Why Mumbai’s Slums are Villages

November 26, 2008

Mumbai’s history reflects two distinct phases. One is the south-oriented story that starts with the development of the docks by the British in the early eighteenth century. The other is an older, northern-bound story that starts with the Portuguese conquest and domination of the regions around Vasai village in the sixteenth century. The essay argues that the point of intersection of these histories is one that can potentially explain the overwhelming presence of poor, infrastructure deprived habitats – often referred to as slums – that dominate the landscape of the city.

Worli-Koliwada, one of seven century old fishermen settlement in Mumbai

Mumbai’s slums occupy an unusually large scale – even when compared to other Indian metropolises, with similar economic and political constraints. The essay proposes that the scale and depth of the phenomenon requires a special inquiry into its history. The essay does this by focusing on the story of a small habitat – called Khotachiwadi – that encapsulates many of the issues being debated. Khotachiwadi eventually however, becomes a springboard to discuss other issues to do with the political economy of built-forms in the city – especially with regard to the dialectic of the slum and the village.

Khotachiwadi, Girgaum, South Mumbai

It also asserts that a critical examination of the category ‘slum’ – and its relationship with the ‘village’ – can challenge take-for-granted notions of urbanism and urban futures for labour-surplus countries like India that have old agrarian histories.

These notions usually render village-like habitats as being inappropriate for modern urban spaces. These spaces are viewed as having a certain kind of density that can only be absorbed by the high-rise form, which, in turn, is presented as antithetical to the village. While critiques of these notions have the potential of moving into radical ideas of the urban – especially in the realm beyond built-forms – this paper restricts its discussions to the physical dimension of urbanism.

When the Portuguese empire handed over islands in the southern end of the region to the East India Company they did not see this cluster of islands as valuable. They were more interested in the rich fertile lands of the north that supported their trading activities connecting Daman, Vasai, Goa and Calicut. These lands were dotted with villages that went all the way to Mahim and Bandra, perceived to be the southern borders of the Portuguese sphere of influence. The social structure of this space was dominated by a combination of feudal and mercantile practices subsidized by low-caste labour. Large parts of the population were converted to Christianity, a process that preserved the caste divisions by allowing for the emergence of upper caste land-lords and low-caste labour and artisanal groups.

When the East India Company took charge of the southern islands, they forcefully integrated Bandra and Mahim, which they saw as the northern borders of their territory. As the influence of the company increased through the development of the docks, many groups migrated from the Gujarat and Maharashtra regions all through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The Parsee, Hindu and Muslim Gujarathi merchants, shop-keepers and businessmen moved in and around the Fort areas and brought in their urban traditions of built-forms from their city of origin – Surat – an architectural legacy that is still evident in some neighbourhoods of south Mumbai – especially Kalbadevi. On the other hand, the low-caste predominantly labour communities found themselves being absorbed by the villages that existed, in what was then perceived to be, the peripheral regions of the north. The lands were mostly owned by Christian landlords or occasionally by a member of the Pathare Prabhu community – an old courtly caste that linked its existence to a thirteenth century kingdom nearby.

All through the nineteenth century, poorer migrant groups would pay rents to landlords to set up hamlets that became their homes. Interestingly, richer rural communities, mostly upper caste Catholics, who happened to be educated and got skilled jobs in the docks also reproduced similar hamlets – referred to as wadis. These expressed themselves in newer villages like Khotachiwadi – a hamlet of cottages in Girgaum or a similar one in Matharpakadi at Mazagaon. They looked like the older upper-caste landed villages of Bandra, Mahim, Gorai and Vasai but had actually been built afresh in the nineteenth century.

On the other hand, swampy land around Mahim, particularly in a village called Dharavi (that was occupied primarily by Koli fisherfolk) became the site for the settling down of untouchable communities from different parts of the country. Those regions were seen to be unlivable and peripheral, from the vantage points of both – the fisher community that lived by the sea, as well as the city civic-authorities in the south.

Dharavi-Koliwada, a fishermen village that has for long been called a slum

As it turned out, as more low-caste groups arrived from the countryside, attracted by the mills and the docks, the southern city could provide only limited accommodation. Most of the surplus labour lived in the villages, outside the perceived city limits.

As the southern city kept expanding and as dependence on agriculture declined in importance, it became easier for landlords to make more money by renting or selling out land than through agriculture. However, when their lands got integrated into the city they had to give up their control either to the civic authorities or to slumlords. This process got even more complicated in the post-independence period with the development of a local electoral process and the growth of new neighbourhood leaders.

The landscape that thus formed by the middle of the twentieth century in the northern parts of Mumbai was really a cluster of villages that had become outsize settlements. Even today, the largest slums of Mumbai in that region -  Dharavi and Jari-Mari – reflect this village like legacy with their land ownership patterns revealing this quite clearly.

However – villages do not simply become slums because of an awkward growth in population. It helps a certain political economy to view them as slums and this is the main argument being made in the essay. The attempt is to understand the deeper historical basis of slum formation in Mumbai and see it as much as a story of habitats and perceptions about habitats, as about the political economy of scarcity of infrastructure.

To explicate this point – we focus on a small village – called Khotachiwadi in Girgaum.

Khotachiwadi is a cluster of about twenty-eight small cottages and bungalows built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the heart of the city. Today it is referred to as an urban heritage precinct mainly because of its distinct architectural flourishes linked to an Indo-Portuguese past.

Right from the start, the homes represented a diverse set of architectural influences – Portuguese villas, Maharastrian coastal cottages, Goan homes and regular cottages and bungalows found in the region. In its hey-day – the early twentieth century – the village boasted of about eighty-eight such individually owned or leased homes.

Engendered architectural heritage in Khotachiwadi

During the course of interactions with the villagers, we came across frequent statements by elderly residents mentioning that the wadi used to be referred to as a slum in the early twentieth century. It was called as such by British surveyors who were developing a larger urban plan for the city. Intrigued by the fact that a village now celebrated for its architectural legacy was once referred to as a slum, we continued to explore this observation.  In spite of frequent attempts though, we were unable to actually verify this through archival material. The records only mentioned the real name of the village, never the underlying assumed category. However, on inquiring with contemporary architects, urban planners and government officials, we found most of them agreeing with the residents. Their certainty was based on the awareness that many habitats even today tend to be loosely referred to as slums, though they are historically distinct villages. Some historical accounts of the city even referred to its native towns (immediately outside the Fort precinct), as slums. Referring to Khotachiwadi as such was, thus, quite understandable.

After all, even today, there exist village lands – called ‘gaothans’ – that are specifically recognized as distinct non-urban habitats, with separate development laws. They are treated by developers – and commonly perceived by neighbouring settlements – as slums.

According to urban historian Rahul Mehrotra, it was in the fifties that one saw the emergence of the simplistic binary – the slum and the multi-storied building dominating rhetoric of built-form in the city. It came to represent a discourse that over-wrote the diversity that existed in the earlier experience of Mumbai’s built-forms and transformed the perceptions of the future of the city through the aspiration of being a high-rise oriented city. This aspiration eventually started a process that aimed at erasing all ambiguous habitats, especially those that embodied the ethnic elements of built-forms found in the erstwhile “native city” – but more so those structures that seemed rural and therefore inappropriate . Thus till the heritage movement in the city really firmed itself up as some kind of a force to reckon with in the 1980’s – much of the old city (that was not protected by the old Rent Act) was destroyed on the grounds that it was part of a back-ward looking colonial experience .

House of famous fashion designer and Khotachiwadi life-long resident, James Ferreira

Places like Khotachiwadi were seen to be anachronistic, since they were villages. While most “native” spaces were distinctly urban buildings, this particular habitat’s resonances of being “rural” created further trouble for it. The colonial “native” city had quite comfortably absorbed the rural memories that its migrants had brought in. These memories had provided the quaint architectural flourishes of habitats like Khotachiwadi. However, in the long run these very flourishes and characteristics made these hamlets seem inconsistent with the ideals of a modern “urban” present – one, that wanted to distance it self as much as possible from any rural memory.

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Siteless Architecture

November 16, 2008

François Blanciak’s recently published book ‘Siteless’ (MIT Press 2008) features 1001 architectural designs unconstrained by scale or context. Each of his hand drawn sketches represents a possible design for a building anywhere –or maybe nowhere– in the world. Each drawing is complemented with a title, which is just as imaginative and humorous.

This book belongs to a long tradition of experimentation in architecture, which privileged inspiration over rationalism. Its subtitle ‘1001 Building Forms’ is an homage to Iakov Chernikhov’s 101 architectural fantasies. Among François Blanciak’s other inspirations, he cites John Hejduk, Jean-Nicolas-Louis Durand, and Hermann Finsterlin. Finsterlin notoriously refused to undergo formal architectural training because he thought it would reduce his creativity. This rebellious attitude towards institutions and conventions is certainly present in Blanciak’s work.

Blanciak’s book seems to originate from a profound contempt for the kind of architecture he experienced, even as he worked in some of the most prestigious offices in the world, including Frank Gehry, OMA, and Peter Eisenman. It also comes as a reaction to the moral imperative for architects of fitting new buildings into an existing fabric. What if buildings could land in the city as if they came from another planet?

Architects, already frustrated by the expectations of their clients (when they are lucky enough to have any), are also told that their designs must respect the context in which they will stand. Blanciak unapologetically rejects this constraint and abstracts design from space, which allows him to design fantastic forms with an almost aerial kind of freedom. Some of the architectural designs presented in ‘Siteless’ seem to defy gravity itself.

This makes for a good sci-fi architecture, one could say, but if any of these building forms were actualized in the urban realm, they would look alien and threatening. One could also argue that, however much one believes in respecting the local context, sometimes it just needs to be woken up from its dullness. On the other hand, a context is often full of its own eccentricities, like in many Tokyo suburbs, and may only need an extra push to come into its own more confidently.

At the same time, when it comes to picking up from his 1001 forms and insert into a Tokyo landscape, Blanciak chooses one which fits rather well in the context. This reminds us that over and above sitelessness, Blanciak’s book is really making a statement about the need for  imagination in architecture. In conversation with the author, he explains how the landscape of Tokyo with its seemingly random juxtaposition of forms and functions provides for the most inspiring visual experience. This street-level experience is one that no architectural masterpiece can match.

Blanciak produces a manic stream of designs, each of which are as different and similar as snow flakes. This mass –or rather massive– creation of difference serves to make a strong point about our general inability to activate individual creativity in the urban landscape. Of course in the big bag of diversity not every form is beautiful, just as most of Blanciak’s designs taken individually would not necessarily translate into great architecture. Nonetheless, more trial and error in the urban realm would not hurt, especially if it implies a broader participation in urban development by young architects and non-professionals.

This book should not be understood as a catalog of possible architectural forms but rather as a device to trigger one’s architectural fantasies and imagination. ‘Siteless’ would make a great cookbook for self-help builders. It is indeed in contexts like Tokyo, Bombay or Rio, where large chucks of the city have been developed by local actors, one small structure at the time, that one encounters the most innovative architectural contributions, and it is precisely in these less regulated urban contexts that experimental forms could be actualized.

In a paradoxical way, contexts, when defining themselves, are so interdependent on other contexts, that they often auto-dissolve their boundaries altogether. No wonder, each individual design in ‘Siteless’, with its gravity-defying lightness, seems to generate its own imaginary context altogether.

Urban Species

November 10, 2008

Urbspotting: Recognizing urban processes and formations. Archetypes are as much about the gaze of the observer as they are about real patterns and formations. Discerning them is often useful to crack open the calcified, hardened conceptual crust that has formed on the idea of the city. A crust so tough that it pretends to act as a foundational principle for all urban possibilities, when in fact it is one among many. We welcome additions to the ones suggested here!

The Bazaar: Temporary P2P exchange zones. The bazaar could well be the genesis of all urban forms. Stable cities have mostly been sparked off by simple acts of trading and many cities today are sustained by markets that sprout in all kinds of places. The bustle of a bazaar often suggests that its not just trading that goes on there. They indicate that exchanges of all kinds – even when not linked to livelihoods or profit – are life-sustaining and desperately needed. Thats why they can also be referred to as P2P zones.
Ex: Ingo’s Flea Market, Goa; Everywhere in Mumbai

The Bazaar, Tepito Market, Mexico City

Bobo Town: When artists, gay communities and students discover fringe areas of the city and transform them into trendy comfort zones. Exuberance, creativity and rebellion go hand in hand and neighbourhoods get transformed by acts of defiance that such groups spontaneously exude. These moments of lifestyle critiques make great exorcists of dullness and boredom that often lie over streets like heavy fog.
Ex: Williamsburg, Brooklyn; East Village, Manhattan

Bobo Town in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York

The Hamlet: Anachronistic urban villages that have a distinct identity and manage to survive in a large megalopolis. They keep reminding vertically obsessed cities that habitats come in all kinds of shapes and sizes. Low rise high density clusters can be as urbane as any contemporary piece of architecture and can have their own legitimate place in urban lives.
Ex: Khotachiwadi and Koliwada, Mumbai

The Hamlet in Khotachiwadi, Girgaum, Mumbai

Post-Industrial Site: That reflects a different economic era, typically industrial, which today is a ruin, but still full of potential. The post-industrial site reminds you of the cyclical nature of economic activities and of the rise and fall of neighbourhoods. However, even in its ruin it is inevitably pregnant with possibilities, since the urban imagination has the ability of absorbing even the most decayed of landscapes and converting them into vibrant zones, with a sleight of hand and a touch of trickery.
Ex: Tada Site, Taichung (Taiwan); Cockatoo Island, Sydney; La Escocesa, Poble Nou, Barcelona

La Escocesa, Post-industrial site in Barcelona

Creeper Street: Informal arrangements supporting the formal economy, which can be found in the back alleys of every central business district and generally all over the city. The Wall street is as much about invisible financial transactions as it is about the thriving food and hands-on service industries that surround it. Creeper streets abound in a city like Mumbai which pretends they are ‘informal’ when in fact they comprise the main activities of the urban economy.
Ex: Print shops and services in Wall Street, New York; Recycling shops in Dharavi, Mumbai

Creeper Street in Dharavi’s 13 Compound, Mumbai

Disney Street: A selfconscious historical quarter that builds on its own mythology almost to caricatural extremes, usually living off the tourist economy. They are different from Bobo streets since they depend on one narrative, set of myths or the life of a celebrity. They are quaint side shows to the urban story but have the potential of sustaining quite a few generations of small scale services and businesses.
Ex: Barri Gòtic, Barcelona; Pigalle, Paris; Abbey Road, London

Disney Street in the Gothic neighborhoud in Barcelona

Takeover Street: Enclaves where squatters save neighbourhoods by a creative reuse of space. Today, many of them are an endangered species. Yet the history of squatting in Europe has been nothing but a chronicle of the best possible examples of the re-use of urban space. It has been a testimony to the creativity of ordinary people and an expose of the fact that there is a whole universe between the surplus of space and its commercially induced scarcity.
Ex: Artamis Site, Geneva (RIP); Christiania, Copenhagen (RIP)

Takeover Street, Christiana, Copenhagen

Transglobal Localities: Havens for passerbys, travellers and tourists. The weather is often one of the most over looked causes of new urban formations, yet people travel all across the world in quest of the perfect temperature. Organized tourism and travel may have stripped a bit off the romance of exploration and geographical discovery but it has spawned unexpected moments of urbanism in the most unlikeliest of corners.
Ex: Calangute-Baga, Goa

Transglobal locality, Near Titos, Calangute-Baga Beachfront, Goa (Photo image ination)

Ethnie City: Community based enclaves. They are legacies of insecure social histories on one hand and positive statements about the comforts of familiarity on the other. In most cases they are simply what they are. And are as willing to become something else. Yet – the symbols they have generated mark the diversity of urban life in a manner that is so important for celebrating cosmopolitanism. Typically paradoxical of modern life.
Ex: Lee Street, Williamsburg, Brooklyn (Hasidic Jews); Koliwada, Dharavi, Mumbai, (Fisherfolk); The Castro, San Francisco, California, (Gay)

Ethnie City: Fish market in Koliwada, Dharavi, Mumbai

Ura Machi (Shadow City): Blindspots in the psycho-geographies of contemporary cities. Every city has them. To those outside their boundaries they are embarrassments, but to those who dwell within them they are repositories of valid urban histories, however awkward or distinctive. Yet – blindspots can suddenly find themselves in the harsh spotlights of commercial attention if they come in the way.
Ex: East New York, Brooklyn; Dharavi, Mumbai; San’ya, Taito Ward, Tokyo

Ura Machi, San’ya Buraku, Taito Ward, Tokyo (photo crowndedworld.com)

Lost Street: That which is part of a historical moment forgotten altogether.
Ex: ? You just have to visit the least travelled to spot in a city, take a train or subway that runs empty or get off that deserted stop and you will re-discover it.

Lost street somewhere around Mira Road, Mumbai

Edge Street: That which lies at the boundary in more than one sense of the term. There are edges and fringes and peripheries and then there are spaces that are outlawed, self-governed or simply no-mans-land squeezed in between administrative boundaries. They can spawn some amazing counter-cultural moments or are best left in a hurry.
Ex: Ghodbundar Road, Thane; Coney Island and East New York, Brooklyn, New York

Edge Street, in East New York, Brooklyn, New York

The Carnaval: Occasional, popular, celeberatory takeovers of neighbourhoods and streets. Noise, music, lights and colour are the hallmarks of moments when communities and people decide to leave their mark on the collective consciousness of the city. Its showbiz of another kind and equally seductive. Its a way of leaving your collective scent on the street before the authorities forget you altogether. The ritual or festival is just an excuse.
Ex: Notting Hill Carnival, London; Ganesh Chaturthi Celebrations, Mumbai; Salvadore de Bahia Carnaval, Brazil

The Carnaval, Salvador de Bahia (Brazil)