“With no modern technology, computers or even mobile phones, the dabbawallas still manage to deliver correctly and on time. This is something that intrigues and inspires me,” says Sonawane.
The 31-year-old artist says that unlike other artists who have depicted dabbawallas merely as a subject, he has been studying these men for the last two years. “I spend a lot of time observing them, talking and interviewing them, learning about their problems and the new techniques that they come up with, as solutions to their problems of space and more,” says Sonawane, who specialised in portraiture studies at the JJ School of Art.
The paintings on canvas in a mix of oil, acrylic and charcoal, show dabbawallas against the background of the humdrum of the city. The white kurta-pajama uniform, Gandhi cap, cycle and a wooden crate for the tiffins, time management and teamwork, a serving nature and the 150-year-old system of working that still keeps the city going — Sonawane freezes this on canvas.
In one painting, Sonawane, who now teaches portraiture at the JJ School of Art, shows a grid like assemblage of faces of Bollywood stars and other known people. He explains, “Mumbai dabbawallas are famous world over, just like Bollywood stars are, but look at the difference between the two,” he smiles.
In another painting, he shows the dabbawallas against a poster of the IPL sports stars. “During the IPL, everyone seemed to be busy with the games. I’ve shown the dabbawallas busy doing their job; I’m looking at the difference of the nature of being busy,” he points out.
Sonawane’s process involves sketching. He seldom uses photography and only for reference for the background visual. He will soon be displaying the pencil and charcoal drawings of the dabbawallas in an exhibition. His next show is in Singapore.