Friday, November 19, 2010
'CHAI RACERS' IN MUMBAI
Photographer Thierry Vincent (below) spent the past two years in India, documenting the changing motorcycle culture in Mumbai; his show 'Mumbaikers' is currently on view at Tendance Roadster in Paris, a Royal Enfield dealer (what else!) in the Levallois district. Vincent's photographs offer a glimpse of an emerging world, one which we take for granted in the 'developed' countries - motorcycling as a leisure/lifestyle activity, and not a basic and cheap mode of transportation.
As India explodes into a capitalist powerhouse, a vast middle class has emerged, who have money to spare on our favorite pastime. Okay, maybe second favorite, but I mean motorcycles of course. Suddenly, Royal Enfields and other home-grown products (Rajdoot, anyone? - see below. How about an industrial diesel?) are viewed with new eyes, as the raw material for customization and personalization. The patterns of modification are inspired by English Café Racers and American Customs, both of which are now global currency thanks to television shows, books, and countless photoblogs.
The first Custom builder in India (apparently), Akshai Varde (above), uses mostly Indian powerplants in his specials, entirely hand-built in a small workshop, using the most basic hand tools. He begins with an idea -no sketches, no bucks, no CAD programs- and begins hammering steel sheets with to realize his desired shapes. The same working methodology is employed to build frames from scratch or modify existing chassis - a true garage artisan.
The small capacity of his engines and obvious nods toward American Customs give an odd impression to eyes raised on Harley- or Triumph-powered creations. In this, they are reminiscent to late 50s/early 60s Japanese motorcycles, which blended Teutonic angularity with Sci-fi film props...at least to Western observers; they made perfect sense at home. Now of course, a Suzuki Colleda is simply the height of cool. Will this happen with nascent Indian creations? Time will tell.
Varde's customers are often Bollywood actors, looking for a little flash, perhaps some badass cred... the popular response to his art has afforded the purchase a new workshop, double the size of his previous garage (pictured above). The newly well-heeled are looking for a status symbol...and I say this with intention, as India has very strict laws against any kind of modifications to a motorcycle. Thus, all of the machines pictured here are completely illegal: café or chopper, they're literally outlaws.
The prospect of riding an unregisterable machine is daunting to a degree, and all of the 'riding' photos are taken at the crack of dawn, when little attention will be drawn to the bikes; plus, there is less traffic than the usual sardine jam typical of urban Indian roadways, making a photograph possible. Ultimately, the solution to riding an illegal motorcycle is bribery, but I suspect the new owners are more interested in possessing a unique creation from a celebrated artisan, than feeling the diesel-choked breeze in their hair.
Speaking of diesels...in the 1960s and 80s a spate of industrial single-cylinder diesel engines were produced in India, which have become fodder for custom builders. These machines are quite slow (80kph tops) but return amazing fuel economy (200+mpg) and stone reliability. Concerning speed; with the country's incredible population density, there are virtually no roads on which one can ride over 50mph, so a huge, powerful engine is an exercise in futility. In this context, a chuff-chuff diesel has a kind of slow-motion elegance, especially housed in a 'Captain India' chopper frame! 'Jatu' has ridden this machine with sleeping bag strapped to the rear fender, all across the subcontinent, thousands of kilometers at a stretch, in true 'Easy Rider' style. Only, slow.
While all of Vincent's photos are interesting, what fascinates me is the seed of Indian-ness emerging from the adopted format of these bikes. In these last photos, Ashkai Varde's mother, a celebrated painter, has been commissioned to paint a sutra about Hanuman (the monkey god) on a tank for a Bollywood actor. These shots are a whisper of the Possible - what could be a genuinely native design aesthetic. Incorporating the incredibly rich visual language of India as source material for innovative motorcycle design is a very exciting prospect indeed.
Many thanks to Thierry Vincent for allowing the use of these lo-res images, my photos of his photos, on The Vintagent. His actual photographs are beautiful, technically very well done, and for sale!