Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Beyond The Frame | The Rickshaw Wallah's Bell | Canon 5D Mark II

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
This Beyond The Frame backstory is about a bell. Not about any bell, but about the type of bell that is a constant fixture for rickshaw wallahs in Kolkata. What a horn is to a motorized vehicle driver, the bell is to the rickshaw.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves...first, what do we know about the rickshaw?

The rickshaw is thought to first have appeared in India, not in Kolkata but in the hill town of Shimla in 1880. However, it was made of iron not of wood as those that had appeared in Japan. It is said that it was an American who landed in Yokohama who introduced the rickshaw to the Japanese in 1869 to accommodate his wife who had difficulty walking.

The rickshaw eventually made its way south and west to Korea, Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong through southeast Asia and into the Indian subcontinent, down to Sri Lanka, then found its way into Africa.

The image of men (some of them emaciated) pulling wooden rickshaws in the streets of Kolkata frequently causes knee-jerk proposals from its city government authorities to ban them, but 
the realization that the rains during monsoon seasons flood the streets Kolkata are flooded making them impassable by car makes it impossible for such a ban to pass. It is the only reason why the hand pulled rickshaw survives in Kolkata.

Now for my story. 

In October 2011, I had organized a photo-expedition-workshop during Kolkata's Durga Puja and naturally the rickshaw wallahs was one of the side stories that I proposed ought to be worked on.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
So I, as the other workshop participants did, walked the streets surrounding Sudder Street to document the pullers of these venerable vehicles. While photographing many of them at work or at rest, I came to like the tinkling of their hand bells which they shook to warn pedestrians to move out of the way, or to alert customers who were looking for rides.

While photographing a group of rickshaw pullers not far from my hotel, I asked a few who had them if I could buy one off them or where I could buy one. Getting vigorous head wags and vague hand gestures, I gave up, resumed my shooting and eventually walked back to the charming Lytton Hotel where I was staying.

Three hours later, I get a call from the Lytton Hotel's reception telling me that a rickshaw puller was outside, and had a bell for me. How did he know where I was staying is beyond comprehension...and how did the reception know that I wanted one? I call it the Kolkata "telegram"...or in more modern terms, the Kolkata SMS.


The rickshaw wallah was generously recompensed for the bell and his ingenuity, and I still have the bell in my home which I should use it to tell out-of-towners to make way on the narrow sidewalks of NYC's West Village.

For a full screen gallery of Kolkata's rickshaw pullers, drop by my color photographs at Rickshaw Wallahs.

And here's a monochrome slideshow on the rickshaw wallahs with the sound of the famous bell and street sounds recorded live in Kolkata.