A Mumbai Slum's Cultural Moment

Dharavi residents gather for the opening performance at the Dharavi Biennale. Image by Matthew Niederhauser. India, 2015.

The Colour Box, one of three exhibition venues for the Dharavi Biennale. Image by Matthew Niederhauser. India, 2015.

“Hope and Hazard” is a 3D collage made of recycled oil tins and photographs that explores Dharavi as an important industrial hub in Mumbai. Image by Matthew Niederhauser. India, 2015.

Visitors explore the Colour Box under the watchful gaze of a mural of the Goddess Parvati by Ram Devineni and Sham Jhadav. Image by Matthew Niederhauser. India, 2015.

Dharavi residents gather around a sculptural installation outside the Shama Building. Image by Matthew Niederhauser. India, 2015.

“Mapping the Heart” is a mural made of fabric cutoffs and other found objects that exposes places where women have experienced violence in Dharavi. Image by Matthew Niederhauser. India, 2015.

Visitors rest beneath textiles decorated using traditional blockprinting techniques next to the “Dream Girls” installation, which explores personal choice in a culture of internalized dress restrictions. Image by Matthew Niederhauser. India, 2015.

Dharavi resident Vandana Kori created a sculpture of a pregnant woman out of injection bottles in order to explore the vulnerability of women bearing children in Dharavi. Image by Matthew Niederhauser. India, 2015.

Architects Prakriti Shukla and Venkat Ashok designed shelving and other furniture pieces in the Trans-Materio-Mutator installation by “upcycling” materials with local Dharavi craftsmen. Image by Matthew Niederhauser. India, 2015.

A set of “Safety Deposit Boxes” dioramas help participants identify physical spaces and activities that make them feel secure amid the chaos of Dharavi. Image by Matthew Niederhauser. India, 2015.

The “Genius of Dharavi” celebrates the tenacity and drive of residents of Dharavi through a series of mock sculptural awards. Image by Matthew Niederhauser. India, 2015.

The Healers of Dharavi installation showcases a series of portraits of those who have dedicated themselves to humanitarian efforts in Dharavi. Image by Matthew Niederhauser. India, 2015.

Dharavi looms ever larger in the popular consciousness of Mumbai. Once a tiny fishing village on the edge of the city, it is now home to upwards of one million people seeking the economic opportunities promised by life in the heart of India’s financial capital.

More recently, Dharavi is also trying to shed its image, so often reinforced by depictions in media and films such as Slumdog Millionaire, as a downtrodden slum. The second edition of the ambitious Dharavi Biennale is catalyzing such efforts through art, design, and performance.

Organized by the Society for Nutrition, Education and Health Action, and running through March 7*, the Dharavi Biennale is largely driven by engagement with locals. Organizers are trying to buck the trend of many biennials around the world that largely ignore connections to surrounding communities. Architects Prakriti Shukla and Venkat Ashok, who constructed furniture for their installation by salvaging or “upcycling” found materials, worked with Dharavi craftsmen for over a month leading up to its opening on February 15.

“We were always interested and amazed in the way Dharavi functions as a unit. It’s a self-sufficient community,” says Ashok. “We interacted with Dharavi in terms of trying to reconstruct, rebuild, and better understand the situation that is Dharavi.”

About 80 percent of Mumbai’s plastic waste passes through Dharavi. Recycling, along with a number of cottage industries, contributes an estimated $650 million annually to the local economy. Both architects emphasize that Mumbai would quickly end up buried under its own waste if it wasn’t for Dharavi.

Three event locations house much of the art scattered amid the labyrinthine streets of Dharavi, but emphasis is also being placed on performances, workshops, and screenings delving into a range of topics such as sexuality, sustainability, domestic violence, sanitation, and social justice. Artist Hetal Shukla devised a tryptic of sculptures to celebrate the “genius” of Dharavi.

“The whole concept of Dharavi is growing in people’s mind,” he says. “People used to be a little snobbish about traveling this way. From a slum category it’s shifting into a kind of cool thing. This is a really important type of event because it’s brought two classes together that you otherwise don’t find.”

All good intentions aside, SNEHA is still concerned with how to measure the qualitative impact of these artistic activities throughout the biennial. Dharavi struggles to sustain sanitation and safety improvements despite longterm engagement with welfare organizations. The improvised nature of housing and industries in the area does not lend itself very well to outside interventions or rehabilitation efforts.

Organizers hope that the biennial can serve as inspiration for creative interventions and empower more residents to take greater personal stakes in improving their community. Otherwise, Dharavi risks succumbing to the same fate as other central slums in Mumbai, where developers are bidding to bulldoze entire neighborhoods in order to capitalize on skyrocketing land values. There's a sense that dynamic Dharavi stands a better chance than most of avoiding being subsumed by an increasingly homogenized urban fabric of high-rises.

CORRECTION FROM CITYLAB: This story originally stated that the Dharavi Biennale runs through March 1. While the last scheduled event is March 1, the Biennale exhibitions are actually open through March 7.