Sound Mapping in noisy/busy/lovely Dharavi

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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.

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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?

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Dharavi ka Diwali

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?”