Dharavi is infamously known as Asia’s second largest slum and the third largest slum in the world. Home to almost a million people, the area attracts the curious and voyeuristic gaze of many individuals.

However, when outsiders point the camera at Dharavi, they frame fetishistic images that tend to disseminate a discourse of disdain and pity. Such images are circulated and consumed widely as they control the public imagination of Dharavi. And so, we find ourselves at a great distance from the actual realities of those who inhabit the space being constructed by the camera’s gaze.

Pointing the camera at the world should be understood as a political act for images assert a dominant claim to representing and constructing the real. How one points the camera at the world explains much of how one relates to this world.

What happens when the camera is no longer aligned as per the foreigner’s eye when the camera is seized by the marginalized people who belong to Dharavi? We are met with a set of soul-crushing, intimate stories. All that is left out and erased comes to assert an overpowering presence.

when outsiders point the camera at Dharavi, they frame fetishistic images that tend to disseminate a discourse of disdain and pity.

Dharavi Art Room is a beautiful initiative that seeks to create empowering, safe spaces for the children and women of marginalized spaces to foster an engagement with artistic expression. Headed by Aqui Thami and Himanshu S, Dharavi Art Room is working on a series of different projects. The “Breathing Art” project works with underprivileged children that hail from neighbourhoods undergoing forceful change to explore storytelling through art in Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, and Darjeeling:

“All children, even infants, already know that life can be hard and unfair, that pain, hunger, and fear are facts of existence. They know this from the moment they emerge into this world. We cannot protect them from this because there is no innocence to preserve, just knowledge to suppress. If anyone is “innocent” in all of this, or perhaps willfully ignorant, it is we “civilized” adults, who strive to push all the icky-ness to the margins, to box it up in the dark corners of our minds, to pretend it doesn’t exist.

When we seek to protect them, more often than not we only succeed in causing them to doubt their instincts about the world, replacing them with our fears.

When a child continues beyond our conception of beauty into the miasma of gray, s/he is exploring the places where we in our false innocence rarely go any longer. Where we bemoan the “loss” of a masterpiece, the place where professional artists have learned to stop, s/he is using beauty as a passageway to truth. And truth is the beating heart of education.”

Dharavi Art Room bases itself on the inextricable link that art shares with truth and the curious erasure of the truths that lie at the margins, and so the art that lies at the margins.

Also Read: Praatohkrityo: A Dance Theatre Led By Women

From August to October 2013, Dharavi Art Room interacted with the women residing in Shivshakti Nagar, Dharavi through a series of interviews. This was followed immediately by an intensive photography workshop with five women: Amrita, Anuradha, Kaveri, Nirmala and Shobha. The images were collated into a beautiful collection titled “Ladies only- stories for all”.

“Ladies only- stories for all” is an attempt to deconstruct the male gaze as well as the racist, casteist and classist realities the images taken in Dharavi seem to portray. Most importantly a journey into understanding and celebrating womanhood and claiming a space not just for surviving but for being and for thriving. The proceeds from the sales of the photographs are shared with the participating women.”

Credit: Aqui Thami

The project emerged out of a conversation that Aqui had with a child who mentioned that his mother never ventures out of the home. This resulted in a chain of home visits and interactions that would last for hours. The quiet lives of the women of Shivshakti Nagar are by no means event-less. They all have heart-stirring stories to offer that encompass a spectrum of emotions. Almost every image in the collection is accompanied by a quote:

I never venture out, no not even to the station, I am too busy to go out, this is the only place I have come to, the past few weeks, I have known peace for the first time.”

Credit: Aqui Thami

“they get to see our world, but we don’t get to see theirs”

Credit: Aqui Thami

“a woman has so many things in her heart, but does she ever get to share it?”

Credit: Aqui Thami

“now if they point their camera to me, I will point my camera to them”

“Ladies only-stories for all” creates a radical potential for observation and engagement. We see how the women of Dharavi relate to and understand their own spaces. We hear their narratives in their own words. The manner in which the images are arranged with the testimonies evokes a sense of poetry and lyricism.

Dharavi Art Room asserts a unique claim to an authentic representation of the lived realities of Dharavi. In addition, these women employ artistic expression as a means for self-preservation. The collection effectively highlights how art can be used to create safe spaces for being and thriving.

Also Read: The Aravani Art Project: Inclusivity & Art With The Transgender Community


All Image Credits: Aqui Thami. Follow Dharavi Art Room on Facebook. All the quotes and excerpts are from the collection/zine itself ‘Ladies Only: Stories for All’.

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