Cult of the Streets

Artist Niyati Upadhya found herself drawn to the ‘professional underbelly’ of the Indian city. From the scrap dealers of Bangalore to the kaan saaf wallahs, bone-setters and barber shops of Mumbai, it seemed to her that these strange vocations were at odds to the day and age we live in. “Moving about the city, I noticed these old-fashioned practices and observed the interactions between people and their ways of making a living, itself an art as old as time.”

As a sculptor and photographer, she found herself consumed with capturing and documenting these old, somewhat dubious vocations that lie at the fringes of Indian cities. Cult of the Streets is a culmination of her work. A three-part visual diary of Bone setters, Barber shops and Ear cleaners, Niyati uses mixed media (photographs, drawing, video, sculpture and sound) to exhibit the lives of Mumbai’s street professions.

Currently exhibiting in Bangalore, you can see her work first-hand here. Meanwhile, a sneak peek for Yahoo! audiences. Anisha Oommen in conversation with the artist.



Cult of the Streets

A man gets his ear cleaned by a kaan saaf wallah in Mumbai.

“I began documenting while still studying; I would travel by train and notice this strange business on the street. I initially thought it came from the need to survive in a city like Bombay, but I began noticing similar ‘professions’ in Goa, Bhopal and other cities as well, where very private activity is carried about in public.”

Cult of the Streets

Inside a Bone setter's tent.

"For a year and a half I would sit across the road and watch them.  Slowly moving closer, asking questions, initiating conversation. But it was only after an ad I did for Comedy Central that they began to trust me. After that I had a note that proclaimed ‘legal permission to document their work.’ It’s understandable they were suspicious, because they are not vetted or certified medicine practitioners; theirs is a vocation passed on from generation to generation."

Cult of the Streets

The pelvic bone. A 9 ft by 3.5 ft ceramic sculpture is part of her exhibit in Bangalore.

"Originally from Lucknow, the bone setters came to Mumbai as an answer to a need that was more economical than going to a doctor. The bone setters use barks, herbs and homemade reeds to massage and twist your bones back into place."

Cult of the Streets

A man gets his ears cleaned by the pavement in Mumbai.

"The ear-cleaners are originally from Andhra. I remember my first installation was in front of the JJ School of Art in Mumbai, where I blew up their photos and displayed them on the streets. Each kaan saaf wallah sat quite proudly in front of his photo on the pavement, and I’m quite happy to say that it helped them get a little more business."

Cult of the Streets

In the barbershops.

"Documenting the barbershops was probably the scariest, but also most fun experience. Scary because it was an entirely male community and I was the solitary female there, documenting it. A lot of the places I shot at were in Dharavi, and whenever I came by they would draw the curtain suspiciously and ask a lot questions. It took a lot of explaining to convince them I was a photographer, working on a project for class. Many of them sent me packing with a warning never to come back, but others were more receptive, even participative."

Cult of the Streets

Barbershop tools.

"As I took photographs of their workshops, they would rearrange their powder boxes and razors, excitedly offering extra lighting and suggesting angles saying “Yahaan se le loh, vahaah se le loh!” One guy even offered to model for me at any barbershop I wanted to shoot at. All these interactions also forced me to become less self-conscious. The barber shops were definitely my favourite project."

Cult of the Streets

A kaan saaf wallah's tools.

"Through the process of documenting, I found that different objects spoke to me. The anatomy posters in the bone-setters’ tents were so deformed, so far removed from everything we had learned in school, yet very proudly and prominently displayed.  A version of that poster is part of the exhibit. I also sculpted a ceramic  pelvic bone, mounted with a stop-motion video of the actual bone in motion."

Cult of the Streets

A corn-remover's table with tools, by the pavement in Mumbai.

"I also spent some time documenting the Corn removers. That will be another exhibit, for another time. I’ve been working on this for a long while, but I didn’t want to exhibit until I was really ready. Being in such close contact with these professions made me realize that life is such a struggle for them, and I didn’t want to just milk them as “queer professions.” I wanted to exhibit on the streets first, so I could, in whatever small way, help share some of my livelihood with them."