Anil Rao and David de Souza are, respectively, the project manager and field director of Picture Mumbai, one of a series of projects organized by the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI) to raise public awareness of landmarks and of the importance of preserving them. Under the guidance of Mr. Rao and Mr. de Souza, nine young people from Mumbai (formerly Bombay), India, traveled around their city photographing with incisiveness and poignancy the essence of Mumbai—its people, cultural activities, and urban environment.
Anil Rao joined the family-owned business, Pest Control (India) Ltd., following his studies, while he practiced landscape design on the side. He left after six years, working first for a building materials company in Kuwait and then for a Danish-managed furniture factory. In 1986 he returned to India and rejoined the family business, where he is currently managing director. He is passionately interested in educating children about nature and the life sciences.
David de Souza started his working life as a biochemist, serving as a college lecturer at G.S. Medical College and later as a petroleum chemist for Arabian American Oil Company in Saudi Arabia. In addition, he did the company's industrial and corporate photography. He became a professional photographer in 1989, doing advertising photography, but he prefers to express himself through fine-art photography. He is working on several books.
The two men spoke with Jeffrey Levin, editor of Conservation, The GCI Newsletter.
Jeffrey Levin: The Picture Mumbai project, like its predecessor Picture L.A., was an attempt to look at a city and its landmarks through the eyes of young people. How has your involvement with the project affected you?
Anil Rao: Well, for one, it prompted us to see the city anew. When you live in a city, you're enveloped by it. With Mumbai you either love it or despise it, depending on where you are and what you are doing. It's overwhelming—the stench, the humidity, the noise, everything all happening at the same time. There's a kind of psychosis with Mumbaites, because people try to cope with this chaos by blocking themselves away from it. You look at it only selectively through the window of your air-conditioned car or your home. You keep cocooning yourself. Because of the young photographers and the pictures they came up with, we realized we weren't looking. And it began to change us. I felt—why am I so cut off? Do I need to divorce myself from the city I'm growing in, profiting from, living in? I'm part of it, and if I can't make a difference, who is to do it? If there's change to be made, it has to come from us.
I grew up in Mumbai, and though I may dislike certain manifestations in the way it is today, I know there is underlying goodwill and a communal strength that emanates from the city, a cosmopolitan life, despite all the chaos and despair. Somehow many people manage to live their lives as best they can. The city has something, you know.
This project made an emotional change in most of us. We began to review our lives, our very purposes. So I'm very thankful for the opportunity the Getty brought our way.
What was the process by which you selected the kids? What were you looking for?
David de Souza: I knew that I wanted kids with some element of self-confidence who'd want to express themselves. We also looked for a representative socioeconomic cross section of varied groups in Mumbai: some youngsters from the urban area downtown and some youngsters from suburban Mumbai, primarily because property prices have escalated to such an exorbitant level that young married people can't afford homes and flats in downtown Mumbai. The first place I went was my old alma mater, the St. Stanislaus School. I asked the art teachers to nominate children they thought were good at drawing, painting, and sketching. So they picked some 200 children. We started off by asking them what they thought was significant about Mumbai—what they liked, what they didn't like—and to enumerate one positive and one negative feature, something you could photograph. Many of them came up with the usual clichés about garbage and dirt and the streets and whatever.
Then I thought, maybe I'm not asking the right questions. So I took some copies of National Geographic and some Cartier-Bresson books and things like that, and I asked them to flag two pictures that they liked and two pictures they didn't like. And they had to tell me why. Most everybody was saying, "I like it because the sky is so blue and the trees are green," that kind of thing. But Vernon Fernandes said, "You know, everybody says bad things about Bandra where I live, and everybody says that it is such an atrocious place, but have you seen the old architecture in Bandra? I like this architecture, I really do. I think it's great." For a 12-year-old to talk about old architecture—he was the only kid in this bunch of 200 who expressed a slightly lateral point of view. And I thought, okay, I'd like to see more of this chap. So we chose Vernon. Then we went to some other schools, talking to about four to five hundred kids to come up with the nine selected.
How much photography instruction did you provide?
Mr. de Souza: The whole idea was to give them free expression. Indian kids are used to being told what to do. And I thought that the children in L.A. are just the opposite: they're given all the freedoms in the world. I thought that I'd like to give Indian kids that. Here's a camera, this is how you operate it, now go shoot. Using black-and-white film was the biggest hurdle to cross, because youngsters see the world in Technicolor, and Mumbai is vibrantly colorful. To translate that into tones of gray was a bit of a jolt. The first lot of film was abysmal. But when some of their pictures were blown up, the kids started seeing light and shade, depth of field, and foreground and background. Ah! There was a kind of "eureka experience" happening.
When you looked at all the photographs after the work was done, were there things that surprised you?
Mr. Rao: Sometimes photography gives you the entire scope, if only because you're forced to look at things you normally don't. We take no regard of the avatar or of the children playing in the street. It's like, "Oh, God, this is terrible, I just don't want to look at it anymore. It depresses me." But with these photographs, you can't not look at them. And you begin to see their faces and smile and eyes--the humanity in them.
You're saying that they didn't flinch from subjects.
Mr. Rao: They didn't flinch. It did bother them at times. But they didn't shun it, as their quotes will tell you. They had a lot to say about what was happening there.
Mr. de Souza: I was very apprehensive when I got the Picture L.A. book. I said, "My God, where am I going to get this kind of quality of images? Will our children be able to deliver? We're not on the same ethos." But two to three weeks into the project, I felt that the material of these youngsters was very powerful, very loving and warm and spontaneous, with all those nascent, unspoiled qualities of children. I have nine youngsters, and I've got nine times a thousand yet to be discovered. The more "adultish" we get, especially in India, the more we tend to screw up these kids' lives. They're wonderful and they've got wonderful ideas, and then we put them through the mill and squeeze out all that enthusiasm.
Mr. Rao: Here were children from all kinds of economic backgrounds, somehow untouched by our cynicism. The city has a great way of making you a cynic once you become adult. You begin to layer yourself away from it, from a certain sense of reality. But children see through things. They're not touched by the same skepticism, the same antipathy. It's the adults who insulate them according to the societal structure they like to keep. In Picture Mumbai, the children were able to identify and meld the true communal feelings that children have. If we can somehow get back to thatlet the future generation feel that the city matters to them and that they should do something about it—then we will have made a lasting landmark. A city would be sustained by that.
Did the project change in any way your conception of what constituted a landmark?
Mr. Rao: Oh, yes. My perception of a landmark was like a lot of people's—something that's there, not moving, a building or a structure of some sort more often than not. But that is not what it is. People are, one of the girls said. People are landmarks. Communities are landmarks. A way of life is a landmark. For example, is the train station the landmark, or is it the people coming and going? I mean, every morning I'd get up and go to the train station and catch the train which travels straight to my office. I go at peak and return at peak, and people are everywhere. The trains are the same. The station is the same. Sometimes I'd come much earlier, going on an of day to the office, and I'd find it deserted. The train stations were quite empty comparatively speaking. I thought to myself, well, the structure was not the landmark—it is the life that I identify with. Without the people and the life that happened in the city, this wouldn't be a landmark. It could be just any other station. So a landmark is also an emotion. The experience that you could have only in the city is a landmark. So I suppose preserving a certain way of life is also, in a way, preserving a landmark.
What are the connections and the differences between Picture Mumbai and Picture L.A.?
Mr. Rao: Picture L.A. clearly indicated that landmarks for young people are things they live through. The local barber, incidents, moments in time can be landmarks for them. That's a similarity with Picture Mumbai. The young people in Mumbai may not have taken the same shots, but they experienced a similar interaction. And how is it different? Because Mumbai is different. It is as basic as that.
Mr. de Souza: Mumbai is people in your face, whether you like it or not. Privacy is a total luxury. You can never be alone in Mumbai. There are people at any public place, throughout the day and night, buzzing around. It's not uncommon for somebody to peek over your shoulder and be happily reading what you're writing. It's not considered rude because how dare you have your own space! India is like that. Mumbai is like that. The smells, the color, the vibrancy of people.
Picture Mumbai has a different intensity of human activity than Picture L.A. The monuments are different because L.A. is a relatively young city. The monuments, the landscapes, the historical backdrop that you have in L.A. and the historic and the colonial British architecture that we have naturally make them different, but they're similar in that we've got monuments and you've got monuments. I was touched by the freshness, the youth, and the raw energy of Picture L.A. But the thing that impressed me about the Mumbai photographs is the warmth of the emotions the pictures convey. There is an enormous level of warmth in Picture Mumbai.
In terms of the kids themselves, if you had to predict what they would be doing 10 or 15 years from now, could you make a guess?
Mr. de Souza: I feel that if we don't do something, if we just let the project end with this, everybody will slip back into their little slot. I'm getting philosophical here, but the great thing with the advent of man in the evolutionary cycle is civilization and the human ability to facilitate change. I feel that we can facilitate civilization. We can will in the Schopenhauer sense of the word, and consciously seek change. Now, youngsters can do it, if we provide . . .
Mr. Rao: . . . the catalyst.
Mr. de Souza: Yes. The ingredients are all there. It's just gathering them together. Giving them a slight element of direction. If you pour grain out of a sack, it goes every which way. If you take nine youngsters and tell them they're free to do what they want, they'll feel free and they'll do what they want. Their direction needs to be defined. Take nine youngsters and give them a unified goal, one focus, and the sum will be greater than the components. If we keep stoking the fire, gently nurturing, in 10 years' time I can see movement. I can see art appreciation and an appreciation of people. I can see an appreciation of art around them and an appreciation of life. If that happens, that's wonderful. Nine youngsters over 10 years still there, nurturing and preserving life. Then I think conservation is a natural consequence.
Mr. Rao: Picture Mumbai is a great bunch of photographs, but it has the potential to be taken far beyond that. Why can't we do more, maybe run spin-off projects? If we reach out with this exhibition, we can draw in a lot more people and hook them onto the idea they have to play a part in change that we could do in the city. We need to renew our association with the city that we live in.
Mr. de Souza: I think there are distinct possibilities. As adults, it's all very well to say, yes, it's the next generation that will take care of things. But what am I doing now? What am I doing about it?
Mr. Rao: Exactly.
Mr. de Souza: That's the element I don't want to lose sight of. We have the pearl of great price in our backyards right now. I feel that it shouldn't be desecrated. We've just let too many opportunities go by and not seized the day.
Mr. Rao: The fulcrum is the new generation, giving children a sense of confidence, a sense of belonging, and the urge to make the positive change in the attitudes for the city. If nine children can create an exhibition with such a profound public statement, can you imagine if schools run for it? So I think it's wonderful that this happened through kids, but it should continue happening through many, many more kids. One of the good things we might do is set up a trust fund to support any spin-off projects, and receipts from those spin-offs—we could sell posters and publications—in turn would feed, perhaps, workshops that David would like to have . . .
Mr. de Souza: Yes, I'd like for us to form a corpus of skilled artisans—wood-carvers, potters—and philosophers, put these people together, and we take our show to schools. They've got the building, we've got the personnel. We take our resources into the schools, we do our workshop, we come out. We should go in there with the idea that this is course number one. Then we come back with course number two. Gradually there's a buildup of resources within the school itself. Finally, at the end of the day, when these youngsters are grown up, they can set up their own little ancillary projects. And that sets of a whole chain reaction.
You're talking about what might be called a cultural apprenticeship or conservation of living culture.
Mr. Rao: Yes.
Mr. de Souza: You see, the big thing with the rest of the world is that everybody wants to be like America. America's fine in America. But America is not necessarily the right solution for my problem. We can't take a Band-Aid from somewhere else and put it on. It has never worked historically. We have to come up with our own economic and social remedies to problems that exist—and for God's sake, let's not say that they don't. And to say, let's apply a McDonald's fix and a Coke fix and an IBM fix to an Indian problem doesn't solve it.
Mr. Rao: Well, a cultural invasion is happening. There's a school of thought that is not really anti-Coke but against what it implies—that we are bound to lose whatever we have of our culture because the future generation has embraced this. We should be rushing to protect whatever remnants we have, or they're going to be lost. I don't subscribe to this view entirely, but I can see the danger, at least in the metropolitan areas. But India is so vast, with such a large population . . . I don't think it has changed.
Mr. de Souza: We have Greek mythology and we have Indian mythology. Greek mythology is history. Indian mythology is practiced every day. That is the continuity, the continuum of the past and the present--the link. That's why in Indian society this whole concept of preserving is slightly alien.
Mr. Rao: Preserving what? It's here. It's always been here. It'll always be here.
Mr. de Souza: It's part of you, and it's part of organic growth and death. It's the whole life cycle.
This touches upon the whole concept of monuments. In the Western context, a monument is often a place where there is no longer life. It's a preserved remnant or shell of what was once a living place. But in other places such as India, the culture that created the place still exists and goes on using it.
Mr. de Souza: Yes. I mean, sometimes it astounds me. You go to a 12th-century shrine in India and there's a priest performing just like priests did in the 12th century. Now maybe this priest says, "I need to make my temple a little more upbeat." So what does he do? He goes and buys ceramic bathroom tiles. In the shrine he's got this statue which is a wonderful work of art—and behind it he's now got these bloody bathroom tiles! To him that is modern. He can keep it clean, and it's new.
Mr. Rao: The key to it is that it's not something that is protected specifically for what it is. Because we live it. People are conducting their lives and the rituals just like they did hundreds of years ago.
Mr. de Souza: But the other side to this is that there is a very large number of local tourists who will come to see a monument—the shell of something that was living, as you described it. Many Indian tourists come to see the Taj Mahal and be in awe at its beauty. There are many local tourists that come to the old forts in Rajasthan and say, "Wow, this is where the rajas used to live." There is a growing appreciation.
What's the implication of that for conservation?
Mr. de Souza: Well, there is an element of Westernization in preserving a monument. But what is wrong with preserving a monument? Do I have to look at everything that's Western as being alien? If a suit fits, wear it. Put it on until you find a better solution to the problem. With more people traveling through a monument, the more it needs to be kept up, the more it needs to be conserved. It's a good thing that people have appreciation. It's a good thing that people are traveling, a good thing that people are going to the Taj Mahal. But so many millions of people trooping through are eroding the marble, walking on it every day. And then you see that factory down there belching all the smoke and destroying all these pillars. And your son and daughter, they want to come here, and they won't be able to.
Mr. Rao: Some places were best conserved because nobody knew about them. In India, at least, most of the wildlife preserves are being destroyed because they are now so popular.
You both seem a little surprised that your involvement in Picture Mumbai has prompted so much reflection and the desire to do more.
Mr. de Souza: Well, I'm very aghast at the Pandora's box it has opened. I'm not trying to be facetious when I say that I was very tentative when I got the project. My own confidence that I could deliver was low. But my confidence has been boosted enormously. And my respect for youngsters in India has gone up enormously. And I feel, my God, what are we waiting for! Give me more and I'll do it. The main thing is not to let us get back into our . . .
Mr. Rao: . . . our shells.
Mr. de Souza: Yes.
And these are shells that the young people participating in the project didn't have.
Mr. Rao: Exactly. I'd like to be a kid again. And just see as one. I think that would be the key to preserving our sanity, our culture, and our hopes.
Mr. de Souza: For 200 years we've had this kind of colonial hangover. We've always been told we're second rate, and for a lot of the time, we actually believed it. I resent the whole Third World idea. When Kenneth Clark talks about civilization, he talks about civilization being a Western prerogative. I say, damn! For God's sake! Did you ever go to India? What are you talking about?
It's very timely that the GCI and the Getty should have come to India and started Picture Mumbai at a moment when India and Mumbai were opening doors, when we want people to invest in us. It's a time where I see signs in India that say, "Made in India." Nowhere, five years ago, would you see a big sign in India that said, "Made in India," because we were not proud of making things in India. It's damn nice to look in the mirror and say, yes, I'm Indian, and I like what I see. That has only been substantiated by this project. So it's all very timely.