Rickshaw Pullers of Kolkata

Rickshaw Pullers of Kolkata

 

I lived in India for thirteen years. In that time I only ever flew through Calcutta, or Kolkata as it is called today. This week I find myself in this amazing place.  It is significantly different than Delhi and other places I have visited or lived in India. For one thing the taxis are not like you find in Delhi, the old black and green striped Ambassadors. They are still Ambassadors, but a solid bright yellow. Yellow like a slick Italian sports car only old and with more dents in the body than… well, a New Delhi taxi.  The streets are more narrow and crowded than Delhi as well. But the biggest visual difference is the “pull rickshaws”. I have heard about them for as long as I have lived in India. People tell me that Calcutta is the last place on earth you can find them. I am not sure that is true, but then I have never checked either.

The pull rickshaws are the classic rickshaw image you think of:  the ones with the driver or puller flanked on each side by long wooden pole-like handles, much like you would see on a horse drawn carriage or chariot. Many of these pullers work barefooted on the fiery hot asphalt roadways, plying their way through dense traffic to get the riders to their destination. It seems inhumane and cruel. In fact, five years ago the local government here made the use of such rickshaws illegal. The pullers union protested and said they are willing to give up this work only if the government provides them with new employment. That has yet to happen and so the pullers continue to work and defy the court order. Interestingly enough, I have seen no young pullers. All seem to be over the age of 45 to 50 years or older, sometimes years older. So, the job might be dying out by itself. These men, and it is only men, often sleep in rented bunks in a crowded bunk houses or on the streets to save what small amount of income they earn. Most of these pullers don’t own their rickshaws, they rent them for around 30 rupees a day. They told me their income can vary from nothing one day to 500 rupees on a great day. Most of these men come from families that live in other cities or even states. They came to Calcutta 20 to 30 years ago to make money to send back home to their families. Yet, they never seem to save much. Like everyone else, they have the expenses of food, lodging, doctor bill and medicine. Two or three of the men n the bunk house I visited were not working that day because they had a relapse of Malaria.

I love the strength I see in these men.

Note:  One of the craziest coincidences I have ever seen, happened with this shoot. As I was talking to the men in the bunk house (there are 80 or so just like it in the city), they told me there was a lady photographer who came by and took photos of them.  I checked with Ami Vitale, and it was, in fact, her when she was working on her story for the National Geographic Magazine.  Small, crazy world!

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About The Author

Matt Brandon

Matt is a Malaysia based humanitarian and travel photographer. Well known as a photographer and international workshop instructor, Matt’s images have been used by business and organizations around the globe. Matt also on the design board for Think Tank Photo, a camera bag manufacturer. In 2013 Matt founded the On Field Media Project to train the staff of non-profits to use appropriate technology to produce timely as well as quality images.

13 Comments

  1. Jack Kurtz

    Beautiful photos Matt. jack

    Reply
    • Matt Brandon

      Thanks Jack. Always good to hear from you.

      Reply
  2. Erin Wilson

    Beautiful images, Matt.  Love the way you show their strength with dignity.

    (nice mention you got from PhotoShelter too 🙂

    Reply
    • Matt Brandon

      Thanks Erin. There is more coming together out of this, I am sure. These guys seem very open to have their story told. There really is a strength in them that seems easy to capture in a photograph.

      Reply
  3. DT

    Love the story telling of these images. The panning technique and slow shutter speeds really inject something into the shots and like you say in earlier posts is another element to add depth to the image.

    Out of interest, did you have an interpreter with you to get the back stories?

    And, is there an audio visual in the pipeline?

    Reply
    • Hariman Abd Rahman

      DT, he doesnt need an interpreter in India, han can speak their language.

      Reply
      • Matt Brandon

        Thanks Hariman, Yes, DT, I do speak Urdu. I will be making a short multimedia show with the images and some audio of the interviews we (my wife and I) did. By the way, my wife’s Urdu is way better than mine, so we are safe.

        Reply
        • DT

          Thanks Hariman, and Matt. 

          Reply
  4. Paul Sweany

    Love the photos and the story. Nice work!

    Reply
  5. CathyTopping

    Great pictures Matt. Kolkata was the very first place I visited when I went to India – quite an introduction to the subcontinent!

    I remember at the time being conflicted between taking rides with these men (it seems so inhumane), and understanding that this is their livelihood.

    On another note…aren’t there ricksaw pullers in Varanasi? Or is my memory playing tricks? I did decide to travel through Northern India during the hot season, and I think some of my brain actually physically melted and dripped out of my ears.

    Reply
    • Matt Brandon

      Kathy,

      The conflict in whether to ride a pull rickshaw or not is understandable. I don’t see any tourist riding them around here. Personally, I think it is a shame. These guys are trying to make a living and yet people like us make judgments on their behalf that this is inhumane. It certainly is very difficult work, but we shouldn’t rob them of an income without providing an alternative. I personally feel this is a case where good intentions result in depriving these men of a real and legitimate (in that they are not begging) source of revenue. This work is already illegal but the rickshaw pullers themselves are fighting it as they need the work. It is a tough issue with with no clear answers.

      As for seeing rickshaw pullers in Varanasi. I think that’s brain on your shoes I see! lol!
      Matt

      Reply
      • CathyTopping

        That’s was exactly my thought process. Which is why I did take rides in them, but always feeling uncomfortable doing so.

        It’s so easy to judge without having any real insight into the circumstances and day-to-day lives of the people we ‘feel sorry for’. Which is why it’s great that photographers and journalists explore these issues and provide another perspective, or at the very least, food for thought.

        It was the cycle-rickshaws in Varanasi that I was thinking of. I was uncomfortable around using those for similar reasons. I used them a lot more as I could barely walk in that heat, which amplified my guilt in seeing these guys sweating and straining on the bicycles out front.

        India scrambled my brain, that’s for sure. I’m not sure I ever recovered!

        Reply
  6. Jon McCormack

    Fine work as always Mr B!  Did you ever see Peter Berg’s video on the rickshaw pullers – http://www.vimeo.com/16455708 ?

    Reply

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  1. TechSangam » Calcutta’s dying breed of ‘human horses’ - [...] of Calcutta’s pull rickshaw-wallahs by Matt Brandon (from his recent Digital Trekker article Rickshaw pullers of Kolkata): The pull…

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