Mumbai: Slums are ugly, crowded places that generate rubbish, not art, let alone art festivals like the Venice Biennale. But Dharavi slum in Mumbai has always stood out from the crowd. For one, it is famous for being the largest slum in Asia. For another, it starred in Danny Boyle's 2008 film Slumdog Millionaire. And now it is proudly hosting the "Dharavi Biennale".
The name is a playful tease, thought up by the organisers, a Dharavi NGO called the Society for Nutrition, Education, and Health Action (SNEHA) to draw attention to the two-room exhibition of paintings and sculpture, all on the theme of health.
The aim was to provide an opportunity for creativity. Dharavi is already known as a place humming with enterprise – it has hundreds of tiny factories – but the Biennale was conceived to give an opportunity for artistic expression to its young residents, a luxury which the struggle to survive does not allow them.
SNEHA project officer Sitaram Kharat, 38, who was born in Dharavi and still lives there, knocked on doors to ask if others would like to be involved. The volunteers were of all ages and ranged from maids, nursing attendants, potters, students, and seamstresses. Once they were on board, SNEHA roped in 20 local artists to help them conceive their work of art and get the materials.
"The only condition was that the work had to be related to some health or social issue. We wanted to use the art for self-expression but also as a medium to talk about larger social issues that affect people in Dharavi," said Preeti Pinto, who handles advocacy and communications for the group.
One example of this kind of arts are the three female mannequins shown wearing different outfits – a long dress, short skirt and traditional Indian clothes – to trigger a debate about the way a woman dresses not being seen as a cause of rape.
The works are well conceived and executed. Sign painters in Dharavi created a triptych of three doctors who practise in the slum: a traditional bone-setter, a dentist, and a homeopath.
A group of women took scraps of waste denim to create a giant patchwork map of the slum. To mark buildings such as toilets and shops, and water pumps, they used buttons, covered bottle tops, and embroidery. To show the railway tracks, they ingeniously used zips.
"We had to use whatever discarded items we could find. Dharavi is a huge centre for the recycling of the city's waste and so wanted to highlight that," said Savitri Jaiswal, an embroiderer who was among those who made the map.
A sculpture covered with the plastic sachets of tobacco that are popular with poor Indians as a way of numbing the senses warns of the dangers of tobacco-chewing.
"Health issues are serious in Dharavi. The air is terrible. There is a lot of tuberculosis and lung cancer," Kharat said.
If you walk for just two minutes from the Dharavi Biennale, which is on the strangely named main road, 90 Feet Road, and venture into the dark warrens, you reach the potters' area.
The pottery kilns, shaped like square, high tombs, are blazing inside. Storming out of them are dense, black, plumes of toxic smoke, right by women chopping vegetables, elderly men talking and children playing.
These kilns spew out killer smoke every day. Doctors at the nearby Sion Hospital say they are seeing an increasing number of patients with pulmonary ailments.
If the pollution isn't bad enough, the sanitation is horrific. A short distance from the exhibition is the open sewer that became notorious for the Slumdog Millionaire scene in which the young boy Jamal falls into a cesspit and emerges covered in human excreta. Nothing has changed. It's the same open sewer.
The film made Dharavi famous but it has had barely any effect on the lives of Dharavi's residents. How could it? The slum is spread over 200 hectares with between 800,000 to 1 million inhabitants. Making even the slightest dent on its immense problems is near impossible.
Well-known it may be now thanks to the film but the conditions remain the same, as they are for the 60 per cent of Mumbai's 20 million residents who live in slums, prompting the nickname "Slumbai". The only difference post-Slumdog is that travel companies offering tours of Dharavi, largely to foreigners, are doing well, especially at this time of year.
Some of the companies such as Reality Tours and Slum Gods run community centres where children can learn dance, music, theatre, and computers.
"Many of the foreigners who come for the tour stay on to volunteer to teach the children. That's been a contribution," Pinto said.
In another example of how Dharavi is different, the Design Museum Dharavi opened this month. Believed to be the first museum created in a slum, this mobile museum aims to showcase some of the hundreds of objects produced here. The first exhibition, mounted onto a specially made pushcart, features the creations of potters and broom makers. The exhibits will change to feature other Dharavi art.
It is the brainchild of Spanish artist Jorge Manes Rubio and art curator Amanda Pinatih who who have been visiting Dharavi from Amsterdam since 2012.
"We wanted to challenge people's perceptions of [slums] by highlighting the creative talent in them," Pinatih said.
They began by asking potters and broom makers to make something slightly different from their standard objects, to encourage them to innovate. The artists' first reaction was to ask for a design or picture to copy. Rubio and Pinatih said there were no pictures, and that the slum dwellers should figure something out on our own and sat with them, mulling over the possibilities.
"Then a moment would suddenly come when they would get ideas and say, we can do this or we could do that shape and the whole thing came together. The broom maker ended up making a fan and a parasol. That was the thrilling moment for us," Rubio said.