Continent number three… And the fabulous and frenetic city of Mumbai.
Dinesh from Reality Tours took us on a guided walk through the Dharavi slums. 68 million people live in slums in India, this slum was established years ago and now has a commercial area peopled by incomers who work and live, for as many years as their health allows, with hazardous waste materials. We were surprised to hear from Dinesh, that he, and others, aspire to live in Dharavi, but cannot afford to do so. On first sight we visitors only see the squalor, overcrowding and tiny living spaces in these busy slums, but talking to the slum residents made us realise how people value and treasure the sense of community and history that is central to their lives, a theme we picked up on in the Rio Favelas and Soweto. Dinesh described how he cried and kissed the floor on the day his family needed to move on from their home. We visited the office of Reality Tours (set amidst hundreds of drying pots in the pottery quarter). Letizia Demartino, the executive director, described their project. They run a ‘royal city school’ with an emphasis on English and Computing; British Council volunteers help with some teaching. Further groups include Project Front Foot a girls football club, a cricket club for boys, A mens and a teenage girls health group, nutrition and hearing aids for kids are also provided. There is a big emphasis on youth empowerment and promotion of health improvement. The project funds itself with imaginative tours of Mumbai including a public transport tour, street food and bike tours. Letizia was interested in the Home project; she is currently wanting to build on the creative activities available to the local people. She pointed us to an Italian/Indian company Artoxygen who have done some outdoor performance work in the slum.
Photo: Home entrance in Dharavi
Our next visit was to meet a philanthropic film maker, Nawneet, who runs the Dharavi Diary Project. After making a 15 minute documentary about the slum, he wanted to find a way to empower the community he was portraying. On his return to Mumbai after five years working in the USA, he set up a centre in the heart of the slum. Here, children can come and learn to use technology and participate in English classes, play soccer and share stories. He uses video tutorials as a teaching tool and is soon to launch a home grown mobile app built with young women in the locale. He encourages the students to help with presentations about their work. The mothers of the children requested ‘upskilling’ in stitching, they now sell goods made from recycled materials. Word of mouth has made Nawneet’s project grow daily. He was very interested in our project – ‘our kids are very keen to share their stories’ – he and Bill talked about the idea of building bridges between the property developers and the community as he felt Mumbai was becoming a ‘city of slums’. Community spirit and community engagement are constants in our meetings, the concept of ‘Home’ is very strong, but the people often feel powerless in the face of developers.
Our third visit in the area was to Dharavi Biennale, where we met Dave Osray and Nayreen Daniwala, co directors and Dipesh Thakker, project coordinator. Dave has been In Mumbai for 11 years in his role at University College London’s Institute for Global Health exploring issues around women and children’s health (particularly survival of newborn babies). Nayreen has worked for 14 years in the field of women and violence. Coincidentally their last project was called ‘At Home’. We saw some of the beautiful work produced with the help from external artists; the rolling pin encircled in barbed wire was a very powerful image. When we saw their kitchen installation we were all taken back to the image of Om Bolo surrounded by his Soweto kitchens. The Dharavi Bienniale work with the Welcome Gallery and are showing their film (about women’s health problems brought on by the lack of safe toilets in the slum), in London in March 2015. After a very positive discussion about our common ground, we all agreed to explore a possible collaboration hosting our home project.
The next day we met with Matias Echanove and his team at Urbz. The team organises collaborative workshops and facilitates hands-on research projects across the locale in Dharavi, responding to local personal needs as well as wider issues. They describe themselves as an experimental urban research and action collective. Matias described several projects including design solutions for kitchen storage and street tea whallas’ cup holders as well as full building projects, using locally sourced and reclaimed materials. There was fascinating discussion about permanence and temporary structures, where we also heard about the notion of camouflaging permanent buildings to look like temporary slum structures to circumvent planning laws. The Urbz office was also a perfect example – designed with the capability to completely remove and re-site this top floor office structure within 24 hours. Using the notion of ‘user-generated cities’, Matias and his team were inspiring in the ways they both effected change with innovative solutions and questioned urban development and notion of community engagement. There was much common ground as well as interest in our Home project and we excitedly discussed how a practical workshop could bring together a range of practitioners to explore ideas for Home.
A slow bumper to bumper to mud-guard ride across town took us to the offices of Junoon to meet Sameera Iyengar, co-founder and Shruthi Vishwanath, programme manager of this energetic organisation utilising theatre and related artforms to develop an infrastructure and programme of activity that inspires a creative imaginative humane world. The drive is the question: ‘How do we create platforms that allow people to connect around understandings of their daily lives?’. Walking into an office with posters of Footsbarn Theatre, it was obvious that we were meeting likeminded people! Sameera and Shruthi suggested some further contacts and locations we should pursue, including old mill buildings that may form the site for future work. With the discussion shifting from their practical schools engagement programmes and stage works to the nature of art and community… and the class and caste system, we enjoyed a stimulating meeting that resulted in an invitation to present our work and project at the next Mumbai Local gathering at the end of the week.
Mumbai Local brings together an inspiring speaker from science or the arts with a diverse audiences of 7 to 70 year olds; we readily agreed to talk alongside Dr Vidita Vaidya, a respected researcher exploring the workings of the human brain! Little did we realise how much we would have in common with Dr Vaidya as both her and Bill talked about the passions and obsessions that drive our work in the arts and science. Dr Vaidya posed a beautiful question to the audience that demonstrated the similarities between artist an scientist: What has us so addicted to our vocation that we will work through sustained failure to live that rare ‘Eureka’ moment? At the Mumbai Local evening, we were also lucky to meet Shashika Mooruth, a composer and singer working internationally with both traditional and contemporary forms.
After a series of meetings in atmospheric spaces across Mumbai, the next day we were off to the less stimulating and instantly recognisable setting of Starbucks (!) to meet an internationally recognised writer. Luckily Akash Mohimen provided the stimulation with an interesting conversation about writing for theatre and communities and examples of projects he has worked on. Akash had really given our project some thought and described a variety of approaches that could be explored or included together for a Mumbai-specific project. Including pop-up street plays, more organised street closures so that people could reclaim sites and use of old heritage sites, Akash painted a picture of possibilities for our project. Mixing traditional and more contemporary forms of story telling was an exciting consideration and we enjoyed understanding more about these forms as we shape our ideas. We agreed that we should definitely stay connected and that we would update Akash to draw him into the plans if possible.
Another long taxi ride across the city brought us to a multi-level café of indoor nooks and outdoor shaded terraces to meet with the team at Dharavi Art Room. Hamanshu and Aqui are the invigorating young drivers behind this small but impactful organisation that uses art to effect social change for individuals and for whole communities. Describing themselves as High Five Guru and Chief Hug Officer, Hamanshu and Aqui tell us about wonderfully hands-on projects that have lasting outcomes; a women’s photographic project brought together women in a new context away from the day to day defined roles of ‘wife’ and ‘mother’ to explore both identity and community. We heard that many of the women rarely used their first names as they were referred to or introduced themselves) as ‘wife of’ or ‘mother of’. The use of first names had a liberating effect in creating a social group that has sustained itself. The resulting images attracted serious media coverage globally, which in turn resulted in earnings for the women. Together we all excitedly discussed ideas for our project and connections to Dharavi Art Room; from mural projects to video and storytelling initiatives and projects that sought to connect specific communities to those in Rio, Soweto and beyond. We left this meeting feeling that we had found a natural partner for projects that would truly draw on the talents and imaginations of local communities.
Our final day took us to the old world grandeur of the Bombay Gymkhana Members’ Club to meet with Sheela Patel of SPARC. A stimulating conversation in surroundings that took in the major buildings of the Colaba district of Mumbai helped us understand more about the context in which we might work. Sheela was wonderfully open and generous as she described both the context and infrastructures that exist in Mumbai and the possibilities for projects. The Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centers (SPARC) began working with the most vulnerable and invisible of Mumbai’s urban poor – the pavement dwellers. The philosophy is that if we can develop solutions that work for the poorest and most marginalised in the city, then these solutions can be scaled up to work for other groups of the urban poor across the country and internationally. As we watched the sun set over playing fields and heritage buildings, we agreed that we would stay in touch to find other connections that would feed the development of our project.
And that brought to a close an amazing journey through three vast cities made up of individuals with stories as bright as the sun that rose the next morning for our flight home. Mumbai, Soweto and Rio: thank you for helping us understand our project and the directions we could take, and most importantly for showing us the universal themes in our lives with openness, generosity and beauty.
Photo: A Street Market
Home – Conceived by Dave Reeves with Bill Mitchell and produced by Zap Art in collaboration with artistic lead WildWorks. Supported using public funding from the National Lottery through Arts Council England.