A Garden of Sculptures

Vandana Kori admires Anish Kapoor. She marvels at Kapoor’s Sky Mirror and To Reflect an Intimate Part of the Red (which she describes as drops of sindhoor). She saw his works exhibited some years ago at Mehboob Studio and was taken by the simplicity and the magnitude of his forms. “Good art is when it resonates with what you are feeling within and you are thus free to interpret. Viewers must be filled with a sense of wonder,” says the Dharavi-based sculptor.

We are discussing Anish Kapoor near Vandana’s house adjacent to the railway tracks. We pause our conversation as a train rumbles along noisily and admire the evening sun flitting through the trees. Sculptures made by Vandana, among them a pillar of slender Buddhas and a set of masks, are strewn around the narrow garden. Vandana hopes to rework them as soon as she sets up a studio some time this year.

A graduate from the Sir JJ School of Art, 32-year-old Vandana deftly moulds a variety of materials (aluminium, brass, fibre, scrap and clay) into artistic forms. Her works have been exhibited at shows in the city, including the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival. A 14-foot-high oscillating doll, exhibited there in 2011, now decorates a garden at a resort in Panvel. “Sculpting is an expensive process. That doll cost me a month’s salary,” says Vandana.

The talented sculptor, however, has been supported by her family to train in the arts ever since she started winning prizes for her paintings in primary school. At college she was naturally drawn to sculpting, simply because it was “so much fun to make something in 3D”. Once out of college, she worked commercially with organisations, including one that fashioned miniature statues of Hindu deities out of gold. But Vandana did not find much satisfaction in these jobs. “Most people are okay to make you a business partner or pay you for your work, but giving credit seems to be the hardest thing to part with,” says Vandana. Discontented at the firms she worked at and wanting to express her artistic side, Vandana now works as a freelancer and has enough time for personal projects.

While brass is one of her favourite materials to work with, Vandana’s first love is clay. Her neighbours often see her in the garden making life-size objects out of clay and think that she is like a grown-up kid playing with mud. For Vandana, getting a sculpture ready is like “a pregnant mother expecting her child.” While the neighbours don’t know whether or not Vandana makes any money, she believes that more women artists should pursue sculpting. She knows of female sculptors who have given up the practice because they did not receive adequate support in their personal lives, especially after they got married.

This year, Vandana is making a life-size sculpture of a pregnant woman for the Dharavi Biennale, incorporating surgical vials that get washed at the recycling units in Prem Nagar. She is also planning another sculpture that is about sex workers, and yet another that features a bag full of women trying to fly out. In her garden of sculptures Vandana is waiting for the South Mumbai galleries to take note of her talent.

Sound Mapping in noisy/busy/lovely Dharavi


Ask someone to blindfold you and lead you through Dharavi. Listen. Ask the guide to shout out if someone does the very Mumbai thing of spitting paan. Otherwise, listen.

Although you’d like to imagine that a soundwalk through Dharavi would tell you where you are according to the noises that fill your ears, it’s not always possible. Chances are that you will be puzzled by the alarming number of sounds that are jammed together. Some sounds are comforting: children playing, sugarcane juice wallas, chai wallas and, perhaps, street Chinese food being prepared. For the most part, however, Dharavi is a cacophony. The industrial sounds that pervade parts of Dharavi co-exist with domestic sounds.

We are mapping the sounds of Dharavi with Megapolis India, and we have narrowed down on two particular areas of interest. Mukund Nagar, a space with a mix of residences and sweatshops, is on 90 Feet Road. The gravelly grind of machines making belts, buckles and wallets plays out rhythmically in most of the streets. The machines have specific tasks – punching holes or finishing off ends – but they all sound very similar. The buzz of welders and their rain of sparks is also there on most days. But Mukund Nagar is also a place where children congregate after school around kulfi wallas and vendors selling sour eatables like mangoes and amla, and where they play Power Rangers.


The other area where we are recording sounds is Sanaullah Compound, closer to Mahim railway station, where many kinds of recycling units are stacked against each other. Here, the shredding of plastic, the burning of aluminium furnaces and the sacks of scrap being thrown down from trucks are frequently heard. The screeching sounds from rusty shredding machines make one wonder how the labourers can work without the use of earplugs. For these labourers, most of whom are migrants, Sanaullah is work and home. A little shack of a restaurant, paan kiosks, barbers, an ironing man, chai stalls and various other essentials of daily living function side by side. Against this background, the aural predominance is of men talking business (or gossiping) over phones or with each other. Understandably, they don’t want their conversations recorded.

Walking around trying to be inconspicuous with a recorder in our hands, we realised that some sounds are bound to perish with time and modern lifestyles, such as the sounds of game machines in a very 90s video parlour or the bell of a kulfi seller. Collecting these sounds could be a way of creating an aural museum and complementing visual archives of Dharavi.

After some six field visits, we’re asking these questions: What are the sounds that distinguish Dharavi? Which sounds do we love and which do we complain about? Amidst blaring horns at traffic-choked chowks and the constant chatter of people, what if you wanted a moment of silence? Where does the Dharavi person go in search of a quiet place?

Junk-ed in Dharavi

In search of materials for art pieces for the Dharavi Biennale, we head to the road that runs from Dharavi to Mahim. On this road, flanked on one side by a plastic-filled sewage channel and on the other by mangroves, are scrap shops where refrigerators, ACs and washing machines meet their end part by part. Of course, calling them shops might be an overstatement, but they are too narrow to be called junkyards. About twenty such stalls are interspersed with others that recycle wood and oil tins.
Aslam, a 32 year old junk dealer, dismantles about ten domestic appliances a week. Despite paying Rs. 3000 a month for his stall, the job allows him to support his family of four. He is a cog in the recycling wheel and rests between shops and the smaller scrap collection units. The electrical appliances that arrive have mostly been dumped by showrooms after an “exchange offer” season gets over. In Aslam’s hands, a washing machine is disassembled into usable parts – drum, plastic frame, copper wiring, and so on. Sometimes the washing machines are just about useable and he sells them to less wealthy customers: a freshly washed blue and white example stands outside his stall.


From across the road, a pillar of foul-smelling smoke rises, but Aslam and his friends who have collected around us are clearly not affected. The whole pavement exudes the smell of plastic, but Aslam says he has done this work all his life and doesn’t mind at all. His friend Rafiq, a driver from Dharavi, says that if you have experienced the winters of Uttar Pradesh (UP), where they are from, you will know what Aslam is talking about. Newcomers may find it difficult to bear the UP winter (or the Dharavi smoke), “But we have adapted to it,” says Rafiq. Nevertheless, Aslam would prefer his children not to take up this line of work. “Who knows what the world will be like years from now?” he says.


A neighbouring stall glistens with metal, the path into it soapy and slippery from the towers of oil tins stacked inside.The empty tins arrive from restaurants and shops and are cleaned and sent back to oil factories. In the dimly lit room, three men clean about 300 tins a day. 40 year old Tribhuvan, the oldest and the most experienced, asks me to tread carefully and offers some chai. He works every day for 12 hours a day and has been doing so since the age of 15 when he came to Mumbai from UP with a bunch of neighbours from his village. “This was the big city, you know. We thought, this is where job opportunities will be available,” he says as he soaps an oily tin. There are no promotions or pay packages in his job; just the promise of a daily wage.


Behind affable Tribhuvan rise towers of tins, but there is no sign of a ladder. You realise that there is no need for one when you see Mohamed Yakub, who has been working here for the last 15 years, shuffle sets of tins around to form a makeshift flight of steps. He clambers nimbly up the towers and is obviously proud of the system. Sets of oil tins can become anything here: ladders, towers, stools, armchairs, thrones, livelihood.

Merchant Doctor in Dharavi

In his youth as a student at JJ Hospital, Dr SM Merchant had never ventured into or even heard of Dharavi. He lived in Dongri in those days and Dharavi was just the outskirts of the bustling city. The sexagenarian doctor, who has now been practising in Dharavi for 40 years, says it was happenstance that led him to what was then a marshy patch of land.

The story goes that a compounder told him of a locum clinic that needed a substitute doctor to fill in the hours. “He said he would show me the place, which was in Dharavi, and asked me to meet him outside the Sion railway station at 4 pm,” recalls Dr Merchant. After hours of waiting, the compounder did not turn up and a miffed Merchant went home. A few days later, he heard of another locum clinic in Dharavi and was asked to “sit around and read” there until the regular doctor returned.

“But I found myself very busy with the patients and I picked up pace from the very first day,” says Dr Merchant. The compounder who had stood him up outside Sion station happened to pass by and burst into the clinic, saying, “You are here! This is the clinic that I wanted to show you that day!” Dr Merchant’s clinical wisdom was a great hit in the area and what was a temporary job became a passion. He went on to open his own private practice near Bismillah Hotel, complete with a low ceiling and a table fan chained securely to a post. For Dr Merchant, Dharavi was his destiny.

merchant 1

Dr Merchant now works from his dispensary on 90 Feet Road, opposite the Colour Box. It is a narrow room squeezed between a chai shop and an egg distributor. He is unhappy with the number of egg distributors on 90 Feet Road and their business strategy of selling broken eggs for cheap in plastic pouches. Dr Merchant continuously warns his patients – including his compounder, who buy a broken egg or two now and then – of how unhealthy it is to consume these germ-ridden produce.

With four decades of experience in Dharavi, Dr Merchant says that, while people have more buying power, the overall quality of health has declined and people invest in good health only when most required. The most frequent complaints are common colds and fevers, as well as major illnesses like malaria and typhoid. People with tuberculosis used to knock on his doors quite often, but with the intervention of government hospitals and free medicines they have been diverted to larger centres such as Sion Hospital. Dr Merchant says that the number of consultations for cancer has gone up and that diseases like dengue, unheard of some decades ago, are on the rise. “The major reasons for the decline in health would be population, pollution and space. Real estate is so expensive in Dharavi and you will find entire families packed into a 100 sq ft house. Health suffers in such cramped situations,” he observes.

Dr Merchant also points to the endemic problems faced by the Kumbharwada community of potters who live amongst their kilns. Asthma and tuberculosis has been seen in many of them and there are frequent complaints of lung ailments. “I have seen small children use nebulizers here. The government needs to look into these issues and, rather than move them away, needs to consider more tactful means to help the community use its kilns and simultaneously take care of their health.”

At one time Dharavi was infamous for its profusion of illegal country-liquor shops. While the liquor shops have now been pushed into more unmonitored areas, drug use is a major problem, says Dr Merchant. Several teenagers are involved in drug use and drug-related crime, and it is usually their parents who bring them to the clinic. But rehab is an expensive, long-term proposition that most families give up on at a certain a point.

Dr Merchant says that women who come to his clinic are often suffering from a common ailment he calls “male-dominated society.” Some women are pregnant with their fourth child, some are anaemic from fasting, and some cook four times a day for the whole family, but pay no attention to their own nutritional needs.

On most days Dr Merchant has no time to even sit down in his clinic, and says that he often doesn’t tell people where it is. He gives them locations in the vicinity, such as Matunga Labour Camp or Sion, because people tend to raise an eyebrow if he says he works in Dharavi. Nevertheless, clients seek him out from as far away as Virar and Thane. His family lives abroad, but he says he will continue working in his small Dharavi clinic as long as he can. “I cannot imagine a day when I am not working here,” he says, as patients line up outside.

Street Art, Dharavi

With the recent conclusion of a street art festival in Mumbai, murals and graffiti have appeared in localities across town. While Bandra and parts of Andheri are now hotspots for public street art, one could argue that there can never be too much. We took a closer look at Dharavi to understand the role that street art might play.


With its bustling roads and busy shops, Dharavi is a visual jungle of signboards and advertisements for businesses. Most of these are digitally produced nowadays, but a few maintain the tradition of hand-painted signage. Walk down 90 Feet Road, 60 Feet Road and the inner lanes of Mukund Nagar and Social Nagar and you are bound to spot interesting signs that could be curated as local graphic art. A favourite is Goma, a photography studio on 60 Feet Road, which recently got its hand-painted sign redone. With a fresh coat of glossy yellow, Goma’s sign stands out among the digital-visual noise on the streets. The owner, a digital photographer, says that he loves the natural tones of paint rather than the plastic feel of flex.


Another vibrant signboard belongs to Shriram Medical and General Stores opposite Chota Sion Hospital. It has a painting of the shop’s mascot, Shri Ram, with touches of the Indian tricolour. However, unique among the hand-painted signs in Dharavi are those that advertise the bone-setters, usually replete with diagrams of all the broken bones they can fix. These are unfortunately on the verge of being erased altogether, given the demand for digital prints and the decline of bone-setters.


While many commercial signs use street art elements, Dharavi is till starved of “proper” street art. We were therefore pleased to see the international street artists who painted the town using diverse techniques, along with child-trainees from the SlumGods. Works by Tona, Gomez and Seikon can be seen at a community toilet in Kala Killa. Tona’s stencils, Seikon’s geometric designs and the mysterious woman by Gomez drew curious crowds who watched art come alive in a matter of minutes on their toilet walls. The largest facade of the toilet was given to Dharavi children, who were mentored earlier in the morning by Dutch artist Dann at the Colour Box. More works by the street artists on 60 Feet Road are a relief when you’re stuck in traffic.

Ravi Patel, a graphic designer who was co-ordinating the artists, said, “Street art in this city can be massive. Art need not come out only from the galleries. With street art, anybody can have access to art.” Dann added, “Street art here seems to be influenced by things coming from Europe in terms of subjects. There is a rich history of visual communication here and that means a lot of things remain to be discovered. This is just the tip of an iceberg.”

At the Dharavi Biennale we were able to seek out resident sign-painters to make a series of portraits called the Dharavi Healers. With their bold colours and raw appeal, these paintings are in signature styles reminiscent of the vivid Bollywood posters of the 1980s. The series-in-the-making will finally feature the works of five artists, all based in Dharavi and keeping the tradition alive.

One of them, Niren Savaniya, works out of his studio in Navrang Compound and paints for a living. The studio is a low- ceilinged room with one tube-light above a steep set of stairs that cross a couple of sweatshops. Despite the circumstances, Niren is a busy artist and paint splatters on the floor are testimony to his work. He is self-taught and shows us his latest creations commissioned by a catering company. He has already painted a mural for the Dharavi Biennale with the Priya Shakti campaign, curated by Ram Devineni, which shows a heroine seated on a grand, intimidating tiger. On drawing days the public had been sceptical about his work, but Niren says that now the community takes good care of it. “Recently, five of the people who live near that mural in Kumbharwada came to me and pointed out that some vandals have destroyed the heroine’s eyes. I re-touched her eyes and she looks perfect again,” he says.


Without doubt, there is a lot of potential for street art in Dharavi. Niren believes that only if you give people good public art can you expect a culture of protecting and preserving it. Unlike the well-to-do parts of Mumbai, where we have heard that residents are a tad reluctant to let their pretty walls be used for street art, most people in Dharavi are welcoming. In fact, street art here can be used to improve urban structures, adding colour, beauty and meaning to a wall. The number of urban issues that plague people might find an easy outlet through anti-establishment graffiti, but a Banksy is yet to be born in Dharavi.

Eleven Days, Eleven Nights in Dharavi

If you were a newcomer to Mumbai, of all the places you might choose to stay, would Dharavi ever cross your mind? While the rents are high, accommodation here would burn a smaller hole in your pocket than in bohemian Bandra or neighbouring Sion. Does the word “slum” scare people away from renting a flat in Dharavi, or is it the lack of amenities?  Where will I eat? Is there a toilet in the house? If not, how far away is a community or public toilet? Are spaces in Dharavi safe? Dharavi may be known as a slum, but it is home to lakhs of people in Mumbai – place for them to feel safe, uninhibited and comfortable to indulge in oneself in natural actions that are considered part of living.

Manish Sharma, filmmaker and thoroughbred Delhi-walla, said that he was staying at our centre, the Colour Box, for almost a fortnight. He and his crew were making a movie – “Indefensible Spaces” – about toilets and women’s safety in Dharavi. I met up with him to learn more about his experience and he said that he mainly chose to stay at the Colour Box because of accessibility. “We were filming in the nights and early mornings, the times when most Dharavi residents need to use the community toilets. I had an option of staying in Borivali, but that is the other end of town and much time would admittedly be wasted in commuting.” 

I wanted to ask Manish how he found his Dharavi stay as an “outsider”. A number of slum tourism enterprises operate in Dharavi, and we have seen numerous foreigners on tours. But “foreigners” and “tourists” in Dharavi need not be from another country; they could be other Mumbaikars who may have driven through 60 Feet Road but never set foot in it. The Dharavi tourist is bound to be met with contrasting opinions – poor conditions available for human existence versus intense commercial activity. Opinions are easy, but living is difficult.

On the issue of safety, Manish hesitated to respond and then burst out laughing, “I must admit that on the first three days I was scared. We had equipment that was worth lakhs, including lenses and a Mac, at the Colour Box. In the nights I was paranoid that someone might murder me and loot the place! I was a tad nervous about who might be keeping note of my comings and goings, especially looking at some of the drug addicts who frequent the neighbourhood in the nights.” Even so, perhaps it is not unusual to have the jitters in a new place, especially if you are from New Delhi, which recorded a crime rate four times higher than Mumbai last year. “Of course, by the fourth night I had made friends with most people around and I even wished the druggies good night! I slept like a log on all nights after that with three coolers for company. There was this little mouse that crept over me one night, but I couldn’t care less. My biggest trouble was sleeping on a mat and waking up in the mornings with straw marks on my face,” continued Manish. At this point Rohin, his camera-person, and I laughed and called him an elitist.

Manish was in Dharavi to make a film about toilets and we dipped our toes in the subject of his experience of toilets in Dharavi. “Space and time in Dharavi community toilets are luxuries. The days when I was here in Dharavi, I had to use public toilets and I must admit that I was too ashamed to in the beginning. The very fact that I had to reveal to a stranger that I had to sh*t was an embarrassment. Furthermore, standing in line and paying a couple of bucks to use what you think is a basic amenity in homes changed my perspective on things that we take for granted. If you like spending some twenty minutes in a loo, that is not what you will get in a common toilet. You feel a social responsibility to finish your job fast and let the others in line have their turn. 

“It took me the first couple of days to get used to the idea of using a common toilet. Initially, I would just ignore any urge to pee and wait till I went to restaurants, like a pizza outlet in Sion, and guess what… they too didn’t have toilets! I would then go to a cafe, order a dessert unnecessarily, stock up on calories and then use the loo there. Or I would travel all the way to a mall a couple of kilometres from Dharavi just for the sake of a pee!

“Every morning we set off to film people’s morning routines near the toilets. It was an interesting scenario: women were carrying heavy buckets of water and looked very busy, whereas men looked like they were sitting around. I remembered what I was taught in school: that men have more muscle power to do heavy work. But what was baffling to see was that women were doing the heavy work and men did not seem to be helping them out. Watching this helped me understand what Dharavi mornings are all about and how gender roles get defined on the pretext of the woman being expected to be the caretaker of her home.”

While Manish was filming with us, there was a rumour going about that he hadn’t taken a bath on one of the days. I asked him if this was true and also assured him that it wasn’t a big deal at all. He confirmed that he hadn’t and said, “Well, you must be aware that we didn’t have water in my initial days at Colour Box. This may have to be a secret. I took a bath under the tap in the boys’ hostel in Chota Sion Hospital. I would walk from Colour Box to the Hospital with my toiletries. The hostel boys there either cared too much or didn’t care who I was at all, and hence I bathed there till water was restored at Colour Box. In fact it is to be noted that while we have common toilets there is no concept of common bathrooms.”

So, let us consider this: What does it take to call something your “home”? A toilet, a bathroom, water and electricity, but most of all, courage and familiarity with the space. Thus, do residences, such as those in Dharavi, qualify as homes if one has to pay access to a public toilet in the absence of a private one? If there is no water supply in your house for a major part of the day, is it still a livable space?

As mentor for a participatory film, Manish concluded, “An unexpected outcome of my stay was that the community participants found me more accessible. Some of the ladies called me over home for dinner, and they thought I was like one of them. Not just some camera-toting tourist who has come to make a movie on their lives.”

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

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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.