writer lajja shah reviews the dharavi biennale for art india

If one of the crucial markers of the big event format is its capacity to be envisioned as a 'space of encounter', the Dharavi Biennale's efforts at engendering a series of interventions and interactions fulfilled expectations with some degree of success. The Dharavi Biennale was conceptualised and organised by SNEHA (Society for Nutrition, Education and Health Action), a Mumbai-based non-profit organisation working to improve the health of women and children residing in Mumbai's informal settlements. Co-directed by Nayreen Daruwalla and David Osrin, the project received funding from the Wellcome Trust, a UK-based global charitable foundation. The Dharavi Biennale spanned a two-year process, and was structured around a series of collaborative workshops - each termed an Artbox - with artists, experts and community participants to develop works that focused on urban health. The culmination of the Artboxes - integrating the four core themes of art, health, recycling and vitality - was the three-week long festival (from the 15th of February to the 7th of March) that showcased film, theatre, art and music performances at several venues across Dharavi, and was aptly tided the Alley Galli Biennale.

The Biennale brought into sharp focus its location, Dharavi, as a site of multiple encounters - social, cultural and political. Situated in what is now considered one of Mumbai's prime landmasses, Dharavi encompasses teeming neighbourhoods of densely packed shanties and apartment blocks, recycling units, potters' colonies, tanneries and a host of small-scale enterprises, creating a crisscross network of alleys and gallis.

In recent times, Dharavi's reputation as 'Asia's largest slum' has given rise to the perverse trend of 'slum tourism'. The challenge for the directors was therefore to conceive an event that was contextually relevant; it had to resonate with diverse publics􀃋 while attempting to activate an inclusive discourse around a location widely perceived as􀀁 notorious. What perhaps set the Dharavi Biennale project apart from other community outreach programmes was the intent to communicate issues relating to urban health, nutrition and gender-based violence, first and foremost to those directly impacted, and eventually to a larger audience, through a gamut of artistic explorations across visual and performance art platforms, and documentary practices.

Blending art and science, the objective was to get community members (around 400 participants were involved as part of 24 Artboxes) to come together to share experiences, acquire new skills and channel their talent into conceptually-driven creative expressions with the active involvement of artists curators art historians, architects, textile designers, photographers, fil􀀓makers and health scientists.

The structured yet informal nature of the Artboxes ensured that learning became a two-way process. The aspect of art as therapy was vital to the programme. A work that spoke of violence against women in public spaces was visualised as a large map of Dharavi and recreated as a quilt, hand-stitched from offcuts of jeans, sourced locally. The danger zones, denoted by 'X' were plastic-wrapped bottle caps. With zippers to indicate railway tracks, buttons and applique work, the installation titled Mapping the Hurt highlighted the issue effectively. Created by a team of over thirty participants, the artwork was mentored by textile designer and fabric artist Susie Vickery.

Among other works that stood out for the finesse of conception and execution was the Healers of Dharavi exhibit, curated by Supriya Menon. It comprised a series of oil on canvas portraits; each one represented local health service operators across a varied spectrum - traditional, formal and informal. The portraits, created by Dharavi's signboard painters, offered an intimate close-up of a segment whose contribution to the community's health and well-being is pivotal, but goes largely unnoticed. An Artbox with the catchy descriptor Comics Epidemic had participants express their personal narratives and experiences vis-a-vis the themes of nutrition, sanitation and sexuality through the graphic format of comics. The works were pasted on walls of schools, houses, shops and busy corners to generate discussions amongst creators and viewers. Mentored by Chaitanya Modak, a compilation of the comics was launched as an anthology during the Alley Galli Biennale.

In the Dharavi Food Project, curated by Prajna Desai, live cooking demonstrations were staged across 13 sessions over two months to get home cooks from diverse communities to cook, perform and interact with each other. The idea was to get them to self-reflexively explore what they do every day.

As a public engagement programme, the Dharavi Biennale project and the Alley Galli Biennale exhibition were monitored on qualitative and quantitative parameters. However, what proved interesting was that apart from the standard 'success metrics', the organisers chose to commission an artistic evaluation as well. Osrin reasoned, "We need to evaluate projects that seek to blend art and science. Were the artworks 'nice' or could they be judged by the same criteria as one might use to judge a white cube exhibition? Was there an imbalance between the conceptual and the decorative, a banality of interpretation, a confusion between outsider and insider practice? What is the 'meaning' of articulating health science concepts through artworks?"

Daruwalla added, "We had about 10,000 visitors, and most of them local. We had also not expected quite the number of visitors from outside Dharavi. The first thing was to achieve an event on such a scale. Next time around we may try to encourage Dharavi artists to express themselves in less conventional ways. However, the overarching aspiration to address multiple themes proved to be one of the shortcomings of the Dharavi Biennale. Nevertheless, the endeavour went a long way in democratizing the space, challenging conventional notions of authorship and celebrating the contributions of its many co-creators.