American writer Joseph Campana first discovered the world of Dharavi when he signed up for a slum tour in April 2008, and came back fascinated.
An English teacher at an international school in Mumbai, Campana, with a batch of Class 7 students, meandered through Dharavi’s potters’ colony, recycling quarters and papad-making area, getting glimpses of life in the city’s most well-known slum settlement.
“I was struck by how many people there were, walking up and down, engaged in various businesses, full of energy,” says Campana, who lived in Mumbai till 2011 and then returned to Montana, USA. “It was astounding.”
In November 2008, non-profit organisation Acorn Foundation India invited Campana to compile and edit a book about life in the slum.
When this book, a collection of 24 essays by prominent city journalists, hits the shelves in February, it will be the latest addition to an expanding tapestry of narratives on Dharavi.
The book’s tentative title —Everybody Loves Dharavi — is a striking indication of the phenomenon that this slum has become: In the past decade, as books, films, and research papers studying various facets of Dharavi have increased, the slum has become a magnet for visitors of every kind — tourists, students, architects, writers and social workers.
Dharavi is not the only settlement of the urban poor in Mumbai, and it is certainly not the poorest.
Where, then, does its unique appeal lie? For most, the answer is Dharavi’s socio-cultural diversity.
“Dharavi is not one slum. It is a group of contiguous settlements where each nagar has its own distinct history and ethos. It’s an amazing mix of India,” says journalist Kalpana Sharma, author of Rediscovering Dharavi, one of the first books on Dharavi published in 2000.
Dharavi is also a slum of entrepreneurs, with small-scale businesses operating in every other hutment.
“It is a slum of hope, not despair, and people are attracted by that positive energy,” says Rashmi Bansal, co-author of the 2012 book Poor Little Rich Slum.
In the midst of this frenzied anthropological curiosity, some are now sceptical about the ethics of turning the people of Dharavi into passive subjects of research work that they have little access to.
The slum’s residents have always have mixed views — be it indignation, indifference or an interest in visitors — but now, researchers are questioning their own roles.
British artist Ben Parry believes that Dharavi has been ‘fetishised’.
Five months ago, he launched a project called Reversing the Gaze to get Dharavi locals to question visiting outsiders and maintain an archive of all the research material in which they have been featured.
While this highlights the need for researchers to be sensitive, their work has a bright side too.
“Because of constant research, people in Dharavi have become more assertive,” says Anita Patil-Deshmukh, executive director of non-profit urban research organisation Pukar.
“They have understood their contribution to the city and know that their land is precious. I hope that they have learnt how to leverage this knowledge for their own benefit.”
Interview: Ben Parry, British visual artist
Looking back at the world
London-based visual artist Ben Parry came to Mumbai a year ago on a research residency with urban think tank URBZ to study how informal urban practices, such as street vending, appropriate space.
While exploring Dharavi, Parry grew conscious of his presence as an outsider and began to question the ethics of his research.
In September, he launched Dharavi: Reversing the Gaze, a project that helps residents examine researchers’ norms of knowledge production and consumption.
The ongoing project is being run by Parry, American filmmaker Sean Flynn and NGOs Acorn Foundation and CAMP.
What drew you to Dharavi and then question your role as a researcher?
Dharavi’s worlds are compelling on so many levels, not least for their ability to have endured the city’s expansion whilst creating conditions in which so many were able to rise out of poverty.
But my presence as an outsider signalled the possibility of a threat — doing harm by critiquing and exposing unregulated practices.
Rather than dismiss the presence of the specialist or tourist as an ‘uninvited guest’, I felt compelled to think deeply about the implications of my own presence in a muddled neo-colonial narrative of perceived exploitation and the fetishisation of slum life as representative of the urban poor.
Why should researchers worry about such things?
In Dharavi I see a disconnect between reality and representation. Since its residents have little or no control over their own representations and are mostly oblivious to the context and consequences of how these representations are consumed, the ethics of the anthropological gaze remains in crisis.
Tell us about Reversing the Gaze.
The project involves former residents of the 13th Compound, one of the most iconic images of Dharavi, until they were evicted last year from their homes near the pipeline at Mahim — reproduced in films and documentaries and endlessly photographed. Yet the community had no documented history of its own.
With a group of five women and two men from the area we have identified former residents and begun to trace displacement.
Through a video booth, they can interview researchers coming in. To close this loop of documenter and subject, I began printing photographs of Dharavi, tracing their subjects, such as the Kumbharwada boy featured on the cover of National Geographic magazine, and giving a copy back to them.