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For the next couple of months, a museum on wheels will roam through the crowded streets of Dharavi, a village in Mumbai home to about one million people packed across just 500 acres. Vividly painted and exhibiting wares designed and crafted by many of Dharavi’s residents, the Design Museum Dharavi is a community hub that since its launch in February has attracted droves of locals and tourists alike, who view, celebrate, and learn about the region’s culture and creative output. These recent, bustling scenes contrast starkly with the majority of photographs of Dharavi in circulation, images highlighting poverty and dilapidation that mostly accompany articles identifying Dharavi one of the world’s largest “slums.”
That term is what the museum’s two founders dub “the s word,” preferring descriptors such as “urban village,” “homegrown neighborhood,” or “user-generated city.” “Slum” is a word from which many have long been attempting to disassociate Dharavi — especially in a post-Slumdog Millionaire world. The locality is certainly incredibly densely populated, but it is not void of commercial activity and exists as a community full of potential for further economic and cultural development.
“Due to the high density of the population and the insecure tenure of its land, changes in Dharavi are constant,” cofounders Amanda Pinatih and Jorge Mañes Rubio told Hyperallergic. “This user-generated neighborhood is reinventing itself on a daily basis, which constitutes one of its many peculiarities. This inspired us to create a nomadic exhibition space that operates as an exhibition venue and meeting point for cultural exchange and innovation.”
On the project’s website, the Amsterdam-based pair refer to the 2009 New York Times article “Taking the Slum Out of Slum.” Its authors, Matias Echanove and Rahul Srivastava — founders of the Institute of Urbanology — urged readers to reassess any Hollywood-shaped perceptions of Dharavi, which they described as a place “that is far from perfect but has proved to be amazingly resilient and able to upgrade itself.
“Understanding such a place solely by the generic term ‘slum’ ignores its complexity and dynamism,” they wrote. “Dharavi’s messy appearance is nothing but an expression of intense social and economic processes at work.”
The Design Museum Dharavi showcases the results of such processes through a display that is both eye-catching and engaging. Funded by Dutch cultural foundations Creative Industries Fund NL and The Art Of Impact, the mobile museum travels from neighborhood to neighborhood aboard a pushcart modeled on those used by local vendors distributing their merchandise. Assisting with the navigations is Shyanew, a community leader with whom most residents are well-acquainted. Local artisans were also involved in the preparation process: the entire museum was crafted in Dharavi. Now it not only serves as a space for diverse, rotating exhibitions, but also as a center for creative workshops, with every occasion emerging from a theme developed based on the artisans involved, the location, and the season.
The museum’s opening exhibition featured mostly ceramic pieces from one family’s generations-old pottery business, the Chauhans, created specifically for the project, with input from the museum’s founders. Brightly colored and boldly patterned, the contemporary works revolved around two objects that represent important aspects of Dharavi’s identity: chai tea and water containers.
“We saw that there are hundreds of different ways and containers used to drink chai in Dharavi, so we decided to create new typologies around it,” Pinatih and Rubio said. ” On the other hand, most water containers in Dharavi are bulky and chubby, with not much room for improvisation or design. We loved the way the Chauhans stack pieces in their workshop (space is precious!) so we used that idea to create taller water containers.”
On display at the inaugural show were also designs by Dharavi’s broom makers, who, within the community, are considered part of “the lower end of a design hierarchy that is also associated with caste,” according to the museum’s founders.
“Choosing to put the broom makers’ designs in the museums next to the highly skilled potters was a symbolic gesture to reinforce the museum’s open ideals,” they said.
Following that showcase was a more interactive one centered on street cricket, the country’s most popular sport. To accompany an exhibition of handcrafted wooden bats — 27 in all, and each boasting a different shape — the museum hosted a tournament involving four local teams, with players donning uniforms specially created and hand-embroidered by local manufacturers and tailors. Their gloves, too, were handcrafted and featured a number of unique designs. Typically, the bats that grace the busy streets of Dharavi during matches are not official ball-hitting implements but rather any found object that simply does the trick; such adaptations, Pinatih and Rubio say, exemplify Dharavi’s ability to alter and reinvent activities for its particular landscape on a day-to-day basis.
Beyond celebrating the skill of local artisans, the museum also presents them with new economic opportunities: while the objects on display are not for sale and will remain in the village, anyone may order works from the artists through the museum’s co-founders; the Chauhans have already received their very first commissions. But what extends beyond borders, Pinatih and Rubio hope, is an increased public awareness that Dharavi is not a picture of urban blight and shabbiness. This summer, the pair will also host a conference in Amsterdam to discuss the museum and its impacts.
“We are convinced this will be a great chance to discuss the role of design, museums, and other cultural institutions in the future,” the pair said, “hopefully addressing social issues and establishing [for places like Dharavi] a more relevant position in our society.”
For upcoming exhibitions and events at the Design Museum Dharavi, check its website.
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