Conversations: What is Your Safe Space?

At the Colour Box, Dharavi women met over a number of weekends to place little toys and dolls in boxes. These compartments represented their happy places, their safe spaces. Part of the Dharavi Biennale’s Cabinet of Curiosities curated by Supriya Menon, the Safe Space Boxes are transparent cases that offer a peek into women’s lives. Whether it is a zoo or a kitchen, these are places where they feel safest and therefore happiest. Among many questions, the most important is, what do you do when you feel unsafe in your own home?

Some snippets from our conversations:

“The tap needed to be repaired, but when the plumber came home I was nervous. What if he… what if he tries doing something wrong to me? And then, as he was repairing the tap, I asked myself why I was feeling so afraid? I could tackle this man if he attempted to do something to me. Still, I was alone at home and I felt weak. Moreover, we are forced to think of every man as a potential perpetrator. You feel threatened in general all the time.”

“I love Dharavi because all my Tamil festivals are celebrated here.”

“I used to love my native place, but I love Dharavi more since people from all over the country live here.”

“Why can’t a man wait? Most Dharavi houses are a single room where we eat, watch television, study and sleep. There is no privacy for sex. So we naturally turn down our husbands when they want to have sex. Sadly, they accuse us of not having any interest in sex because they think we are sleeping with others.”

“I love Dharavi because my maika is here, my house is here, my in-laws stay here and my work is here!”

“My sister’s father-in-law has this routine of exercising every morning in nothing but his underwear. My sister feels so uncomfortable, but she can’t complain to anyone. Will her husband be okay if she complains about his father? Moreover, the father-in-law sits every morning strategically near a mirror on which he can see my sister change clothes in the next room. Do you suffer as a woman in your own house?”

“I don’t like staying in my house. I love to travel… So, I go to my village, the Mahim Dargah, Ratnagiri, Gorakhpur, Juhu Chowpatty…!”

“The zoo…I love the zoo. I love going to places.”

“On some days, when I’m too stressed out or anxious I love to sit by myself on the terrace of our house. I don’t like to talk to anyone then. If I can’t go to the terrace, I stay at home and watch TV or listen to some music. I need to be silent then.”

“I love the kitchen. My mother and I work in there.”

“It is quiet when my six children are away at school. I can sit at home and do some crotchet then. When they are back things at home are tense again.”

Money, Food, Children

summertime advertising tech

On the road with 13-year-old Farida and her best friend Ayesha. We are on our way to finish off a film shoot. Hungry and sweaty under the afternoon sun, but not wanting to waste time, we buy ourselves a pack of choco-chip biscuits, the name of which I have never heard before.

After munching the biscuits, and dropping a few on the way, we are obviously thirsty. Farida suggests that we grab some roadside vendor’s lime juice for Rs. 5. She vouches not only for its refreshing taste, but makes it sound like some elixir of immortality. I stoutly refuse to swim in unknown waters, but since the girls seem keen on lime juice I consider going to a restaurant. The only restaurant in the vicinity is unfortunately attached to a bar, and it seems properly improper to take young girls to a place where men might be mixing desi mojitos. We finally settle for a healthy option: tender coconut water.

Three of us share two coconuts. 10-year-old Ayesha refuses to have one for herself. Though it is technically my treat, the shy girl hesitates on hearing the price. One coconut for Rs. 30 is just too much. She says that her mother would never allow her to spend that much money on a drink and continues to sip from Farida’s.

The elder Farida then tells us about some of the things she eats when she finishes school. Her mother gives her Rs. 10 every day and that, she says, is enough to quell her after-school hunger-pangs. For Rs. 5 she gets either a small apple or a custard apple from the fruit-seller (images of shrivelled up custard-apples come to my jaundiced mind). For the remaining Rs. 5 she gets a sumptuous slice of watermelon or her favourite lime juice. Seeing my raised eyebrow, she quickly rescues herself by lying, “But I prefer watermelon, of course.” As Farida breaks down the economics of her food expenditure, you realise that those ten rupees are husbanded carefully. She thinks her choices are more nutritious that what other kids might be buying. And sometimes a friend pitches in her pocket-money and the girls are able to buy something more substantial.

Ayesha, on the other hand, comes from more impoverished circumstances and does not have the luxury of Rs. 10 every day. Farida confesses that Ayesha is in fact recovering from dengue, but her mother finds buying the medicines too expensive.

At the end of the shoot, I treat the girls to some chocolates. Ayesha didn’t want a Rs. 10 chocolate. She wanted one for just half that price.

Dharavi ka Diwali


It is the busiest season of the year in Kumbharwada, the settlement of potters in Dharavi. Women repeatedly dip diyas into red paint, older women have small stalls on 90 Feet Road and have no time for wasteful chit-chat, perspiring men have heated telephonic arguments about diya orders, and broken pieces of earthenware are scattered across the lanes: it’s business and busy-ness. As in the rest of the city, Diwali arrangements are in full swing, and preparation for Kumbharwada families means not just shopping, but also selling. For the three months leading up to Diwali, families are immersed in the household business of making earthenware – from diyas to idols – for local markets and for export.


It is the busiest season of the year in Kumbharwada, the settlement of potters in Dharavi. Women repeatedly dip diyas into red paint, older women have small stalls on 90 Feet Road and have no time for wasteful chit-chat, perspiring men have heated telephonic arguments about diya orders, and broken pieces of earthenware are scattered across the lanes: it’s business and busy-ness. As in the rest of the city, Diwali arrangements are in full swing, and preparation for Kumbharwada families means not just shopping, but also selling. For the three months leading up to Diwali, families are immersed in the household business of making earthenware – from diyas to idols – for local markets and for export.


For those who lack the nimble movements required for mehendi designing, painting diyas is a useful business. Bhanu Devanand Tak, a 40-year-old mother of two, paints pots and about a hundred diyas every day between household chores. She started painting diyas a few years after her marriage and, ten Diwalis later, Bhanu figures she must have painted more than 2 lakh to date. “Earlier, I was only painting diyas and a hundred diyas fetched me Rs. 10. Now I have picked up some decoration techniques as well and that helps me earn twenty bucks more,” she says. The money she earns doing this every year, around Rs. 15,000, is used for buying Diwali sweets and dresses for her children.


While the earnings from such voluminous orders of diyas seem small, homemakers like Bhanu are undeterred. She says, “My whole day is spent this way. I don’t need to go anywhere to find work and I can manage the household as well. Besides, this keeps me occupied and I don’t indulge in useless neighbourhood gossip this way.” She gives the example of her mother, who makes a living making festival sweets such as puranpoli and rotis for customers on regular days. As an aside, Bhanu adds that she would like to do “something else someday” when her children get jobs of their own.


Much like Bhanu, a stern old timer called Veni Behn also picked up diya decoration skills from her mother-in-law after she got married. Her family lives in the upper story of the house and the ground floor has been converted into something like a production unit, with wrapping paper, paints and a variety of colourful earthenware strewn around. A bunch of women, including Veni’s daughter-in-law, have their noses buried in their work. Veni’s son Jitendra Valji comes downstairs to investigate the progress they have made and seems pleased. Veni says that women are more talented when it comes to diya decorations. Her son adds that this is a family business in which everyone has a part of play. He runs a store in Thane and complains that the festive earthenware market has been affected by the “Made in China” label found on serial lights and wax candles.


But the festival of lights is also the bringer of smoke to Kumbharwada. Given the nature of the work, most houses have an accompanying kiln and a water-filled clay-pit. This might be a poetic meeting of the elements, but the kilns burn avidly to produce huge quantities of diyas for Diwali. Doors open onto fumes and most women decorate Diwali wares in the midst of a grey haze.

Hawa Toya, a jolly 60-year-old, is among the Muslim potters who also make diyas for Diwali. She lives in Kutch and is visiting her sons in Kumbharwada. “Over there, we have kilns under the earth, and it is so hot that just a match is enough to light up an entire kiln. We use acacia branches as fuel, unlike the hazardous industrial waste that is used in Kumbharwada. It is less polluting,” she says.


Nevertheless, most Kumbharwada residents are fiercely protective of their smoke-ridden locality, especially in the wake of the redevelopment proposal. Instead of looking at the respiratory and eye problems brought about by the smoke, they prefer to see their glass as half-full. One woman points out that the smoke rids the area of mosquitoes, which could have been prevalent in the clay pits. She says, “This smoke is our livelihood. How can we blame the kilns?”

The Toilet Story in Dharavi

A 2006 UNDP Human Development Report made an almost unbelievable estimate of one toilet for every 1440 people in Dharavi. It went on to describe the situation: “In the rainy season, streets, lacking drainage, become channels for filthy water carrying human excrement.” “People in Dharavi rely on wells, tankers or unsafe sources for their drinking water. In a typical case, 15 families share one tap that works for two hours a day.” If reports are not enough, there was the 2008 flim Slumdog Millionaires’s exaggerated graphic depiction of the boy-jumping-into-a-shit-hole scene in Dharavi.

Toilets, sanitation and the recent rise in reported rape cases across the nation that coincide with this lack of toilet facilities, made us want to get some insider stories through candid conversations with Dharavi Biennale participants. Anjali Amma, around 55 years old, lives in Pila Bangla in a house right next to a common toilet block. Her son got married earlier this year and she was worried about wedding guests commenting on the mucky state of the toilets. Unable to bear the stench, she decided to do her part by cleaning them herself. “Everybody praises me for it, but no one comes forward to clean the toilets. I couldn’t dream of my son’s wedding taking place without a clean loo next door,” she says.

worst building

The state of disrepair of common toilet units is a familiar story. While the adjectives describing them are unpleasant to the senses, the list of problems is specific: lack of water supply, safety hazards for women and children, poor maintenance and lack of a sense of sanitation. The overarching problem seems to be that there are very few toilets in working condition and many people who need them.

Moreover, what are the choices that Dharavi people make? The desire to reside in a central location of Mumbai like Dharavi has overpowered the necessity to leave room to build more toilets. The choice residents make is to stand in long queues rather than relinquish their home space. It raises a debatable question on urban health on which is a more serious predicament: living in dingy small spaces that breed diseases or using badly maintained common toilet blocks.

If the authorities do not do their part to keep the toilets clean, residents like Anjali Amma have taken matters into their own hands. She and her neighbours each put in Rs. 30 every month (one rupee per day) and take turns to clean the toilets themselves. She has even taken the initiative of making a lock for the toilets so those with no interest in paying up do not misuse them. Unfortunately they keep breaking the locks, she says.

Malati Murkar, a resident of New Kamala Nagar near the polluted Mithi river, says that she and her neighbours contributed Rs. 500 each some years ago so that they could have a common, exclusive toilet block. While they deal with the problem of broken locks, they still manage to maintain the sanitation. “We take water and bleaching powder from home every weekend and wash the toilet. Every lady who uses it washes it,” she says. One may wonder why the men in their families don’t help their wives, mothers, daughters and sisters, but Malati recalls that when her two sons were younger they would have to be careful venturing out at night to use the nearby toilet.

19 year old Saiba Kadir also hesitates to use common toilets and it is normal for women visit the toilets in groups. Her younger sister Fareeda, who is 13, says that she is unafraid, although she has heard of ‘bad things’ happening to girls who go to the toilets alone at night. She chuckles and says, “I travel all alone to my school in Bandra by train. I am usually the one who reassures my sister if we are ever alone in a place.”

Luckily, the long lines outside their local toilets mean that there are people around, even at midnight. Bhagyashree Alkunte, a friend and neighbour, says that so many people need to use them before and after dinner that four toilets can’t possibly meet the needs of the area. Saiba says that they have requested (she doesn’t know to whom) a toilet to be built above the gutters, but her family and neighbours are rethinking the idea because the gutters flood in the monsoons.

Another group of girls, who did not wish to be named, say that the visiting the toilets in the wee hours of the morning is a golden opportunity for them for some girl-talk. Living in mostly one-room houses where privacy is hard to come by, stepping out to use the toilets is a good excuse to share the latest neighbourhood gossip on lovers and relationships and nagging in-laws. One girl says that she takes her mobile phone with her and makes a quick good morning call to her boyfriend in the privacy of the loo.

Sitaram Kharat, Dharavi Biennale’s logistician, feels that private-public partnerships may be the way to go for improved and safe sanitation services. In his locality, Naik Nagar, an NGO named  SPARC teamed up with the MHADA some years ago to set up three well maintained block of toilets that are rumoured to be some of the best in Dharavi. Each block has about 22 toilets with regular water supply. “Back in the 1990’s, people in my locality used the BMC’s open maidan as a toilet. When the BMC stationed a construction company’s on-site office in the maidan, that is when the need for an actual toilet arose. Before that, could you believe that people in my locality didn’t actually use a toilet?” he wonders.

Health Themes at Dharavi Ganesh Mandals

Ganpati fever hit the city earlier this week and Dharavi was no exception. Ganpati mandals appeared at various locations, as many as six on congested 60 Feet Road. Traffic snarls and the incessant rains added to the chaos, but festival attendees were undeterred. It is now well known that most mandals also host a theme-based light-and-sound show, usually on a socially relevant cause, so that the religious can also be responsible citizens. At the Dharavi Biennale, we went in search of mandals that were spreading awareness on health, sanitation or gender issues. Just like the devout, we walked from mandal to mandal, taking in the resplendent gods and elaborate set designs.


Over at the enthusiastic Hanuman Seva Mandal at Kala Killa, an arrangement of handpainted boards was set up like an orchestra. As a tribute to a 12 year old boy who had succumbed to dengue last year, the mandal’s agenda was to make more people in the area aware of the life-threatening risks posed by vector-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue. Nikhil Bobade, a 21 year old college graduate, was proud of the work that he and his group had done. 56 controls for spotlights were operated singlehandedly. Giant paper mosquitoes hung overhead, posters on the importance of sanitation mixed with Tom-and-Jerry were all around and a long mosquito net was spread across the room like a football goalpost. “Our script has everything – right from the ways by which malaria spreads to preventive measures. Malaria and dengue happen everywhere, but people feel it happens first in Dharavi. Do you know that the famous filmmaker Yash Chopra also died of malaria?” said Nikhil. This year the mandal is distributing 1000 dustbins to encourage proper waste disposal in their locality.


Last year, the Hanuman Seva Mandal had hosted a similar show on organ donation and enthralled the crowds. They had said that organ donation could be a more purposeful end to a life than burning on a pyre. Some might not agree, but it was an important contemporary message.

As part of our art activities, children gathered at selected mandals and participated in drawing competitions on domestic violence, good food/bad food and malaria. While we were apprehensive that they might be too young to visually take on themes like these, the young artists were confident and kept themselves thoroughly entertained. The mandal organizers were also thrilled to have activities running on otherwise sleepy afternoons.


In Dharavi, as in many parts of Mumbai, religious activities such as these can play a vital role in shaping people’s views. The Ganpati mandals embody art in its simpler and perhaps more commercial forms but effectively convey an underlying message on health and social issues. With the right kind of attitude that balances health and social messaging with entertainment, the mandals can go a long way in public engagement. Religion, art and science intersect on these platforms and what could be a better way of stating that cleanliness is next to godliness?

Two Doors, Two Choices

There is a dimly-lit community centre with two rooms at Kumbharwada, Dharavi. You reach it after treading clayey paths where workers labour over sacks of mud meant for the potter community. One room is for visits from an allopathy doctor and in the other is a homeopath. No signs advertise the services available at the community centre, but there is a steady trickle of patients, mostly elderly. They enter in a moment of suspense: which door will they choose? Allopathy or homeopathy?

The clinics are part of a charitable trust, the Pramila and Harishkumar Foundation, set up by homeopath Dr Geeta Punjabi in 2009. The 74-year-old veteran meant them to cater for the poor in Dharavi so that they could get quick relief at subsidised rates. The homeopathy centre is currently attended by Dr Poonam Talreja, who has been there since 2010. Her clinic is painted a bright shade of green and most of the space is taken up by trays of bottles of homeopathic medicines. It’s hard to find her unoccupied. As each patient consults her, the conversation is punctuated by the pitter-patter of raindrops on the asbestos roof. The patients queueing outside grumble impatiently in low voices, but are glad that the doctor gives each of them a decent amount of time.


Dr Talreja says that she has seen some challenging cases cured with homeopathy. “We don’t try to heal just a particular organ, but rather improve the overall immunity of the patient. We won’t claim that all our patients have reached normalcy, but they have surely reached a near-normal state,” says Dr. Talreja.

Sometimes mistaken for a “lady-doctor,” she points out that the commonest health issues she sees in Dharavi are chronic fatigue, joint pains and asthma attacks. “These are mostly female patients. They neglect their health and they hope that if they pop a pill they’ll be fine instantly,” she says, nodding her head. Most of her female patients are daily wage-earners and she says that a quick fix is a must or it could mean losing out on a day’s pay. People also come with digestion problems. “Many Dharavi people have problems such as constipation or diarrhoea, but I am careful before prescribing medicines. I always check to make sure that they have toilets in the vicinity of their homes. Otherwise, it could be a big problem for a patient who has just taken some laxatives.”


With subsidised rates for medicines (globules are free, tinctures and laxatives are half-price), Dr Talreja says that not everyone is Dharavi is poor. There is a donation box in the clinic and more affluent clients are advised to purchase the medicines at retail rates.

When clients enter the community centre, which door do they choose? Have they made an informed decision about which medical recourse will work best for their health issues? Or do they try both allopathy and homeopathy with the hope that something might eventually work? 

The Blockprint Life


The walls of Ahmed Razak Shaikh’s workshop are streaked with colours, his children’s rendering of Urdu letters and mini statements on his weekly orders. The 49-year-old blockprinter deciphers his most recent order, barely legible and written with a temperamental red pen. “On the 15th, I did 80 metres of cloth. On the 16th, I did a rye dana (seed) blockprint on 120 metres. Yesterday I did 90 metres of dupattas. It has been a good week,” he notes. We are on the second and uppermost floor of an assemblage of rooms in AKG Nagar, Dharavi, that seem put together by a child (it would be hard to call it a house or a building). It is a clammy afternoon, but there are no fans in his workshop. It is a room dependent on the elements – daylight from a couple of windows and hints of a breeze.

“Colours dry fast and fabric flutters under fans,” says Ahmed. He doesn’t use jargon, but his technical knowledge is obvious when he explains the different chemicals he uses for blockprinting. For a man who grew up in a family of blockprinters from Mirzapur in Uttar Pradesh, blockprinting is as easy and inevitable as a surname. It is more than just a source of money. “I saw blockprinting everyday at home. Back in my village, they had a stone table lined with sackcloth on which bedsheets were printed. It was part of my daily life,” he says. Living from week to week, he stays put when there are no orders rather than take up some other job for daily wages. He was destined to do this and nothing else, it seems. “This is all I know and orders have kept coming over the years. I have never felt like I wanted or needed to do something else.”


Having worked in various parts of Mumbai and in others’ workshops as a teenager assisting his father with blockprinting, Ahmed has had about 17 years of experience as a professional. He is now finally glad to have a workshop of his own. A number of blocks are heaped together under the line of tables. To the untrained eye it looks like a mess, but Ahmed knows his florals from his abstract designs.

There are rejects among the blocks – styles that have fallen out of fashion, broken corners, brass embossed. Ahmed discards them and there is no particular attachment to the blocks that have served him faithfully over the years. These days, a Nepalese artist purchases the rejected blocks from him. “They arrange these blocks into some pattern back at hotels in Kathmandu. I really wonder what they achieve by doing that. But I don’t ask questions,” he shrugs. Is he an artist? “No, I am an artisan. Blockprinting is an art, of course, but it is like this: I am happy when I get 20 pieces to block print but I am happier when I get 200 pieces to print in a day,” he says with no hint of doubt in his voice.

The room, otherwise spacious, is primarily for the long worktables and it is not easy to navigate from one side to the other. Ahmed’s three-year-old granddaughter has figured it out, though; she monkeys around and swiftly disappears under the tables. Occasionally, we see her little head popping up in different parts of the room. “I have six sons and one daughter. This is my eldest son’s daughter,” he says. The youngest son, Altaf, is asked to take the intrepid child back home (home is a floor below). Altaf, an eighth standard student and as tall as his father, was attending school until some months ago. He shows surgical scars on his left hand and leg. There is some confusion as father and son discuss the problem. “One doctor told us he has a brain tumour. Another told us he has tuberculosis. Another surgically removed his abscesses,” Ahmed says. “Cold abscess,” Altaf chimes in. There is no anguish on their faces; it is just dealing with the everyday. Ahmed is more hopeful now since they have visited a baba at the outer edge of Mumbai. “Altaf has been advised to have shellfish… you know, the kind that the Kolis sell. Baba has promised that Altaf will be cured by doing this.”

Despite destiny, confidence and resilience, Ahmed does admit that the blockprinting business has been affected in recent years. Screenprinters can print around 1000 metres of cloth in a day, compared with the 100 metres he accomplishes singlehandedly. “It was also a cheaper life back then. I would buy around 10 kg of rice for the whole family on a Sunday for just Rs. 2. Everything is changing now,” he says. Ahmed’s children are not keen on taking up the trade and he is not keen on teaching others. As one of the few blockprinters left in Dharavi, a family legacy will last as long as Ahmed can print. 


Dharavi diaries: The mystery of Aryan’s malnutrition

Originally posted on healthyurbanworld :

Healthyurbanworld will be following a severely malnourished child for a six months and note how the programme helps the baby’s development. 

Aryan (centre)

Aryan (centre) at SNEHA’s day care centre

Two and a half year old, Aryan Kothari is sick yet again. Almost every month, he suffers from a bout of diarrhoea or fever with a cold. Aryan is severely malnourished. He weighs just about 10 kgs and is only 86.8 cms tall. He been malnourished for nearly a year and has been in SNEHA’s day care centre at Matunga Labour Camp, Dharavi since September last year. He has been on medical nutrition therapy (a supplement with essential micronutrients mixed with peanut butter) for a few months.

His mother, Lata Kothari, 22, is at her wits end. “He does not eat well. I try so hard. People also say that since both my husband and me are thin, he is also thin,”said Lata. She…

View original 303 more words

The Rise and Fall of a Midwife

“If you write about me, will I get a job in a hospital?” is Shanti Devi Jasiwar’s first question. She claims she is 55 years old, but somehow that is hard to believe. With wrinkles, greying hair and betel-stained teeth, she seems older. She agrees, saying that she hasn’t really kept count of the passing years. She hasn’t recorded the number of babies she has helped deliver in the last 23 years either. Locals agree that it could be anywhere between 50 and 100 (and never a stillborn, they say). She breaks into a characteristic hoarse laugh and says, “Well, I am poor and I haven’t studied or I would have noted down these things.”

Shanti Devi has worked informally as a midwife and masseuse for infants and new mothers in Dharavi. She comes from Basti, a district in Uttar Pradesh, and came here after marriage. As she tells her midwifery tales, you understand that this is more a way of life than a source of income. Her first ‘case’ was “before the lafda (problem)”, referring to the 1991 riots, when a thin, heavily pregnant woman came back home from a local hospital. She went into labour suddenly and her baby was crowning. “I uttered God’s name and I helped her deliver her baby. That is how I started my work,” says Shanti Devi. Locals chime in when Shanti Devi says that she never takes any money for delivering babies. People offer her water, tea, two rotis or money to buy betel. Young boys from Mukund Nagar are busy playing around where we sit and she points to them and says, “I helped deliver some of them and even massaged their mothers after delivery.”


These days, Shanti Devi is cautious. She has stopped working as an informal midwife due to deteriorating health (she can’t see properly and can’t climb the steep stairs in many Dharavi homes). Only when a woman is going into labour in the middle of the night and there is no other alternative does she offer her services,

While Shanti Devi continues to massage young mothers and babies with rye oil, the major reason why her work has come to a halt is the implementation of government schemes such as the Janani Suraksha Yojana (JSY) – a scheme designed to reduce maternal and neonatal mortality by encouraging institutional delivery for poor pregnant women. Along with the institution of auxiliary midwives, such schemes have been key ways of bringing down alarming maternal mortality rates. The WHO estimates that there were 50,000 maternal deaths in India in 2013, as opposed to 148,000 deaths in 1990. However, the WHO notes that world-over there is a need to bring into hospitals skilled midwives who can specialise in deliveries and newborn and postpartum care. Currently, auxiliary midwives are found in rural India and urban trends indicate an over-medicalization of pregnancies and deliveries. Training people like Shanti Devi specially as one who will accompany a pregnant woman to the hospital, negotiate hospital formalities, help care for her and the baby with formal training might be beneficial for the time constrained, urban poor.

Back in her heyday, Shanti Devi was a much-sought-after midwife. She has never used a mobile phone and locals joke that she gets lost in Dharavi as easily as the average tourist does. People just came running to her when in trouble. She looks old mostly because you know she has seen it all as you listen to her stories. She is a mother of four; five more children passed away. Her husband, who makes a living selling undergarments on the footpath, has tuberculosis. So does her eldest son. “All the earning members of my family are sick,” she cries. She consoles herself by saying that God gives and God takes.

Shanti Devi encourages women to seek medical attention these days. She also advises youngsters to have fewer children and recalls, “My father was asked to do a nasbandi (vasectomy) during the Indira Gandhi government. He was adamant that he wouldn’t. He had fathered 16 children and swore that he would have 16 more. In those days, having children was cheap. The expenses that you incur for celebrating a child’s birthday these days … that money you could use to get your daughter married off in those days.” As women sitting beside her laugh and talk in eyebrow-raising numbers about the children they have given birth to (Shanti Devi’s neighbour had 10, of whom 6 survived), Shanti Devi is clear about one thing. That the practice of a midwife is one of sisterhood.

Read more:

Comics and Health


pollution 1
With two participatory comics workshops in our  list of artboxes, the Dharavi Biennale was selected to participate in a niche conference conducted by Graphic Medicine and The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine Department of Art as Applied to Medicine.  The conference, “Comics & Medicine: From Private Lives to Public Health”, involved a mix of artists, healthcare professionals, academics and comics enthusiasts. Worlds you might have thought would never meet – comics and healthcare – interacted, presented works, and exchanged ideas and cultures.

To recap on our work, Dharavi residents made comics on health issues (such as injuries and nutrition) under the guidance of Chaitanya Modak, a comics artist based out of Mumbai. For many of them, comics were  a new medium that few had heard of and even fewer had read. In the course of the workshops they were mentored to create poster-comics with a standard panel format telling stories about health. The posters were then put up in Dharavi and the participants interacted with locals and shared their stories with them. For Dharavi viewers, who had little comics literacy, this was a new format of storytelling and could engage even those who lacked education. This was for Dharavi, by Dharavi. 

Since many of the comics were personal experiences transformed into monochrome comics for public engagement, our work fit perfectly with the theme of the conference. We called our presentation “Comics Epidemic” with good reason. Dharavi often makes people think of disease and dirt, but we believe that comics, and the Biennale, might help shake up the stereotype.

Benita Fernando, the blogger, presented our work. It was an honour to be at the Comics and Medicine conference along with figures like Arthur Frank, James Strum, Ellen Forney and Carol Tilley. It was also an eye-opener to see the number of comics and graphic novels that address health issues like depression, cancer, Alzheimer’s and diabetes. The thing about a comic is that it can make even the most intimidating topics into a non-threatening subject for discussion. The serious and the sober become more approachable.

You can read more about our comics workshops here and here.

The Comics Journal covered happenings at the conference here.

Thanks to all our Dharavi participants, mentor Chaitanya Modak and Lydia Gregg, who chaired the conference’s organization committee.