Viewing entries in

1 Comment

Sound Mapping in noisy/busy/lovely Dharavi

DSC_0132 Ask someone to blindfold you and lead you through Dharavi. Listen. Ask the guide to shout out if someone does the very Mumbai thing of spitting paan. Otherwise, listen.

Although you'd like to imagine that a soundwalk through Dharavi would tell you where you are according to the noises that fill your ears, it's not always possible. Chances are that you will be puzzled by the alarming number of sounds that are jammed together. Some sounds are comforting: children playing, sugarcane juice wallas, chai wallas and, perhaps, street Chinese food being prepared. For the most part, however, Dharavi is a cacophony. The industrial sounds that pervade parts of Dharavi co-exist with domestic sounds.

We are mapping the sounds of Dharavi with Megapolis India, and we have narrowed down on two particular areas of interest. Mukund Nagar, a space with a mix of residences and sweatshops, is on 90 Feet Road. The gravelly grind of machines making belts, buckles and wallets plays out rhythmically in most of the streets. The machines have specific tasks - punching holes or finishing off ends - but they all sound very similar. The buzz of welders and their rain of sparks is also there on most days. But Mukund Nagar is also a place where children congregate after school around kulfi wallas and vendors selling sour eatables like mangoes and amla, and where they play Power Rangers.


The other area where we are recording sounds is Sanaullah Compound, closer to Mahim railway station, where many kinds of recycling units are stacked against each other. Here, the shredding of plastic, the burning of aluminium furnaces and the sacks of scrap being thrown down from trucks are frequently heard. The screeching sounds from rusty shredding machines make one wonder how the labourers can work without the use of earplugs. For these labourers, most of whom are migrants, Sanaullah is work and home. A little shack of a restaurant, paan kiosks, barbers, an ironing man, chai stalls and various other essentials of daily living function side by side. Against this background, the aural predominance is of men talking business (or gossiping) over phones or with each other. Understandably, they don’t want their conversations recorded.

Walking around trying to be inconspicuous with a recorder in our hands, we realised that some sounds are bound to perish with time and modern lifestyles, such as the sounds of game machines in a very 90s video parlour or the bell of a kulfi seller. Collecting these sounds could be a way of creating an aural museum and complementing visual archives of Dharavi.

After some six field visits, we’re asking these questions: What are the sounds that distinguish Dharavi? Which sounds do we love and which do we complain about? Amidst blaring horns at traffic-choked chowks and the constant chatter of people, what if you wanted a moment of silence? Where does the Dharavi person go in search of a quiet place?

1 Comment


Junk-ed in Dharavi

In search of materials for art pieces for the Dharavi Biennale, we head to the road that runs from Dharavi to Mahim. On this road, flanked on one side by a plastic-filled sewage channel and on the other by mangroves, are scrap shops where refrigerators, ACs and washing machines meet their end part by part. Of course, calling them shops might be an overstatement, but they are too narrow to be called junkyards. About twenty such stalls are interspersed with others that recycle wood and oil tins.
Aslam, a 32 year old junk dealer, dismantles about ten domestic appliances a week. Despite paying Rs. 3000 a month for his stall, the job allows him to support his family of four. He is a cog in the recycling wheel and rests between shops and the smaller scrap collection units. The electrical appliances that arrive have mostly been dumped by showrooms after an "exchange offer" season gets over. In Aslam's hands, a washing machine is disassembled into usable parts - drum, plastic frame, copper wiring, and so on. Sometimes the washing machines are just about useable and he sells them to less wealthy customers: a freshly washed blue and white example stands outside his stall.


From across the road, a pillar of foul-smelling smoke rises, but Aslam and his friends who have collected around us are clearly not affected. The whole pavement exudes the smell of plastic, but Aslam says he has done this work all his life and doesn’t mind at all. His friend Rafiq, a driver from Dharavi, says that if you have experienced the winters of Uttar Pradesh (UP), where they are from, you will know what Aslam is talking about. Newcomers may find it difficult to bear the UP winter (or the Dharavi smoke), "But we have adapted to it," says Rafiq. Nevertheless, Aslam would prefer his children not to take up this line of work. "Who knows what the world will be like years from now?" he says.


A neighbouring stall glistens with metal, the path into it soapy and slippery from the towers of oil tins stacked inside.The empty tins arrive from restaurants and shops and are cleaned and sent back to oil factories. In the dimly lit room, three men clean about 300 tins a day. 40 year old Tribhuvan, the oldest and the most experienced, asks me to tread carefully and offers some chai. He works every day for 12 hours a day and has been doing so since the age of 15 when he came to Mumbai from UP with a bunch of neighbours from his village. "This was the big city, you know. We thought, this is where job opportunities will be available," he says as he soaps an oily tin. There are no promotions or pay packages in his job; just the promise of a daily wage.


Behind affable Tribhuvan rise towers of tins, but there is no sign of a ladder. You realise that there is no need for one when you see Mohamed Yakub, who has been working here for the last 15 years, shuffle sets of tins around to form a makeshift flight of steps. He clambers nimbly up the towers and is obviously proud of the system. Sets of oil tins can become anything here: ladders, towers, stools, armchairs, thrones, livelihood.



Eleven Days, Eleven Nights in Dharavi

If you were a newcomer to Mumbai, of all the places you might choose to stay, would Dharavi ever cross your mind? While the rents are high, accommodation here would burn a smaller hole in your pocket than in bohemian Bandra or neighbouring Sion. Does the word "slum" scare people away from renting a flat in Dharavi, or is it the lack of amenities?  Where will I eat? Is there a toilet in the house? If not, how far away is a community or public toilet? Are spaces in Dharavi safe? Dharavi may be known as a slum, but it is home to lakhs of people in Mumbai - place for them to feel safe, uninhibited and comfortable to indulge in oneself in natural actions that are considered part of living. Manish Sharma, filmmaker and thoroughbred Delhi-walla, said that he was staying at our centre, the Colour Box, for almost a fortnight. He and his crew were making a movie - "Indefensible Spaces" - about toilets and women's safety in Dharavi. I met up with him to learn more about his experience and he said that he mainly chose to stay at the Colour Box because of accessibility. "We were filming in the nights and early mornings, the times when most Dharavi residents need to use the community toilets. I had an option of staying in Borivali, but that is the other end of town and much time would admittedly be wasted in commuting." 

I wanted to ask Manish how he found his Dharavi stay as an "outsider". A number of slum tourism enterprises operate in Dharavi, and we have seen numerous foreigners on tours. But "foreigners" and "tourists" in Dharavi need not be from another country; they could be other Mumbaikars who may have driven through 60 Feet Road but never set foot in it. The Dharavi tourist is bound to be met with contrasting opinions - poor conditions available for human existence versus intense commercial activity. Opinions are easy, but living is difficult.

On the issue of safety, Manish hesitated to respond and then burst out laughing, "I must admit that on the first three days I was scared. We had equipment that was worth lakhs, including lenses and a Max, at the Colour Box. In the nights I was paranoid that someone might murder me and loot the place! I was a tad nervous about who might be keeping note of my comings and goings, especially looking at some of the drug addicts who frequent the neighbourhood in the nights." Even so, perhaps it is not unusual to have the jitters in a new place, especially if you are from New Delhi, which recorded a crime rate four times higher than Mumbai last year. "Of course, by the fourth night I had made friends with most people around and I even wished the druggies good night! I slept like a log on all nights after that with three coolers for company. There was this little mouse that crept over me one night, but I couldn't care less. My biggest trouble was sleeping on a mat and waking up in the mornings with straw marks on my face," continued Manish. At this point Rohin, his DoP, and I laughed and called him an elitist.

Manish was in Dharavi to make a film about toilets and we dipped our toes in the subject of his experience of toilets in Dharavi. "Space and time in Dharavi community toilets are luxuries. The days when I was here in Dharavi, I had to use public toilets and I must admit that I was too ashamed to in the beginning. The very fact that I had to reveal to a stranger that I had to sh*t was an embarrassment. Furthermore, standing in line and paying a couple of bucks to use what you think is a basic amenity in homes changed my perspective on things that we take for granted. If you like spending some twenty minutes in a loo, that is not what you will get in a common toilet. You feel a social responsibility to finish your job fast and let the others in line have their turn. 

"It took me the first couple of days to get used to the idea of using a common toilet. Initially, I would just ignore any urge to pee and wait till I went to restaurants, like a pizza outlet in Sion, and guess what… they too didn't have toilets! I would then go to a cafe, order a dessert unnecessarily, stock up on calories and then use the loo there. Or I would travel all the way to a mall a couple of kilometres from Dharavi just for the sake of a pee!

"Every morning we set off to film people's morning routines near the toilets. It was an interesting scenario: women were carrying heavy buckets of water and looked very busy, whereas men looked like they were sitting around. I remembered what I was taught in school: that men have more muscle power to do heavy work. But what was baffling to see was that women were doing the heavy work and men did not seem to be helping them out. Watching this helped me understand what Dharavi mornings are all about and how gender roles get defined on the pretext of the woman being expected to be the caretaker of her home."

While Manish was filming with us, there was a rumour going about that he hadn't taken a bath on one of the days. I asked him if this was true and also assured him that it wasn't a big deal at all. He confirmed that he hadn't and said, "Well, you must be aware that we didn't have water in my initial days at Colour Box. This may have to be a secret. I took a bath under the tap in the boys' hostel in Chota Sion Hospital. I would walk from Colour Box to the Hospital with my toiletries. The hostel boys there either cared too much or didn't care who I was at all, and hence I bathed there till water was restored at Colour Box. In fact it is to be noted that while we have common toilets there is no concept of common bathrooms."

So, let us consider this: What does it take to call something your "home"? A toilet, a bathroom, water and electricity, but most of all, courage and familiarity with the space. Thus, do residences, such as those in Dharavi, qualify as homes if one has to pay access to a public toilet in the absence of a private one? If there is no water supply in your house for a major part of the day, is it still a livable space?

As mentor for a participatory film, Manish concluded, "An unexpected outcome of my stay was that the community participants found me more accessible. Some of the ladies called me over home for dinner, and they thought I was like one of them. Not just some camera-toting tourist who has come to make a movie on their lives."



Conversations: What is Your Safe Space?

At the Colour Box, Dharavi women met over a number of weekends to place little toys and dolls in boxes. These compartments represented their happy places, their safe spaces. Part of the Dharavi Biennale’s Cabinet of Curiosities curated by Supriya Menon, the Safe Space Boxes are transparent cases that offer a peek into women’s lives. Whether it is a zoo or a kitchen, these are places where they feel safest and therefore happiest. Among many questions, the most important is, what do you do when you feel unsafe in your own home? Some snippets from our conversations:

“The tap needed to be repaired, but when the plumber came home I was nervous. What if he… what if he tries doing something wrong to me? And then, as he was repairing the tap, I asked myself why I was feeling so afraid? I could tackle this man if he attempted to do something to me. Still, I was alone at home and I felt weak. Moreover, we are forced to think of every man as a potential perpetrator. You feel threatened in general all the time.”

“I love Dharavi because all my Tamil festivals are celebrated here.”

“I used to love my native place, but I love Dharavi more since people from all over the country live here.”

“Why can’t a man wait? Most Dharavi houses are a single room where we eat, watch television, study and sleep. There is no privacy for sex. So we naturally turn down our husbands when they want to have sex. Sadly, they accuse us of not having any interest in sex because they think we are sleeping with others.”

“I love Dharavi because my maika is here, my house is here, my in-laws stay here and my work is here!”

“My sister’s father-in-law has this routine of exercising every morning in nothing but his underwear. My sister feels so uncomfortable, but she can’t complain to anyone. Will her husband be okay if she complains about his father? Moreover, the father-in-law sits every morning strategically near a mirror on which he can see my sister change clothes in the next room. Do you suffer as a woman in your own house?”

“I don’t like staying in my house. I love to travel… So, I go to my village, the Mahim Dargah, Ratnagiri, Gorakhpur, Juhu Chowpatty...!”

“The zoo...I love the zoo. I love going to places.”

“On some days, when I'm too stressed out or anxious I love to sit by myself on the terrace of our house. I don’t like to talk to anyone then. If I can’t go to the terrace, I stay at home and watch TV or listen to some music. I need to be silent then.”

“I love the kitchen. My mother and I work in there.”

“It is quiet when my six children are away at school. I can sit at home and do some crotchet then. When they are back things at home are tense again.”



Money, Food, Children

summertime advertising tech On the road with 13-year-old Farida and her best friend Ayesha. We are on our way to finish off a film shoot. Hungry and sweaty under the afternoon sun, but not wanting to waste time, we buy ourselves a pack of choco-chip biscuits, the name of which I have never heard before.

After munching the biscuits, and dropping a few on the way, we are obviously thirsty. Farida suggests that we grab some roadside vendor’s lime juice for Rs. 5. She vouches not only for its refreshing taste, but makes it sound like some elixir of immortality. I stoutly refuse to swim in unknown waters, but since the girls seem keen on lime juice I consider going to a restaurant. The only restaurant in the vicinity is unfortunately attached to a bar, and it seems properly improper to take young girls to a place where men might be mixing desi mojitos. We finally settle for a healthy option: tender coconut water.

Three of us share two coconuts. 10-year-old Ayesha refuses to have one for herself. Though it is technically my treat, the shy girl hesitates on hearing the price. One coconut for Rs. 30 is just too much. She says that her mother would never allow her to spend that much money on a drink and continues to sip from Farida’s.

The elder Farida then tells us about some of the things she eats when she finishes school. Her mother gives her Rs. 10 every day and that, she says, is enough to quell her after-school hunger-pangs. For Rs. 5 she gets either a small apple or a custard apple from the fruit-seller (images of shrivelled up custard-apples come to my jaundiced mind). For the remaining Rs. 5 she gets a sumptuous slice of watermelon or her favourite lime juice. Seeing my raised eyebrow, she quickly rescues herself by lying, “But I prefer watermelon, of course.” As Farida breaks down the economics of her food expenditure, you realise that those ten rupees are husbanded carefully. She thinks her choices are more nutritious that what other kids might be buying. And sometimes a friend pitches in her pocket-money and the girls are able to buy something more substantial.

Ayesha, on the other hand, comes from more impoverished circumstances and does not have the luxury of Rs. 10 every day. Farida confesses that Ayesha is in fact recovering from dengue, but her mother finds buying the medicines too expensive.

At the end of the shoot, I treat the girls to some chocolates. Ayesha didn’t want a Rs. 10 chocolate. She wanted one for just half that price.



Dharavi ka Diwali

DSC_0204 It is the busiest season of the year in Kumbharwada, the settlement of potters in Dharavi. Women repeatedly dip diyas into red paint, older women have small stalls on 90 Feet Road and have no time for wasteful chit-chat, perspiring men have heated telephonic arguments about diya orders, and broken pieces of earthenware are scattered across the lanes: it’s business and busy-ness. As in the rest of the city, Diwali arrangements are in full swing, and preparation for Kumbharwada families means not just shopping, but also selling. For the three months leading up to Diwali, families are immersed in the household business of making earthenware - from diyas to idols - for local markets and for export.


It is the busiest season of the year in Kumbharwada, the settlement of potters in Dharavi. Women repeatedly dip diyas into red paint, older women have small stalls on 90 Feet Road and have no time for wasteful chit-chat, perspiring men have heated telephonic arguments about diya orders, and broken pieces of earthenware are scattered across the lanes: it’s business and busy-ness. As in the rest of the city, Diwali arrangements are in full swing, and preparation for Kumbharwada families means not just shopping, but also selling. For the three months leading up to Diwali, families are immersed in the household business of making earthenware - from diyas to idols - for local markets and for export.


For those who lack the nimble movements required for mehendi designing, painting diyas is a useful business. Bhanu Devanand Tak, a 40-year-old mother of two, paints pots and about a hundred diyas every day between household chores. She started painting diyas a few years after her marriage and, ten Diwalis later, Bhanu figures she must have painted more than 2 lakh to date. “Earlier, I was only painting diyas and a hundred diyas fetched me Rs. 10. Now I have picked up some decoration techniques as well and that helps me earn twenty bucks more,” she says. The money she earns doing this every year, around Rs. 15,000, is used for buying Diwali sweets and dresses for her children.


While the earnings from such voluminous orders of diyas seem small, homemakers like Bhanu are undeterred. She says, “My whole day is spent this way. I don’t need to go anywhere to find work and I can manage the household as well. Besides, this keeps me occupied and I don’t indulge in useless neighbourhood gossip this way.” She gives the example of her mother, who makes a living making festival sweets such as puranpoli and rotis for customers on regular days. As an aside, Bhanu adds that she would like to do “something else someday” when her children get jobs of their own.


Much like Bhanu, a stern old timer called Veni Behn also picked up diya decoration skills from her mother-in-law after she got married. Her family lives in the upper story of the house and the ground floor has been converted into something like a production unit, with wrapping paper, paints and a variety of colourful earthenware strewn around. A bunch of women, including Veni’s daughter-in-law, have their noses buried in their work. Veni’s son Jitendra Valji comes downstairs to investigate the progress they have made and seems pleased. Veni says that women are more talented when it comes to diya decorations. Her son adds that this is a family business in which everyone has a part of play. He runs a store in Thane and complains that the festive earthenware market has been affected by the “Made in China” label found on serial lights and wax candles.


But the festival of lights is also the bringer of smoke to Kumbharwada. Given the nature of the work, most houses have an accompanying kiln and a water-filled clay-pit. This might be a poetic meeting of the elements, but the kilns burn avidly to produce huge quantities of diyas for Diwali. Doors open onto fumes and most women decorate Diwali wares in the midst of a grey haze.

Hawa Toya, a jolly 60-year-old, is among the Muslim potters who also make diyas for Diwali. She lives in Kutch and is visiting her sons in Kumbharwada. “Over there, we have kilns under the earth, and it is so hot that just a match is enough to light up an entire kiln. We use acacia branches as fuel, unlike the hazardous industrial waste that is used in Kumbharwada. It is less polluting,” she says.


Nevertheless, most Kumbharwada residents are fiercely protective of their smoke-ridden locality, especially in the wake of the redevelopment proposal. Instead of looking at the respiratory and eye problems brought about by the smoke, they prefer to see their glass as half-full. One woman points out that the smoke rids the area of mosquitoes, which could have been prevalent in the clay pits. She says, “This smoke is our livelihood. How can we blame the kilns?”



The Toilet Story in Dharavi

A 2006 UNDP Human Development Report made an almost unbelievable estimate of one toilet for every 1440 people in Dharavi. It went on to describe the situation: “In the rainy season, streets, lacking drainage, become channels for filthy water carrying human excrement.” “People in Dharavi rely on wells, tankers or unsafe sources for their drinking water. In a typical case, 15 families share one tap that works for two hours a day." If reports are not enough, there was the 2008 flim Slumdog Millionaires's exaggerated graphic depiction of the boy-jumping-into-a-shit-hole scene in Dharavi. Toilets, sanitation and the recent rise in reported rape cases across the nation that coincide with this lack of toilet facilities, made us want to get some insider stories through candid conversations with Dharavi Biennale participants. Anjali Amma, around 55 years old, lives in Pila Bangla in a house right next to a common toilet block. Her son got married earlier this year and she was worried about wedding guests commenting on the mucky state of the toilets. Unable to bear the stench, she decided to do her part by cleaning them herself. “Everybody praises me for it, but no one comes forward to clean the toilets. I couldn't dream of my son’s wedding taking place without a clean loo next door,” she says.

worst building

The state of disrepair of common toilet units is a familiar story. While the adjectives describing them are unpleasant to the senses, the list of problems is specific: lack of water supply, safety hazards for women and children, poor maintenance and lack of a sense of sanitation. The overarching problem seems to be that there are very few toilets in working condition and many people who need them.

Moreover, what are the choices that Dharavi people make? The desire to reside in a central location of Mumbai like Dharavi has overpowered the necessity to leave room to build more toilets. The choice residents make is to stand in long queues rather than relinquish their home space. It raises a debatable question on urban health on which is a more serious predicament: living in dingy small spaces that breed diseases or using badly maintained common toilet blocks.

If the authorities do not do their part to keep the toilets clean, residents like Anjali Amma have taken matters into their own hands. She and her neighbours each put in Rs. 30 every month (one rupee per day) and take turns to clean the toilets themselves. She has even taken the initiative of making a lock for the toilets so those with no interest in paying up do not misuse them. Unfortunately they keep breaking the locks, she says.

Malati Murkar, a resident of New Kamala Nagar near the polluted Mithi river, says that she and her neighbours contributed Rs. 500 each some years ago so that they could have a common, exclusive toilet block. While they deal with the problem of broken locks, they still manage to maintain the sanitation. “We take water and bleaching powder from home every weekend and wash the toilet. Every lady who uses it washes it,” she says. One may wonder why the men in their families don’t help their wives, mothers, daughters and sisters, but Malati recalls that when her two sons were younger they would have to be careful venturing out at night to use the nearby toilet.

19 year old Saiba Kadir also hesitates to use common toilets and it is normal for women visit the toilets in groups. Her younger sister Fareeda, who is 13, says that she is unafraid, although she has heard of ‘bad things’ happening to girls who go to the toilets alone at night. She chuckles and says, “I travel all alone to my school in Bandra by train. I am usually the one who reassures my sister if we are ever alone in a place.”

Luckily, the long lines outside their local toilets mean that there are people around, even at midnight. Bhagyashree Alkunte, a friend and neighbour, says that so many people need to use them before and after dinner that four toilets can’t possibly meet the needs of the area. Saiba says that they have requested (she doesn't know to whom) a toilet to be built above the gutters, but her family and neighbours are rethinking the idea because the gutters flood in the monsoons.

Another group of girls, who did not wish to be named, say that the visiting the toilets in the wee hours of the morning is a golden opportunity for them for some girl-talk. Living in mostly one-room houses where privacy is hard to come by, stepping out to use the toilets is a good excuse to share the latest neighbourhood gossip on lovers and relationships and nagging in-laws. One girl says that she takes her mobile phone with her and makes a quick good morning call to her boyfriend in the privacy of the loo.

Sitaram Kharat, Dharavi Biennale's logistician, feels that private-public partnerships may be the way to go for improved and safe sanitation services. In his locality, Naik Nagar, an NGO named  SPARC teamed up with the MHADA some years ago to set up three well maintained block of toilets that are rumoured to be some of the best in Dharavi. Each block has about 22 toilets with regular water supply. "Back in the 1990's, people in my locality used the BMC's open maidan as a toilet. When the BMC stationed a construction company's on-site office in the maidan, that is when the need for an actual toilet arose. Before that, could you believe that people in my locality didn't actually use a toilet?" he wonders.



Health Themes at Dharavi Ganesh Mandals


Ganpati fever hit the city earlier this week and Dharavi was no exception. Ganpati mandals appeared at various locations, as many as six on congested 60 Feet Road. Traffic snarls and the incessant rains added to the chaos, but festival attendees were undeterred. It is now well known that most mandals also host a theme-based light-and-sound show, usually on a socially relevant cause, so that the religious can also be responsible citizens. At the Dharavi Biennale, we went in search of mandals that were spreading awareness on health, sanitation or gender issues. Just like the devout, we walked from mandal to mandal, taking in the resplendent gods and elaborate set designs.

Over at the enthusiastic Hanuman Seva Mandal at Kala Killa, an arrangement of handpainted boards was set up like an orchestra. As a tribute to a 12 year old boy who had succumbed to dengue last year, the mandal’s agenda was to make more people in the area aware of the life-threatening risks posed by vector-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue. Nikhil Bobade, a 21 year old college graduate, was proud of the work that he and his group had done. 56 controls for spotlights were operated singlehandedly. Giant paper mosquitoes hung overhead, posters on the importance of sanitation mixed with Tom-and-Jerry were all around and a long mosquito net was spread across the room like a football goalpost. “Our script has everything – right from the ways by which malaria spreads to preventive measures. Malaria and dengue happen everywhere, but people feel it happens first in Dharavi. Do you know that the famous filmmaker Yash Chopra also died of malaria?” said Nikhil. This year the mandal is distributing 1000 dustbins to encourage proper waste disposal in their locality.


Last year, the Hanuman Seva Mandal had hosted a similar show on organ donation and enthralled the crowds. They had said that organ donation could be a more purposeful end to a life than burning on a pyre. Some might not agree, but it was an important contemporary message.

As part of our art activities, children gathered at selected mandals and participated in drawing competitions on domestic violence, good food/bad food and malaria. While we were apprehensive that they might be too young to visually take on themes like these, the young artists were confident and kept themselves thoroughly entertained. The mandal organizers were also thrilled to have activities running on otherwise sleepy afternoons.


In Dharavi, as in many parts of Mumbai, religious activities such as these can play a vital role in shaping people's views. The Ganpati mandals embody art in its simpler and perhaps more commercial forms but effectively convey an underlying message on health and social issues. With the right kind of attitude that balances health and social messaging with entertainment, the mandals can go a long way in public engagement. Religion, art and science intersect on these platforms and what could be a better way of stating that cleanliness is next to godliness?



Two Doors, Two Choices

There is a dimly-lit community centre with two rooms at Kumbharwada, Dharavi. You reach it after treading clayey paths where workers labour over sacks of mud meant for the potter community. One room is for visits from an allopathy doctor and in the other is a homeopath. No signs advertise the services available at the community centre, but there is a steady trickle of patients, mostly elderly. They enter in a moment of suspense: which door will they choose? Allopathy or homeopathy?

The clinics are part of a charitable trust, the Pramila and Harishkumar Foundation, set up by homeopath Dr Geeta Punjabi in 2009. The 74-year-old veteran meant them to cater for the poor in Dharavi so that they could get quick relief at subsidised rates. The homeopathy centre is currently attended by Dr Poonam Talreja, who has been there since 2010. Her clinic is painted a bright shade of green and most of the space is taken up by trays of bottles of homeopathic medicines. It’s hard to find her unoccupied. As each patient consults her, the conversation is punctuated by the pitter-patter of raindrops on the asbestos roof. The patients queueing outside grumble impatiently in low voices, but are glad that the doctor gives each of them a decent amount of time.


Dr Talreja says that she has seen some challenging cases cured with homeopathy. “We don’t try to heal just a particular organ, but rather improve the overall immunity of the patient. We won’t claim that all our patients have reached normalcy, but they have surely reached a near-normal state,” says Dr. Talreja.

Sometimes mistaken for a “lady-doctor," she points out that the commonest health issues she sees in Dharavi are chronic fatigue, joint pains and asthma attacks. “These are mostly female patients. They neglect their health and they hope that if they pop a pill they’ll be fine instantly,” she says, nodding her head. Most of her female patients are daily wage-earners and she says that a quick fix is a must or it could mean losing out on a day’s pay. People also come with digestion problems. “Many Dharavi people have problems such as constipation or diarrhoea, but I am careful before prescribing medicines. I always check to make sure that they have toilets in the vicinity of their homes. Otherwise, it could be a big problem for a patient who has just taken some laxatives.”


With subsidised rates for medicines (globules are free, tinctures and laxatives are half-price), Dr Talreja says that not everyone is Dharavi is poor. There is a donation box in the clinic and more affluent clients are advised to purchase the medicines at retail rates.

When clients enter the community centre, which door do they choose? Have they made an informed decision about which medical recourse will work best for their health issues? Or do they try both allopathy and homeopathy with the hope that something might eventually work? 



The Blockprint Life


The walls of Ahmed Razak Shaikh’s workshop are streaked with colours, his children’s rendering of Urdu letters and mini statements on his weekly orders. The 49-year-old blockprinter deciphers his most recent order, barely legible and written with a temperamental red pen. “On the 15th, I did 80 metres of cloth. On the 16th, I did a rye dana (seed) blockprint on 120 metres. Yesterday I did 90 metres of dupattas. It has been a good week,” he notes. We are on the second and uppermost floor of an assemblage of rooms in AKG Nagar, Dharavi, that seem put together by a child (it would be hard to call it a house or a building). It is a clammy afternoon, but there are no fans in his workshop. It is a room dependent on the elements – daylight from a couple of windows and hints of a breeze.

“Colours dry fast and fabric flutters under fans,” says Ahmed. He doesn’t use jargon, but his technical knowledge is obvious when he explains the different chemicals he uses for blockprinting. For a man who grew up in a family of blockprinters from Mirzapur in Uttar Pradesh, blockprinting is as easy and inevitable as a surname. It is more than just a source of money. “I saw blockprinting everyday at home. Back in my village, they had a stone table lined with sackcloth on which bedsheets were printed. It was part of my daily life,” he says. Living from week to week, he stays put when there are no orders rather than take up some other job for daily wages. He was destined to do this and nothing else, it seems. “This is all I know and orders have kept coming over the years. I have never felt like I wanted or needed to do something else.”


Having worked in various parts of Mumbai and in others’ workshops as a teenager assisting his father with blockprinting, Ahmed has had about 17 years of experience as a professional. He is now finally glad to have a workshop of his own. A number of blocks are heaped together under the line of tables. To the untrained eye it looks like a mess, but Ahmed knows his florals from his abstract designs.

There are rejects among the blocks – styles that have fallen out of fashion, broken corners, brass embossed. Ahmed discards them and there is no particular attachment to the blocks that have served him faithfully over the years. These days, a Nepalese artist purchases the rejected blocks from him. “They arrange these blocks into some pattern back at hotels in Kathmandu. I really wonder what they achieve by doing that. But I don’t ask questions,” he shrugs. Is he an artist? “No, I am an artisan. Blockprinting is an art, of course, but it is like this: I am happy when I get 20 pieces to block print but I am happier when I get 200 pieces to print in a day,” he says with no hint of doubt in his voice.

The room, otherwise spacious, is primarily for the long worktables and it is not easy to navigate from one side to the other. Ahmed’s three-year-old granddaughter has figured it out, though; she monkeys around and swiftly disappears under the tables. Occasionally, we see her little head popping up in different parts of the room. “I have six sons and one daughter. This is my eldest son’s daughter,” he says. The youngest son, Altaf, is asked to take the intrepid child back home (home is a floor below). Altaf, an eighth standard student and as tall as his father, was attending school until some months ago. He shows surgical scars on his left hand and leg. There is some confusion as father and son discuss the problem. “One doctor told us he has a brain tumour. Another told us he has tuberculosis. Another surgically removed his abscesses,” Ahmed says. "Cold abscess," Altaf chimes in. There is no anguish on their faces; it is just dealing with the everyday. Ahmed is more hopeful now since they have visited a baba at the outer edge of Mumbai. “Altaf has been advised to have shellfish… you know, the kind that the Kolis sell. Baba has promised that Altaf will be cured by doing this.”

Despite destiny, confidence and resilience, Ahmed does admit that the blockprinting business has been affected in recent years. Screenprinters can print around 1000 metres of cloth in a day, compared with the 100 metres he accomplishes singlehandedly. “It was also a cheaper life back then. I would buy around 10 kg of rice for the whole family on a Sunday for just Rs. 2. Everything is changing now,” he says. Ahmed’s children are not keen on taking up the trade and he is not keen on teaching others. As one of the few blockprinters left in Dharavi, a family legacy will last as long as Ahmed can print. 



1 Comment

The Rise and Fall of a Midwife

“If you write about me, will I get a job in a hospital?” is Shanti Devi Jasiwar’s first question. She claims she is 55 years old, but somehow that is hard to believe. With wrinkles, greying hair and betel-stained teeth, she seems older. She agrees, saying that she hasn’t really kept count of the passing years. She hasn’t recorded the number of babies she has helped deliver in the last 23 years either. Locals agree that it could be anywhere between 50 and 100 (and never a stillborn, they say). She breaks into a characteristic hoarse laugh and says, “Well, I am poor and I haven’t studied or I would have noted down these things.” Shanti Devi has worked informally as a midwife and masseuse for infants and new mothers in Dharavi. She comes from Basti, a district in Uttar Pradesh, and came here after marriage. As she tells her midwifery tales, you understand that this is more a way of life than a source of income. Her first ‘case’ was “before the lafda (problem)”, referring to the 1991 riots, when a thin, heavily pregnant woman came back home from a local hospital. She went into labour suddenly and her baby was crowning. “I uttered God’s name and I helped her deliver her baby. That is how I started my work,” says Shanti Devi. Locals chime in when Shanti Devi says that she never takes any money for delivering babies. People offer her water, tea, two rotis or money to buy betel. Young boys from Mukund Nagar are busy playing around where we sit and she points to them and says, “I helped deliver some of them and even massaged their mothers after delivery.”


These days, Shanti Devi is cautious. She has stopped working as an informal midwife due to deteriorating health (she can’t see properly and can’t climb the steep stairs in many Dharavi homes). Only when a woman is going into labour in the middle of the night and there is no other alternative does she offer her services,

While Shanti Devi continues to massage young mothers and babies with rye oil, the major reason why her work has come to a halt is the implementation of government schemes such as the Janani Suraksha Yojana (JSY) - a scheme designed to reduce maternal and neonatal mortality by encouraging institutional delivery for poor pregnant women. Along with the institution of auxiliary midwives, such schemes have been key ways of bringing down alarming maternal mortality rates. The WHO estimates that there were 50,000 maternal deaths in India in 2013, as opposed to 148,000 deaths in 1990. However, the WHO notes that world-over there is a need to bring into hospitals skilled midwives who can specialise in deliveries and newborn and postpartum care. Currently, auxiliary midwives are found in rural India and urban trends indicate an over-medicalization of pregnancies and deliveries. Training people like Shanti Devi specially as one who will accompany a pregnant woman to the hospital, negotiate hospital formalities, help care for her and the baby with formal training might be beneficial for the time constrained, urban poor.

Back in her heyday, Shanti Devi was a much-sought-after midwife. She has never used a mobile phone and locals joke that she gets lost in Dharavi as easily as the average tourist does. People just came running to her when in trouble. She looks old mostly because you know she has seen it all as you listen to her stories. She is a mother of four; five more children passed away. Her husband, who makes a living selling undergarments on the footpath, has tuberculosis. So does her eldest son. “All the earning members of my family are sick,” she cries. She consoles herself by saying that God gives and God takes.

Shanti Devi encourages women to seek medical attention these days. She also advises youngsters to have fewer children and recalls, “My father was asked to do a nasbandi (vasectomy) during the Indira Gandhi government. He was adamant that he wouldn’t. He had fathered 16 children and swore that he would have 16 more. In those days, having children was cheap. The expenses that you incur for celebrating a child’s birthday these days ... that money you could use to get your daughter married off in those days.” As women sitting beside her laugh and talk in eyebrow-raising numbers about the children they have given birth to (Shanti Devi’s neighbour had 10, of whom 6 survived), Shanti Devi is clear about one thing. That the practice of a midwife is one of sisterhood.

Read more:

1 Comment


Comics and Health


pollution 1
With two participatory comics workshops in our  list of artboxes, the Dharavi Biennale was selected to participate in a niche conference conducted by Graphic Medicine and The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine Department of Art as Applied to Medicine.  The conference, “Comics & Medicine: From Private Lives to Public Health”, involved a mix of artists, healthcare professionals, academics and comics enthusiasts. Worlds you might have thought would never meet – comics and healthcare – interacted, presented works, and exchanged ideas and cultures.

To recap on our work, Dharavi residents made comics on health issues (such as injuries and nutrition) under the guidance of Chaitanya Modak, a comics artist based out of Mumbai. For many of them, comics were  a new medium that few had heard of and even fewer had read. In the course of the workshops they were mentored to create poster-comics with a standard panel format telling stories about health. The posters were then put up in Dharavi and the participants interacted with locals and shared their stories with them. For Dharavi viewers, who had little comics literacy, this was a new format of storytelling and could engage even those who lacked education. This was for Dharavi, by Dharavi. 

Since many of the comics were personal experiences transformed into monochrome comics for public engagement, our work fit perfectly with the theme of the conference. We called our presentation "Comics Epidemic" with good reason. Dharavi often makes people think of disease and dirt, but we believe that comics, and the Biennale, might help shake up the stereotype.

Benita Fernando, the blogger, presented our work. It was an honour to be at the Comics and Medicine conference along with figures like Arthur Frank, James Strum, Ellen Forney and Carol Tilley. It was also an eye-opener to see the number of comics and graphic novels that address health issues like depression, cancer, Alzheimer’s and diabetes. The thing about a comic is that it can make even the most intimidating topics into a non-threatening subject for discussion. The serious and the sober become more approachable.

You can read more about our comics workshops here and here.

The Comics Journal covered happenings at the conference here.

Thanks to all our Dharavi participants, mentor Chaitanya Modak and Lydia Gregg, who chaired the conference's organization committee. 



Young photographers show you Glass

From our latest photography workshop conducted by Nitant Hirlekar. Young photographers ventured into the recycling units in and around Dharavi. Here are some snapshots of the glass recycling workshops in Prem Nagar, as seen by them. By Ankita, Mehzabeen & Roshni


By Pooja & Ahmed


By Roshni, Sameer and Suhani


By Ankita, Mehzabeen and Roshni


By Roshni, Sameer & Suhani


By Roshni, Sameer and Suhani


By Ruksar & Nazmeen


By Ruksar & Nazmeen


By Ruksar & Nazmeen


By Ankita, Mehzabeen & Roshni


And, here is one that shows our young shutterbugs at work!

photo group collage



Occupational Hazards in Dharavi

DSC_0113 It is by now common knowledge that cheap leather bags are made and sold in Dharavi. Export quality, the shopkeeper will tell you. As much as the thrifty buyers and the choosy entrepreneurs flock to the line of leather goods shops on the Sion-Bandra Link Road, people are repelled by the stench of leather curing workshops on 60 Feet Road. The air smells of brine, sulphur, decay and human negligence. As vehement as animal rights groups and brand empires are about saving innocent animals from the clutches of fashionistas, something must be said about the manner in which the lower income groups work in these units. No rubber boots, no gloves, no masks, no legal interventions to protect them from the conditions they work in. To stand outside a leather curing workshop in Dharavi is to remember the stench of pukish drunken nights. Meet these brazen curing labourers, and you know that it takes more than just alcohol or drugs to get you through a day. You are driven by a desperate need to survive.


The conclusion is, however, not to close down the units. Especially not when the shutting down of a big manufacturer means the loss of jobs, however unorganized, for these daily wage earners. Especially not in a country which has a history of so called 'lower' castes and certain religious groups being the ones who fetch you your leather. The point is to investigate better working conditions that will provide improved health for these workers.

At a recent workshop, some high school students from Dharavi were accompanied by Nitant Hirelakar to photograph some examples of occupational hazards in their localities and make a pixel art installation that highlights the dual nature of these Dharavi businesses. There is lots of money, there is little consideration for human value. However, this is not just a Dharavi thing. It is perhaps how many labourers are hired all across the country. Your body is a piece of equipment that keeps the machinery running. If the equipment is defective, you can always get another here. Labour is the cheaper than water.


One of the sites that Nitant and his photography group visited was Prem Nagar, on the outskirts of Dharavi, near Kurla. This is the mega-hub of glass recycling, where tons of surgical vials, ketchup bottles, jam containers and the likes are dumped here to be sorted, cleaned and re-sent to factories for fresh packaging. That which can’t be resent is turned into shards that shall be melted for renewed purposes. As the young photographers alternated between mesmerized and repulsed, the labourers and the middlemen at these tiny, dark workshops were bemused. A little wary of these photographers, even.


Here again were the lack of basic protection for the cleaners and the sorters. On the banks of a little channel running from the guttery Mithi, a man sorted metal caps of soda beverages using a handy magnet. Hunched and focussed, here was a Gollum of present day Dharavi looking at his precious. Fumes, waste fluids and reminiscences of Katherine Boo’s depiction in Behind the Beautiful Forevers of young disadvantaged Indians inhaling Eraz-ex for their nightly high come to your mind.


At one musty workshop were a group of men and women who specialised in the niche job of removing zinc from discarded batteries to be repurposed. They are covered in zinc powder, only their eyes are flashing. Again, no gloves, no masks and definitely no health check-ups either.

The labourers themselves have nothing to complain about. As long as the job gets done. As long as there is yet another day with a job at hand. Life goes on.

Occupational hazards, as mentioned before, are definitely not a Dharavi feature and not merely a symptom of the lower income groups. However, traffic policemen with varicose veins will get sick leave, IT professionals with slip discs can avail a mediclaim policy and teachers with laryngitis can consult school doctors. What will a daily wage earner do?



The Painter of Portraits

Mahendra Parashuram Vartak painter First timers to Laxmi Baug, Dharavi, should have no trouble locating Mahendra Parashuram Vartak’s house. A portrait of Shah Rukh Khan adorns the outer wall and a casual assortment of painting tools and supplies lies nearby. SRK looks like he always does – forever young, clear complexioned, dashing – and in this particular portrait, the colours pop out vividly. It is clearly an SRK from the nineties. Vartak has never met the Bollywood mega-superstar in person but replicated the pose from a magazine photo.

Vartak disappears into his house and emerges with a portrait of Salman Khan. “My first painting was of Kamal Hassan, however. He is my favourite actor and my first choice,” he says, looking fondly at the picture. That was the year 1978 and the now 56 year old Vartak was then a young man wandering around Jehangir at Kala Ghoda or Samarth Arts, of Bollywood poster fame, at Dadar.

Inspiration has been his tutor. Having never formally studied the practice of painting, Vartak’s schooldays were spent next to his bench-partner who had a gift for drawing. He observed his friends drawing skills and started practising on his own. The autodidact today works at the BMC’s tuberculosis centre in Dharavi, where he looks after MDR and XDR TB cases. “A government job was most preferred those days for its stability, pension and the promise of a good standard of living. But, had I gotten other options, I would have learnt shoe manufacturing,” says Vartak. Still, no talk about making a full-time business out of painting portraits.

Vartak’s clients are mainly fans of film stars or grieving relatives of those who have expired. Weddings and newborns rarely request these portraits. Vartak again disappears into his house and this time comes out with a portrait of an old man with greyish blue eyes. “My father,” he points out sentimentally, “who passed away in 1993. He was very proud of what I do.” On his canvases, a relative has the same place as a superstar.

Having made more than 150 paintings on canvas and plywood mainly as a hobby, Vartak’s masterpieces could be easily scorned by distinguished art school graduates. There is a touch of the artisanal in his works and his demand for photographs to mimic in his art. He takes about 2 weeks to make a single portrait. Yes, a true artist might be expected to take longer.

Yet. Vartak’s work is part of the dying tradition of Bollywood poster art that preceded the digital era of sophisticated graphics in India. The colours were flamboyant, detailing was restrictive and the purpose of the poster was to capture an essence, a fleeting feeling. More importantly, these were produced quickly to match the release dates of the movie itself. Vartak’s portraits belong to that era when photographs were a luxury.

As we sip some of the chai under Vartak’s roof, which is splattered with paint to mimic a faded galaxy, he introduces us to his family. There is the wife, the son and the cat. He adopted his son five years ago and, on most days, the son knows the truth about his origins. On other days, he believes that his parents are joking. As he doodles on scraps of paper, you wonder if this boy will grow to be an artist too.



Changes with Dr. Chang

As the first dentist in Dharavi, Dr. Chang recalls those days when it was 25 paise for a cup of chai, Rs. 5 for a tooth extraction and Rs. 5 for a silver filling. This was back in 1976, when the Calcutta born and Manipal educated doctor came to the ‘money making city’ of Mumbai. Dharavi was then a marshy area with narrow roads and hutments. “Many people in Dharavi were daily wage earners and have financial problems. They prefer a cheap cost of living,” says the 60 year old dentist. chang dentist 2

While the cost of living has gone up in the last 35 years since he started work here, Dr. Chang still charges the minimum from his patients. He says that the educated can take care of themselves but the poor in Dharavi need to be more informed about dental hygiene. Looking at the cases of tooth decay and gum problems, Dr. Chang says he continuously dispenses advice stating lesser usage of paan and tambaku. “You can give them as much advice as you want but they are just not prepared to listen,” he adds.

However, Dr. Chang is quick to note that things are better than what they used to be three decades ago. There is more awareness through the television and internet and people are more careful about what their dental health. As we sip on colas offered by Dr. Chang, we ask him slyly if this is going to harm our teeth. “That’s good for business, isn’t it?” he grins.

While the line for Dharavi dental problems might be thinner than before, many Dharavi clients want a pretty set of pearlies. There is more readiness to spend on bleaching and procuring a new set of dentures, something that was thought as too expensive three decades ago. “Many Dharavi people have better incomes than they used to and looking good is part of the deal, isn’t it?” says Dr. Chang.

chang denture

Dr. Chang hails from a Chinese family of dentists and his three sons are also dentists. He is mysterious about his origins and despite persistent attempts to seek out his full name, he says, “Just Chang. People know me as Dr. Chang.” And if you thought that his Chinese origin may lend itself to some mystic source of knowledge about dental health, Dr. Chang is quick to bust the myth. “It is just that we have better access to instruments and lab technicians than my forefathers did. However, the next generation of dentists lacks the access to basics that we had. There was a time when I manufactured dentures ourselves. There is some knowledge about ground realities that we had access to which the younger generation of dentists doesn’t have,” he says.

In his well-equipped clinic, buzzing with junior dentists (mostly women) and patients, Dr. Chang has a thriving business. He has two more clinics in Byculla and Kurla and caters to mostly lower income groups. He says that if it wasn’t for dentistry, then he would have chosen to become a physician since “you can serve longer. Even till you are 80 years old. As a dentist, you can practice only as long as your eyesight is good. I would like to continue as long as I can. Whether it is looking good or relieve pain, I would like my patients to be happy.”




Blocks from Dharavi

From local Dharavi block printers Sohail, Yunis and Babubhai, come some detailed patterns and motifs that they use to make prints on fabric. At one point business was roaring with orders and fashion designers pouring into their workshops. But business is dull these days and Sohail has given away many of his blocks. dsc_0182