Spectacular Speculation and Mumbai’s Unplanned Future

May 7, 2011


Presentation @ MAD Salon in Mumbai on Saturday, May 7th, 2011. Hosted by Susmita Monhanty and Sid Das.

1. Tower of Babel


This biblical story conveys many human anxieties and fears. Its monumental architecture encompasses a tale of tyranny – the domination of man over man in an attempt to bring together diverse histories under singular control, of streamlining otherness and reducing all fantasies into one. What is striking to the modern mind is the sheer scale of its ambition, of reaching out to the skies before crumbling under its own weight of over-extension and then fearing the ensuing confusion that comes with multiplicity and pluralism. The ambitions embodied in the myth seem to recur in human history – complete with the repetitive and cyclical fall.

2. Skyscraper Index


A little statistical table that circulates in the media now and then has an unsettling effect on many who encounter it. It shows correlations between ambitious building projects – specifically those that strive to the greatest heights ever – and the mysterious occurrence of economic depressions and the bursting of speculative bubbles that seem to unfailingly follow them. The table is seen to be unscientific but like the power of all great myths – has managed to plant little seeds of doubts and beliefs in the collective consciousness of those involved in realizing such ambitions. Are these grand projects crystallizations of arrogance and power till the sky literally falls on their heads? Often they become like the ruins of the tower of Babel, unfinished or surrounded by the rubble of economic despair.

3. World One


Mumbai’s very own Babel arises from its already pretty ruinous landscape with the same old tired ambition. The World One tower aims to be the highest residential tower in the world and rather like the grand but ill-fated biblical structure, wants to enclose as much as possible within its generous boundaries. It posits to be self-contained, encompassing as many needs as possible within it. It plans to tower over the rest of the city in arrogance and ambition. It turns away from the economic reality of thousands of luxury flats lying unused or unsold in its neighbourhoods and seems to be paving the way for a bubble to burst that, paradoxically people seem to be anticipating.

4. Barad Dur


The prevalence of biblical images and tales in medieval literature, of medievalism being one of the most challenging coming-of-age of moments of modern consciousness and the continued prevalence of medieval imagery and tales in modern fantasies and imaginations is explained by scholar Umberto Eco. He points out how an episodic and evolutionary presentation of history does not really mirror the diverse, complex and unpredictable way in which human lives and cultures actually unfold in space and time. Medieval concerns continue to exist deep in the human consciousness and experience. Popular culture is replete with imagery and fantasy from medieval times because modern life is punctuated by medieval moments, not withstanding the self-image we have of being modern thanks to technological changes and the scientific spirit. The Dark Tower of Sauron from the Lord of the Rings haunts us in movies, games and art, reliving old nightmares and shaping dreams and fantasies.

5. Dark Urban Age


As episodic history and transformative epic moments continue to influence our understanding of life, one powerful myth that has become prevalent is that we are now all firmly entrenched in the great Urban Age. However, it would be more accurate to say that we are in a rather Dark Urban Age. Prophets predict apocalyptic visions about this era with images of dark shadowy habitats replacing the erstwhile fears of the forest that castles and protected urban habitats had in the past. Every new architectural or urban fantasy that gets realized repeats such imagery, presenting itself as a fort surrounded by architectural wilderness full of danger and chaos. If it is not such negative imagery about their surroundings then it is about taming the wilderness and transforming it into acceptable notions of urban life – most of it still shaped by ambitions of the Babel Tower.

6. Out of the Castle


Today, when a young, well-meaning architect steps out of the castle, she is alert and on the lookout for dangers of the wilderness which she has to bravely tackle and eventually tame. The wilderness is epitomized by the category slum, encompassing all that is avoidable, dangerous and worthy of erasure. Like the proverbial adventurer of ancient tales she encounters false monsters and elusive spirits. The slum emerges as a highly unstable category, slipping through fingers the moment she thinks she has found one. In Mumbai particularly, the spectacular spectre of speculation has produced the most naive narrative on slums, where it is used in the grossest of way at one level and full of nuances at another. In Dharavi, each neighbourhood looks the other way when asked where the legendary and largest slum in Asia is supposed to be. It is always on the next street. Eventually when she finds it – it appears as a chimera, a construct and helps her realize that the dangerous forest around her is nothing like what she had been told it was.

7. Final Fantasy

The scary forest was a fantasy in the mind of castle dwellers in a way that played upon all kinds of anxieties and fears. Kings and aristocrats saw them as spaces out of control, unlike the domesticated peasants and taxed agrarian lands that were caught in their web. From the vantage of the subaltern hero, the forest was Sherwoodian, full of Robin Hoodian impulses, a social space and a world of creative freedom and economic independence. Resisting control was its biggest aim. An urbanological understanding of forests reveals a sharp questioning of what is wild, tame, and natural. Urbanology questions what is urban, rural and tribal, what is a slum and what is heroic resistance to monumental ambition. The final fantasy for an urban explorer is questioning the romantic fallacy of Babylonian ambition and revealing falsely frightening wilderness to be something else altogether – a liveable fantasy of human, creative and ecological possibilities

The Illustrated Street

May 2, 2011

The practice of photojournalism and image making has changed everywhere. Whether it is on websites of mainstream newspapers or on amateur blogs all around the world, images are increasingly taken by sources close to the scene of action. It is about being right here, right now, and having a sharp enough reflex to snap the image at the right time.

The story is more complicated than simply the amateur journalist taking over the job of the professional. What is happening is that the amateur becomes an expert when she talks about what’s near her, what she is familiar with.  This abundance of information from an infinite number of sources doesn’t mean the end of professional journalism at all. Instead it implies a reinvention of the journalist as a selector/editor of the texts and images that she receives. The journalist still has to be at the right time and the right place but this doesn’t necessarily mean the time and place where the action is unfolding. The place to be is at the receiving and transmitting end of deep networks of actors and readers.

Journalism was already global before the advent of decentralized media. It had become an industry that successfully mobilized people in different parts of the world, and through communication technology such as the telegram, the phone or the fax, connected them to control rooms where the information was being processed and then broadcast. The field of journalism was already broad. What new technologies have brought is a new depth. This depth is not an analytical depth (which may well have been reduced by the speed of diffusion of information), but a depth in the story, since the object of the story can also become a storyteller. We can get the insider story. The end-receiver of information is increasingly intimate with the reality reported in the news. The reader can now interact with the actors from the stories she is reading and even become part of the story, by asking a specific question or offer unique insights.

It follows that there is no simple opposition between the so-called “democratization” of the media and the role of the specialist. The amateur is a specialist of her own reality. We recently started a workshop series on the theme of ‘water’ at the Dharavi Shelter. The kids have quickly become familiar with the use of the digital camera. For this project, we are asking them to look at water in their neighbourhood. They shoot pictures and describe what they have photographed in their own words. Then they document the way water is being used at home, how it gets evacuated and where it goes afterward. This material is then shared with water system specialists who ask questions back to the kids. We are only facilitating this communication. In a way we are acting as journalists, getting information from here and transmitting it there, and then the other way around. Our role is not simply that of a mediator however – we are also actors. And a lot of this involves connecting people to each other. The art of connecting is just as creative as any other, be it writing or photography. This connection, going both ways, empowers the children  significantly.  They will be able to speak with authority about something near them and will get to know it better than anyone else.

It seems to us that good photojournalists have always looked at photojournalism as much more than a profession. It is a form of engagement with the context, with the subject. The most moving and insightful work in that field, has always been one which constructs its own story and doesn’t try to elude the presence and subjectivity of the photographer. Carrying a camera automatically changes the response of the people around you. Playing with that effect is what makes great photography. What we love the most about previous the photos taken by the kids at the Shelter is that they could never have been taken by anyone else. People on the photos would simply have responded differently if they had been snapped by unknown adults. Maybe some would have smiled or felt intimidated in front of a photographer. In front of their friends or family people are more spontaneous and natural. Some of the best shots taken by the kids are the ones that let us sense the relationship between the person behind the camera and the person being photographed.

The images that emerge have a distinctive aesthetic and politics. They emerge from the knowledge embedded in familiarity, the taken for granted, the mundane but eventually emerge to have a sacredness of their own. What facilitates this process is the collective energy that is unleashed by the use of digital technology. The plasticity of which is an individual nightmare for the professional photographer surrounded by amateur images and image-makers, but which becomes a powerful tool when it allows for users to come together and enter into an exercise that becomes a shared and collective practice. The process of making images together, of exploring familiar contexts as a collective, of sharing with an immediacy that this technology facilitates like none other, makes the entire exercise in photojournalism enter into a different realm – one that needs to be appreciated for its aesthetics as well.

Historian, philosopher, writer, Umberto Eco points out how new knowledge technologies that use the digital image are connected to a world at least as old as European medievalism in which the word and the image have always been integral to the political imagination. He looks at contemporary society and all its technological paraphernalia as one more episode in this epic story. He insists that digital technology is potentially liberating and – more importantly – irreversible. We need to find the right handles so that our relationship with knowledge continues to be genuinely challenging and satisfying.

Anthropologist Appadurai points out that the contemporary practitioner is part of a shifting, moving and fluid landscape. New technologies help us express these further and connect to the ‘scapes’ that make up our social imagination in more ways than one. This ‘social imagination’ continues to be rooted in a complex, ever-changing context, one that is inevitably local, because locality is always being produced. However, at the same time, it is acutely aware that national boundaries, like many others are being challenged by new constantly mutating technologies. For him, the globalized world is not the same as Marshall Mcluhan’s mediated global village. It is rather about the migration and movements of people from one part of the globe to another. It is about becoming aware that our lives and worlds are deeply interconnected. Most importantly, it is about the way in which media and new technologies help us come to terms with these connections, shifts and movements.

One story that encapsulates the entire experience of the photography workshops that we do at the Shelter, where images keep being produced and then tell their own stories, where the location is supreme, where time is tamed by sheer presence and immediacy, is told by Ray Bradbury in ‘The Illustrated Man’, first published in 1951. This is a collection of narratives about a dystopic future in which the media literally comes alive. The stories are embodied on a man and are alive with moving images, tattooed by some enchanted artist from a local fair. The man himself could be from any point from the past or future. The stories his body ‘reveals’ ultimately end with one that starts to reflect the life of the person presently ‘watching’ them. They are futuristic stories about a world where a giant screen absorbs human beings into its digital folds, and about human impulses emerging through the ruins of a nuclear devastated world and the intricacies of faith.

But what is striking is that that it places the storyteller at its centre, weaving images and worlds about the past, present and the future. It is ultimately about the triumph of her imagination that cuts through the varied contexts in which one finds her telling her story – always part of a collective universe of story tellers – performing around a fire, thundering in an auditorium, whispering through cyber-space, crackling through television or hitting back at the player in a video game. When the kids at the Dharavi Shelter take pictures of their own streets and homes, they also tattoo them with their imaginations, report it, narrate it and emboss it with their own lives.  The story that emerges has a life of its own.

The photos have been by children living near MG Road, New Transit Camp, Dharavi, during a workshop conducted at the Dharavi Shelter by photographer Lasse Bak Mejlvang from Denmark and Himanshu S. Jan 23, 2011. The workshop participants are: Simon, Anand, Vishal, Neha, Reshma, Karishma, Muskan, Umesh, Gautam, Punam, Amar.

More photos here.

Click here to read an article on photojournalism by Neha Thirani that inspired this post (pdf document).