Gopal MS insists he is a blogger even though the pictures that populate his Instagram handle ‘mumbaipaused’ hint at the distinct eye of a photojournalist. For instance, the picture of a sewer cover that refers to the city as “Bombay”, or the posts focussing on Dalit imagery that he shared in the days following the Bhima Koregaon protests and bandh by the community in Mumbai. Shrugging his shoulders, Gopal explains that the difference lies in his approach to the process. “I take blogging very seriously… but not photography. The latter requires a certain discipline that feels like a chore. I also lack the eye for aspects such as framing or lighting,” he says.
Armed with his smartphone and a compact digital camera, Gopal is scouting the dry fish market and makeshift flea that pops up in Andheri’s Marol neighbourhood every Friday and Saturday. He pauses to click a picture of a man cleaning fresh fish to dry them and women selling the end product. “Do you notice the women and men don’t work in the same section?” he asks. While most Instagram handles that chronicle the city attempt to capture its beauty, Gopal’s Mumbai, when paused, does not look pretty. It is the mundane that sets his work apart. His pictures are about the myriad everyday scenes from a Mumbai less chronicled. A stump of a felled tree features under #treesofmumbai, graffiti on the walls is part of #aamartistgallery, a toy made of plastic and left abandoned on the street is part of #plasticpeopleandouruniverse. Most of his photographs are shot in the central suburbs on his way to work.
An advertising professional otherwise, Gopal spends an hour every day on foot, exploring the narrow bylanes of neighbourhoods such as Ghatkopar, Kurla, Govandi and Chembur. “I rarely visit a Malabar Hill because life does not spill onto the streets in a rich neighbourhood. Besides, it’s tougher to click photographs there without being intercepted,” explains the 44-year-old.
With over 4,500 followers, mumbaipaused has evolved from a blog by the same name which Gopal started in 2009. His own journey as a blogger, however, can be traced back to Bengaluru. “My wife gifted me a digital camera on my 36th birthday. I had no interest in photography but pocket-sized cameras were a thing at the time. I started to carry it to work and on the way, I would stop my scooter and click a picture whenever I spotted something interesting,” he recounts. At the time, he was merely looking for insights to aid his work as a copywriter. Gopal took up a catchy alias — Slogan Murugan, and would click pictures of the streets, and categorise them based on location. “Because all roads in Bengaluru are named as ‘Cross Roads’ and ‘Main Roads’, I called my blog ‘Which Main? What Cross?’,” he says. He would shoot one or two pictures a day and by the end of the year, he had close to 400 pictures. The blog found an audience, especially among media professionals and journalists on the “city beat”.
Gopal adapted the same concept to Mumbai when he moved to the city in 2009 and his blog found a similar positive reception. Media houses started approaching him for freelance photoshoots. He decided to quit advertising for a career in photojournalism. “But a middle-class family guy has financial responsibilities that starting all over as a photojournalist did not help me fulfil. So I went back to advertising while blogging on the side,” he says. But the one-year stint taught him something crucial: “It helped me develop a sense of politics in the everyday, which is what I now capture through my pictures.”
He points out that photojournalists and the mainstream media rarely chronicle the political aspects of the life being lived on city streets. “It’s where I fit in. I try to give context to pictures wherever I can. If I click a beef dish, I will add some information on the controversy around the meat.” His photographs, says Gopal, are largely reportage, but sometimes they are also an assertion of his own political views. “For example, #plasticpeopleandouruniverse has its roots in the Versova beach clean-up. The amount of plastic that the sea throws up in the monsoons is staggering. I am against organised religion but I promote street and folk religion more than anyone else.” While the political, presented as the everyday, gets an audience, Gopal says the explicitly political posts, say the one under #Dalitblue, don’t have the same draw. “And nothing sells like nostalgia and food.”
A “product of the Internet”, Gopal is now ready to take his documenting of the city to the next level. In September last year, he launched his first digital photobook, Mumbai Turmeric. It captured the Pochamma Panduga festival, celebrated by the Andhra community in Kamathipura. He has since released three more digital photobooks in the last four months, since they are cost-friendly. “Now that I know the city’s pulse, I am ready to rearrange the pictures I have to tell bigger stories. My next digital photobook, for example, will be called The Toothless Mayor of Mayanagri. The fictional character of the mayor, a profile that comes with no power, goes about clicking pictures of what he could or could not have done if he had any authority. Those pictures will populate the book.