Five months ago, a group of women from Dharavi wore motif-splashed saris, had their faces painted and hair styled into fashionable braids. While a professional photographer clicked pictures, they struck airy poses, looking over the shoulder or standing with hands on their hips. Some had created the saris themselves, while others were modelling for camera-shy friends. "It was a special moment for the women," says Nayreen Daruwala, program director of the Society for Nutrition, Education and Health Action (SNEHA), the NGO behind the event.
Most of the designers, who are homemakers living in the area, have now gathered in the 'sewing club' - a whitewashed room, enlivened by their creations. "I made that. It took me 10 days," says Nirmala Anand proudly, pointing to the bits of patchwork stitched onto a bright pink and green sari. The patchwork was created for a rickshaw meter and it declares "Don't touch me". Another sari bears a collection of horseshoes with the message "Keep out". Not mere style statements, these are blatant warnings to wandering hands.
The romance of poverty in Asia's second-largest and perhaps most vibrant slum, Dharavi, has for long inspired art - films like Dharavi, Slumdog Millionaire, books including Shantaram and countless photo features have been created around it. Now, some recent initiatives are trying to turn the tables and inspire artists from within the slum to show their skills.
For instance, Bombay Underground has been teaching local children to paint and take photographs. "The idea was to have the kids document their surroundings. They are the best people to tell the story," says artist and group founder Himanshu S. Armed with a few cameras donated to the group, a bunch of eight- to 15-year-olds set out over the weekend to capture images of friends, neighbours and pets. The pictures, along with drawings made by younger children, are displayed at the Dharavi Art Room and exhibited in city galleries every few months. In another initiative, Acorn Foundation and blueFROG got together to introduce the slum's children to diverse kinds of music. The 'Dharavi Rocks' band even performed with the likes of Taufiq Qureshi and Karsh Kale.
The exhibitions give locals an opportunity to travel out of the slum. "People regularly visit Dharavi but it is also important to take the kids from here to other places," says Himanshu. When SNEHA participated in the Kala Ghoda festival last year, it was the first time some women got to see south Mumbai. "I have never been to Colaba before. To go there and win a prize was a great experience," wrote Asma in a testimonial, after her photograph was awarded at the show.
SNEHA's art programmes, launched with a grant from a London firm, include a series of workshops, where visiting artists engage with local talent. Health issues and recycling are dominant themes in the artwork. Last year, locals learned about ceramics, photography and textiles. More recently, two workshops honed their sewing skills and taught young boys to make comic strips. Set in a slum rich with industry and tiny manufacturing units, most of the material is locally-sourced scrap. The programme will culminate in a Dharavi Biennale in 2015.
The enthusiasm is palpable. Members of the sewing club tease the British instructor Susie Vickery over her Hindi and carefully comb through strips of fabric for their favourite colours. "They always like to add a bit of glitter," says Vickery, a veteran in textile design. For the four-day comic workshop, college students, some of whom have night jobs, willingly spared six hours a day.
The workshops begin with discussions on topics such as sexual harassment, maternal health or marriage. Participants are asked to do a small amount of research and get views from neighbours about the issues. Resulting ideas are woven into art designs by mentor artists.
Finding a good space to work in is a problem in the crowded slum, especially since it must be conducive to displaying art. Another concern is to make the pieces look different. "People shouldn't see them and think it came from an NGO," says Benita Fernando, a documentation consultant for project Dharavi Biennale. Mentor artists consciously keep the designs contemporary. Sewing club members meet twice a week and get Rs 100 per session. Some of the creations even find buyers.
The initiatives are still in the early stages but its members are trying to make their models sustainable. The Dharavi Art Room Art collects art material or old photography equipment and wants its 30 children to eventually have a camera of their own. SNEHA would like to make the women capable of running small businesses or co-operatives.