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This artist is sourcing tree-memories of 14th Road, Khar

Why artist Justin Ponmany is sourcing tree-memories of one of Mumbai’s snazziest suburbs

Chandrashekar Karangle has been a Khar local ever since he won what he calls, “the Gandhi lottery”. He bought his house after David Attenborough paid him handsomely for transportation during the making of the 1982 Hollywood classic that is part of television viewing on days of national importance. Karangle’s pastime, now, is attending to the trees in his neighbourhood.

Artist Justin Ponmany near a dead tree, bearing injection marks, on Chitrakar Durandhar Road, Khar. Pics/Sameer MarkandeArtist Justin Ponmany near a dead tree, bearing injection marks, on Chitrakar Durandhar Road, Khar. Pics/Sameer Markande

He shows us a gigantic peepal that makes love to the compound wall of his building on Khar’s 5th Road. In 2006, a developer constructing a high-rise on a plot across the wall, was miffed; plans to hack down the truant branches were in place. Karangle and other residents opposed it vehemently, and today, the new high-rise has an odd walled-up dent to let the tree grow. “We dealt with the developer’s chamchas (minions). People used to worship this old tree. Now, who has the time to be concerned?” he says.

JJ School student Aman Negi sketches a tree stump near a cobbler’s stall on 14th Road, Khar. Pic/Justin PonmanyJJ School student Aman Negi sketches a tree stump near a cobbler’s stall on 14th Road, Khar. Pic/Justin Ponmany

Karangle, 65, is one among the Khar residents from whom artist Justin Ponmany has been sourcing memories of Khar’s trees. For the last two months, Goregaon-resident Ponmany has been paying visits to Khar’s people, the affluent and hawkers, some of them his friends. The project, which remains unnamed for now, will become a collection of videos, photos and audio recordings, and will be made available online as a repository of the changing tree-scape of the suburb. “It started with being involved with the city’s streets. These pavement trees are dying of mysterious illnesses that we have no answers to. Rampant construction, shopkeepers and builders — all are to blame,” he says.

We are seated in a sheltered corner of Madhu Park, a cosy garden in Khar West, where the trees bear nameplates and are well-watered even in this droughty summer. Ponmany, 41, graduated from Sir JJ School of Art to be routinely inspired by the pedestrian and become one of the better-known names of India’s contemporary art scene. His installations, drawings and video-works, have addressed urban issues such as the ghettoisation of Parisian suburbs and the redevelopment of Mumbai’s mills. His inter-media art, he says, “stems from local aesthetics”. “This project is more centred around urbanity, and what is clearly an urban crisis — the disappearance of rain trees, especially in this part of town. Whole lanes, shop fronts and FSI-hungry residential areas have effaced trees away,” he says.

Civic activist Anandini Thakur was once part of a mini-Chipko Movement in Khar
Civic activist Anandini Thakur was once part of a mini-Chipko Movement in Khar

His ongoing research is an extension of a collective performance, titled ‘Drawing from Life against Withdrawing from Life’, which took place earlier this month, as part of Geographies of Consumption by arts and culture space, Mohile Parikh Centre. The project hosted 12 art school students, who chose spots on Khar’s 14th Road, home to many a jeweller’s boutique. The students sat next to trees, living and dead, and sketched boughs, canopies and fronds. It was a silent protest-performance achieved through canvases.

Ponmany points out alternating rain trees on 14th Road that have been reduced to stumps. Three saplings grow around each stump, paying respect to the Bombay High Court’s order to the BMC that for every dead tree that was struck down, three more shall be planted.

“Some stories I recorded are fantastical and macabre. A banana-seller has seen trees injected with a so-called ‘medicine’ by the BMC. A strange goo, with an unbearable stench, oozed out of them, and soon, they were dead,” he says.

One of Khar’s best-known residents, who lived for 55 years in a sprawling bungalow near Madhu Park, is the gritty octogenarian Anandini Thakur. Thakur once helmed affairs at Standard Batteries, in Vakola, and today handles the firm’s Corporate Social Responsibility. She is also trustee of the Khar Residents Association. Sharing her love for gulmohurs and bread fruit trees, Thakur has proffered anecdotes to Ponmany. She recalls the time when environmentalist Sunderlal Bahuguna, the Chipko Movement leader, was down in Khar in the 1980s to save trees from being cut down. “Forty of us embraced trees and prevented them from being cut down by the BMC,” she says, adding her suspicion about mealy bugs. She recommends that the BMC make its bug-reports accessible.

But the Road Safety Advisory Committee member in her also advises that odd trees, such as one that juts out in the middle of the road opposite Dadar Catering College, need to be transplanted. “Chances are that the tree won’t survive, but there are times when it can be genuine hazard to motorists,” she adds, swiftly stripping tree trunks off glued advertisements and notices opposite Khar Gymkhana as we walk by. “When I was younger, I would go on morning walks, systematically removing posters from Khar’s trees,” she smiles.

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