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Dharavi’s artistic face

Discarded oil cans display photos depicting the various sources of livelihood at Dharavi. These photographs were taken by children during a workshop.   | Photo Credit: Benita Fernando

Vandana Kori steps in front of a small room within a municipal hospital to address a handful of journalists. Her installation — a life-size sculpture of a pregnant woman made of discarded surgical vials from one of the many recycling units at Dharavi, Mumbai, where she lives — is a star attraction at an art festival.

In a city that prides itself on its vibrant cultural spaces and art shows that usually draw the city’s affluent and well-heeled, inclusivity — be it in art or urban development — is lacking. Kori’s effort is a step towards achieving that. To view her creation, one had to tread the alleys of a populous slum and walk into an old East India building, one of the many locations for the Alley Galli Biennale, a first-of-its-kind community art for health festival at Dharavi.

Dharavi is Mumbai’s elephant in the room. Amid the city’s towering skyscrapers and crowded neighbourhoods lies Asia’s largest informal urban settlement — or slum. With its flourishing recycling industries, workshops, plastic units and zari studios, Dharavi is anything but impoverished. What it is, though, is a highly chaotic settlement that has a method of surviving within its own madness, largely ignored by the rest of the city.

Diversity can be found in every lane of Dharavi — in its people, houses, livelihood, politics and, most importantly, in its problems. In 2001, the Society for Nutrition Education and Health Action (SNEHA) tried to address one of its problems, through a year-long project in 2011. Dekha Undekha (Seen Unseen) helped local residents pursue health awareness through art. Realising its potential, SNEHA, with funding from Wellcome Trust, initiated the ambitious Alley Galli Biennale, or the Dharavi Biennale. Inaugurated on February 15, the festival was named as a joke — a tongue-in-cheek reference to the grandiose art biennales of Venice and Paris.

On day one was a puppet show by Ishara Puppets, in which actors from the neighbourhood sported over-sized papier-mâché masks made during an art workshop. Twenty such workshops had been organised in the preceding two years in what the organisers call Art Boxes or spaces where art and discussions came alive with the mentor artist interacting with the participants and addressing different health issues.

One such interaction was at a comics workshops attended by “an enthusiastic group of schoolchildren, college-goers, young mothers and wives wearing green bangles, and a jovial grandmother with her grandchild,” writes Chaitanya Modak in the preface to Comics Epidemic: An Anthology of Tales from Dharavi. The comics created by the participants on themes such as sexuality, nutrition, suicides and depression during the workshop moderated by Modak were curated and published as a book launched during the festival.

Over the next two weeks, there were performances like Vagina Monologues in Hindi staged by the residents of Dharavi and a play about love and sexuality by the community’s youth. While eight of Dharavi’s home cooks shared their recipes and dishes, another bunch of women shared their thoughts on toilets and women’s safety through a film shot by them. There were also art exhibits created by the locals using recycled material like furniture, hair bands, scarves and pillows displayed at various venues. An open-air music performance by Neeraj Arya’s Kabir Café and Dharavi’s musicians brought the curtains down on March 1.

One of the many exhibitions at the biennale was a series of paintings by resident sign-painters on the “Healers of Dharavi”, showcasing the variety of healers — homeopaths, general physicians, bonesetters and even an amulet-maker — keep a check on people’s health.

Anjali Amma who moved here from Tamil Nadu decades ago wants to tell people how Dharavi’s problems can be solved if the women got together. “Forget the men! But if women came together, we can chase away the bad guys who are a plague to Dharavi. See how these different discarded waste materials have been put together and now have a purpose. Likewise we should come together too to do something meaningful,” she says.

For Nilesh Pendurkar and his friend Sachin Trimoiche though, the festival is a good opportunity to show off — not themselves but their home. “People think Dharavi is dirty; that only the poor live here. Now we can show them that Dharavi has a lot of talented people; that there are so many industries here; that other people too come here in search of work; that Dharavi is Mumbai!”

Healers of Dharavi

In the heart of Dharavi, a variety of healers — homeopaths, general physicians, bonesetters and even an amulet-maker — keep a check on people’s health. One of the many exhibitions at the Alley Galli Beinnale was a series of paintings by resident sign-painters on the “Healers of Dharavi”. Prominent among them are:

Mahalingam Nadar, Dharavi’s busiest masseur. Originally from Tamil Nadu, he arrived in Dharavi 10 years ago. He identifies ailments by feeling his client’s pulse.

Mohamed Salim, a bonesetter who has been treating orthopaedic complaints for the past 12 years. Bonesetting has been the traditional occupation of his family for generations.

Dr. S.M. Merchant is a GP who has been practicing in Dharavi for nearly 40 years. Trained at JJ Hospital, Mumbai, he treats fevers, colds, respiratory illnesses and addiction on a daily basis.

Dr. Chang is Dharavi’s first dentist. He offers low-cost treatment to local residents ever since he set up his clinic 35 years ago.

Dr. Renu Marwah has been practising acupressure for 20 years. She combines her practice with natural remedies and nearly 80 per cent of those whom she treats for calcium-deficiency and related ailments are women.

Dr. Vidya Gajakosh is an Ayurvedic practioner who specialises in treating anorectal disorders. She has been practising in Dharavi for nearly 18 years.

Abdul Azim Kazi is an amulet maker whose help is sought by those who are ill, unemployed or seeking resolutions in personal problems. He learnt amulet-making from his mother and is a strong believer in the power of medicine and prayer.

Dr. Poonam Talreja is a homeopath and the majority of her patients who complain of chronic fatigue and joint pains are women.

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Printable version | May 12, 2021 1:26:48 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/urbanscape-dharavis-artistic-face/article7039927.ece

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