Paying ode to rickshaw-pullers

Paying ode to rickshaw-pullers

Numbers dwindling in Kolkata over the years

Paying ode to rickshaw-pullers
They have been immortalised in celluloid for years

Balraj Sahni, Om Puri and Ramkhilan Yadav have nothing in common, except probably their somewhat lanky frame; they come from different time and space. Yet, what binds them together is the tinkling of the small brass bell, urging people around them to make way and let them pass.   

Truth be told, the 2 thespians have actually immortalised the life of Yadav,  the brown, sinewy man from Ballygunge in south Kolkata, and his brethren on the silver screen . Sahni played the role of Sambhu Mahato rather uncharacteristically  — he was often considered the Humphrey Bogart of the Indian screen — in Do Bigha Zameen. A film by auteur Bimal Roy, it is believed to be the first neo-realistic film, influenced by Italian filmmaker like Vittorio De Sica, which kick-started the new wave of Indian cinema. Sahni’s Mahato left his famine-stricken village and 2 acres of land behind and came to Kolkata, with his family, where he found job as a rickshaw-puller.

As Mahato galloped like an old racehorse to make one last attempt of winning against a horse-drawn carriage, egged on by his voluminous, rich patron, Do Bigha Zameen raced into India’s cinematic history.  Interestingly, Yadav was born in 1953, the year the seminal film was released and Sahni exploded on the screen in a life-defying role.

Puri, who played Hasari Pal in Roland Joffé’s City of Joy, also moved to Kolkata, nee Calcutta, along with his wife, Kamla, and 3 children, in search of greener pastures. Eventually, he ends up as a rickshaw-puller, cutting through the bustling streets of city to provide for his family and fight to find a place in life and an urban jungle. Sahni and Puri might have spent several hours in Kolkata’s sweltering heat to bring authenticity to their roles but Yadav has lived both these lives in reality.

Yadav has spent all his adult life, ferrying passengers, thin or fat, rich or not so rich, through the streets of south Kolkata, come hail or shine. He regrets getting old and losing his youthful stamina, which has cost him income, a portion of which goes to his extended family in Bihar’s Munghyr. Yadav and others like him — at last count, Kolkata’s rickshaw-pullers stood at 35,000 — have lived a life of stress, juxtaposing the strains of apathy and sometimes even that of empathy.

The latter causes them more harm, they say because however inhuman in the eyes of the bigger world, there is no other way to earn bread for them. At a time, when the number of Kolkata’s rickshaw-pullers is dwindling, comes Kounteya Sinha, who calls himself an “urban nomad”.

A journalist by profession, he is a photographer by passion and wants to record the life and times of people like Yadav, who he finds are “Kolkata’s real heroes”. With the city civic body refusing to renew licences of an increasing number of hand-pulled rickshaws every year, in a decade the mode of transport could just remain in photographs.

Kounteya is documenting life in Kolkata through the lenses of his camera, where rickshaw-pullers play a leading role. “They have been immortalised in celluloid for years but the men who pull this emblematic 2-wheeled contraption have for long been social pariahs, shunned and neglected,” he said.

Hoping to give back some to the rickshaw-pullers, who often ferried him through streets in waist-high water, Kounteya has decided to make rickshaw pullers the real attraction at his latest exhibition. As he returns home to the city of his birth after nearly 16 years, Kounteya has decided to have around 50 rickshaw-pullers as chief guests at his show. Although the exhibition will be formally inaugurated on June 24, he has set aside June 26, the following Sunday, just for these hard-working men.

“Initially I had thought of having the show inaugurated by them but after talking to them, I realised they were not too keen on attending. They feared feeling out of place among the city’s high and mighty. So, I’ll have a day just for them,” he said. The day’s itinerary will have these rickshaw-pullers attend the show and browse through the photographs, which Kounteya has captured during his travels, a journey that took him more than 410 days, passing through 25 countries, covering around 95,000 km.

Dr Rupali Basu, president and regional CEO of Apollo Hospitals, who is hosting Kounteya’s 2-week-long show, said, “ I urge everyone to come, see the show and meet these extremely hard-working men, who keep the city moving every day.”

Kounteya said, “Rickshaws are synonymous with Kolkata, appearing in almost every photograph, memorabilia and films. The irony is that these men are among the city’s most neglected people, with no identity or recognition, and not a part of anybody’s plan. This has to change. Kolkata has to do for them what Mumbai has done for the dabbawallahs.”
Rickshaw-pullers invited to the show are no less excited as Kounteya spent 3 hours with around 20 of them earlier this week, explaining what the show is all about. Ramu, a rickshaw-puller from Fern Road, said, “I’m getting my clothes ready and I’ll have to get a shave. I’m excited. Nobody has shown us respect before. We live so far away from home but Kolkata will always be my city. I love this city.”  Kounteya has also asked them for a wish-list, people they admire and want to meet. Names mentioned include film stars Mithun Chakraborty and Prasenjit, cricketing boss Sourav Ganguly and even Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.

“I urge Kolkatans to come to the show and take selfies with rickshaw-wallahs, get to know their names, learn about their lifestyle and give them a hug. It’s an attempt to tell them we’re grateful for their blood, sweat and toil,” he said. Titled ‘Stone – Being and Becoming’, the series  “explore and capture the romance of being static — the story of a rock becoming an astounding architectural wonder to the metamorphosis of humans turning to stone — the phenomenon of unfeeling,” Kounteya explains.

He believes, rickshaw-pullers are no less a part of “Stone” as they are an integral part of Kolkata. One of the photographs highlighted in the show is that of an out-of-work Oxford graduate, Kounteya chanced upon in London. He is seen sitting with a cardboard sign, which asks people to slap him as a stress-reliever for ₤5 Pounds. “I want my rickshaw-puller guests to know that stress is something that traverses imaginary lines on the map. The world is one. In the process, they will get a glimpse of the world through my eyes and will be able to visit places they otherwise never will,” he said.

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