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How many people does a woman sleep with?

An ambitious new project is encouraging women from Mumbai's disadvantaged communities to talk about their concerns -- from naughty kids to an early morning wake up call for the loo in the chawl -- all through photography, ceramics and textiles, mentored by experts

How many people does a woman sleep with in a lifetime? The answer, which ranges from 'her mother' to 'her husband' and 'even grandchildren', will be dramatised with a little help from hand-stitched dolls lying on a bed, as part of a tableau at a one-of-a-kind exhibition scheduled for February 2012.

And the unlikely precinct of a nondescript municipal school on Linking Road in Santacruz is where brainstorming sessions are being held twice a week since August.


Parveen Abdulgani (green salwar kameez) sketches her idea of the
tableau to be exhibited at Dekha Undekha - Conversations in Art and
Health in February 2012, as mentor Susie Vickery and others look on.
Pics/ satyajit desai


Even unlikelier are the artisans participating in the project called Dekha Undekha -- Conversations in Art and Health. A motley group of enthusiastic women from Mumbai's lower income groups make it here every week, irrespective of personal responsibilities, which for one lady includes waking up at 4 am every day to fill buckets with water that the municipality deigns to release at that time to her home in an Andheri chawl. Not surprisingly, water is one of Mahananda Sahadev Tikam's primary concerns, and it winds its way into a doll that she, along with eight other women, has created in the run up to the exhibition that's an initiative of NGO Sneha (Society for Nutrition and Health Action).

With blue streamers in place of fingers, and tap tops built into her arms, Tikam's doll is a triumph of creativity, representing her concerns. "Having to fill water at 4 am weighs on my mind. It's my main worry in life. I want to sleep!" she laughs.


The doll Mahananda Sahadev Tikam handstitched depicts what she calls
her biggest worry -- having to wake up every day at 4 am to stock up
on water the BMC releases. Tikam's doll's arms are shaped like a tap,
fitted with a tap top on the shoulders, and blue streamers signifying
flowing water in place of fingers


So do the dolls made by the others. For Mehzabeen Shaikh, the stress of her impending wedding find an echo in a beautifully decorated doll, complete with a gigantic nose-ring and intricate thread embroidery on her hands, signifying bridal mehendi. "I'm also worried about my exams, so I'm making books that I will place atop the doll's head," explains the BCom student, in between spirited discussions with her team about her idea for the tableau.

"The process of getting them to engage with their everyday concerns is the objective," explains red-haired Sisie Vickery, a theatre costume designer and handicraft expert from the UK. Vickery, who has been living in Mumbai for seven years, is mentoring the group of women involved with the textiles arm of Dekha Undekha. The project is divided into three groups -- textiles, photography and ceramics -- each mentored by a professional in the field.

Sure enough, Soha (name changed on request), says she will represent stories of domestic violence through embroidery on a giant roti, and create a rolling pin enmeshed in wires.

The photography group, meanwhile, clicked pictures of each other, cut them up and created collages that were displayed on the walls of the project's workspace in a bid to see themselves from an outsider's perspective.

Priya Agrawal, who heads the art engagement project, says the purpose is twofold. "At Sneha, public health is our primary concern. This project, which also includes photography and ceramic-making, aims to get the city's urban poor to engage with others through the medium of art, and engage in conversations about health and hygiene. Secondly, we want to engage local artistes with specialities, like the potters of Kumbharwada in Dharavi and the women who have learnt tailoring as part of Sneha's livelihood project, and get them to take ownership of their skills, and view what they do as art."

That includes weaving their idea of a nutritious meal into a piece of cloth that represents their body, and translating home remedies for illnesses that plague them -- from inhaling fumes from burnt garlic cloves for throat infections caused by working constantly with mud and clay around the potters' kiln, to applying turmeric to cuts caused during stitching -- via small clay items and photographs.

All participants receive a monthly stipend, and -- although the current plan is to treat the end product as a moving exhibition that will tour the country -- will receive all money from the sales that may result from the February exhibition.

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