Words by Alex Durham
The evolution of India’s modernising metropolis is bittersweet. As an environmentally conscious model city emerges, Mumbai’s iconic Padmini taxis are removed from the landscape to reduce air pollution – and with this, part of the city’s distinctive character fades away.
Critically acclaimed Glaswegian photographer Dougie Wallace has immortalised Mumbai’s taxi drivers and their beloved cabs. Shooting during 17 visits and over the course of 10 years, 2015 finally saw the last Padminis leave the streets. Shortly after, Dougie’s series Road Wallah was sent to print; a legacy lying in its pages.
Inside, I found a series of vivid, fleeting moments capturing Mumbai’s cab drivers and their passengers. They are distracted, unaware of the camera, in conversation, or else penetrating the lens with their gaze – smiling or suspicious. What was his approach?
“You’re trying to get a moment… you know he has to get the money, as he settles fares with passengers; you get that bit that photographers usually miss: catching them unaware, before their self-consciousness kicks in.” As Dougie does again and again with his photos, he has peeled back a layer of society and crept into its most interesting corners: “the car and the cabby are the stars, and so are the affairs of the people in it. It’s a gentle ambush.”
And since here, timing is everything, how did he come by the context of Mumbai’s taxis? “They’re obsolete now, and I didn’t know that. After 25 years, I knew that all commercial vehicles had to be off the roads to begin making this model city, but the drivers used to get new papers for the cars, and it was fine because they were on the 22nd year, then the 23rd. The last ones came off the production line, and then they couldn’t cheat the system anymore.”
“The Padmini is kind of the city’s cultural identity. It is to Mumbai what the black cab is to London, and what the yellow taxicab is to New York”. Unlike the stalwart, monochrome interiors found in the big city cabs of the west, though, the Padminis are a personal relic – colourfully customised by their drivers: as Dougie aptly describes them, ‘Bollywood cabs… they’re discos on wheels” – a loud signature of floral blankets and roofs decorated like dancefloors. The cabs’ role as a psychedelic canvas makes their disappearance seem all the more jilted.
But Dougie could never have considered a project like Road Wallah in New York. He describes the process behind his confrontational style, which has stirred up controversy in his ongoing project, Harrodsburg over the past year [also to become a book, I’m excited to hear]: “I used three flashguns, usually around 5/6pm when the sun was low behind the cars for that last hour to get the light right. There’s a distraction, and then I take a shot through the window screen, or panning as they start to drive away… and that’s when they’re startled. But this is India, it’s alright here, people are relaxed. You couldn’t do that in America.”
Road Wallah might be set on a different backdrop, and have a different culture and context to his British bodies of work, but Dougie’s signature style is as familiar as a painfully honest friend: invading our personal space using the subject, locking our gaze, making us shift uncomfortably in our seats with a bath of uncompromising light and post-produced colour tones. In every photo, from a curious traffic jam exchange between a taxi and a young modern Mumbaikar woman, to a fare settlement between a smiling driver and his eccentric mustachioed customer, we learn something – receiving a single puzzle piece of what once went on in Mumbai’s Premier Padminis; about the lives their drivers led inside these richly bedecked wheeled beasts. “It’s the same man”, Dougie says of his trademark raw energy. At first I think he’s comparing the taxi fleets to the hedonistic Blackpool Stag parties: “like an Irvine Welsh novel; you read it and you know it’s him”.
Some have interpreted the unblinking candor of Wallace’s work as mean-spirited, particularly in Harrodsburg, the no-frills documentation of London’s elite as they gorge on their wealth. Where for many, greed and blissful unawareness make for an ugly truth served cold, there is something much more sentimental, warm and nostalgic about Road Wallah. This is a tribute to a diminishing culture, told with both honesty and integrity.
I ask Dougie what he thinks the future looks like for the Padmini drivers. “Lots of them are migrants from Delhi and other areas, who used to go back to their villages for a couple of months a year [to Mumbai]. You used to be able to buy a Padmini for 350 dollars, but the new Suzukis replacing these will cost around 3.5 k brand new. They just can’t afford that. In the photos, you’ll see drivers in white tunics, who own their car, and in brown uniforms, which means they’re renting. Now they all have brown uniforms. There will be a Mr. Big, I imagine, who will own a fleet of them, and will rent them out”.
This is where the landscape of Mumbai morphs to modern, a step which is part of a bigger shift. Where the city’s aesthetic edges further from smoggy, loud, hand-painted and characterful – towards clean, slick and mass-produced.
Even witnessing India in real-time reveals anachronisms to your naked eye. Stand by a Mumbai roadside and still see great leaps in time jolt before you: a bullock-drawn cart bursting at the seams with ancient copper pots, pulling up next to a shiny Toyota Prius, its engine softly purring. The absence of the Padmini’s waspish horn – ‘peeeh, pehhhh’ – will seem like an inevitable but pregnant silence.
This isn’t a rainy day rhapsody, though. This is a requiem to the Padminis, and their doggedly resourceful people, whose moments remain pressed in the pages of Road Wallah.
“Shoot and shoot it and shoot it. You know when that’s it.”
Buy Road Wallah here.
All photos, credit: DOUGIE WALLACE – INSTITUTE