House Warming, Ghar Pe

On that narrow lane off 90 Feet Road in Dharavi, a truck can block all view ahead. Yet, in such a place, a curious crowd had gathered under a yellow shamiana that Saturday evening. There were local women and children dressed in their shiny best. There were those from lands beyond Dharavi in their ethnic kurtas and cool tees. Passersby wondered what all the commotion was about. And as fleeting glances deepened into interest and the crowd spilled into the street, we knew that this was going to be one exhilarating evening.

The assembled had gathered to attend an exhibition on health.We were calling the exhibition Ghar Pe (At Home) and it was an installation of art pieces made by our participants. Every piece evoked a particular aspect of health and was the culmination of almost a year’s efforts in creativity, conversations and skill acquirement. Mosquitoes embroidered on windows, photographs spread on utensils and dreams moulded into ceramic slippers were just some of the examples of household items that were afflicted by a healthy dose of art.

The inaugural was preceded by a frenzy of photos taken by and of the participants of Dekha Undekha. We would have continued with glee into the night had it not been for the gentle intervention of Jaya Nuty who hosted the programme. For the inaugural, Dr. Shanti Pantavaidya traced the journey of every woman, the SNEHA youth group performed a spirited Marathi street play on safe sexual practices and those who had put together the exhibition, through art or administration, were felicitated.

The hall that is part of Ganesh Vidya Mandir was painted a turquoise green and saw almost two hundred and fifty visitors that evening. Among those who burst with excitement into the exhibition was Akku Behn, a middle aged sweeper from the neighbourhood. For Akku Behn, who had never been to an art exhibition before, the art pieces made by our participants led her to say that it is great that women are doing something different and it is important that women do more such things in their lives. And then in the crowd, was the little boy who wanted a fabric globe off a dream slipper to play with. And there was the sound of many an air kiss blown into the noisy room.

The artists who had just been felicitated were exuberant when they saw people paying close attention to their art pieces. This was yet another moment when a craftswoman metamorphoses into an artist and they recount a terrific time explaining their art to curious visitors. Zarina from the photography group feels that this exhibition is sure to bring about change in the neighbourhood.

As the street lights came out, the crowd  ventured outdoors. But we could see that everyone who had come there that evening returned with a bit of turquoise.


Ghar Pe opened on 25th February 2012 and is on till 9th March 2012. If you haven’t stepped in yet, do so!

Moving In

This house shall be green. With shades of blue infused. It shall be a shell of turquoise with elements of white. This is the colour that we paint on the walls of our houses. You take a walk on the streets of Dharavi and you will soon find a house just like ours. We announce that we are here.

This house shall have a bed, a cupboard, a television and a stove. It shall have real furniture and each piece will tell a story and share a memory. The furniture is not perfect; its material is replaced with experience. The house shall have that which makes it a home.

This house shall be my body. Everything in it, from the big pieces to the small, is symbolic of what I am. My emotions, my stress, my ill health, my happiness, my leisure, my diet – all of these are embedded into the house. Watch me as I grow into you.

This house shall be a playground. It shall have things rising from the floor and suspended from the ceiling. You will want to play, to explore, to touch, to feel and to take in every colour that our artists put into the furniture. It is bound to stir up your curiosity.

This house shall also be a bridge. People have conversed and dialogues have emerged. People will argue while discussing it and people will agree while building it. It will connect that which was considered disparate. Bonds will be forged, ties will be made.

This house shall gather dust. It shall get crowded. It shall be noisy.

This house shall be a beginning.

A Shot at Kala Ghoda

Asma B. Qasim, Nandita Kumar and Sunita Anthony D'Souza (from left to right)

Our feisty photographers were at The Kala Ghoda Festival 2012 (KGF) to showcase the works of the photography team of Dekha Undekha. A couple of days earlier, it had been hectic – selecting the photos, printing, mounting and readying the exhibition stall. A mad rush later, Sunita D’ Souza and Asma B. Qasim found themselves representing their team and strolling down the unusually crowded Rampart Row.

The exhibition at Kala Ghoda was the resultant effort of mentor-photojournalist Sudharak Olwe’s workshops with the photography team. The photographs chosen for the exhibition highlighted a slice of Dharavi life. The joys and travails of monsoon, children playing, mothers and populous homes were powerful stories of vulnerable humanity living in harsh, extreme conditions.

It was quite a thrill to see the many followers of the KGF take in the poignant photos. Asma and Sunita asked onlookers for their reactions to the photography exhibition. For most people at the KGF, Dharavi is a place they pass en route to work. To stop and observe the more detailed conditions of life over there was something they did not do very often.

Photographs have the power of revealing the truth in a passing moment. Abhijeet Umathe, who was there with his family, remarked how the photographs showed the indifference of the people living in Dharavi. “Their indifference is different from ours. They live in abject conditions but do not seem to mind it all. For example, this boy is playing cricket right in the middle of a dump yard,” he continued pointing to one of the photos. While Abijeet seemed moved, his five year old daughter begged to differ.

The possibility of indifferent voyeurism always threatens such an exhibition. Dharavi, as the centre of sordidness and poverty, could induce pity in the audience. But Sunita and Asma do not agree with this. In fact, what they noticed at the KGF was that people really connected with the events in the photos. Sunita mentions how viewers loved the mother and child photos and Asma observes that when people saw the photos in which children played and were reminded of their childhood days. Both went on to add that even at the risk of voyeurism, it is important to highlight the conditions in which people live in Dharavi. Much change is required.

For these two ladies, the exhibition was a real eye opener. Asma says that she was offered a compliment that “There is a lot of energy in your photos.” But, when you see passersby click photos of your photographs, there is really no need for a greater compliment.

Abhijeet Umathe and his daughter at the KGF

Our photography group at the KGF!

SNEHA invites you to Dekha Andekha/Seen Unseen, an exhibition of photographs on life and health in urban slums. These photographs have been shot by Sunita, Komal, Asma and Zarina, women survivors of domestic violence and Rohit and Rupesh, young community volunteers trained by SNEHA. The photographers have been trained by photojournalist Sudharak Olwe. 
On from the 4th to the 12th of February 2012 at the Kalaghoda Arts Festival. Pavement Gallery opposite Joss.
Please do visit the exhibition to encourage the budding photographers.

Ghar Pe by Dekha Undekha

Art pieces by the participants is being showcased at our exhibition “Ghar Pe”. 

Do come home. It is going to be fun, creative, informative and turquoise in colour! 


My Kith and Kiln

After four in the evening, you wonder how it is that the dogs sleep so serenely in Kumbharwada, Dharavi. Smoke, slowly swirling and darkly stinging, engulfs the place as the potter community set fire to their kilns. People move into the interior of their houses, shops pull down tarpaulin curtains and ends of sarees become futile gas masks. It looks dismal but it is the smell of livelihood in the air.

Ashwin Solanki, a potter, makes little terracotta pots for a dairy farm in Marine Lines. He makes 300 of these everyday and fires them in the evening. A typical firing involves a stacking of the following: a metal sheet in the base, a crowd of the pots, cotton, mill waste and leather waste. The fuel used is highly toxic as the mill waste is soaked in oil and chemicals. After a firing, Ashwin says he is so nauseated by the fumes that he can hardly have dinner and simply sleeps it off.

Daksha, his relative, has been dealing with an affected throat for the past three months. Her larynx burns and she has developed a husky voice. She has visited a doctor once but medicines have not helped due to the constant exposure to the fumes in the environment. And this is not the first time this has happened to her. She now sounds a lot like Rani Mukherjee, but misses her own voice.

Longevity is affected among the kumbhars, what with many of them developing tuberculosis, cancer and asthma. Spells of cough and cold are a common affair here. There is local talk of a pregnant woman who complained to the police about the fumes affecting her, but the police allegedly supported the potters. While firing, the men are not provided with any masks. Malaria, on the other hand, is not a threat here as the smoke clears the air of the diminutive mosquito. During the monsoon, however, it is a different story.

The current method of firing followed by the kumbhars is one they have followed for generations. They are aware of the non-hazardous gas kilns but are slow to switch over. The earthen kilns or bhattis are lethal but they are also the most efficient method of firing. Products are fired in bulk whereas in a gas kiln fewer pieces can be loaded. 10 kgs of industrial waste cost Rs. 60 whereas a commercial gas cylinder costs Rs. 1300. Domestic gas cylinders, which cost Rs. 400 apiece, are not permitted for commercial use. The ratios are self-revelatory for the potters’ fidelity to traditional kilns. No smoke gets into their eyes.

While cleaner fuel could be a solution, Ashwin knows that a government subsidy on commercial gas cylinders is the key. This could relieve the toxicity levels of the place by encouraging the potters to adopt gas kilns. This means that primarily gas kilns will have to be introduced into their process but they are financially thwarted to do so.

When Ashwin looks at his two year old niece, he worries about the future. He says that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to leave this line of business. The little girl plays around in the street and rubs her eyes red as evening sets. Till the dawn of better provisions and subsidies, a potter dreams on.

2011 in review

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 1,200 times in 2011. If it were a cable car, it would take about 20 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

A Little Superstitious

In the beginning, before science, there was superstition. Or so we think. That we believe in horoscopes, breaking mirrors, black cats, sneezes and ‘right foot first’ in the age of the Android is closer to the truth. In essence, superstition indicates the limit of science and serves the purpose of understanding forces that lie beyond human control and comprehension. This could be the future, death, disease, natural occurrences or, in many cases, the pretty girl who has been giving you mixed signals.

Over the course of the sessions that we have been holding with all our participants, we have been enlightened of many local superstitions.

From the textile group, Rohini and Farheen (name changed for privacy) have similar tales to tell. Rohini hails from Dhapoli on the Konkan coast. She recounts the time when her son cried regularly everyday from 11.30 p.m. to 12.30 a.m. She was told by locals that it was probably a water deity that was troubling and teasing her son as her house was near the beach. An offering of flowers and haldi kumkum was made to appease the water goddess, thus signalling an end to her son’s crying spells. Farheen’s year old daughter too kept crying every night. A religious doctor divined that a dead girl’s spirit from the house opposite had taken a liking to the daughter and was thus teasing her and playing with her every night. The child was given some holy water and a taveez was tied around her hand. Within days, the girl slept soundly every night.

Both these women had first approached local doctors in the area who could not diagnose the cause and whose prescriptions had not worked. The breakdown of the scientific approach heralded the rise of superstitions. Most of our participants believe that the supernatural world exists alongside the natural world. The women even recount cases in which a taveez has cured malaria or a baba has squeezed jaundice out through a child’s finger nails.

Much superstition is of course attached to the menstrual cycle. The potters from Kumbharwada, Dharavi, believe that if a woman who is menstruating touches clay, then the earthenware made from that clay shall break easily. Mehzabeen, a seamstress, tells us that tying a black thread around your toe can delay your periods.

A couple of them even recount rendezvous with seductive spirits. Rohit Pachrane, a photography enthusiast from Dharavi, swears he saw a woman with long hair, green bangles and a white saree outside his house. This Mohini, a succubus of sorts, is popularly believed to put men into a trance and lure them to their death. Zeenat, from the textile group, remembers how her father, a fisherman, was returning from fishing when he saw a beautifully dressed woman. He wished to speak with her but didn’t do so luckily. He went to a restaurant and on narrating his meeting was told that he had done a wise thing.

Zarina, from the photography group, speaks of the black magic that is prevalent in much of Dharavi. Finding objects of voodoo such as a lime bloodied with kumkum and stuck with pins all over are common findings meant to bring you the worst kind of bad luck. In the event of finding such a voodoo article, one is advised to hit it with a slipper thus annulling its effect. Simple.

The most common reasons for the prevalence of superstition are ignorance and fear. Ignorance, the kind which has nothing to do with how educated you are. Just think of the next time you check your daily horoscope which promises you a promotion.

The Dream Slippers

The Ceramics group of the Dekha Undekha initiative has been helping locals from the potter community at Kumbharwada, Dharavi to make clay artifacts. One of their projects was to translate their dreams onto clay slippers. From dust to dreams!

Past attempts at pottery by the ceramics group. Seen in this photo are Parvati (left) and Daksha.

Daksha making one of her dreams on the slippers - a rose garden!

Mentor Rashi's dream: a traffic-less road. Truly a dream in Mumbai!!

Parvati would love to feed the birds...

...while mentor Neha dreams of climbing the tallest peak.

to fly a kite! Ashwin's dream.

detail of Ashwin's kite. The string is a copper wire. Talk about Ashwin's innovation and resourcefulness.

Mamta, Ashwin's sister and a primary schoolteacher, would so love to run a school of her own someday

Rashi's dream, a cat. Purr!

All this and more on Facebook at 🙂

Shopping Rhymes


Susie went to Dadar west

Hoping to find the very best

Of all the things that were on sale –

Pots and pans and plates and pails.


Through the busy streets she went

Like a cop on a mission sent

She met a man in a small shop

Who sat like a god on a hill top.


Susie said to the man

“Show me all that you can!”

So he sold some potent stuff

Which she liked very much.


A pickle jar she hunted down

White in colour with a ring of brown

A little kettle, some huge spoons

And massive sieves made of wood

With a frame of shiny steel

She struck a very good deal

At last she threw in a rolling pin

And the man said “It’s win-win.”


The sun was still high when Susie had won

She told herself, “Job well done!”

And to Dharavi she rode away

To tell this tale another day!


To Chor Bazaar Nandita strode

Hoping to find some cheap store

With a glint in her eye and some say

Nandita swore she would have her way.


The shops were many but the prices steep

Antiques aren’t really that cheap

Change of plans, Nandita left

Minutes away, some wares were kept.


Maulana Azad road was rich

With the things that people ditch

Nandita found what she sought

At prices cheap by the lot.


A dusty shelf for a start

A slender door to depart

A cupboard fit for a queen

Were among the things she had seen.


After many a game of sly deception

The men won’t give her the next reception

For the prices went from twos to halves

And Nandita had her way at last.


She drove to SNEHA a happy woman

And there on the roads was a good omen

Old windows lay with no one to care

Now stacked on her cab, free of fare!


To apna Hill Road Priya went

Full of work and totally spent

But she had made her mind up that day

That she would buy some cloth anyway.


Some cloth the women had asked

To finish their happy sewing task

Something bright and something cheery

For of old colours they were weary.


So Priya saw some happy shades

Of all things bright and none too pale

Some greens, some pinks and some yellow

To cheer the women who had gone too mellow.


She was sure Bubbly would like the stripes

So she bought some different types

Of cloth for the women to share

To weave their dreams, if they dare.