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Chinese fortunes and other Mumbai memories

Memory & The Maximum City is a session at the Godrej India Culture Lab highlighting the collective memories of Mumbai and the need to re-look at it. Talks by Anusha Yadav, founder of the Indian Memory Project, oral historian Dr Indira Chowdhury and artist Ali Akbar Mehta will focus on the subject

Change leaves behind memories of the past and an awareness of the good and the bad elements in it. And if one considers a rapidly changing city like Mumbai — in terms of its geography, architecture, people and experiences — it becomes even more imperative to celebrate and learn from the memories of the city.

Kwan Tai Shek Chinese temple
The Kwan Tai Shek Chinese temple prayer sheets at Mazgaon; it is part of Ali Akbar Mehta’s archival project Site: Stage: Structure, which documents the changing demographic and visual identity of spaces in Mazgaon and Wadibunder. Seen here is a huge board, with files of bamboo sheets fixed under different numbers, in Chinese script. Each number has a corresponding fortune card where people read their fortune, annually.

This topic will take centrestage at the Godrej India Culture Lab’s latest Friday Funda session. Titled Memory & The Maximum City, the event features talks by photographer and founder of the Indian Memory Project Anusha Yadav, oral historian Dr Indira Chowdhury and artist Ali Akbar Mehta.

Memories — then and now
Yadav cites the importance of memories in urban Mumbai, “In the last few decades, migration to cities for work entailed leaving joint families behind, including the stories and traditions passed down generations. Within nuclear families, there was less baggage and an anticipation of a wealthier/educated future, but with lesser memories, roots and identities to pass down.”

The Kwan Tai Shek Chinese temple prayer sheets at Mazgaon; it is part of Ali Akbar Mehta’s archival project Site: Stage: Structure, which documents the changing demographic and visual identity of spaces in Mazgaon and Wadibunder. Seen here is a huge board, with files of bamboo sheets fixed under different numbers, in Chinese script. Each number has a corresponding fortune card where people read their fortune, annually.
Barber shops under Dockyard Road station (2014); images from Ali Akbar Mehta’s Site: Stage: Structure project

She adds that cities rapidly changed with rising economies and to accommodate people coming in. But a society functions on a shared set of values and with forgotten pasts, there is little texture, lesser ingredients to build an identity of a city culture on. “No matter how modern a city gets, it will always need a culture’s memory to stand tall on,” maintains Yadav.

(From left) Sewage construction workers, Barber shops under Dockyard Road station (2014); images from Ali Akbar Mehta’s Site: Stage: Structure project
Sewage construction workers

Dr Chowdhury mentions how cities belong to the present but also live on in people’s memories. She elaborates, “Memories offer us a glimpse into the life of a city as it existed in the past. Art and urban design can be instruments to preserve memory.”

She mentions how presently, cities are being rebuilt on models from elsewhere, wiping out all traces of the past. “Perhaps, urban designers and planners need to grasp how people understand the evolution of their cities, what their spaces mean to them and draw up designs based on that understanding,” she suggests.

Anthony’s Rest (2014), an image from the Site: Stage: Structure project
Anthony’s Rest (2014), an image from the Site: Stage: Structure project

Mehta believes that memories are always relevant, and that ignoring the lessons of the past can be disastrous: “I believe in the saying: ‘Those who forget history, are bound to repeat it’. In the context of the city and its people, the easiest thing would be to forget people who live beyond the perimeter of our immediate vision. But in doing so, we condemn ourselves to be forgotten by others. There is a sense of identity that we’re losing and that reflects in the way we live, in how we conduct ourselves,” he reminds.

From The Indian Memory Project: My mother and I with Mrs. Kelkar and her daughter Shalini. Byculla, Bombay. Circa 1950. Image and text contributed by Joe Joseph Zachariah, Mumbai.
From The Indian Memory Project: My mother and I with Mrs. Kelkar and her daughter Shalini. Byculla, Bombay. Circa 1950. Image and text contributed by Joe Joseph Zachariah, Mumbai.

On: Today
Time: Exhibit 3.30 pm onwards; Talk 5 pm onwards
At: Auditorium, Gate 2, Godrej Industries, Vikhroli (E).
Email: indiaculturelab @godrejinds.com to RSVP

Unity in diversity

“In an era where right-wing groups refer to Mumbai narrowly as a Hindu-Marathi city, counter-historical practices serve more than ethnographic curiosity. Mazgaon is exemplary of the way several spaces across India and the world are changing — silently, and without our knowledge. It’s up to us to see how soon we can arrest that fall.”
— Ali Akbar Mehta, artist

Speakers' corner

Anusha Yadav Anusha Yadav is the founder of the Indian Memory Project, which traces the history of the Indian sub-continent via images found in family archives. Her talk will focus on the project and highlight memories of Mumbai and places that have changed over time. She observes, “Story telling and listening are some of the greatest methods to aid in preserving memories. A good memory about one’s environment is a tool of knowledge and power. Without documentation, elements invent histories and lies for personal and political benefits, as we are seeing nowadays. A generation brought up on false facts is going to alter the course of our understanding of who we are.”

Ali Akbar MehtaAli Akbar Mehta collaborates with robotic engineers and filmmakers for processes that impact contemporary culture. Mehta’s archival project, Site: Stage: Structure, looks at Mazgaon and Wadibunder areas and integrates books, photos and heritage walks to share a history that is absent from formal narratives. “The highlights are paintings that present aspects of the city’s heritage, and photo books documenting Mazgaon’s changing demographic and visual identity. The project maps Mathar Pacady, remnants of Chinatown, a Bohri family’s apartment and Darukhana, where ships are brought to be torn apart. I fight nostalgia by documenting it through videos, conversations and ethnographic reconstructions,”  he shares.

Dr. Indira ChowdhuryDr Indira Chowdhury is the current President of the Oral History Association for India. Her session aims to decipher how the past and present interconnect. She resided in Mumbai from 2004 to 2006 and admits that her memories of the city are relatively recent. “I remember going to MF Husain’s show at Afghan Church in 2005. My friend and I had thought we would talk to him after seeing the paintings but by then he was gone. When I interviewed him for my book on Homi Bhabha, he was in exile and I had to do a telephonic interview. I feel that seeing Husain’s paintings captured something of the “free-spirit” nature of Mumbai. Husain’s exile and our phone interview seemed to symbolise the loss of that free-spirit,” she reminisces.

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