1 June 2011

Odd jobs in Delhi

Just read a story in the Sunday Guardian about handpainted signs, which reminded me of seeking out the juice stall sign painter Charan Singh, in Chandni Chowk sometime in the summer of 2007. So I dug up four short sketches I did as part of that long-ago Time Out Delhi cover story on unusual occupations. Enjoy.

Juice-stall sign painter

Charan Singh
Makes: Rs 60-200 per sign

(Photo credit: Abhinandita Mathur)

Charan Singh wasn’t always a painter of signs. He used to have a job in the railways, until he decided to devote himself full-time to the kind of work he really enjoys. That was sometime in the 1960s. Singh doesn’t seem to have any regrets, and his sons Subhash and Anil have also learnt the art. (Though Subhash points out that this is not all he does.) Charan Singh claims to have invented the distinctive style of the Delhi juice-stall sign. “I started it,” he said. “Others try to copy it, but they fail.”

Whether Singh really is the sole repository of the art is uncertain, but his house-cum-workshop in Sarai Topkhana (just off HC Sen Road in the Chandni Chowk area) is definitely a storehouse of colour. Prepared signs in plastic or rexine hang all along the courtyard walls. The smallest is one-and-a-half metres, and the longest three metres. Depending on the client’s demands, the sign can have just lettering, or a fancier design that incorporates flowers, fruits and even faces. “Shah Rukh and Salman are the favourites, especially Salman after Tere Naam. There hasn’t been a Golden Jubilee film after that, na?” said Singh. “Among the heroines, it’s Aishwarya.” Singh can churn out a small sign with lettering in 20 minutes flat, but a larger one with Salman and Ash – yes, the pairing is a bit out of date – can take up to three hours, and costs Rs 200. Has the rise of digital signage affected the business? Yes, said Singh, it has. But he’s upbeat about the future. “Computer mein itni show nahi hai, chamak-dhamak nahi hai. Aap dekhna, haath ka kaam hi chal niklega.”


Urdu-English legal translator
Murtaza Ali Khan
Makes: Rs 80 per page

There is an unending series of men at desks with typewriters outside Tees Hazari, Delhi’s largest district court. But not all of them have cupboards full of documents in a script indecipherable to everyone but themselves. Murtaza Ali Khan does. Sitting behind a sheet that serves as an improvised curtain against the scorching sun, Khan pores over legal documents written in shikasta – an Urdu script that is no longer taught and that even those conversant with Urdu find hard to understand. “Shikasta ko broken script kehte hain. Tuti-phuti language aur dilapidated documents, yahi padhta hoon main,” smiled Khan. He used to be a typist, but as more and more people coming to the court with shikasta documents started asking him to translate, he decided to specialise. Most of the documents he receives are property-related ones, which need to be translated for use in court proceedings, to get a bank loan, or sell property. He also gets nikahnamas and talaqnamas. And fatwas. “I get regular customers from banks and the Pakistan Embassy,” said Khan. “Many people even come to me to get old documents forged. They know I have the skill. But I always refuse.” But Khan wants to branch out of translation. Holder of several degrees, including a BA from Delhi College (now Zakir Hussain), an Adeeb Kamil in Urdu from Aligarh, a Bachelors in Education from Taleemghar, Lucknow, and most recently, another BA in Urdu from Maulana Azad National University, Hyderabad, he is all set to start on an LLB.


Protest photographer
Joginder Dogra.
Makes: Rs 30-50 per print sold

(Photo credit: Abhinandita Mathur)

For how long have you been a professional photographer?
Twenty years. My uncle was chief photographer in Punjab Kesari, so I came into this line through him. But it was very difficult to establish myself in my own right. I would take photographs, and if they were accepted, they would appear in his name. One day I decided, enough is enough. From that day I started taking my photographs to other places.

When did you make Jantar Mantar your beat?
Well, I had been in Delhi long enough as a photographer, I knew that there is always something happening here. So I started coming regularly. Now it’s part of my daily routine – I come here at 10am and I hang around until four or five in the evening, taking photographs of any protest demonstration that happens.

Who do you sell the photographs to?
Many different places. I have a regular arrangement with two Hindi city papers – Apni Dilli (a weekly) and Meri Dilli (a daily). Apart from them, I offer my photos to press agencies. And, of course, I sell copies to the protestors themselves. Unko chahiye hota hai na, record ke liye. Nowadays, groups who’re planning a demonstration, if they don’t have a photographer, they even contact me in advance, saying arrive at such-and-such a time.

What’s been your greatest Jantar Mantar photo moment?
It was on July 29, 2006. A man set himself on fire. He was from Etah – his kids had been kidnapped and he had been sitting here at Jantar Mantar for some months. Pata nahi usko kya hua, that day he just lost it. He poured oil on himself and lit a match. Nobody else was here, it was three in the afternoon. The photograph I took, I gave it to Associated Press, and they submitted it to the International Photo of the Year competition. It came fifth out of 44,000 submissions. I got a certificate. But I still haven’t received the money.


Voiceover artist and mimic
Sundeep Sharma
Makes: Rs 70,000 a month

Sundeep Sharma’s story sounds a bit like one a successful film star might tell about himself: Amitabh Bachchan in a minor key. He grew up in a small town (Bareilly), came to Delhi with “three thousand rupees and the number of Discovery Channel” in his pocket, and was told by his first UTV interviewer that he better “pack his bags and become a writer or something”. But Sharma was sure that his voice was his fortune. Having discovered a talent for oratory in Class XII, when his school principal challenged the boys to match a girl who had won a district-level debate, he prided himself on being the kind of debater who “never came second”.

So he stayed on in Delhi, doing voiceovers for serials on All-India Radio (“mostly ten gaonwalas hearing about some new government scheme”), and working on his skills. “I learnt about voice exercises, pauses, stresses, throwing your voice,” said Sharma. “I did an acting workshop with Barry John in 2003, when I learnt that there are four vocal registers. For instance, to speak in a deep voice, you need to speak from your stomach. For a high, kiddie-type voice, you close your eyes, fill your belly and think that the voice is hitting your skull.”

UTV approved him in his sixth attempt. And then mimicry happened – by accident. Seven months after Sharma auditioned to anchor an NDTV show called Gustakhi Maaf, they called to ask if he’d like to try mimicking Pramod Mahajan, whose voice matched his in texture. “It was when that voice became a hit that I started trying out other voices,” said Sharma. “Now I do Vajpayee, Advani, Mulayam, Shah Rukh, Saif, Nana Patekar, Om Puri, Navjot Sidhu, Sachin Tendulkar. Old film stars like Jagdeep, Jeevan, Dilip Kumar, Prithviraj Kapoor are easy – they had a particular style. Imitating Aamir Khan is difficult, because he changes his voice with each role.” But Sharma prefers doing “normal characters” (a Bihari panwalla or a Bengali babu) to mimicking famous people. And he’s branching out into stand-up comedy. In Sharma’s own words: “Pehle I would call Bareilly and say ki saat baj kar pachpan minute par meri awaz TV par aayegi. Seven years down the line, I feel like I can be on stage as well.”

Published in Time Out Delhi, 2007.

1 comment:

Harish said...

Wow.. people who made their life truly by their own effort..