smoking and removal of shoes as well as the forbidding of photography. Despite this, he was extremely friendly and wanted to chat about where I was from and what I was doing in India as well as telling me that he has a friend who lives near Queen Elizabeth!

The desire to chat politely with visitors was something I experienced throughout India in huge cities and in small villages where I stopped for tea en route to somewhere else. Some of the artisans and traders in Old Delhi were also keen to chat and to talk about their work. This included a pair of silversmiths working in one of the alleys adjacent to an excellent chaiwallah's stand where I enjoyed masala chai and a savoury snack whilst admiring their work. These craftsmen were proud of their skills, happy to be photographed and in return expected only my interest and response. It really is worth taking the time to stop and chat for a few minutes and to see something outside of our normal experience. For example, one trader removes the tiny coloured glass pieces sewn into clothes as decoration and uses them to make jewellery and other items. People sell their old clothes to him to make a little money and he in turn recycles the glass to earn his own living.

Entrance to Jain compound
Roof top restaurant
Nau Ghara is not the only Jain enclave within the old city. Noticing an open doorway leading into a tiled courtyard I was curious about what might be inside. Venturing in I entered an open courtyard surrounded by several three floors of apartments probably dating from the 19th century. The central courtyard was a shared area and the building was managed by a superintendent who kept a room on the ground floor from where he watched comings and goings. A list of rules for residents was displayed in the corridor leading to the courtyard including exhortations about paying the rent and not being noisy. Not much different to being at home then. Although not as grand as Nau Ghara, the courtyard was decorated with beautiful  ceramic tiles, imported from Europe according to contemporary tastes at the time of construction. The superintendent told me that there was a restaurant on the roof and to go and have a look. On reaching the summit, I was welcomed by a group of young people preparing lunch according to Jain requirements which are not only vegetarian, but also forbid the consuming of garlic, onions, potatoes and eggplants.

Jain compound courtyard
Courtyard tiles
It would be very easy to spend several days wandering through the lanes and bazaars of Old Delhi, enjoying the contrast between the bustle of the main streets and the tranquility of the lanes. The pictures below contrast those two extremes. I left the old city greedy for more. I will have to return.

You might also like A Postcard from India 2 - The People of Spice Alley, Mumbai's Lalbaug Market

You can see more pictures from India here

Friday 22 September 2017

A Postcard from India - 4, Calcutta's Art Deco Metro Cinema

Calcutta's Chowringhee Road was once one of Asia's most exclusive addresses. Lined with impressive hotels and clubs facing the Maidan, the huge green expanse at the heart of the city it was the entertainment centre of Calcutta. Despite continuing to attract thousands of shoppers every day, Chowringee (now Jahawarlal Nehru Road) has seen better days. With the notable exception of the Oberoi Grand Hotel, many of the buildings have fallen into disrepair. The ground floor of several of them and the footpath in front have been taken over by hawkers and stall holders selling cheap goods of all kinds including jewellery, clothing, shoes, mobile telephones and household items. You name it, you can get it here.

The Metro at number 5 was one of Chowringhee's most important entertainment buildings and one of several Art Deco single screen cinemas in this part of the city. Built for the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) company, it opened in 1935 with the purpose of promoting their films to the large and receptive English language audience then resident in Calcutta. The architect responsible was the British born but American based Thomas W. Lamb, who also designed the Mumbai Metro cinema. The first screening was of Way Out West, a comedy starring William Haines and Leila Hyams. 

The cinema attracted large numbers of British, Jewish and Armenian customers. Jael Silliman wrote about the importance of the Metro to the Jewish community in her book  Jewish  Portraits Indian Frames. - "Western movies were very popular and Jewish youngsters often attended the cinema in large groups. Flower and her cousins the Joshuas, had a fixed weekly reservation for the entire year at the Metro cinema".

These communities left India in large numbers after independence but the Metro remained successful until the 1970's, changing its focus from Hollywood to Bollywood films. However, during the 1990's, the cinema was not properly maintained and the arrival of multiplexes during the 2000's was to be a fatal blow. The doors finally closed in 2011. Three years later, the Metro appeared in the Bollywood movie Gunday when the lead characters attended a film there. Works are currently being undertaken to convert the building to a shopping mall and multiplex cinema. All that will be retained of the original design is the facade with its spectacular waterfall style columns, stylised lettering and fin which also bears the cinema's name. Whilst it is sad to see the original interior disappear, the Metro has at least avoided the fate of a number of other cinemas in Calcutta that have been completely demolished and furthermore, it will continue to operate as a cinema. 

A note on names - Calcutta is now known as Kolkata and Chowringhee's official name is Jahawarlal Nehru Road. I have used both versions in this post but primarily the old names to reflect the heyday of the Metro.

More pictures from Kolkata/ Calcutta

Saturday 16 September 2017

A Postcard From India 3 - Mr Tikam Chand, Jaipur's famous street photographer

Every year when I was growing up I would be taken to a photographic studio with my brother and sometimes cousins for a family photograph. It was an occasion. Few people had cameras then and photography was a serious, professional business. Today it seems that anyone can be a photographer. Mobile phones snap away millions of times a day and images are quickly circulated on Facebook Twitter, Instagram and whatever other channels I have yet to catch up with. Few people bother to print hard copies of pictures, preferring to stick to digital files, understandable in a way as millions of images can be kept electronically without the need for any physical space. But convenient as all of this may be, it has none of the romance of having your photograph taken in the old way.

Today in Jaipur I stepped back into the glorious past of photography and took advantage of the excellent services of Mr Tikam Chand, a third generation street photographer who, since 1977 has been using his grandfather's 160 years old German Zeiss camera. Pahari Lal (the grandfather) and then his father occupied the same spot outside shop 120 on Hawa Mahal Road in the old city. Examples of his work are attached to the side of the camera, whilst pictures of the previous two generations of photographer are affixed to the wall behind him. These include a picture of his father, strikingly handsome with a mop of wavy black hair. 

The process is not rushed. Mr Chand explains a little about the camera. Then he positions clients on an 80 years old black metal chair, also purchased by the grandfather, disappears briefly under the hood and makes sure all is well before removing the lens cover for just a few seconds in order to take the picture. Black and white images are developed immediately using a bucket, water and various chemicals to complete the process. Sepia pictures can also be produced but take 2-3 days to be developed. This kind of business is always a tough one and as time goes on more challenges are presented.  He can no longer obtain the chemicals he needs in India and has to import them from France at some expense.

As I waited for the picture to develop, Mr Chand spoke to passing tourists, inviting them to look at the camera with its internal darkroom, developer and fixer. He also asked me to re-take the seat so that they could see me "upside down". Many of them are too young ever to have had their picture taken in this way and few will have much experience of seeing black and white photography. 

In just a few minutes my picture is ready. For just 300 rupees - about £3.40 I am handed a black and white image together with a negative. Using my camera, Mr Chand kindly took a picture of me standing beside these two images. I am delighted. I was also delighted by his proximity to Pandit Kulfi - a little shop selling this delicious Indian dessert. For just 30 rupees - less than 50p - I enjoyed a very satisfying almond and pistachio kulfi on a stick. Only in India.

If you visit Jaipur, don't just come and see the camera - have your picture taken. Mr Chand also has a Facebook page - the Old Photography

My picture cost 300 rupees. Three sizes of photograph are available at varying prices.

With the exception of his portrait, all the pictures on this post were taken by Mr. Chand.

Wednesday 13 September 2017

A Postcard from India 2 - The People of Spice Alley, Mumbai's Lalbaug Market

Mumbai's Lalbaug neighbourhood was once home to several mills employing many workers in a range of industries. Today, the mills are gone and many of the chawls, communal housing built to house workers who moved to the city are being demolished and replaced with expensive high rise apartment buildings. However, some of Lalbaug's more interesting characteristics have survived, including the wonderful market with its spice alley of shops and stalls selling every spice you could ever want.

I visited Lalbaug in the afternoon after the main business of the day was concluded. Most of the  stalls were still open although one or two of the owners were napping on sofas or mats set out in the shops. I normally enjoy watching the drama of busy markets, watching people haggle about the price, choose and reject items or stand and gossip with the shop keepers and each other. However, visiting during the quiet time brings other delights - the possibility of more time to talk to the merchants and to walk freely without struggling through the crowds.

Strolling along the alley, you can see chillies being prepared for sale, with the non-usable parts being stripped away from the red or green fruit. This is done by hand. It is hard work and can result in painful burns if not done carefully. Most of this work is done by women who sit at the front of the stalls where the chillies will later be offered for sale. Once the customers have bought their spices, they take them to one of the small businesses at the rear of the market for mixing and grinding. I saw a young man heating a huge cooking pot before adding chillies and other spices under the watchful eye of the gentleman who had just bought them, stirring and folding them in the fierce heat.

In this part of the market, there is a constant loud, industrial, pounding noise as the cooked and mixed spices are then ground by young men operating powerful machinery. This results in spectacular red, yellow and other coloured ground spices ready for use in Mumbai's kitchens. The smell is intoxicating.

As with other markets, Lalbaug offers many opportunities for candid photography. The content looking  vested man sitting in the front of his store reading the newspaper made me think of a character from a Narayan novel whilst the man with the small general store noticed me taking his picture and responded with what must be the biggest smile in the market. Of course sometimes I ask for permission before clicking as I did with the lady separating the parts of the chillies. She gave her permission with a smile but then assumed a very serious pose for the camera before laughing when I showed her the result. 

Lalbaug also has a fish market which begins early in the morning and was practically concluded at the time of my visit. A number of cats were prowling the fish section, looking for any leftover treats. I noticed what might be the smallest kitten in the world, asleep beside a discarded chappel which might just have been a little bit bigger than the cat. Whilst looking at the kitten a man seated on a stone bench pointed out other kittens, took one on his lap and smiled into the camera.

Just across from the man with the kitten a woman was frying fish, liberally adding spices no doubt obtained from the alley. Not only did she say hello she also offered me some of her cooking. Sadly I had to decline. Disappointed at first, she understood when I explained my vegetarian leanings. She explained that she was not selling cooked food but was preparing a dish for her helpers now that the day's work was completed. An older man in a yellow and purple bandana sat beside her, grinding garlic and onion with a wooden mallet. When he saw me photographing his boss he moved towards me and positioned himself for a picture too.

Despite its name, the alley offers more for sale than spices. You can pick up your supply of paan - a combination of betel leaf and areca nut combined with herbs, spices and sometimes tobacco and then chewed and either spat out or swallowed. It is widely used in Asia although it can be injurious to health depending on the level of use and on what is included in the mixture. Other shops offer earthenware jugs for keeping liquids cool during the summer or grinding of wheat to make flour. Everything is laid out to attract the attention of shoppers. They goods are fresh and of high quality and the alley is clean unlike many similar markets across the world.

The spice market at Lalbaug is something to treasure in a city that is rapidly changing. Let's hope the creeping gentrification of the area does not impact adversely on this wonderful slice of old Mumbai. 

You can see more pictures from Mumbai here.

Friday 8 September 2017

A Postcard From India 1- Mumbai's Cafe Britannia

It is believed that the first Parsis came to India some time between the 8th and 10th centuries, fleeing persecution in what is now Iran. Together with the Iranis, the Parsis are one of two groups practising the Zoroastrian faith. They have been extremely successful in India, particularly during the period of British rule when several members of the community achieved positions of prominence including in science, industry and the military. In recent decades the community has declined significantly in number due to emigration and an extremely low birth rate, but their presence is still felt though their historical achievements, the remaining Parsi temples and through their contribution to the city's cuisine.

Boman Kohinoor, proud owner of Cafe Britannia and fan of the Royal family
During the middle decades of the 20th century, Mumbai was home to several hundred Parsi/ Irani cafes serving authentic dishes including sali boti (mutton pieces cooked in a special gravy), fish patra, berry pulav and Parsi chapatis. Whilst most of these cafes have disappeared, some have survived through reinventing themselves as places to drink beer and to have snacks and a few have clung on to their roots. 

Cafe Britannia is one of the few remaining authentic Parsi cafes in the city. Founded in 1923 by Rashid Kohinoor, a Zoroastrian immigrant from Iran, it was originally established to serve continental dishes to British officers during the colonial period. Rashid's son, Boman, the current owner and still working despite being in his 90's tells a story that the name of the cafe was chosen because eating places needed to be licensed by the British and his father thought the name might encourage them to deal quickly and positively with the application. He was proved right and the cafe has been operating since then.

Some of the keynote dishes are advertised at the entrance
I ate lunch there a few days ago. I was charmed by the peeling paint, the beautiful bent wood chairs imported from Poland decades ago and the idiosyncratic rules and regulations displayed on the wall and on the menu all of which give a glimpse of a world almost disappeared. The rules include sensible stuff such as not allowing outside food to be brought in and a requirement to vacate seats as soon as you have paid to allow others to sit down but my favourite was a little less expected - do not argue with the management. I wish I'd thought of that when I worked with the public.

My food was delicious - vegetable biryani with a lemon soda - but perhaps the most memorable part of my visit was meeting Boman Kohinoor. He took my order, asked me where I am from and said I'll be back. A few minutes later he returned to the table saying I am back before proceeding to show me a number of laminated press clippings picturing him with Prince William and Kate Middleton as well as other articles about the cafe.  He is a devoted royalist and recently made the press when he was invited to meet the Royal couple when they visited the city. The invitation came as a result of a video appeal he made explaining how thrilled he would be at the opportunity to meet them in Mumbai. He continued to come and go from the table to speak to other customers, but always saying I'll be back and I'm back at the appropriate point before telling me a little more or even teasing me a little about where I come from. So are you from England, Britain, Great Britain, the British Isles or the United Kingdom he asked me. I told him London and he agreed that this was a good answer. Before I left he asked me for three favours - to ask the Queen to visit Mumbai, to kiss the children of William and Kate when I see them (!) and to come back and eat there again. I will definitely deliver on the third request, the first two will be more difficult.

Cafe Britannia can be found at Wakefield House, 11 Sport Road, 16 Ballard Estate, Mumbai 400038. Note - the cafe opens only between 12 and 4 and payment must be made in cash.