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Site-specific art

The Dharavi Akademi of art


READY, STEADY: Tushar Joag's live installation of a human pyramid in the form of a fountain

Chai shops, scrap heaps, water pipes — site-specific art blooms where it is planted.

Aloud bang echoes through Mumbai's Mehboob Studios as gigantic cardboard canisters are shot through the air, releasing splatters of red wax. A few days later, the detritus of Anish Kapoor's iconic Shooting into the Corner finds its way to Dharavi, in order to recycle the cardboard canisters. When the waste was discovered by the artists of Artefacting, they decided to re-create the seminal work in a new context. On a winter Sunday last December, the two worlds overlapped unexpectedly. Improvising in the rubble-strewn bylanes of Dharavi, the kids recreated Kapoor's canon. The waste was then used to create art installations that resemble beehives.

Through this and other inspired acts, the stark walls of the art gallery that make up the proverbial 'white cube' are splitting at the seams and there is a cascade of inspiration flowing on to the streets. Sitespecific art that is created keeping in mind its context, often commenting on its surroundings and involving community collaboration, is gaining popularity in urban India. Though not frequently enough, artists working in India are more than ever leaving the space of the gallery and immersing themselves in the context they are engaging with. The results are installations, workshops, performances and photography exhibitions in city streets that allow art to generate public dialogue on pertinent social issues.

The separation of art from daily life - evident in that unfortunate act of having to ring a doorbell to enter an art gallery - often makes artistic creation a distant and alien thing for the general population. The term 'site-specific art' was first used in the mid-seventies by young sculptors such as Lloyd Hamrol and Athena Tacha who were commissioned to do projects for large urban locations. The medium has gained such popularity though, that some public art installations are now an ingrained part of their environ, such as George Segal's 1992 permanent installation Street Crossing at Montclair State University, Isamu Noguchi's iconic Red Cube circa 1968 at HSBC Building in New York City and Olafur Eliasson's Waterfalls under the Brooklyn Bridge.

Artefacting Mumbai has been attempting to break the boundaries of what constitutes public art and bring attention to patterns of settlement being displaced by contemporary urbanisation. In the winter of 2010, urbanist and visual planner Alex White Mazzarella, city planner Casey Nolan, and Dutch photographer Arne De Knegt, immersed themselves in the context of Dharavi and spent three months interpreting their surroundings. Their experiences with the people and places of their neighbourhood have been documented through artwork that is scattered through the area - on walls, on doors, in street corners and even on the occasional rooftop. The usually unremarkable constellations of corrugated tin have been brightened by unexpected murals, montages of painting, fun signage that says things like chai-wallah and pipe-wallah, video screenings on walls, as well as a display of photographs of Dharavi residents.

"The art world has been sanitised into these isolated white spaces. There is not much artistic dialogue to do with different social movements anymore - it is all about the interior lives of the artists, " says Alex White Mazzarella. "It should not be about making art in isolation, rather about doing art in a living place. Life is art. " Artefacting is evidence that materials that were previously considered waste, when artistically rendered, can come alive. "What was scrap for us, he made art out of it, " says Ravi, a second-generation Dharavi resident who works in a godown. "Now we look at these buildings differently. " The exercise made both the residents of Dharavi and the citizens of Mumbai, approach the space from a different vantage point. "It is artwork because people come to see it everyday, " says Mazzerella. "For the period when people were coming specifically to see the art, Dharavi's 13th compound became an art gallery. "

In Fluid City, a public-art project curated produced by ArtOxygen and the Mohile Parikh Centre, seven Mumbaibased artists carried out site-specific interventions across Mumbai from January 6 to 9, 2011, exploring the central theme of water. Fluid City approached the highly contested subject - the inequity entrenched into the system of water distribution and appropriation in urban areas - through public art. "We asked the artists to investigate the absurdities and contradictions unique to the issue of water in the city. There is scarcity side-byside with excess, " says Claudio Maffioletti, co-founder of Art Oxygen. This was followed by an indoor exhibition at StudioX in April.

In many instances the project sparked curiosity, dialogue and even confrontation, as the artists interacted with local residents of the areas that came under the microscope. "So much was happening in the contemporary Indian art scene inside the space of the gallery, but not much happening in the public forum, " says Maffioletti. "Having the installation in a public space is important because we believe that the participation of the aam admi of the city is integral to the project. " The works of art included Parag Tandel's sculptures created out of the waste of the Thane Creek, Tushar Joag's live installation of a human pyramid in the form of a fountain mimicking the festive spirit of Gokul Ashtami, Pradeep Mishra's flamingo-adorned flags at Sewri Fort and Prajakta Potnis' tracing of the original contours of Siddeshwar Talao in Thane draw attention to its fast-shrinking borders. As Potnis drew a chalk line that displayed the discrepancy between the original size of the lake and what it had been reduced to due to encroachment, some people collected from local authorities. "They said I would get them into trouble by showing how much they have eaten up from the original boundary, " says Prajakta Potnis. "That day I was very nervous but it restored my faith in art. "

Also engaged in the issue of water in cities, the Urbz collective are combining photography with urban planning in their water- mapping project. Having conducted photography workshops at the Dharavi Shelter, they asked the children, who were familiar with the use of the digital camera, to look at where the water they use in their homes comes from simply by walking along the pipes in the neighbourhood. They took pictures and described what they saw in their own words. "We chose to do a project on water because it is uppermost in people's minds, " says Urbz's Rahul Srivastava. "As we feel that children are the most informed residents of the area, we asked the children to take photographs that both document and comment on water flows and water systems in their immediate surroundings. " The pictures will then be displayed at an exhibition at the Dharavi Shelter, for outsiders to come and view them and bring the conversation into its context. In the next phase, they plan to bring in a water-systems specialist who will ask the children to reflect on the way water is being used in their homes, how it gets evacuated and where it goes afterward.

"KHOJ has been pushing boundaries to explore the possibilities of art through its various programs including its focus on public art, community art and socially engaged practices, " says Gayatri Uppal who heads the public art initiatives at KHOJ International Artists Association. Negotiating Routes: Ecologies of the Byways is one of Khoj's site-specific public art projects which has been in progress from 2009 onwards and is supported by the Royal Norwegian Embassy in India. The projects, addressing the transformations taking place in various localities, combine research, archiving of local knowledge and art creation by artists.

Sanachayan Ghosh's project for example, which is ongoing, explores the changing pattern of domestic and social life in the Santhali community in West Bengal. Ghosh is examining the rift between the old way of life and the new generation of Santali through collaborative workshops of papermaking with bamboo leaves. He is also archiving traditional designs and patterns along with more contemporary cultural works. On the completion of each workshop, an installation with bamboo watermarked papers will be created in collaboration with the participants in each village. They will all be installed together between the spaces of the two public sculptures on Santali life by Ramkinkar Baiz inside Kala Bhavana in Santiniketan, West Bengal, as an interface for dialogue.

Public art projects engage people in a way which purely political discourse is not able to.
Encouragement from the government would help a great deal. "Governments are not looking at cultural policy at all in the planning of urban environments, " says cultural critic Tasneem Zakaria Mehta. "Yet, as Richard Florida, the well-known American urban historian, points out in his book The Flight of the Culture Class, as jobs become more skilloriented, manufacturing will not be the driver of urban economies as in the past. It will be the service sector which needs huge design and creative inputs. To be successful in this area, we need to create the right cultural context that attracts creative people and encourages creativity. "


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