Last week in Mumbai, I visited an inspiring exhibition at my former ethnographic research stomping ground of Dharavi. It was a treat to be taken there by the artist who created the conceptual framework for the show, Nandita Kumar – and to meet many of the slum-based artists she had collaborated with. The installation grew out of a community-based initiative by SNEHA (Society for Nutrition, Education and Health Action) which cited an opportunity to connect resource constrained urban residents with health experts and artists – to share skills plus knowledge, discuss issues and create ways of spreading messages further in a locally engaging and meaningful way.
Children readily engaged with a hand-operated television set featuring ‘good news’
The installation space, set up within a school at the heart of Dharavi, housed artworks which spoke to local domestic settings – hence the exhibition’s name Ghare Pe – At Home. During my afternoon visit a number of neighbouring school groups excitedly swarmed through and were shown round by the participating artists – who confidently explained their artworks while encouraging onwards conversation on health issues. Young students were intrigued by the many household items which were both familiar yet creatively provocative. The interactive and tactile nature of the show reeled them in as Nandita had intended.
Both youthful and elderly visitors were taking in the show – here checking out a cupboard filled with stuffed emoticon balls. These intended to illustrate how women have diverse emotions but are unable to express all of them openly within acceptable social norms.
Stainless steel canisters are gifted to women at marriage. Here the artist, Sneha, reveals: “I store rice, dal, wheat, jaggery, peppercorns, tamarind and dried chillies – an array of ingredients. To me they are like the flavours of my marriage”
An embroidered item from a workshop session exploring personal health histories. “Three caesareans. One appendicitis. One miscarriage. And like an ending to a poem, one last family planning scar” Image source.
The initiative behind the exhibition, Dekha Undekha (Seen, Unseen) brought together mentors in photography, textiles and ceramics with local residents of Dharavi and beyond through a series of workshops run over the past year. Participants were asked to draw household items and body parts that they were happiest with alongside other exercises which helped them grasp artistic abstraction and skills, connect as a group, discuss health issues plus focus on themes. Conversations went back and forth between composition, concepts and technique plus personal hygiene, mental health, maternal care, sanitation, waste disposal, domestic violence and superstitions.
Embroidered work depicting bacteria. “If you think about it, looking at microbes through a microscope makes them appear like they all set for a wedding – stained in many colours of royal purple, hot pink and pistachio green. They look so dressed up!” – commencing a conversation about what can be done to prevent the spread of diseases.
Image by Neville Sukhia
Sneha’s stovetop exhibit portraying domestic harmony and violence.
Spirited local artist Sneha has been a victim of domestic abuse. One of her artworks encompasses a decorated stove top. “Some days are marriage, some days are war.” One side of the stove shows happy days full of colour while the other side is filled with fear and a darker side of home life. She told me assuredly that “learning about intention, sequence, themes and action helped guide the emotions we felt to connect with the health issues we discussed in a way that would appeal to people out here.”
Asmabee with a selection of photographs by various local artists, including her own.
Dharavi-based artist, Asmabee, hadn’t touched a camera till about a year ago. Last month she earned a photography prize at the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival in well-heeled South Bombay. She acknowledges that participation in Dekha Undekha has given her confidence and won her local respect. Having worked at Dharavi a few years back, I was in awe at the ease of the local artists I met in articulating both their personal feelings and aspirations for their communities. They had also zealously encouraged visitors from their diverse neighbourhoods to come see the show and to continue discussions beyond its walls. Ghar Pe has been an expertly conceived exhibition and goes a long way in triggering significant conversations and solution-seeking – applaudably with, not for those in low-income communities. It would seem that At Home is a great place to start.