Biennale, Dharavi ishtyle

Updated: Feb 22, 2015, 07:54 IST | Paromita Vohra

Some months ago, I got a call from SNEHA, an organisation that works with maternal and adolescent health issues in Dharavi

paromita vohraSome months ago, I got a call from SNEHA, an organisation that works with maternal and adolescent health issues in Dharavi. Would I write a play to be performed by kids in the adolescent sexuality programme? It was part of something called the Dharavi Biennale, an event where local craftspersons would create art to be displayed around Dharavi.

I was intrigued but also ambivalent. I’d never written a play before. On top of that, working with kids from a completely alien context. Why make life more complicated than it already is?

Illustration / Amit Bandre

For reasons I still can’t explain, I decided to try it. Thus began my weekly visits to a place called Colour Box, on 90-feet road, to attend workshops with the kids.

It was clumsy at first. I was out of my comfort zone, creatively and geographically. Of course, the kids were rambunctious and fun, full of smartass replies. Dying to show off their talents — “Sir, mereko beats karna aata hai!” they’d yell and start making beatbox sounds from the back of their mouths while another broke out his B-boying moves. The girls, shyer, keen to discuss my clothes, only waiting to be cajoled a little to sing, to dance.

We made a connection quickly, but the connection eased into communication only over a few workshops. In tandem, my familiarity with Dharavi increased. Before, it was a place I drove past — 60-feet road, 90-feet road, the cheap leather stores. Now, names like Matunga Labour Camp and Chhota Sion acquired shape. Hey, I even learned some short cuts and developed an ‘after-office’ ritual of buying cheap fruit on my way home.

And I began to feel something I haven’t since I was in my 20s, still learning Bombay. That lightness and energy of criss-crossing the city, entering ever newer, unknown parts, meeting people from very different backgrounds than mine, enjoying a moderated, urbane friendliness with them, learning new slang, new songs, building new things in myself. My map of Bombay has been feeling a little narrow and suddenly, I felt it expand to encompass more of the city than was in my familiar bubble, and my hear expanded with it. I was flowing into the city again, becoming connected to the larger cosmos of Bombay.

Most of us know Dharavi as Asia’s biggest slum, a place of intractable infrastructural problems, poverty, crime and hardship. It is those things, but it is also, as many point out, a site of incredible entrepreneurship and vibrant craftsperson skills. When we imagine a slum as place only of lack, we imagine certain solutions for it. But if we see it holistically, as having lack but also its own energy and abundance, we may imagine very different solutions which could shift the difficulties of Dharavi-like spaces — and with it, the city itself because, eventually, we are all connected.

The play, Ishqiya Dharavi Ishtyle premiered last week as the Dharavi Biennale began and we’ve been all excited grins. I know I’ve been lucky to do this, not just because I learned something new, but because I remembered something old, about these unexpected, unprecedented connections cities offer, which generate new emotions, relationships and creativities.

The Dharavi Biennale is on for a week, so, go. And take the kids in your life. The exhibits and activities are fun, simple, joyful. My favourites were a beautiful series of paintings called Healers of Dharavi (bone-setters, homeopaths, vaids) and a Dharavi ‘Map of Hurt’ which was embroidery on denim. Maybe, see our play (hee). Buy some cool upcycled stuff. Reclaim a connection with the city and let it reclaim its connection with you.

Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at

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