Writing an introduction to Dharavi is like tackling a multi-headed beast. Fictional and non-fictional works on or about Dharavi and Mumbai have described it as a village within a city, the lifeline of Mumbai, an underappreciated economic hub, a nexus of crime, an important space in the Dalit struggle, and a popular background for films. Perhaps the only way to describe it in words is as all these things and more: to not stick to one description because diversity is the only constant, similar to the metropolis that houses it.

"Dharavi invariably confuses those eager to capture its reality in shorthand. Visitors looking for an essence of the place often land on its edges and corners, in spots that most Dharavi residents themselves have seen only on TV. They may be rewarded for their intrepidness by the sight of barefoot children walking on water pipes against the obligatory backdrop of garbage – a cliché that resonates so powerfully with familiar discourses on poverty and inequality that it obliterates the depth and complexity of the place. Dharavi is diverse and rapidly transforming, and deceives as much as it overwhelms. It is an enigma that cannot be resolved by simply labelling it one thing or the other" [1].

Dharavi hosts several nongovernment organisations (NGOs) that work on many issues. One such organisation is SNEHA: the Society for Nutrition, Education, and Health Action. SNEHA works on maternal and newborn health, child health and nutrition, sexual and reproductive health, and violence against women and children. Although initially known best in Dharavi for its work on the latter, SNEHA has successfully built an unusual image due to its public engagement project on art and health: the Dharavi Biennale.


This evaluation is based on data collected through interviews, focus group discussions, and observations.

Data were collected from 53 interviewees during Artboxes and the Alley Galli Biennale, including participants and mentor artists, volunteers during the exhibition, visitors to the Alley Galli Biennale from inside and outside Dharavi, local artists, and members of the Dharavi Biennale team. Data were collected over a period of eight months and a mixture of purposive and convenience sampling was used. Eleven interviews were conducted with 13 participants. Sian Aggett, an ethnographer specialising in public engagement with communities, conducted two interviews and Sanna Meherally, a qualitative researcher working with SNEHA, conducted two others. The remaining seven interviews were conducted by Ketaki Hate. Five focus group discussions were conducted with 40 participants, with an average of eight per discussion. One was facilitated by an external evaluator, Neerja Chowdhary, and the other four were facilitated by Ketaki Hate, who also made observations and field notes during the Artboxes and the Alley Galli Biennale and saved them as memos. All the data collectors were female, with experience in qualitative research, and had had limited interaction with the interviewees prior to the project. 

A semi-structured interview guide was used to collect data at sites where the Artboxes were being conducted and at the multiple exhibition sites during the Alley Galli Biennale. Verbal consent was taken from the interviewees. Interviews and group discussions were recorded and recordings were transcribed using the transcription software Express Scribe [2]. Transcripts were pseudonymised to ensure confidentiality; some participants such as local artists did not want to be anonymous and their wishes were acquiesced to. The qualitative application NVivo 10 was used to analyse the transcripts and memos [3]. Data were coded thematically at two levels and the framework analysis method was used to analyse them.

The themes that emerged from the analysis have influenced the structure of this paper, which is divided into three parts: Do Well; Do Well, Think Well; and Do Well, Think Well, Get Well. All three evaluate the Dharavi Biennale’s public engagement with health. The first part focuses on the ‘doing’ – the structure and content of the Artboxes and the creation of health imagery through democratic and non-democratic processes. The second part moves on from evaluating the ‘doing’ to the ‘thinking’. It evaluates the reasons for situating the project in Dharavi, its focus on community mobilisation and outreach, and SNEHA’s urbanist agenda. It examines the potential issues of ‘othering of the slum’ masked as benevolence, redefining the image of Dharavi, and the limitations of an art project in contributing to political dialogue. The third part concentrates on the ‘feeling’: the effect of an art and health project on people’s health. It examines the project’s urban health agenda through the lens of community wellbeing. 


The Dharavi Biennale began with the aim of creating circumstances that foster conversations around health through art. A simultaneous aim was to dispel prejudices about Dharavi by focusing on, developing, polishing, and displaying local talent. Participants engaged in workshops, each called an Artbox, over the course of two years. Artists with specific skillsets were brought on board to act as mentors who trained participants and helped create art in any form. The only condition was that the artwork or performance had to address a health issue. The four central themes of the Dharavi Biennale were art, health, recycling, and communities.

Some Artboxes - Signs of health, Immunity wall, Transmissions, Growing Fresh Air, Still life, Say no, Breast cancer cell, Ishara puppets, and Healers of Dharavi - created artworks or provoked discussions on topics that are considered to lie within the domain of biomedicine. Growing Fresh Air, for instance, involved an urban gardener and a designer working with local potters to create ecologically and economically sustainable pots. These pots hold a combination of plants that purify the acrid air that usually envelops the clay ovens in Kumbharwada [4]. This has obvious health benefits for the population of the area. Because the urban garden model developed from the Artbox is ecologically and economically sustainable, it could be easily replicated in other areas in which people breathe hazardous air.

On the other hand, Artboxes like Provoke/protect, Dream girls, Comics Epidemic, Unblock, Hope and hazard, Priya’s Shakti, Dharavi Food Project, Indefensible Space, Genius of Dharavi, Bonded not Bound, Transmateriomutator, Everything Is Here, and Mapping the Hurt dealt with issues that aren’t considered quintessentially medical, but certainly come under the purview of public health. Several of these Artboxes focused on problems related to gender, space, unorganised labour, sexuality, recycling, and coping with violence.

The Alley Galli Biennale was an art festival, specifically a festival of health, art, and recycling. The Dharavi Biennale, meanwhile, was a public engagement project by SNEHA. According to the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement, "public engagement describes the myriad of ways in which the activity and benefits of higher education and research can be shared with the public. Engagement is by definition a two-way process, involving interaction and listening, with the goal of generating mutual benefit" [5]. In a project of this nature, participants and mentors should ideally have arrived at topics for the Artboxes through discussions, but such consensus was seldom the case. The novelty of combining health and art was often confusing and the confusion meant that collaborations were not always democratic and decisions were often made for the participants.

Each Artbox had a theme, for example, Transmateriomutator looked at recycling and the cost of personal and environmental health. The confusion was at two levels: arriving at a health theme, and designing the Artbox to create art based on it. Mentor artists had to arrive at health themes for their Artboxes, but the co-director of Dharavi Biennale, Dr Nayreen Daruwalla, said, “Somehow artists were averse to doing anything on health, it was not really on their agenda. They were very happy to do anything that was not to do with health and we had to push for a health theme.

Very few artists were open to a health theme. Gradually they would develop an interest because of their discussions with us. The first year was difficult because we were trying to negotiate with artists and were learning the skill of how to do it. During the second year we became smarter and we formulated health issues right from the beginning. Depending on the artist we introduced health issues that could be possible...” Because the Dharavi Biennale was a public engagement project, designing the Artbox should have ideally been a two-way process between the mentor artists and the participants. However, not all mentor artists were experienced in creating health-related art and they needed help from an external source like a medical professional or social scientist to put things in perspective. Mentors’ own limitations to arrive at a health-based theme, along with time and community mobilisation constraints, often resulted in mentors dictating the design and structure of Artboxes.

This seldom left room for a democratic collaboration between the mentors and the participants. For instance, Manish Sharma, a participatory filmmaker, worked with a structured workshop that was adapted to the topic of gender and space. Most Artboxes were similarly designed – the mentors designed the workshops, sometimes in collaboration with the co-directors, and the participants were guided in translating the artists’ vision into reality. Speaking about this process, Daruwalla said, “Some artists came with a very different set of demands and expectations. There were some who were familiar with slums, they could mingle and get their work done. And there were some who just couldn’t mingle with other participants and we had to be intermediaries between the artists and the participants. Some artists were very demanding about materials, type of participants, etc. They were very dramatic.”

Clearly, attending health-based workshops over two years and conjuring health imagery to make a physical artefact that people could see, touch, and deliberate upon wasn’t always easy for the groups. The mentors often relied on the participants for ideas and themes. Thus, certain Artboxes like the one on tuberculosis with Ishara puppets were relatively democratic. The playwright said, “We had never worked with a community on health, we usually teach groups to make puppets and use them in a play. However, this time we had to sit with the group, understand their health concerns, devise a way to visualise the health issue, and then go ahead. The only way in which we could do this was by talking to this group and developing this play on what they thought was an important health issue in Dharavi.”

Some Artboxes – for example, the ones with local artists from Dharavi - did not involve groups and the artists worked by themselves in their regular workspaces. Artists were contacted by the Dharavi Biennale team and commissioned to create health-based art and provided with financial and moral support. One such local artist was Vandana Kori. Her creation of a pregnant woman from medicine vials was one of the highlights of the Alley Galli Biennale, widely photographed and featured in national and international media. She said that she created her artwork, aptly titled Still life, because “I have always been inspired by women’s lives, especially those led in Dharavi. I have always challenged gendered rules through my art. This glass statue is very dear to me because I am interested in the effects of drug consumption on a pregnant woman. Also, the Dharavi Biennale made it really easy for me to procure raw materials and to store the artefact, which are my main challenges as an artist in Dharavi.”

Since recycling was one of the central themes of the Dharavi Biennale, a large quantity of recycled material was integrated into the design and making of the artworks. Making artefacts from recycled material amused the participants. Shameena said, “I learnt what recycling is … the artists made beautiful things from recycled material … these things give a spurt to your imagination and creativity ... we created art from old pieces of torn jeans! We usually just discard our old torn jeans! Next time I’m going to keep them and I’ll try reusing them in a different way ... now I think twice before discarding, or using things in an effective way. We are so used to throwing away usable things, we forget that sometimes wealth can be made from waste.” One of the community mobilisation officers recalled, “The people running the recycling units were curious about us: a non-factory buying recyclable material. [When we told them its purpose] they would be very happy. They would say, ‘Oh! Something good is going to come of this.’ They were happy to know that some art was going to be created from their materials without it going to some factory.”


Still Life by Vandana Kori

Still Life by Vandana Kori

Creating art was only part of the process. Equally important were its display, interpretation, and consumption. This was especially imperative for an initiative like the Dharavi Biennale because a project cannot be a successful endeavour in public engagement if it doesn’t make diverse information available to stakeholders, information that is ideally a useful tool in bringing a positive change in their wellbeing.

Art is omnipresent in Dharavi: it just depends on what one’s definition of art is. This wasn’t the first time that artists from Dharavi had participated in exhibitions. Vandana, for instance, has had her work exhibited at the Kala Ghoda Art Festival [6]. However, what was markedly different about the Dharavi Biennale was that Dharavi residents were not only producers, but also consumers of the art being produced. Dharavi was treated as a serious contender as a developing artistic space. The art was made accessible to everyone, marking it as a legitimate site for displaying the art it produced.

To explore the consumption of health-based art it is important to understand the reasons for choosing Dharavi as a site for the Biennale. Daruwalla explained, “I think Dharavi is the best place to do an art project. Dharavi is a place full of art so I think it made a lot of sense to do the project here. Also, for me, the impetus was that we’ve been working in Dharavi for almost two decades … so we thought why not look at a creative project that can enable us to increase our outreach into the community? It was interesting for SNEHA to approach topics of health in a creative and different way. From what I understand from talking to people, this has increased our outreach because people loved doing the Artboxes. And now they want to come and be a part of our programmes.”

Interviews with young participants show that they have joined SNEHA’s youth group programmes because of their experiences with hugely popular workshops on comics, participatory filmmaking, puppet making, and theatre. The evidence suggests that community mobilisation and outreach programmes with young people have a promising impact in changing harmful attitudes and beliefs [7]. Increased public engagement with the young people of Dharavi gives SNEHA a reasonably solid foundation on which to base its future interventions.

After the Dharavi Biennale, people seem to have become aware that, apart from working against gender-based violence, SNEHA also works on mental health, child nutrition, and sexual and reproductive health. Kishen, a participant in several Artboxes and now a SNEHA volunteer and youth group member, said, “Before the Biennale everything we participated in was about violence. During the Biennale there were so many creative workshops about other health issues too. Also, because of the variety there are many more creative opportunities for participation for us. I have now started working as a facilitator with the project on adolescent sex and sexuality. I have been trained and now I talk to young people about sexual and reproductive health.” In a nutshell, community perceptions of SNEHA’s work now encompass a broader health agenda.

Apart from increasing SNEHA’s outreach, the other drivers of situating a public engagement project in Dharavi were what the other co-director, Dr David Osrin, refers to as their urbanist and urban health agendas. He explained, “We wanted to change the picture of Dharavi. It may sound banal, but I know that change is not easy. Several [academics] before us have said that this is an amazing place, its population is more than many large cities across the world.” Daruwalla added, “Basically we want to change the perceptions of Dharavi.” This urbanist agenda meant that the Alley Galli Biennale would be hosted in Dharavi and nowhere else in the city. Dilip, a self-taught artist from Dharavi and a participant, said, “What makes me feel so full of emotion is that this brought the city to Dharavi instead of taking us to them. So many foreigners and people in big cars came to see us and our work.” During the Alley Galli Biennale it was amusing to observe visitors from outside Dharavi navigating the bylanes to reach the venues, often guided by local volunteers and visitors. People from Dharavi, very much in their element, chatted with the visitors, who ranged from being interested to uncomfortable with their surroundings.

Most visitors to the Biennale had never been into Dharavi and their visits during the Alley Galli Biennale were their first experience of this part of the city. This is almost symbolic – visitors described Dharavi as the space that connects the old part of Mumbai with the suburbs – a well-oiled passageway that unites the heart of the city with its periphery, a passageway that’s noticed only when it stops working. This was especially true for the glitterati of the art world and other elite consumers of the art scene in Bombay. One such visitor said, “We live very close by. We pass Dharavi very often …  I feel like a foreigner because I haven’t really seen this place …  We know about Dharavi, we’ve read about it, but haven’t really visited before …  I was seeing their paintings, I was thinking, Asia’s biggest slum is also home to Asia’s most talented artists. It’s beautiful!”

Several visitors said that Dharavi had surprised them through its display of creativity. One said, “Actually, I’ve read a lot about the enterprise of Dharavi, about the booming industry and employment opportunities. However, we haven’t heard or read about the local art. I have even read about the hidden recycling industry, but never about the artists.” Such an unusual coming together of people from different sections of society and the considerable press coverage for the Dharavi Biennale [8] suggest that perhaps the urbanist agenda was met to a certain degree.

Although the praise bestowed on the artists was well deserved, one could not help noticing that the plaudits often originated from a historical trajectory of implied patronage. As Osrin put it, “The minute people hear that this is an NGO-run program, they instantly take the position of patronisation. I think it’s okay for people from the art world to say that this is a bad exhibition ... We believe it is a festival for Dharavi and we have to make sure that they get the most out of it. It’s more important to satisfy the community than the press or the art world.” When trying to bring together people from such different social positions one has to be extremely careful to not allow the rhetoric to be shaped by underlying condescension and reinforcing the idea of the “other”. A visiting architect said, “I guess I am more than impressed by what they have managed to present over here. It is very professional. It hardly seems like somebody who hasn’t been very exposed to art comes up with something like this. It is much unexpected and quite impressive.”

Although the Dharavi Biennale was in principle against the perpetuation of stereotypes of the “slum”, it was observed that several visitors from outside Dharavi explored the area through a camera lens. Visitors, especially those from outside India, were constantly taking photographs of things mundane to Dharavi: the overcrowded streets, cramped dwellings, animals on the streets, children playing around heaps of garbage, and women working with scraps. One wonders about the extent of the success of the urbanist agenda. The Dharavi Biennale certainly made people notice the art that Dharavi produced, but perhaps it did not succeed in preventing visitors from fetishizing the slum and its people.

Another important question is whether public engagement projects can get away with merely redefining the image of places like Dharavi. For instance, in addressing the political issue of redevelopment, Echanove and Srivastava write:

" … the subtle differences between Dharavi and other parts of Mumbai got magnified to create a narrative about the Great Slum – one that belongs to Mumbai but at the same time remains firmly outside it. Even after decades of debate and reporting, Dharavi remains in the popular imagination an anachronistic collection of temporary shacks inhabited by migrants from Tamil Nadu and Bihar. This image is far from the reality ... It is as important to understand what is so special about Dharavi as it is to debunk its mythified image. But the issue is not just an intellectual or an academic one: there are immediate practical concerns to address, relating to the many proposals put forward by the government and developers for the makeover of Dharavi" [9].

After all, public engagement strives to make specialist knowledge and information available to stakeholders in order to facilitate a desired political change. If this is the case, wouldn’t it be prudent to include a political agenda in SNEHA’s public engagement initiatives? 


Dilip working on his painting

Dilip working on his painting

The other, and perhaps the most prominent, driver of the project was urban health. Osrin said, “… through articles and international conferences you understand that Dharavi is globally an important player in urban health. However, people here don’t know that they are. And that’s not fair nor right … I think we want the wealthier people in the city to think again about a place like Dharavi, but we also want to change the perception of a child that lives in Dharavi about health.”

Interestingly, the project did not define health. Artists were free to interpret health and allied themes according to their own sensibilities. Issues such as sexual health, environmental health, gender-based violence, occupational hazards, lack of personal space, and drug abuse were given equal space and treatment. The refusal to compartmentalise or prioritise health themes seems to have worked in the Dharavi Biennale’s favour and the eclecticism of the art produced is evidence for it.

More important than the production of art is its consumption because that’s what leads to conversations about health among people: a step forward in the Dharavi Biennale’s urban health agenda. Having said that, it’s important to remember that not only the exhibition and consumption, but also the process of production of the art, led to conversations about health. These conversations happened amongst participants, between participants and mentors, and sometimes even between participants and their families.

The interviews with participants suggest that participation in Artboxes helped start discussions and made them aware of choices available to them outside of what they believed to be their only social reality. This seems to be especially true with Artboxes that dealt with taboo subjects such as sexuality, sexual behaviours, sexual preferences, and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. During the Artboxes, people were forthcoming about their community’s beliefs about diseases. They discussed superstitions around the treatment and cure, and some even went back home and clarified their own families’ questions about health.

For one woman participant, learning about sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and her own body indirectly led to a relative reduction in intimate partner violence. She said,  “I had some itchiness down there … my husband accused me of sleeping with other men, he would hit me because of this. However, after the Artbox on STIs where we painted the pots, I realised that it was a urinary infection … also then I realised that it must be him who was cheating, so I confronted him. Now I know the truth and he can’t hit and accuse me.”

The play by the Delhi-based Ishara Puppet Theatre Trust may not be directly responsible for any reduction in incidence of tuberculosis (TB) in Dharavi, but it did make people aware of the causes and the available treatment. An interview with one of the mentors is particularly telling because it dispels commonly held notions of knowledge ownership. He said, “We did not know what TB did and how one could treat it. We are only artists who make puppets and direct plays. It is because of the discussions with this group of participants and the doctor on board that we know what exactly TB is.”

Evidently, the Biennale did encourage conversations about health and health-related issues, but it is important to examine whether the process of producing and consuming the art changed any facet of people’s lives. This raises questions about two prominent terms in the development discourse: behaviour change and sustainability. When asked about these, Osrin said, “Sustainability and behaviour change were always at the back of my head. People ask us, “How will your project lead to change in health?” And I take the view that people change their behaviour for many reasons, gradually or quickly, and these come from several directions, and running a project where you do art and talk about it is one of those directions. However, it is naive to think that you might change someone’s behaviour … the proposed metrics of change made our hackles rise because … we do know quite a lot about behaviour change, it is what we are trying to do … And [about] sustainability … What about the Tate gallery in London? Have the community around the Tate gallery taken ownership of the gallery and ... the funders and the people who run the gallery could probably in a year or two simply withdraw and leave it in the hands of the residents because buy-in has been assured? Or does the government pour millions of pounds into building such structures? Isn’t it culturally imperialistic to suggest that you could sustain something culturally significant in Dharavi in development projects by handing things to the community? Health outreach programmes work well in places like The Netherlands because [among other things] people are paid for their jobs and not because community groups have come together!” He added, “If a community loves a particular installation they might just be ready to exhibit that installation in the community. I don’t know if it will remain intact. But yes, you can sustain one thing – the feeling that Dharavi has this art and that, given an opportunity, Dharavi artists can go further doing this work. I think you can sustain this feeling.”

If, from its outset, the Dharavi Biennale had no explicit aim of reducing the incidence of a certain disease or encouraging the adoption of  particular health behaviour, what exactly did it do about and for the health of people in Dharavi? It is clear that its genuine attempts at encouraging conversations around health were successful, but was the scope of its public engagement limited to health-based dialogue? These questions can be addressed once one understands what it means to be healthy. According to the WHO, health is “a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” [10]. Based on this widely cited definition, how did the Dharavi Biennale contribute to the health of the people of Dharavi? One could argue that it helped people become healthy, not by eradicating a disease or bringing about a change in policy, but by contributing to people’s well-being in its own artful way.

During retrospective interviews, several participants appreciated that their community received information through artistic and creative channels. They were glad that they could create artwork that spread awareness about not only drug abuse and communicable diseases, but also about sex, sexuality, and sanitation. Arti, a participant, said, “There should be more numbers of creative Artboxes even after the Dharavi Biennale is over. Normally women have to listen to lectures on awareness and learn from them. However, they aren’t as effective as the Artboxes because we physically worked on the project. There is an output that we can see. It’s not just listening, but doing.” Participants have reported increased confidence, greater self-worth, development of skills, and learning the virtues of punctuality, patience, articulation, and communication. Dilip said, “Through this project they gave us confidence that we could do things. Encouraging someone is a huge thing … we derived motivation from that. A feeling comes from within … a revolutionary feeling of wanting to do something. This is how big things start – through small steps.”

Participants and visitors said that they got to experience new things during the Artboxes. Many recounted being exposed to things and people that they normally wouldn’t meet in their daily lives. One visitor from Dharavi to the Alley Galli Biennale said, “I really liked the open air concert … such things take place in big five-star hotels, no one does this in a place like Dharavi. We got to see these things and meet these people from different countries because of SNEHA and the Biennale.”

Art, self-reflection, expression, and catharsis have always existed together. Manish said, “During the workshops and in the film people have been talking about their anger and their agitation over not having a clean situation. They have talked about the problems they face during the night, especially the women. We are here as filmmakers, we usually project clean images and get rid of the excrement, but when the participants get the cameras they show what they want to show, they show the shit if they want to show it. One of the kids zoomed into the toilet and his message is to show the world exactly that. Frankly, it was disgusting to look at, but I felt that if they want it to be shown then shouldn’t I show it? They are happy that they can show the rats hidden in the toilets. They want to capture all this because they want to show this to people, to the authorities, and to the government bodies. They really want you to know about this ... when I see those things I don’t see the filth, what I see is people’s frustrations about having to live in such conditions. So the filmmaker isn’t showing you the shit, the guy who is shooting is showing it to you”

For the younger participants the Artboxes were not only a good opportunity to learn new skills, but also to make new friends who helped them deal with their everyday problems. Amit said, “After the workshop I realised that drawing is easy, but it is we who make it very difficult … when the workshop was in progress there was an incident at home. It was a very bad time for me and I couldn’t focus on my work … these people whom I was meeting for the first time helped me to cope and made me realise that whatever was happening wasn’t my mistake. Even the mentor and the Dharavi Biennale coordinator helped me cope ... everyone supported me.”

Empowerment is as important a buzzword as they come in the development sector. The Dharavi Biennale team have refrained from listing empowerment of the community as one of the goals of the project, a rather unconventional thing for an NGO to do.  However, Manish pointed out, “The best part from this workshop was that they started searching within themselves the violence that they have faced and they shared their stories. Secondly, I think some empowerment took place with them taking charge of the camera. For instance, one woman shared that people questioned and tried to intimidate her because she roamed with the camera at night. Now she feels that she dared to do something and indulged in a courageous act. I believe that this in some sense is empowerment because she, a previously shy woman, now holds a camera and feels the responsibility of telling people’s true stories and bringing about a change.”

This is more evident among the younger participants. Many reported that the Dharavi Biennale helped them self-reflect and develop skills. For instance, the non-painters are now sure that everyone can draw and there are those who say that the experience has taught them to be punctual, articulate, expressive, communicative, and confident. Ketan said, “I couldn’t hold a pencil before the workshop. Now maybe I am not the best artist, but I can at least draw.” Twelve-year-old Asmaan said, “I suffered from extreme stage fright and would get anxious every time I was expected to interact with a large group of people. And then I did the play, Ishquiya Dharavi Ishtyle. The regular practice and the performance changed something within me. Now not only am I free of my anxiety, but I am also one of the first to sign up for performances in my school.  Now I love performing on stage!” 

For many women and young girls, the Dharavi Biennale became a medium through which they could negotiate their own space and agency. Social norms in some communities microscopically dictate women’s physical movement and interaction with others. The Dharavi Biennale helped women and girls to socialise and indulge in creative endeavours through the relatively socially acceptable medium of the Artboxes. Not every woman had it easy; several had to negotiate with their families about their devotion of time and energy to the Artboxes, and later to volunteering during the Alley Galli Biennale. Women engaged and negotiated their agency and some even found pride in themselves and acceptance of their choices within their families. One of the young women participants said, “Aside from developing new friendships, we got to learn a lot. My comic is releasing and that makes me so proud. My parents are so proud. They wouldn't allow me to leave the house and this was the perfect way in which I could leave because the workshop venue was so close to home. I’m so proud.”

The Dharavi Biennale has had a considerable impact on the lives of the local artists who created works for the Alley Galli Biennale. Not all completely understood the health angle: they agreed to be part of the project because they were assured of assistance with costs and space for creating and storing the artwork, which was a refreshing change for them. It’s no secret that local artists from Dharavi lack a privileged upbringing. Most are self-taught and formal training is largely unheard of. They have similar ambitions to artists from dissimilar backgrounds: they want to flourish as an artist, they want their art to be displayed in a respected space, they want their art to be consumed and appreciated, and of course they want fame. Dilip said, “I did not have much knowledge, my father is a labourer and he didn’t have enough time to look after me … also because we come from a poor family everything is taken very lightly and is just brushed aside … personally I had the will to do something and become something in life. I had decided that … I’ll make sure that I am huge in this field … after several efforts I managed to learn the tricks in the painting business.” However, these ambitions often remain unfulfilled because of their inability to invest in exhibitions, to buy the relatively expensive raw materials, and to rent space for the production and storage of their artwork. Vandana said, “… I had earlier made art for the Kala Ghoda exhibition and I had paid every expense from my own pocket. So I knew that an exhibition could be a pain! I took up Biennale-related work because they assured me financial support and I thought that there would be no tension because the main issue is the expense. Also, there was the problem of storage – where would I make this big sculpture and where would I store it? They said that they’d take care of that too.”

Kala Colour

Kala Colour

After his art was displayed at the Alley Galli Biennale, Dilip said, “My family was really happy. The exhibition was good and they liked it because they knew that I had always desired to showcase my art at the Jehangir Art Gallery [11]. However, I have never been able to afford to do so … the Biennale gave me a similar opportunity. They gave me a space, they paid the rent for it, they helped me paint and they paid me for it! So they arranged a space for me and paid me to display my art. This was such a big deal! I can’t even begin to tell you how much this means to me. This opportunity has given me so much and I also had a lot of fun during the process … My parents were very happy, they said, ‘See, it was your wish to display your art and it has been displayed. Your wish has come true’ … This exhibition has been an excellent opportunity for me and I feel good about it. So many people from other countries came to visit the Biennale and my friends were in awe that so many people saw my work.”

The local artists from Dharavi found an audience they wouldn’t normally reach, injecting them with self-confidence and increased pride in their often underestimated talents. Vandana said something similar: “I and my work were appreciated by several people. It even appeared in the newspapers! We artists want to become famous, find more work, and make more art. However, we also need people to consume this art, right? We feel that the work we make should be displayed somewhere. If this happens then we feel good, right? The Biennale changed my life because my self-confidence has increased and now I have more orders to work on. I didn’t face any problems while working with them. It felt fantastic!”

It’s not mere health awareness and decreasing incidence of a particular disease that makes a population healthy. Factors like increased confidence, higher self-worth, a positive view about their talent and surroundings have an impact on a community’s wellbeing and eventually their overall health.


Dharavi is at the same time the best and worst of what Mumbai has to offer – the best being its entrepreneurial spirit, work ethic, never-say-never attitude, and the coexistence of a myriad of cultures in a tight space, and the worst being its apathy towards those outside the fringe, the relegation and forgetting of those deemed to not matter, the helplessness of not being able to escape one’s environment. This mix and representation of the best and the worst of the city makes its economic, social, and political fabric one of a kind. Dharavi may not be the largest informal settlement in Asia any more [12], but it remains a complicated space with an even more complicated mass of people. Its relationship with Mumbai is almost reminiscent of the world created by China Miéville in his urban surrealist work, The City & the City, in which two cities occupy the same physical space, but the inhabitants of each city unquestioningly “unsee” the inhabitants of the other. This comparison may seem dark and dystopian, but the symbolism illuminates the truth of daily life in Dharavi and the rest of Mumbai.

Needless to say, Dharavi has its own set of public health problems, the most infamous being the lack of sanitation – the most cited figure estimates that 1440 people share one toilet [13, 14]. Approximately 4000 cases of disease are reported every day [15] and demand for affordable public healthcare far exceeds supply. Given this context, public engagement for health through art seems overly ambitious, especially when coupled with the task of reinventing the image of the area within apathetic minds that have been conditioned to unsee it. The project succeeded in doing the following: it enabled the creation of an environment in which people could converse about health via art, it gave the hidden and underestimated talent within Dharavi a voice of its own, it exposed amateur artists and the people of Dharavi to each other to create not only art, but also lasting relationships in some cases, to a large extent it succeeded in reinventing Dharavi’s image as an artistic space, and most importantly it contributed to the participants’ wellbeing through the process of doing and thinking about art and health.

Although unique, the Dharavi Biennale was still an exercise in public engagement. The two-way processes of decision-making that ideally characterise participation in a public engagement project were compromised in some cases. Bringing together people from different sections of society also came at a cost: patronisation of the people and fetishizing of the slum by some outsiders.

Based on people’s feedback, SNEHA has begun work on the next Dharavi Biennale. Hopefully, in its upcoming avatar it will continue to adhere to its well-meaning principles, while simultaneously checking the risk of patronage masked as benevolence.


[1] Echanove and Srivastava, 2014, Introduction, second paragraph.



[4] The pottery-making section within Dharavi.


[6] The Kala Ghoda Arts Festival is an annual multicultural festival held in Mumbai since 1999.

[7] Ellsberg et al, 2014


[9] Echanove and Srivastava, 2014, Introduction, tenth paragraph.

[10] World Health Organization, 1948.

[11] The most prominent and prestigious art gallery in Mumbai.

[12] The Times Of India, 2011.

[13] The Times Of India, 2006.

[14] The Risky Shift, 2012.

[15] Ibid.


Echanove, M. and Srivastava, R. (2014) The Slum Outside: Elusive Dharavi, [Kindle Edition] URBZ, Strelka Press.

Ellsberg, M., Arango, D., Morton, M., Gennari, F., Kiplesund, S., Contreras, M., & Watts, C. (2014). A Summary of the Evidence and Research Agenda for What Works: A Global Programme to Prevent Violence against Women and Girls June 2014. The Lancet, 385.

Leahy, N.  (2012, July 18). Mumbai’s largest slum: more than meets the eye. The Risky Shift.

Lewis, C. (2011, June 6). Dharavi in Mumbai is no longer Asia’s largest slum. The Times Of India.

Miéville, C. (2011). The City & the City. London: Pan Macmillan UK.

Preamble to the Constitution of the World Health Organization as adopted by the International Health Conference, New York, 19-22 June, 1946; signed on 22 July 1946 by the representatives of 61 States (Official Records of the World Health Organization, no. 2, p. 100) and entered into force on 7 April 1948.

Sinha, K. (2006, November 10). One toilet for 1440 people at Dharavi. The Times Of India.

What is public engagement? (n.d.) National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement.