By Indranil Halder
It is amazing to see Rajesh Soni’s hand painted photos of 1966 Rajdoot motorbike series. He has captured the core essence of a motorbike and its connection to the Indian subcontinent.
Motorbikes & India :
In India, motorbike is an integral part of the society. These days, 2014 Harley-Davidson Street 750 and 500, Royal Enfield Continental GT and Royal Enfield Bullet C5 Desert Storm are some of motorbikes produced in India. KTM is also developing its Future Dual Sport version of motorbike in India.
Last Saturday, as I enjoyed my desert, made of coconut rice, miso caramel, roast pineapple and coconut sorbet in Bills Bondi restaurant, I kept reading about the interesting history of motorbikes in India. I found in 1961, Rajdoot 175 was launched for the Indian mass. It was a product of collaboration between India ‘s Escorts Limited (multinational conglomerate) and Polish manufacturer CEKOP. The two-stroke single model of motorbike was based on the German DKW 125-cc motorbike design.
With the introduction of motorbikes, high volume of Indian population are able to travel long distances. Daily. Faster. They are providing Indian population with a certain leverage in running their daily life. My own brother Partha Halder is now based in USA, also had Suzuki Samurai motorbike in India from 1996 to 2000. He said,” Rajdoot, Bullet and Enfield are the three best know trusted masculine motorbikes in India. Even Indian army deployed these bikes. During those days a man with a motorbike was true symbol of masculinity but they also helped in living a busy student life in the Indian subcontinent.” But riding motorbikes has its challenges too. According to 2019 Indian road accident data, 37% of those killed in the road accidents were two-wheeler riders. Head injures are often the common cause for death.
Indian government initiatives such as introduction of law, advertising campaigns to use correct helmets and also support from community leaders like His Highness Maharaja Gaj Singh of Jodhpur( who founded the Indian Head Injury Foundation to diagnosis and treat traumatic brain injury, and to provide neuro-rehabilitation) are reducing deaths from motorbike related head injuries significantly. In May 2022, CommitToAct Campaign Week of Action was held to educate Indian society and Mr. Prashant K Banerjee( Executive Director, Society of Indian Automobille Manufacturers- SIAM) advocated for 30km/h speed limits in areas such as hospitals, schools and market complex. Not just in daily life, motorbikes have transcended it’s presence in Indian art and culture too.
In 1973, Bollywood film director Raj Kapoor released his blockbuster film ‘Bobby’. It was a Rajdoot GTS 175 motorbike which shot to fame and reached every Indian youth’s vivid imagination. Everyone dreamed of owning one. For Indian youths, whether be a Maharaja or a peasant, Rajdoot GTS 175 motorbike was seen as the icon of freedom from conservative way of life. It was a tool to achieve new social and financial goals. Today, 1966 Rajdoot motorbike is the subject of Rajesh Soni’s hand painted photo series too.
Rajesh is the 3rd generation descendant of skilled ‘artist- photographers’ from Rajasthan. His studio is in Udaipur. He had collaborated and exhibited his work across India for many years. As he enjoys life in the beautiful lake city, he continues painting photos for the rest of the world to admire.
Art of HandPainting Photos :
Rajesh’s grand-father was Prabhu Lal Soni (1905-1958). He worked as a court photographer and painter for the late Maharana Shri Bhupal Singh of Mewar, Udaipur. He was well known as master artist. He passed down his skills of hand-painting to his son, Lalit, and then to his son Rajesh.
Rajesh had a wonderful childhood in Udaipur. When he turned sixteen, he fell in love with a 1966 Rajdoot 175 cc. The motorbike belonged to his school teacher who hardly used it. He purchased it. Rajesh said,” To own a Rajdoot 175 cc, it was feeling of freedom for me. It was a bike for everyone. Many could afford it. Running cost was low but created many unforgettable memories.”
When Rajesh was 18, he started clicking his first photographs and handpainting them. He developed his extraordinary photo painting skills over time. He utilities traditional art techniques. His artistic expression is contemporary but the results are mesmerising.
He painstakingly learnt the art from his father, who without darkroom did his best to develop photos while the rest of the family was asleep.And then, painted them during the day. With such dedication, Rajesh’s Rajdoot motorbike project had a core concept. The concept was to stop strangers on their way to work and to take a pose on his Rajdoot motorbike. Rajesh says,” The series is about people. Every morning, they walk out side our house. I see them in groups on the streets. They walk around carrying heavy musical instruments. Play songs in the morning to wake us up with motivation. They were my favourite subjects for this motorbike series. I can see their potential to entertain more clients with the use of motorbikes.”
Udaipur is a city where owning a motorbike is considered to be a symbol of success. The series of photos which he took, highlights an untold story. The story of long existing relationship between man and his motorbike in Indian subcontinent. The “motorbike series” is another great project that highlights his creative mind, his home town of Udaipur (where he grew-up )and his love for the heritage art of photo painting. He is happy to continue his family ‘s legacy of hand-painting photos as he exhibits his 1966 Rajdoot motorbike series across Udaipur.
Again , not long ago his craftsmanship was on exhibition in Latitude 28, a New Delhi based gallery. The exhibition was an outcome of photography and composition by Waswo and terracotta by Shyam Lal Kumhar and photo paintings by Rajesh.
Today, Rajesh is not only proud of his family heritage of photo paintings but he also wants the craft to survive with contemporary ideas and known for being a part of India heritage and culture. For many global tourists to the Indian state of Rajasthan, Rajesh’s motorbike photo paintings are truely a colourful kaleidoscope of Indian lifestyle! And from Australia, I feel the same way too.