June 17, 2009

From the Mumbai Mirror Column

Waiting for the rains is one of the most painful moments in a Mumbaikar’s life. Covered in sweat, burnt by the dazzling sun and constantly looking skywards, the Mumbaikar goes about daily chores praying for that redeeming magical moment.

The wait has become increasingly torturous over the years. At one time, we just blamed the rain gods for any delay. Now, even the most devout believers have figured out the nuances of the global warming debate and are less inclined to spend time and resources on pujas and yagnas.

That is the pre-monsoon scenario. When the possibility of it raining seems dim. When the memory of floods and the weeks without sun seem distant and vague. As soon as the impossible happens, when the clouds actually burst open, the mood changes.

From the initial euphoria over the collective natural air-conditioning that the monsoons usually bring, the complaints start to trickle in and eventually become a flood of their own.

Loud howls of protest rent traffic jammed roads and highways. Complaints about the inefficiency of the city’s authorities are punctuated by dark philosophical pronouncements about global weather change.

Everybody starts cursing – after having savored the initial celebration.

Did the city always respond to the monsoons in this dual-faced way? Not really. It couldn’t have. Like many fishing villages everywhere, those who live at the edges of waterways – on the sea, in creeks and along water bodies – Mumbai’s residents too related to the monsoon in a manner that saw it as organically connected to the water systems in which it is embedded.

The seven islands converged, sometimes by force, but always incrementally over a period of time, without actually removing the city’s watery foundations. This allowed the rains, even if temporarily inconvenient, to be accommodated into the landscape. The city had wells providing water, way into the 20th Century.

Several of the lakes that were developed, in Thane, Kalyan and around the national park, were part of efforts that always saw the monsoons as a blessing that brought in water which needed to be stored and contained.

The Koliwadas of Mumbai, guardians of the city’s waterways, were dignified habitats that saw fishing as a modern-day urban occupation well until the 1960’s and ’70’s. They still exist, but shorn of civic dignity, and with a more embattled life as a fishing community.

What went wrong? Why did the city that once mostly celebrated the monsoons turn into a paranoid nervous wreck waiting for it with anticipation and dread?

Or more precisely, what did the city do to transform itself from a monsoon-friendly, flood-tolerant city, into a death-trap in which the sea becomes a monster snapping at its heals and when lakes and rivers rise ominously, threatening to engulf it?

Several of the answers to these questions will be revealed this month in a brilliantly conceived multi-media exhibition in which the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) at Kala Ghoda will transform itself into a temporary university specialising in the art, science and technology of the monsoons.

Anuradha Mathur and Dilip da Cunha, the force and brains behind the exhibition, aptly titled ‘SOAK: Mumbai in an Estuary’ invite the residents of Mumbai to come and re-think the monsoons in a manner that is unique and quite simply an eye-opener.

They assert that Mumbai is an estuary – a geographical terrain that lets the sea in and integrates its rhythms into the vast urban system that constitutes it.

One that includes a colonial city, glitzy suburbs, fishing villages, towns, rivers, lakes, a forest and several habitats that defy definition. When the city forgets this, when it drives wedges in its own physical self, that’s when the problem starts.

Of course, that’s a very inadequate summary of what they are saying. The exhibition, that starts in a couple of weeks, will reveal a lot more.

URBZ MASHUP Tokyo & Istanbul

June 10, 2009


The URBZ MASHUP workshop invites artists, designers, architects, urbanists and creative people who share an interest in cities and urban life to explore a city, debate, ideate, create fictions, photo-collages, music and videos.

The first URBZ MASHUP will take place in Tokyo, hosted by Temple University Japan, in the first week of July 2009. The second one will be held at Istanbul Technical University in the first week of August, followed by Mumbai in November. Other workshops are planned in Rio, New York and Amsterdam in 2010. Each workshop will remix and mashup the material produced in other cities.

The workshop lasts for 5 days. It is followed by a seminar and an exhibition. Each workshop comprises a mix of international and local participants. The participants form small teams of 3 to 5 people and explore the city for two and a half days. Each group chooses a street or neighborhood and documents it using various media including drawing, photo, audio, video and text.

On the third day, all participants get back to the workshop space and remix the material they have gathered in a free and creative way. On the fifth day, the material produced is uploaded in an online gallery on A selected number of pieces will be printed and exhibited at the workshop space itself. URBZ provides a virtual environment to exhibit what has been  produced.

The URBZ MASHUP workshop is a non-profit event aimed at stimulating imagination, facilitating creative explorations and generating cultural exchanges between cities and people.

For more info:


More Mumbai Politics

June 4, 2009

Last fortnight’s column evoked several angry responses. Indignant Maharshtrian friends who have never supported MNS (the right-wing Maharashtra Nav Nirman Sena, a break-away group of the Shiv Sena) in their lives complained strongly. Friends from Koliwada in Dharavi were admonishing. Colleagues from Kolkatta, once Marxist and now simply fed-up with the ruling communist party, pointed out that that the question of aggressive politics transcends parties and ideologies. Moreover, quite a few of the MNS supporters who wrote in, confirmed their support for the party, along with expressing disagreement with its aggressive tactics. That is a vital point. The fact is that in a democratic system we have to negotiate differences – however deep – without resorting to physical force. And if Mumbai’s political culture can evolve into a space where force and coercion do not shape its agendas, that would work best for everyone.

Go to any neighbourhood in which the street is still an integral part of social life and you will see it resonating with dynamism, with people helping each other in times of crisis, and daily needs, using community resources in the best possible way. These contexts throw up grassroots workers and committed activists. At one time, these neighbourhood leaders were the foundations of a strong, socialist culture. When the political fortunes of left parties declined, those spaces were taken over by newer parties who continued to depend on the excellent organizational skills and grassroots skills of this cadre. When you meet this cadre face to face, you meet several committed men and women, politically astute and very open minded. They are a far cry from the top rung of leadership who provide the face to such parties and often take decisions that put everyone at risk.

In many ways a new political outfit which enters the scene inherits both, a committed set of grassroots activists who know their neighbourhoods well and a legacy of corruption and the habit of muscling their way through issues. The point is what do you do with this legacy? You either fight it or join it. It takes a different kind of strength to willfully change something as deeply entrenched as a corrupt political system by working positively with local neighbourhood leaders.

The fact is that MNS had a choice – it could have started on a fresh note. It may have taken it longer to establish itself but it would have had greater impact in a positive way. Instead, it took the idea of force to another level, by scapegoating and violating the rights of poor sections of migrant populations.

Where does ethnicity lie in this story? It is an integral part. One cannot wish ethnic identity away. Or insist that people must transcend their ethnicity with a simplistic flourish, or that parties must give up their ethnic agendas overnight.

The fact is that Mumbai, with its location in Maharashtra and its strong foundational culture rooted in the local population will always be connected to a rich Maharashtrian ethos. It is equally true that the city is part of India and home to millions of Indians from elsewhere and it has the ability of making them all feel at home in their struggle for earning a living and validating their choice to settle down there.

That’s the whole city. All it needs is a healthy political worldview that matches this wholeness. That surely cant be asking for too much.

Published in the Mumbai Mirror, Wed June 3, 2009