Mumbai (detail) View full image

A conductor’s vision

On a recent visit to Mumbai to conduct the Symphony Orchestra of India, Richard Farnes took time out in the city to enjoy another passion – street photography. He sets the scene

Mumbai: the financial, commercial and manufacturing powerhouse of what will soon be the world’s most populous nation; a city in extremis where one of the largest concentrations of billionaires on the globe lives little more than a stone’s throw from some of Asia’s largest slums; a high-energy metropolis where corporate skyscrapers stand adjacent to thousands of tiny retail outlets and single-room factories huddled in traditional bazaars and markets; a city whose street dogs lie mute and deferent in the heat, seemingly pummelled into submission by the sheer cacophony of humanity around them.

When I was invited to work with the Symphony Orchestra of India, alongside Pavel Kolesnikov, at Mumbai’s National Centre for the Performing Arts in September, I was only too happy to take the opportunity to spend a couple of extra days at the end of the week tramping the streets, camera on standby in a small backpack. In fact, I took two cameras with me, because Mumbai is one of the world’s great locations for street photography and you don’t want to squander the chance should one of them pack up.

For anyone interested in photographing people – candidly or otherwise – it’s an extraordinary experience: there are so many of them! The district of Dharavi is thought to have a quite staggering population density of over 700,000 souls per square mile. And it seems that quite a large proportion of the 23 million city inhabitants not only don’t mind being photographed, they’re also very happy to chat about their lives and livelihoods, as long as you don’t get in the way and don’t take too much of their time. Their friendly demeanour and positive outlook on life even in adverse conditions are an inspiration, and the great tide of immigration into the city both from within India and from further afield in recent decades manifests itself in a rich tapestry of different religions, customs, colourful clothing and textiles that is a visual feast for the camera.

I teamed up for some of the time with Craig Boehman, an American fine art photographer who lives in Mumbai and whose wife composes and arranges music for the huge film industry there. Craig’s been photographing the city for years and his technical tips and knowledge of good locations were invaluable. Although I also took quite a number of architectural and landmark shots, my main aim was to catch some casual street portraits that in some way fleetingly convey the subjects’ personalities as well as their moods that particular day. I also wanted to capture more candid images of Mumbaikars both toiling and resting in their daily work environment, and a sense of the street scene around them.

Even more than the sights, I find that in a place like this it’s the sounds and smells that most powerfully knock you, some of them more flagrant than fragrant! Many of the images were taken in Chor Bazaar or Dharavi, and at Koliwada village in Worli, a traditional fishing community directly abutting one of Mumbai’s main financial districts. But the scenes with fish, fishermen and their boats are from Sassoon Dock, where the action really hots up at around 5am. The overnight catches are unloaded into thousands of eager hands on the quayside and the aroma is quite an assault on the senses. I even walked around there without camera the evening before, just to make sure I could handle the olfactory onslaught – a good test since a lot of prawns were still lying about after several hours in 30C. It’s an incredible place that my senses could never forget.

Richard Farnes conducts two performances of English National Opera's Tosca at the London Coliseum, on 2 and 4 November.

Richard Farnes’s images of Mumbai (all photos © Richard Farnes)