This is a story I did that appeared in the June 13, 2008 issue of India Abroad. For the filmi connection, have a look at the postscript.
Consider this patch of humid land, sitting at the nation’s edge, packed with people of all income levels, trying to make a go of it while more arrive every day. Real estate prices are ridiculous, the infrastructure crumbles regularly, the traffic is frequently thick and slow. And yet, it’s the nation’s financial capital as well as home to actors, writers, publishers and filmmakers responsible for much of the country’s arts and entertainment.
I’m referring to Mumbai –
…and also to New York.
Nisha Sondhe, a photographer who calls both cities home, is busy pairing them up in a multi-year visual project she calls Bombay v New York. At her online portfolio, visitors compare and contrast images of people, architecture and landscapes both here and there.
A Lexington Avenue construction worker in a yellow hardhat and white tee-shirt, his back to the camera, is twinned with two smiling sari-clad women, metal containers of broken rocks balanced on their heads. A picture of rows of Bombay duck on the beach precedes freshly hosed sides of beef in the Meatpacking District. A Sikh man in a crisp turban gazes out a suburban train window; a young woman wearing tell-tale white iPod earbuds sits in a subway car. And so she shoots, on an on, from Coney Island and Chelsea to Koliwada and Crawford Market.
The 38-year-old woman behind the lens, a Cleveland native who settled in New York ten years ago, received her first camera from her father when she was ten years old. “I got into photography because there was nothing else to do as a kid in Ohio,” Sondhe says.
But unlike most, who would be content to snap pictures then drop the film off at the local drug store to be developed, Sondhe set her sights on an unfinished room in the house, asking her father if she put up drywall and painted it, would he let her convert the space into her own darkroom.
He agreed. “I’d go there in the evenings and sometimes next thing, my father would be banging on the door saying “˜It’s 6am, do you realize you’ve been there all night?'” But her parents were pleased nonetheless, as Sondhe later got involved with the photography for her high school yearbook. “I think Mom was relieved that I was staying out of trouble.”
Sondhe’s mother Dolly grew up in the Mumbai suburb of Khar. Her father, Ratanjit, originally from Bikaner, studied at Akron University. Her parents had come to Ohio from India at a time when there were few other Indians in the state. The couple settled in Cleveland, raising their daughter in a suburb bearing a name that sounds right out of a David Lynch movie: Chagrin Falls. To this day, Ratanjit will say “I’m the original Cleveland Indian!”
Her father, a chemist, just recently sold the family business to Dow. Over the years, he, together with his wife and only child, worked at the business with care and attention. Nisha recalls what life was like growing up: “It was just the three of us and we were sort of best friends. We were Indians in Ohio, then Americans in India. When I was young I’d help them clean the office. We’re a very close family. I talk to my Mom every single day, at least once.”
At Kent State University, Sondhe studied fashion design with a minor in photography, but at graduation she says a professor told her: “˜Nisha, please do the world a favor and go into photography and leave fashion design behind. That’s where your love is. That’s where you’re most at home. You’re cheating on fashion design with photography. Be monogamous.’ Sondhe admits “He was right.”
She began work at the Columbus-based Limited Brands, the women’s apparel company that was parent to Victoria’s Secret and the men’s fashion chain, Structure. She assisted a photographer there, and later shot promotional campaigns.
As the 1990s drew to a close, Sondhe arrived in New York. “Thinking,” she says “I’d start shooting right off the bat and get established. I thought “˜How am I going to make this work?’ It was so daunting because every other person is a photographer. There was so much equipment I didn’t know, lighting I didn’t know, and I didn’t want to be caught off guard and be someone who didn’t know what they were doing. I stayed as a photographer’s assistant and lingered there for a while, with everything going digital. I worked with some of the best people, shooting celebrities. It was a lot of fun.” Trips to Europe were frequent. One assignment with a fashion photographer involved a month in Brazil.
The epiphany that led to the Bombay v New York project came about two years ago, at a time when Sondhe was feeling a bit dejected. “I was taking around my portfolio,” she recalls, “and I remember leaving an art director’s office at this huge magazine, and as I was walking out she was saying “˜We see that you can shoot these exotic places and make them look beautiful but can you shoot here?’ and I was sort of upset about it. So I was walking around New York and I was thinking “˜There are so many things here that are in Bombay. I’m gonna do this as my portfolio. As I started presenting these ideas to other people, they said “˜That’s awesome!’ And now it’s become my lifelong project.”
Sondhe is now ready to up the ante. She says: “I’ve done a lot of the stuff that you see every day and what you’d see in Lonely Planet, but this summer I’m going to be doing all that goes on at night, after hours in both cities. Start to delve in and see where that takes me. I’d love to do both Mayors; it’s a dream of mine to do the mafia leaders.”
The next phase is not without its challenges, Sondhe says: “I’m trying to do sort of X-rated subjects in a G-rated way, I want everyone to see it and I have baby cousins in India who keep an eye on me, so I have to keep everyone in mind.”
Sondhe hopes a show will come eventually, but not just yet. “I would love to see the images big, see them up somewhere,” she says. “I think these are things that people know already about the city, but there should be more that people don’t know – maybe another two years. I just want to do things that are interesting to me.” On her last trip to India, Sondhe says there were people ready to show it now, but “It’s not done yet, this is just the beginning. There’s so many ideas that I still have.”
When in Mumbai, Sondhe lives with her mother’s brother, his wife and their children, and her recently widowed grandmother, all still residing in Khar. When asked how her grandparents reacted to her career choice, Sondhe explains: “My father is a very successful businessman and I think they assumed I would just follow along so I think they were very curious. “˜Why are you taking on so much pain?’ They’re all very street smart and they know how competitive it is. “˜Just keep it as a hobby’ was suggested. My grandmother would see me get up at four in the morning and come back at three the next morning and she would wonder “˜Why would anyone want to do this to themselves?'”
“Now they see it. I’ve worked with a huge designer and I was doing a lot of family portraits of industrialists and they’re starting to see that it’s coming together.” Earlier, Sondhe was traveling so much that family members had started nicknaming her “Jet.”
As with many single children, Sondhe’s parents discuss her finding a husband and marrying. She says: “They talk about it every minute of the day and if they don’t everybody else does! I was in India for three months and I was in eight cities. And they say “˜What is with you? Can’t you just sit in one place?'” Sondhe asks rhetorically “Who’s gonna have me if I’m flying all over the place?”
On her most recent trip home last year, Sondhe shot for Hello! magazine and took family portraits of Lalit Modi, the commissioner of India’s latest craze, the Indian Premier League, and of Pia Singh, the head of entertainment group DLF, the lead sponsors of the cricket league.
The designer Sondhe earlier worked with is Tarun Tahiliani, whom she met in a Bangalore club a few years ago. The two became instant friends. “He’s a wonderful, wonderful and generous person. I was a huge fan of his and asked if I could take his portrait. He said “˜I’d really love a picture of my kids.’ I sent him the pictures and he loved them, and we’ve just been in touch ever since, and one thing led to another. He’s another person that I sort of see more like an older brother now. He’s just so sweet. Little angels like that that fly over my life and help me.”
In addition to roaming around the many corners of Mumbai for her project, the Tahiliani fashion shoot, and the industrialist family portraits, Sondhe also devoted some time to shooting for the William J. Clinton Foundation, something she had been trying to figure out how to do for a while, until an opportunity presented itself.
“Bill Clinton was on the Martha Stewart show,” she says, “and he said “˜You can donate however you want. Do something that will make a difference. Go to our website. Anybody can do something.'” Sondhe completed an online form offering her photography and she heard back within two weeks. She says they told her “We have so many pictures of him in India, but we don’t have pictures of all that we’re doing.”
Arrangements were made to fly Sondhe to Bangalore, Mangalore and Chennai. Work with them was done in less than two weeks. She was impressed by what she saw: “Best word I can give is “˜muscle’. They really get things done. They get medicine to people. There was a guy in intensive care, and two days later he was being discharged. You see it on a one-by-one basis. You see people being educated, getting medicine. It’s so nice to be a part of something that is moving. I feel like it was more of a gift to me than it was to them, to go and be with people who are real and kind and friendly. It was lovely.”
One photograph from that time is particularly compelling. A Chennai woman in a peach and mauve sari stands in the foreground of the shot, holding a portrait of her and her husband on their wedding day. As you observe the surroundings in the room, you notice the garlanded photograph on the wall is of the same mustachioed man, her now deceased husband.
Sondhe tells the woman’s story: “She was in Chennai, and he was in Mumbai for work. He got AIDS from his travels and died. She is HIV+ now. She’s a link worker. Basically, she’s studied about her disease and she’s getting medication and she’s working with the hospital. She’s the person who can put her hands on other HIV+ people and tell them that she’s going through the same thing.”
“She gets a little money from the hospital, maybe $7 a month, and she has to support her Mom and Dad and her son. She was so happy and so content and she wanted to be photographed with that picture of her husband. She had no malice and no regret. He died four years ago. She said “˜Look at how healthy I was then. I had chubby cheeks and now I’m really skinny.’ She was so proud of that photograph.”
One complaint Sondhe has about some other photographers is how they portray the country. “People go there and they take pictures of India that are not complementary,” she says, “like Sebastiao Salgado. That was one of the reasons that I originally started taking pictures of India. My India is so beautiful and it’s so much fun. Even this project of mine, even though it’s gonna be shady nightlife, it’s gonna be a portrait, it’s not gonna be them hacking someone to death. I’m gonna try and be really positive because that’s how I feel.”
The long-haired photographer, who has an alligator biting his tail as a ring encircling a pinky finger, has a warm nature that must put her subjects at ease. It is her primary goal, in fact. “To get people with a big scary lens in front of them,” she says, “to get them to be natural and to capture when they’re naturally smiling or pensive. That, to me, is going to be my lifelong quest. And the feedback that I’ve gotten from the people I’ve shot is “˜That picture is me. When I think of myself, that’s what I think of.’ And I like that.”
Sondhe seems entirely content to continue her pendulum trips back and forth between the two major cities, and has no plans to abandon New York, as she explains: “I love it here. It’s home to me. There’s a lot of room here to do what you want to do. There are a lot of people who are really dedicated and working and trying to get by. Everybody’s trying to do something exciting and fascinating and everybody’s willing to help you along your way. When you come up with an idea that’s a genuinely good idea, people will help you. It’s like a huge sort of family. New Yorkers really do help each other out. I think they do in Mumbai also. And it’s funny to me that both have such a reputation for being so and cold aloof because I think it’s exactly the opposite.”
If her own independent work ever encounters any bumps in the road, Sondhe has several photographers she can resume assisting in order to pay the rent. But, she adds, her own parents, who long harbored hopes their daughter would choose the more stable career of lawyer, would always be there too.
Dolly and Ratanjit Sondhe are as fond of Cleveland as their daughter is of New York, and they too show no signs of leaving, having lived there long enough to recall the days when they would drive four hours to Toronto once a month for Indian ingredients, and are now able to find haldi at Whole Foods. Their daughter is a frequent visitor.
Sondhe tells of being on a photo shoot in the south of France once and calling her father, who has now lived in Cleveland longer than he has in India. “Dad,” she said, “I’m in the most beautiful place in the world.”
“Is it more beautiful than Cleveland?” her father asked.
Nisha Sondhe’s Bombay v New York image collection can be viewed in full at www.nishasondhe.com
Postscript: Among a few things that didn’t make it into the article, Nisha’s mother was a childhood playmate of Hindi film music composer Anu Malik.
In Ohio when Nisha was growing up, the family would watch Hindi movies on a VCR, and Nisha says she’s “a huge Shah Rukh fan.”
And what sort of equipment typically accompanies Sondhe on her travels? An Apple PowerBook laptop, a digital camera, two lenses, and a film camera. She uses a Canon system, so the lenses work on both cameras. “Last trip, I was burning CDs on this computer on an autorickshaw. God bless this machine!” she says.
Times and technology are changing for photographers, nudging even the most die-hard film fans into the digital world. Sondhe observes: “The dark room thing that I had experienced is gone now. Everything is digital, everything is Photoshop, everything is on the computer. I really didn’t want to go digital. I decided to keep all my black and white work on film, so that way I could still go to the darkroom for days on end.”
“A lot of those families in India that hired me for my black and white work, and everybody loves the idea of film, but then they say “˜Can you retouch that?’ So it has to be scanned and retouched. It’s what they want, they want it to be perfect, they want to be able to email it.”
Last October, Sondhe recalls shooting young people dancing during Navatri: “There’s so much energy but it was in such tight space by the end of the night I was covered in everyone’s sweat.” Unlike some photographers who will snap first and ask for forgiveness later, Sondhe says she usually asks permission first. “It’s nicer than just stealing some moments.”
Being a woman can help, in some cases, Sondhe admits, such as when shooting children and requesting permission from their parents, as they are less wary than if she were a man. But, Sondhe says, “It helps and it hurts. I’ve been detained in customs for hours in India with a lot of photographic equipment because they say “˜But you’re a girl, why would you need all of this equipment?'”
She took the photograph of her uncle on train in the years after the 7/11 train blasts, complicated by the fact that now photography on trains is not allowed. Sondhe had to hide her camera and endure family members urging “”Hurry, hurry take the picture!” when she extracted it from her bag.