sharing stories, making space
we used to hop on buses from dharavi to town. after a full-on high energy session of making with the kids, the bus gave me slowness with the traffic and if i was lucky enough to grab a seat, a space to read. i enjoyed those evening trips to the paper market or to the printers and if we had time then a stroll through the flora fountain to look at books.
on one such afternoon, i saw a big book titled india's indigenous modernism amongst other art books and magazines. i was so glad to have finally found a book that would give me an insight on what other indigenous practitioners are doing. i was ecstatic, but it only lasted half a minute. there were a total of zero indigenous artists featured in the book. it was sad but it didn't surprise me, in my short career of practising art i have witnessed this abuse numerous times. sometimes it is just the term other times it is the form or the medium. it is transparent to me how this is not far from the right-wing assertive claiming of indigeneity; this theory is essential to the ideology of hindu nationalism.
similar to all major industrial complexes the lacuna of indigenous articulations in the dominant discourses within art became painfully obvious to me as i spend more time practising. it is generally accepted that artists are special, and art is something that only a chosen few can practice and participate in. this idea is universalised by the universities, art institutions, based on opinions and judgements of critics, writers, collectors who are all almost always non-indigenous. as a result, my journey towards making and sharing has been an everyday process of learning and celebrating the neglected and the denigrated.
when art came to me and i let myself fully immerse in my practice it was from a space of desire to create together, to be in community and it started from almost nothing. in 2013 when our first women's group began in dharavi, we did not have a blueprint, a project proposal or the like. we began because the children in the art room spoke about their mothers not leaving home and them imagining how their mothers would experience the places we visited with them. these thoughts led to conversations with the kids and their mothers and me first, and then with the mums and me.
slowly we build the ladies only stories for all project, we decided together how long the project should last, what we wanted from it, and how much time each one of us could give to participate. it emerged slowly, over many cups of chai and chaas and conversations in different homes. these churning of ideas and the desire to make something, without really thinking of the taboos, the silence and the fear brought forth assumed confidence that all of us would grow together during this process without ever stating it.
we had decided to come together twice a week for two hours, at the art room where the group would learn to use the camera and then document the neighbourhood. the two hours soon became three and then four. we started to share in these hours, feelings, food, emotions, and sometimes tears. these were just for us in the group the photographs were for the rest of the world to see. while the photographs were beautiful, what happened in that space is what i believe was the more important work for all of us in the group. we developed an intimacy and collaboration and really started to know one another by just spending those few hours together, talking, laughing, learning, and in doing so also knowing ourselves, the reality that we are hesitant to face or one that has been kept from us.
that singular experience of collaborating and making together steered me into reflecting inward into myself. i found myself seeking what i truly am in order to uncover the truth that i can share. this ongoing process of reflection is liberating, i am birthing myself as i am thinking and creating thereby healing the wounds caused by the dominant ethos and consequently also cultivating new ways of practising and collaborating. when i am thinking of ways to collaboratively create i am also thinking of living together and hoping that the nuances of these attempts generate continuous strategies of togetherness for a more equitable future for all.
my indigenousness and my femaleness is the obvious and most certain location of decolonisation. this is why i find it most effective to share and build spaces with women. these locations also allow me to take measures to learn from unconventional sources, sitting at the feet of my elders and grandmothers has been extremely generative. it is through them i have learned about the ancient ways of making and doing together. these learnings have enabled me to look beyond the colonial/modern gender system and other systems of colonial hierarchy. it is crucial for aspiration of a better free world to know that we as a species are capable of living harmoniously without relationships of superiority and inferiority and the ancients ways reaffirm my faith in humanity.
these are the learnings i incorporate in my work with an intention to build an experience isolated from the social classification and coloniality that permeates our society. i acknowledge and honour the relationships doing this has brought into my life over the years. from bombay undergound to dharavi art room, sister library and the community of artists and makers friends, family and collaborators who have shared space with me and allowed for an exchange and sharing. with every exchange, we get closer to realising together the insignificance of the current world order of dominance and hierarchy.
i am grateful for the opportunity to collaborate and make together for the rethinking waste residency at compound 13 in dharavi. For this month-long residency i collaborated with seven amazing girls from dharavi.
while the first few sessions had just four girls participating the number grew to twelve from the fifth session and then settled at seven from the ninth session. we started with games to get to know each other and establish familiarity. when we were comfortable, we went for multiple walks in the neighbourhood, we went to shops that they, their mothers, aunts and friends bought costume jewellery from. the walks were followed by looking at their history books from school, to understand women in history, then we went to museums to look at women in museums. the attempt was to understand representation and stories of women in the mainstream and the general perspectives on women.
museums were also places to study jewellery and adornments on women in the past. We then started looking at jewellery in dharavi. The socio-cultural meanings and messages they hold and how and why they are made. this brought forth many stories from the family and the neighbourhood. this was also the time girls started using 3D pens. with the 3D pens they drew jewellery from the stories they were sharing.
sharing stories with each other made the group closer. we visited each other's homes, we met the family and visited sites that were brought up in the stories. this led us to memory and storytelling in the family. what were the stories we knew, whose stories were these, why were these stories important, were some points of discussions during the entire project. when talking about stories and storytelling it was important for me to introduce them to some storytellers, i took them to sister library where they saw works of Ismat Chugtai, Malala Yousafzai, Taslima Nasreen and many other women.
this is where i introduced the girls to interviewing, we started with interviewing each other for a few days, post this they interviewed their mothers. we collected stories and discussed about what parts they are comfortable sharing with others and what is the best way to share with the family and the neighbourhood. the stories collected are a testimony of their survival keeping up with the changes in their lives and various events that require different engagements and actions, such as migration, marriage, love and loss in the family, evictions, changes in tenancy etc. a small section of their stories had an account of the things they held precious, things both tangible and intangible. from their memory of the tangible things, the girls made drawings of the jewellery that were loved but now are lost. after many drawing sessions, we printed some using the 3D printer.
with the global pandemic, we have not been able to print all the works but we hope to present the sculptures in red velvet jewellery boxes.
the boxes will be attached to headphones that will play corresponding interviews. similar boxes will also be presented by the girls to their mothers during the opening of the exhibition in dharavi. we are also working on zines with transcripts of the interviews and translations in english along with the drawings to be shared with the neighbourhood.
i am grateful for this community with the girls, they continue to share with me and sometimes visit sister library, one of them has joined the library as an intern and during the lockdown, they were a part of our food program. we are all waiting for things to become safer so that we can share the works with their family and friends and have a sharing in dharavi where they can talk about the process.