art focus – street art and dharavi

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“Bhaiya, Dharavi chaloge?” (Will you go to Dharavi?)

After being turned down twice, a rickshaw finally agrees to take me on the condition, “I will drop you off at the main road. I won’t get a return passenger from there… You will have to walk to 60 Feet Road by yourself.”

Dharavi is not the usual jaunt or destination for a Mumbaikar, least of all a Hindi speaking woman on her own who quite clearly does not have a clue about the ground realities of the place itself! All I know is some statistics, historical details and that the main road is the 90 Feet Road, and perpendicular to it is the 60 Feet Road which I want to explore for its street art. But more on the art later in the post. 🙂

Tour companies and the media have done much in recent years to promote the abject poverty and indomitable entrepreneurial spirit of India’s self-proclaimed biggest, multi-religious, multi-ethnic slum. It makes for good copy and adventure.

The slum was founded in the 1880s on the periphery of colonial Bombay by the British Raj to house the evicted ‘natives’ and polluting factories from the Fort District, particularly tanneries and potteries. It grew over the years as a result of rural poor migrating to the city, including a large influx of Tamils in the 1920s. Dharavi currently has a total population of around one million living in an area of 217 hectares, making it the most densely populated region on our planet.

A vibrant informal economy worth an annual turnover of over US$ 500 million comprising household enterprises, employs many of the slum dwellers. Leather, textiles and pottery products for global fashion and lifestyle brands are produced here.

On the down side, Dharavi has been subjected to countless epidemics (plague, cholera and tuberculosis) and both floods (2005) and fires (2013) since its inception. A UN Study in November 2006 stated there was only one toilet per 1,440 residents in the slum.

So where does the street art fit in, you may well ask.

Reflecting the spirit of Dharavi is St+Art’s Mumbai project in the neighbourhood. Towards the end of last year renowned street artists from all over the world got together and painted its drab, dark walls in rich vibrant colour and compositions, much like the slum itself decorates the world.

These works are on both sides of the 60 Feet Road, some on facades facing the main artery, while others are tucked into the walls of the water tanks perched on top of the housing societies. Rainbows of colour pour down walls. Gomez’s renaissance painting gazes at the traffic in serene beauty. Note, Tika, Bond, and Seikon create contemporary art, each distinctive and unique, drawing upon local life and materials.

As the slum dwellers go about their days within the decrepit alleys of Dharavi, art in all its beauty and vitality surrounds them paying homage to the ethos of street art—to bring art to the people by turning streets into art galleries and communicating directly with its audiences, free from the confines of the formal art world.

Some understand the art, and see its beauty. Others don’t (I have to cajole my way to get the keys to the roof of Nabi Nagar Co Op Housing Society). But their pleasure and pride stemming from another’s pleasure in it, is unanimous.

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Left: Rainbow, collaborative work, Nabi Nagar; Gomez at Shri Markandeya
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A series of painted water tanks by Bond. The roof is not accessible
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Detail: Bond
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Inside the Nabi Nagar building… Off to school, but I have time for a hello and a smile 🙂
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Climbing the flight of stairs up 8 floorsLeft: Grey dilapidated hallways; Right: A temple on each floor
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The locked roof top of Nabi Nagar is filled with gorgeous, wondrous art!; Right: Tika’s trademark composition of silver leaves and fishes
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Graffiti by local residents ensures ownership and team work
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Seikon’s linear shapes, a refreshing contrast to Note’s ethereal candy trees
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The sea that is Dharavi

– – –

St+Art Mumbai 2014 took place in Dharavi and Bandra; the latter was run as part of the Celebrate Bandra festival.

Note: The above post forms part of my blog’s Giving Back series which explores giving back initiatives in India.

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