The Conflict Inside

February 22, 2009

Text published on a special issue of the Indian Architect & Builder on ‘conflict’, February 2009.

An issue dedicated to conflict and architecture is a perfect opportunity to think about the conflicts inherent to the profession, for they are symptomatic of a deeper social stress and have a profound impact on our cities. Architecture seems to be in constant conflict mode. Against the elements, against clients, against developers, against planners, against previous conventions, techniques and theories. Even against itself. That’s why architects make good mercenaries, working in the service of rich clients, and also being intense critical theorists. However, they rarely become fighters in their own names. Or even in the names of other causes.

Architects have generally ignored the political dimension of their work, even though this has been the main topic of much urban theory throughout the later part of the Twentieth Century. They have instead preferred to pose as designers concerned first and foremost with form and aesthetic. However, we know since Freud that whatever is repressed and interiorized will come out in some other way. This is why we would like to take a hard look at conflict within, and suggest a way to deal with it.

It is our contention that the conflicts within the profession should be addressed by the architects in their daily practice. The photos accompanying this essay illustrate how a new generation of architects is coming to terms with these issues, by engaging directly in the urban realm and using their skills to improve the living conditions of the people who are most deeply affected by social injustice. It is only recently that architects have started looking at the environmental, economic, and political impact and potential of architecture.

Architects usually think of themselves as mighty creators, producing context rather than responding to it. However, as Arjun Appadurai reminds us, there is no architectural construction without destruction. Architects typically have to destroy whatever is on the ground before their own venture can start. It is virtually impossible to build without uprooting trees and disturbing the local ecosystem. And that’s just for a house. Imagine the destruction involved in the production of a neighbourhood or a city.

The ritual of destruction and construction is actualized in different ways in different cultures and civilizations. Sacrifices, prayers, games, collective performances are all brought into play when transformations are in progress. The rituals that modern creators perform are similar in spirit. Architects, governments and urban planners make searing critiques of earlier designs, templates and forms, thus rendering entire schools of thoughts and practices redundant. They declare whole neighbourhoods as dysfunctional and arcane in acts of symbolic destruction before setting up their own plans and designs into motion – which eventually will face a similar fate.

At heart, most architects know that 99% of buildings are built without architects. Just as most cities are not master planned. Yet, this cannot be acknowledged after a point, lest it mean hacking at the very branch they sit on. As a result architects split themselves up. Their roles as commentator and critic become distinct from that of a practitioner. It is virtually impossible to have a dialogue between the two stances. For example, you have a Rem Koolhas who theoretically advocates an anti-architectural stance and then goes on to produce artifacts in the same breath. What bridges these two positions is a shrug and a sigh – usually of resignation. A resignation embodying both self-awareness and cynicism.

Construction of a school and cultural centre a favela in Rio. See below for more explanations.

Architects find themselves in the eye of this cyclical industry of building and re-building and soon discover that their talents are frequently abused and perverted. The more architects become aware of the history of the discipline and the forces that shape it, the greater is their disenchantment. They become highly conscious of the contradictions the profession embodies. They are aware that, as an artist or a socially concerned individual, they have one set of impulses, and as a professional another.

The conflict between the world of ideas and the world of money, and its collusion in the form of luxury homes and corporate architecture is every bit as dramatic as the suffering endured by a bipolar patient, passing from a state of ecstatic joy to one of utter depression. In the same way, architects can experience the sublime joy of pouring forth the human thrust for eternal recognition. And minutes later be confronted with the dire realization that not only will their contributions not be fully acknowledged, even by the people whom they were intended to serve, but also that their visions will be revised and adapted to the will of the all mighty client. Instead of being gods themselves, they are merely pawns in the service of a higher being: the client.

Responses to this sorry state of affairs have been as imaginative as one could expect. One is a special version of the Stockholm syndrome that causes architects to fall in love with their client. At this point, they can become “bottom-up” advocates submitting themselves to the will of the noble savage for whom they have all types of contradictory feelings. Sometimes they decide to indulge in the love of money, cynically selling their creativity to whomever pays more.

Another kind of response transforms them into Peter Pans. They refuse to grow out of the mighty age of architectural adolescence, when all dreams were lived with full intensity and faith. This sometimes produces geniuses such as constructivist Iakov Chernikhov, who entered the pantheon of famous architects after building only one structure, but sketching hundreds of fantasies into architectural glory; and Hermann Finsterlin who privileged inspiration over rationalism and refused to undergo formal architectural training because he thought it would hurt his creativity. But usually it produces teachers of architecture, who take their revenge by making their pupils dream harder and higher than they ever could, thereby producing the next generation of frustrated architects.

Architects are nearly never able to resolve their internal conflicts between artistic creation, building actualization, economic success and social recognition. Even those architects that become superstars have often been so used to selling their soul on Main Street that they have become intellectually frigid and unable to experience the simplest joys of creation. The practice of architecture evokes the greatest agony amongst its most creative and rebellious souls. They are acutely aware of the inconsistencies they embody, at once full of importance as producers of the physical world and profoundly aware of their own futility.

Sometimes these internal conflicts produce a friction that stimulates creativity even as it destroys the creator in his core. Sleepless nights, heavy consumption of coffee and cigarettes, hours in front of the computer screen, loneliness and seclusion from the family, and miserable paychecks are the common lot of architects around the world.

Architects are usually unwilling to face the true object of their quest. They are therefore unable to realize how this quest could be fulfilled. Lets face it, architects are narcissistic egomaniacs dreaming of reshaping the world in their own individual and idealized self-image. Architecture as we know it today may be a language but it is hardly a spiritual path. Ego has been driving architecture for as far as we can remember. And that’s true of almost all acts of creation.

This drive is fundamentally human and its fulfillment possible, if only one approaches it with a healthy dose of pragmatism and a bit of perversion. It can be done by hitting at the aesthetic and economic arrangements on which the profession is based -from below. For example, let’s not immediately aim at designing the highest skyscrapers or masterplanning an entire city. Instead channelize these impulses into the total production of a structure that means the world to someone who would normally not have the means to afford an architect. See this not as do-good charity, but as the way to a balanced resolution. A sacred union of the enemies within the architect’s psyche will certainly happen once you swim against the tide and project the self not merely on a CAD design, but more radically engage in the physical production of an architectural object. If the whole mind and body focus on the enormously challenging task of realizing a project with limited means, you will shock the system and transform it. All you must do is fully project your ingenuity, skills, and know-how into every minute of the construction process. Even the most conventional colleagues will have to applaud this move. The architect will then really feel like god, since, as the saying goes: “God is in the details.”

In this respect, Indian architects have a head start. They are surrounded by informally developing settlements filled with people with some resources and a great need for some architectural legitimacy and support. They can help them fulfill their own dreams of a well-built house or neighbourhood, short circuit the system and find a place in the hall of fame. Unfortunately, they are ignoring this opportunity. Instead, their colleagues from around the world are coming in large numbers – in search of the real raw material of architecture – people in need of shelter, with the basic skills of making their own.

Young architects are coming from far away to work in Indian cities because they want to learn by doing. Unplanned settlements, where many residents still remember how to build a shelter for themselves, provide the most amazing learning environment. At the same time, these deprived contexts give adventurous architects a chance to actually put their learning to good use and build. The practical knowledge of materials and methods of construction should make a comeback in architectural education, if only because they can help the contemporary architect to cure his conflicted mind.

Resolve the conflict inside the architects’ minds and we will have moved centuries ahead, into a culture of sustainability.

Photos of a 2006 project by 24 year old architect Filipe Balestra (photo) with the NGO Instituto Dois Irmãos (i2i) in Rocinha, Rio. With 200,000 to 300,000 residents and a total footprint of 0.8 sqKm, Rocinha is the largest favela of Brazil. With the help of local residents, i2i converted an old rotting house into a school and community centre. The whole project cost $30,000 out of which $16,000 went to buying the plot. It took about a year to be completed. This structure now serves nearly 70 children during the day and adults during the night. The structure hosts a large number of activities including a community centre, recycling of materials art school, Portuguese, English, French, Italian and Spanish classes, literacy, maths, capoeira, storytelling, cinema, Internet room and other temporary activities. Filipe now lives and work in Pune, India where he works with SPARC on incrementally developable structures. For more info on i2i, visit their website:

Taking the ‘Slum’ Out of Dharavi

February 21, 2009

This is the original version of our piece that appeared in The New York Times on February 21st 2009.

It does not take much to galvanize protest against a movie in India, but few thought the word Slumdog would cause so much anger. Especially as hundreds of Bollywood titles translate into much worse. We had to pay attention though, when friends from Dharavi joined hands with the protestors. The Indian media widely reported popular outrage at the word ‘dog’. But what we heard from Manju Keny, a 19 year – old college student living in Dharavi – was something else. She was upset at the word ‘slum’.

We could not agree more.

Dharavi is the celebrated Mumbai neighborhood in which some the most spectacular scenes of Danny Boyle’s movie were shot, including the anti-Muslim riots of 1992. The opening sequence, however was actually filmed near the airport, with kids playing on the plane field, being chased by policemen and landing up – in a moment of pure Hollywood magic – a few kilometers away in Dharavi. Rather than name an actual location, the movie constructs a cinematic slum out of many pockets around Mumbai.

This imagery represents what most middle-class residents in Mumbai (and now all over the world) imagine Dharavi to be. The urban legend has taken root only because few of them have ever been there. It is the same reason why most Manhattanites still avoid stepping anywhere near Bed-Stuy, that beautiful and vibrant neighborhood in Brooklyn. Times might have changed since Barry Stein described it as the “largest ghetto in the US” but old prejudices die hard.

Likewise, the slum imagery does little justice to the reality of Dharavi. Don’t expect to see the familiar clichés about urban poverty here. Well over a million “eyes on the street”, to use Jane Jacobs’ phrase, keep Dharavi safer than most US cities. Yet, Dharavi’s extreme population density doesn’t translate into an oppressive feeling. The crowd is efficiently absorbed in the thousands of tiny streets branching into bustling commercial arteries. Also, you won’t be chased by beggars or see depressed people loitering. Dharavi is probably the most active and lively part of an already incredibly industrious city.

What you will see however are piles of garbage uncollected by municipal authorities. These are favored by a certain brand of photo-reporters and slum tourists. But then again, one has to remember images of Naples during the garbage crisis. In comparison, things are nowhere as bad in Dharavi where people have learned to respond in creative ways to the indifference of the state – including the setting up of a highly functional waste recycling industry that serves the whole city.

This resourcefulness has aroused the curiosity of people from all over the world. They cannot get their head around this phenomenon, which in sixty years emerged out of marshlands to become a multi-million dollar economic miracle that provides fresh food to Mumbai and exports crafts and manufactured goods to places as far as Sweden.

No master plan, urban design, zoning ordinance, construction law or expert knowledge can claim any stake in the success of Dharavi. It was entirely built by successive waves of immigrants who moved there in response to rural poverty, political oppression or natural disasters. They managed to produce a place that is far from perfect but has proved to be amazingly resilient and able to upgrade itself. In the words of its resident-activist Bhau Korde – “Dharavi is an economic success story that the world must pay attention to during these times of global depression.” The fact that it developed with internal resources, through the sheer resourcefulness of its inhabitants is something truly special.

Not surprisingly an increasing number of students, researchers, activists and writers are feeding off Dharavi to produce new concepts, participatory methodologies and architectural systems. They come not to help poor people but to learn from Dharavi. The Net Generation in particular recognizes itself in the story of this self-developing city, which is powered by the collective intelligence and individual aspirations of hundreds of thousands of people.

Why can’t government officials, real-estate developers and NGO workers think about Dharavi in any other way than as a slum that needs to be cleared and redeveloped? Maybe it is simply a conceptual and generational gap. Why can’t they see that development is in fact the main driving principle of Dharavi? Its apparently messy organization is not a problem in itself but rather an expression of intensive social and economic processes at work. In an age of complexity, artificial intelligence and wiki-logic, this should be self-evident.

Any attempt to segregate living and working would not make any more sense in there than in an artist’s loft in Brooklyn. In typical post-industrial fashion, in Dharavi homes double up as productive spaces. When the morning comes, mattresses are folded and tens of thousands of units emerge to sustain a decentralized production network rivaling in efficiency with the most ruthless of Chinese sweatshops.

Dharavi is the ultimate user-generated city. Its urban and economic development relies on the intensive use of social networks and communities. Each of Dharavi’s 80 plus neighborhoods has been incrementally developed by generations of residents updating their shelters and businesses according to needs and means. This organizational logic is neither new nor unique to Dharavi, but we have never been in a better time to understand it. Just as the development of open source software requires guidelines and coordination; all Dharavi needs is some support from the government – mostly in the form of giving its functioning some legitimacy by providing the same services as in any other part of the city– and then trusting its inhabitants to continue from there.

For this to happen, urban planning needs to come to terms with some of the fundamental changes that the information age has brought to all fields of knowledge and practice. The role of the expert, for one, must be reinvented. It is no longer possible for planners to work in isolation. Instead we must find ways to plug into local knowledge and respond with new ideas, tools and practices. Besides, the complexity of a neighborhood such as Dharavi should never be blanketed under a generic term such as ‘slum’. One way to deal with it, is to disaggregate and localize planning and design interventions. This should build on existing dynamics and incentives and work through the internal logic of each community.

This is no fantasy wishlist. Sometimes, historical accidents show the way for such spontaneous urban evolution. Look at large parts of Tokyo. Its low-rise high density and mixed-use cityscape, which appears messy and chaotic to western planners, has emerged through a similar Dharaviesque logic. The only difference was that it modernized, legitimized and was supported by economic growth, which its inhabitants themselves contributed towards.

Maybe all that Dharavi needs is a recognition of such spontaenous processes that have always sustained its development. As Ramesh Misra, lawyer and life-long resident puts it, echoing the aspirations of many in Dharavi: ‘We have always improved Dharavi by ourselves. All we want is permission and support to keep doing it. Is that asking for too much?’

Barcelona Urban Species Project

February 15, 2009

This a proposal for a digital project and installation at the eme3 Mercado Exhibition taking place in Center for Contemporary Culture of Barcelone (CCCB) on March 19-21, 2009.

URBZ is a collective of data hunter-gatherers active in urban jungles throughout the world. URBZ provides tools and methodologies for participatory urban development across linguistic and cultural boundaries.

URBZ believes that the deepest knowledge about cities exists amongst its inhabitants and communities. Those engaged with urban life in any way, either through direct civic engagement, or simply as residents, produce and use this knowledge spontaneously all the time. For urban planners and other practitioners, working with this knowledge through direct engagement with people is the best possible way to enhance the quality and impact of their work.

URBZ is developing a multimedia wiki interface allowing anyone to access, upload and geo-tag multimedia spatial data. URBZ online tools comprise of a mashup of readily available Web applications. It is open source and can be adapted to the needs of any individual or group. The data uploaded is localized on satellite images and maps, and is accessible by anyone browsing that location. It thus helps build and strengthen location and city-based social and professional networks and allows individuals or groups to share their own location-based data with others.

The first URBZ project is, an open source multimedia wiki website about Mumbai’s largest informal settlement, which is home to hundreds of thousands. allows residents, researchers, activists journalists and the general public to share information on Dharavi. URBZ is working on various other projects in Mumbai and in Tokyo including a wiki for a group of 400 young researchers active in various neighbourhoods of Mumbai and operating outside of any academic setting. Another project of URBZ involves producing a participatory interface for Shimokitazawa, a central Tokyo neighbourhood know for its subculture scene and street markets.

At eme3, the URBZ team will invite eme3 visitors to explore the streets of Barcelona and catalogue its various urban species. URBZ will gather data from the streets of Barcelona (photos, movie, interviews), publish it instantaneously on its site, and receive live feedback from users at eme3 and on the worldwide web.

Dharavi Tales

February 13, 2009

In our list of fiction relevant to Dharavi’s universally appealing history, we cherish Amitav Ghosh’s ‘The Hungry Tide’ (Ravi Dayal, 2004). It is a thrilling account of power and space that unfolds in the dense mangrove forests of the Sunderbans in Bengal. It drags into its intense narrative flow, all of the Indian state’s contrary feelings towards its own people, its neighbors and its continued fidelity to arcane categories, especially those which describe nature and forests and those who live directly off it.

The novel opens itself to allegorical interpretations to historical moments in completely different parts of the sub-continent.

We draw from it a powerful lesson for Dharavi. (And not just because of the obvious mangrove connection; Dharavi too grew in the marshy lands of the mangroves that surrounded the city even more richly in the past).

There is a moment when a schoolmaster revolutionary first encounters the community of recent settlers in the mangrove forests and is completely disarmed by their ability to re-organize their lives.

‘What had I expected? A mere jumble, perhaps, untidy heaps of people, piled high upon each other? …But what I saw was quite different from the picture in my mind’s eye. Paths had been laid…little plots of land had been enclosed with fences; fishing nets had been hung up to dry. There were men and women sitting outside their huts, repairing their nets and stringing their crab lines with bits of bait and bone.
Such industry! Such diligence! Yet it was only a few weeks since they had come’.

(Page 171)

The protagonist goes on to document his thrill at seeing ‘the birth of something new’ – the creation of a world not by a single visionary but one that was dreamt up by ‘the very people who were trying to make it real’, not ‘by those with learning and power but by those without’ (ibid).

At the simplest level – this response echoes the typical responses of many who encounter habitats like Dharavi for the first time. Take a look at the numerous reports and accounts of journalists and travelers. Surprise and shock at the organized level of activities is in sharp contrast to the perspectives of authorities and uninformed public opinion that usually reaches their ears first.

The organized prejudice manifests itself in kinds of violence too, as depicted in the novel. Maybe not a massacre – but something close – a complete destruction of the intricacies of economics and resources that are enmeshed in the neighbourhood – as intricately as the mangroves connect to the lives of the settlers in the Sunderbans. Besides, the category ‘refugee’ morphs into similar condensed prejudices such as ‘illegal’, ‘criminals’, ‘encroachers’ or simply ‘slum dwellers’.

But there is more.

The full impact of the nuances of the story became more evident to us when we came across Ghosh’s essay ‘Wild Fictions: Narratives of Nature and the Politics of Forests’. (Outlook Essays, January 2009). It is a powerful critique of the idea of nature and the environment as a-priori in our understanding of human history.

He points out how the presence of the ‘environmental unconscious’ within the lives of those who are perceived to be living directly off the environment – has to constantly contend with the articulated notion of ‘Nature’ as if it lies above human life.

Ghosh’s essay uses parables, history and razor sharp arguments to reveal how the ‘environment…is peopled, inhabited and continually enriched by history’. For us the argument made it abundantly clear that any understanding of habitats needs to factor in how intimately connected are the omniscient categories of ‘Nature’ and its counter-point ‘Urban Civilization’. Accepting the fact that both feed off each other makes it clear why the story of the settlers of the Sunderbans resonates so much with the lives of those living in a place like Dharavi – and several others like it.

‘The Hungry Tide’ can be seen as a larger commentary on administrative categories and such mythic constructions that make and break habitats. It shows how nationalism and its accompanying discourses of legitimacy and illegitimacy translates into questions of development that then play vicious games in the name of the environment and its unarticulated and equally constructed anti-thesis – urban spaces.

The preservation of the forests as an end in itself goes hand in hand with the demarcation of the city. And the rules of demarcation must be always respected – both ways. A city as the epitome of civilization must not show signs of wilderness at all – and if it does – then it must be civic-minded and always under-control.

And equally important: – wilderness must never show signs of industry. That’s why the emphasis in the protagonist’s response (such industry!) is so memorable.

The fascinating account that Suresh Sharma describes in ‘Tribal Identity and the Modern World’ (Sage, 1994) comes to mind. He points out how the Agaria tribes of the forests in Central India, were adept at smelting iron and had a rich legacy of crafts involving iron work. They responded with enthusiasm to the coming of the (rich-in-iron-symbolism) railways but were confronted with an administrative gaze that could not see them as anything more than savage forest-dwellers. Instead of harnessing their enthusiasm, their presence in the forests (where they used to shallow-mine iron in an ecologically sound way) was criminalized. And the forests themselves were either mined and destroyed or zoned out as a Nature Preserve.

The need to neatly demarcate pristine forests and civilizational spaces go hand in hand. The boundaries must never be breached.

This compulsion for categorization and zoning runs very deep. A village in a city is eventually considered to be anachronistic and must either be gentrified or lose its identity as a village. In Mumbai – almost all the biggest slums have a nucleus that once was a recognizable village. Including Dharavi. It is easy for a village – which should not exist in the city in the first place according to the laws of demarcation– to slowly be downgraded into a slum, especially when rural refugees start crowding the city and need to be housed.

In addition, a place like Dharavi, which is almost all about industry, is illegal for another reason. It violates another zoning taboo – where residences and work places must never over-lap. A taboo that makes no sense in Dharavi at all in which the main built-form is the tool-house itself – a multi-use space that defies categorization and zoning. And yet – the laws continue to be in place citing all kinds of disputable and excessive reasoning, at every level.

We read The Hungry Tide as a parable about habitats such as Dharavi, encased in a powerful vision about power and space in which ideas like the environment, nature, urbanism, development and economics are fiercely contested.

Of course it is about lots more – including being a treasure trove of knowledge about the environment, dolphins and the magical-ecology of the Sunderbans – besides being a thoroughly enjoyable read!

The Itinerants of Mumbai

February 6, 2009

David and Charmayne de Souza’s book is a tale about Mumbai and the numerous roads that connect it to the rest of the world. Through the turns and twists of life, the city once seen as a refuge from nomadism, an heir of sedentary agrarian life, becomes the most vibrant stage for itinerants from everywhere. A stage vividly alive with other worldly songs, dances, colors and stories, which invites us to dream of hitting the road, leave all things behind, rely on providence, put on a colorful dress, paint one’s face, tattoo this bodily vehicle of ours, and dance our way through. Like madmen who have finally recovered themselves not by sitting back in an illusory normality but by engaging fully with their fantasies, using imagination, myth and tradition as weapons for survival.

With the rigor of a scientist, David catalogues the itinerant species of Mumbai. He abstracts them from their context and captures them in their most heightened spirits. His photo gallery of characters is reminiscent of our old biology labs, where obsessive professors kept exotic creatures in formalin. Charmayne sets the subjects of David’s photos back into movement through poetic inspiration. Her writing reminds us of the mythical dimension of itinerant life, which is present in every civilization. Sedentary societies have indeed always had an ambivalent relationship to the people of the wind, as Japanese villagers call them. Itinerants have been perceived in turns as indispensable trading partners, threatening agents of change and as objects of desire. David and Charmayne’s images and words bring to life some of the multiple avatars of that nomadic spirit that all of us carry deep inside and which refuses to leave.

This is probably why, turning these pages, even those of us who chose or inherited comfort and security cannot help but sigh at the thought of these untied lives, which seem to be fed by faith and magic more than anything else. Of course nomadic life, as intense and meaningful as it can be, is usually driven by necessity more than choice. But for an instant, it is liberating to believe that most of the people in this book would never trade itinerancy for routine and standardization.

Itinerants have by definition traveled through all kinds of roads and crossed all kinds of bridges. Poverty, subjugation, creativity, freedom and spirituality have proved to be the most difficult and slippery terrains, where one easily slides from one state to the other. And yet, evolving on these edges, itinerants have unsettled feudal political regimes more than any democratic system ever could. All through history, they produced heterodox spiritual kingdoms and challenged caste and tribal identities.

In Mumbai, itinerants are at home. This is after all, a city in which the street is king. It is here that the rules of urbanism seem to bend backwards, where the streets stop being just thoroughfares, where the evolutionary linearity of hamlet, village and town become fuzzy and where the home and the road become, quite literally, one and the same.

The itinerants of Mumbai are of many different kinds. Several of them may well have discovered the thrills and perils of the road only on arriving here. A large number could have moved from the world of subjugation to that of freedom on reaching here.  A fair amount would never consider their lives enviable and would be actually quite willing to trade it for middle-class comforts any day. Most may want to escape the streets altogether. But none would deny the fact that, if there is one place that is paradoxically reminiscent of the freedom that forests provided in the past to all those who wanted to escape, it is this city.

Every morning in Mumbai’s urban jungle, the multitude wakes up before the sun and chases the night away. Bats, rats and cockroaches go hide underground and the magnificent buzz starts. Those who have slept on the streets wake up to the blaring horns of taxis and buses. They find little niches in between buildings and by-lanes to use as washrooms. They open up boxes on pavements and transform them into stalls, enshrine trees with fresh flowers and incense, serve chai to the early crowd. Very soon they are dwarfed by the millions of commuters who march in rhythm to the city’s arcane industrial work ethic. While salaried men and women commute from home to office, from office to the supermarket and back, itinerants go nowhere. In the street only the sedentary kind must move, if possible in an AC car. The nomads are at home, right then and there, and everywhere.

The urbanite is often quite uncomfortable with this city’s most idiosyncratic citizens. That is because they seem to be so at ease in his landscape. Before he sees it coming someone knocks on the car window demanding a few rupees in exchange for a prayer, a flower or a book. Somehow it always feels wrong to refuse the trade, as if it the hawkers were actually asking for nothing but their due. The sedentary car user comes to terms with the nature of reversals, brings the window down and makes a deal. It is encounters like this one, multiplied a million times, that saves this city day after day. For all its shortcomings and in spite of a recent rise in nationalist politics, Mumbai has proved to be an urban oasis for many migrants and travelers ever since the first fishermen settled on its shores. It is the capacity of Mumbaikars to accept a high level of promiscuity with strangers that has made it so safe despite the vertiginous divides existing between castes and classes.

Itinerants become human connectors in an increasingly divided yet interdependent world. As much as the pathways and signals mediate roads and neighbourhoods, itinerants constantly connect the city’s many different dimensions to one another. They are the x-factor that allows this exuberant unpredictable city to function day after day. It is these ever-present encounters that make us realize how full of mad contrasts the city is. Where one brushes shoulders with ipod listening teenagers one moment and the very next, faces a tribal ritual masochist doing a thousand year old dance. Further down the lane, one come across the last of a dying breed of water carriers using ancient goatskin pouches walking past piles of used mineral water bottles.  One can hear a knife sharpener’s wheel screaming, next to a well-stocked shopping mall selling everything under the sun,

David and Charmayne’s ode to Mumbai’s itinerants makes the reader aware of these contrasts through their own distinct approaches. The portraits isolate them in the stark environment of the studio while the poems re-connect them to their contexts like light, near invisible strings.

They wake up the sedated jaded urbanite who turns away from their incongruity but has registered their presence and at the end of the day is actually blessed to be connected to the world wide web of the mystic, astrologer, eunuch or beggar. They provide that touch of fantasy, that glimmer of otherness that saves him from that very urban brand of autism proliferated by global media and consumerist culture. This coalescing of different moments, eras, epochs, and state of minds is what makes the streets of Mumbai so special. David and Charmayne remind us that their exhilarating unpredictability is predicated as much on run-of-the-mill disorder, civic mismanagement and individual idiosyncrasies as it is on the genuine love of unpredictability of the city’s inhabitants.

Itinerants wind up embodying the roads they inhabit. Not just its smell and hues but also its edginess, roughness and straightforwardness. This can been seen most sharply when the context is erased. In a photographer’s studio, which invisiblizes the city, the subjects in sharp focus become just as disconcerting as an empty, silent city on a day of curfew. Paradoxically, this evacuation of context only makes us understand the affectionate relationship of the street and its myriad squatters even better. The street is to Mumbaikars what the sea is to fishermen.

The book builds on several such reversals. It successfully generates the impression that it is not the reader watching these personas but the other way around. The itinerants look back amused at our child-like fascination as we gaze at them. They come with their pride and smiles and snap at our faces, waking us up for an instant from our sedentary somnolence.

They unsettle us for many reasons.

They convince our resistant minds that that the man with a painted face, outrageous dress and clinking necklaces is in fact truer to himself than the suited man driving by on his way to office. Is there anything more discomfiting than a head on confrontation with the self-conscious celebration of nomadic life and its exquisite liberty? Is there anything more transformative than the realization that the beggar and the hooker are actually richer than their patrons? Is there anything more radical than accepting the fact that the greatest perceived victim is actually a fearless master of his life?

David & Charmayne de Souza’s book “Itinerants, the Nomads of Mumbai” is available in all good bookstores.  In case you cannot find it and would like to purchase it contact us and we will put you in touch with them.

Media Media on the Wall

February 5, 2009

The Jevon Hall on Dharavi Main road usually resounds with Bollywood music playing during marriages and festivals. But last week Bollywood arrived on Dharavi’s door steps. Music composer Bappi Lahiri, the disco king of the eighties walked up the flight of stairs to sing with a bunch of children from Ganesh Vidya Mandir and Ambedkar schools located in Dharavi.

Bappi Lahiri aka Bappi Da came for a press conference about the new album he is producing with children of Dharavi and DJ Paul Devro of the label Mad Decent (Philadelphia). We had invited Paul Devro, a veteran of the Urban Typhoon Workshop, for a week to map the music and sounds of Dharavi. When Paul expressed his unconditional love for the music of Bappi Da, we immediately tried to connect them. It worked and they got along so well that they decided to produce an album together with children from Dharavi, which Bappi Da  called “Slum Stars” as a response to the title of the movie “Slumdog Millionaire.”

Bollywood star producer Bappi Lahiri with DJ Paul Devro and young Dharavi singers at a press conference in Dharavi.

Bappi Da recorded some songs with the children in his studio. The media had come that day to check out what his public relations officer had sent out to them. Many admitted they had stepped into Dharavi for the very first time. While Bappi Da, Paul Devro and the children got good attention – there were a host of community leaders and residents who had also come for the event but were given the royal ignore. Except for a couple of press reporters  – who did interview a few – for the most part Dharavi remained in the media’s shadow this evening.

Fortunately, a local hip hop crew, the South Dandy Squad who Paul Devro had recorded and who had helped us find a space for the party in Dharavi managed to get some attention from the media.

South Dandy Squad performing a capella for a local TV network.

Yet – the media bias was clear. Just a couple of weeks earlier we, along with architect Wahid Seraj and students of Srishti School, Bangalore, helped organize an architectural studio. This was to help the faculty and graduate students of the Urban Design Program at Columbia University and the JJ School of Architecture do a project in Dharavi. The studio responded to the need of three Municipal Chawls in Dharavi to evolve plans for their self development.

Omkar Municipal Housing Society (proposed) in Kokiwada, Dharavi.

The issues were complex, but the students and the community did a terrific job in responding to the nuances. They provided alternative scenarios, using different rules and regulations. They connected with the community, who in turn gave them all the cooperation that was needed. It is rare that architects, planners and community members get a chance to collaborate like this. However, when an event was organized to present the work to the community and the public at large, we invited the media. Unfortunately, since there was no celebrity, no big speeches and consequently, very little reportage. The sole journalist who came did not publish the report as promised. It was published later – truncated within another story.

One of the persons who was disappointed, but not surprised was Mr. Ramesh Mishra, a lawyer born and brought up in one of the several Bombay Municipal Corporation (BMC) chawls in Dharavi, Koliwada. It was he who had invited us to help evolve plans for his chawls that subsequently lead to the studio. He was working on a case in the Human Right Commisson. It involved the right to self-development for the residents of his and a neighbouring chawl.

Ramesh Mishra (right) with members of the Urban Typhoon team, including architects Geeta Mehta and Kamu Iyer in the back.

The built-form of the ‘chawl’ evolved in colonial Bombay as a working class tenement modified on army barracks with one room per family, a common toilet and usually a long common corridor. They can be single or multi-storied structures and reportedly a good part of Dharavi comprises of chawls. Their existence testifies to some official involvement in their construction. In fact most of the tenants in the chawls in Dharavi built by the BMC (The Brihan Mumbai Municipal Corporation) pay controlled rent to the administration.

Municipal Chawl in Dharavi

The case by Ramesh Mishra demands that chawls such as his be exempt from the Dharavi redevelopment Plan which would reduce the size of individual homes considerably. His insistence that the BMC chawls be recognized as a distinct historical component of the neighbourhood is important at several levels. It questions the deliberate homogenization of the neighbourhood as one slum. It aligns with similar resistances by residents of Koliwada (in fact Mr. Mishra is on fairly strong ground when he says that his chawl actually comes within the purview of the Gaothan law – a special protection for urban villages).

All these concerns went into the studio but almost nothing was reported. Many residents of Dharavi have been cynical about the way the media reports or does not report stories about their neighbourhood, this is why we created which lets anyone publish their research, ideas and opinion in any language.

This is our tip to the mass media: If you want a good story speak to Mr Mishra, the South Dandy Crew and the thousand other people who have unique stories and knowledge about Dharavi. If that happens it will be a paradigm shift in the way the media understands cities and neighborhoods.

JJ School of the Arts and Columbia University students presenting their work to chawls residents. Bellow is one out of three Powerpoint presentations shown by the students to the residents. This was done after only a week of work on site. The students are now working on a more professional plan that Municipal Chawls hope to present to the authorities in June.

View more presentations from the Columbia-JJ studio in Dharavi .

In addition to the airoots team, Melissa Nahory and Sytse de Maat contributed photos to this post.