The conversation is not going the way I wanted.
“And why should I give the keys of the building terrace to you?”
“We want to see the art painted on the terrace of your building?”
“The terrace is not safe. You could fall over.”
“We’ll be very careful. We only want to see the art work there.”
“That is what everyone says.” The office bearer of the Nabi Nagar Co-op. Housing Society at Dharavi (Mumbai) glares at my friends and me and launches into a tirade about people pestering him for keys to the terrace all the time, how it was no longer safe for the building children as they wanted to go to the terrace, how it was a nuisance, etc.
We listen to him and commiserate with him and promise to be very careful and not allow any children up on the terrace with us. But he isn’t done ranting and after what seemed like a long time, he runs out of steam and grudgingly hands over the keys to us.
As we thank him, he says with a sly smile, “The lift doesn’t work. You’ll have to take the stairs all the way up to the terrace on the 9th floor.”
Dharavi was the second location chosen by the St+art India Foundation for St+Art Mumbai 2014 (7-30 November) festival, wherein 20 renowned street artists from India and abroad showcased their work. While I had seen the art work at Bandra, the other location, as part of a curated walk in November last year, I was able to visit Dharavi only earlier this year.
It was a warm afternoon in March when we turned into the 60 Feet Road of Dharavi. This long and winding road cuts through the area, connecting Mahim and Sion. This was my first time in Dharavi, in the sense that though I had passed through Dharavi umpteen number of times, this was the first time I am actually visiting it.
At that time of the afternoon, the traffic wasn’t too heavy and it was possible to look around for the art work instead of keeping an eye out for traffic. We walked past scrap shops, tea stalls, roadside shrines, cycle repair shops… with no sign of any art. At an intersection, a tour group made up entirely of international tourists crossed us and I visibly winced when the tour guide spoke about the “Jai Ho” spirit of Dharavi to them.
The first of the murals we saw was on the terrace of a multi-storied building, their colours clearly visible through the haze. Painted on the water tanks of the building, the comparative freshness of the colours were in stark contrast to the grimy, exteriors of the building.
Then we saw the next one, a large mural spanning three storeys — that of a woman with a crow — on the façade of the Sri Markandeya Coop. Housing Society. The colours of this stunning mural were such that it stood out and yet, blended in beautifully with the background and surroundings.
We tried to gain access to go to the terrace to see the art work on the water tanks, but did not succeed. Instead, we were directed to go across the street to Nabi Nagar Co-op. Housing Society, whose terrace supposedly had art as well. Initially, we were not too sure if we were being given the right information as we couldn’t see anything from the ground below. It didn’t help that some people said with conviction that there was nothing on the terrace and some other people said with equal conviction that there was art work ! We took a chance, and as I narrated at the beginning of this post, were lucky to get the keys this time.
We huffed and puffed our way up to the building’s terrace to find out that not only did it have some works of art, it also had a fantastic view of the area. Thanks to my camera’s zoom lens, I could even see the art painted on the water tanks of the building opposite !
From where I was standing, Dharavi stretched out below me in densely packed dwellings pierced by multi-storied buildings in all directions. It was easy to see and understand why Dharavi was considered to be among the densest clusters in India (and perhaps the world as well).
Dharavi’s claims of being the entrepreneurial hub of Mumbai may be true; but so are its poor socio-economic indicators. While I did not see any visible poverty in my walk down the 60 ft road, I could sense it in the grim looks of people, in the snatches of conversations I heard, in the little roads leading away from the road and into shanties… it was a glimpse, but it was enough. The tragedy of a place like Dharavi is that it is either romanticised (like conducted slum tours) or it is wished away and ignored by civic authorities and residents.
The multi-storied buildings, built as part of the redevelopment plan for the area, look depressing with their grimy and discoloured facades and airless layout. I could barely see any green in the concrete and brick jungle below me ! The St+Art may have looked bright and fresh when they were first painted, but are no longer appealing. For the residents too, the novelty of having something to brighten up their surroundings appeared to have worn off. 😦
Normally, art cheers me up and is a mood lifter. But in Dharavi, it set me off with a lot of questions about the purpose of art and its relevance in place like this. About Dharavi itself and its people… Lots to think about there.
More Street Art from Mumbai: The writing on the wall | Nagrana Lane’s secrets | Bollywood on the walls | A fantasy world at Chapel Road | The St+art invasion of Bandra and a curated walk | Street art @ Reay Road