Tuesday, 8 November 2011

The Rickshaw Wallahs of Kolkata

Following my two weeks Kolkata's Cult of Durga Photo~Expedition & Workshop™, I have now completed two photo essays centering on the rickshaw pullers of that quintessential Indian megapolis. About half of the photographs were made using a Leica M9, while the rest with a Canon 5d Mark II. The audio was recorded with a Marantz 620PMD.

The first photo essay is an audio slideshow of about 30 black & white photographs of rickshaw pullers, supplemented by a soundtrack made up of Kolkata's traffic sounds, short narrative clips by the pullers themselves and live instrumental music played by Satyananda Das, a traditional Baul musician.

It can be seen either as a Vimeo movie (above) or as a regular SoundSlides multimedia, which is recommended because the quality of the photographs are much better, and are much larger.

The second photo essay is a gallery of still photographs... essentially the same as those in the multimedia products above, but the gallery is better suited for those who prefer to view them without any multimedia influence.

Documenting the rickshaw pullers was a secondary objective of the workshop, but was an important one. The government of Bengal had announced plans to completely ban the rickshaws, saying that the grueling work violates the pullers human rights, the argument was rejected by the rickshaw pullers with huge protests. Almost all of the pullers I spoke to were from the state of Bihar, one of India’s poorest states. Mohammed was one of those...an older man, a Muslim from Bihar with a dark bunion on his forehead from genuflecting five times a day. Past his prime, he said that he made about 400 rupees a day...the equivalent of $9 or so.

Having experienced first hand Kolkata's incredible 24-hour traffic jams, I believe those who claim that rickshaws are the only mode of transport who can circulate its narrow streets and alleys. The rickshaws carry business people, live poultry, school children, the sick to the hospitals, fruit to the markets, and even prostitutes. Without them, Kolkata could risk coming to a standstill, especially during the monsoon rains when roads can be impassable...and let's face it, Kolkata without the rickshaw pullers wouldn't be the same.

Many Kolkata intellectuals have said that while we can refuse on moral grounds to be carried by another human being, we have no right to take away their livelihood. There's also the hope that rickshaw pullers can be provided with an alternative employment.