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Slums in frames

An airplane descending recklessly close to the tin roofs of choked shanties makes for an arresting image of Mumbai. Hari Mahidhar’s reproduction of the same leaves a lasting impression, reports Purva Mehra.

mumbai Updated: Oct 31, 2009 01:25 IST
Purva Mehra

An airplane descending recklessly close to the tin roofs of choked shanties makes for an arresting image of Mumbai. Hari Mahidhar’s reproduction of the same leaves a lasting impression.

“It’s because it is a highly symbolic image, it conveys the aspirations of the people living below as they look to the sky every few minutes that a plane zips past,” said freelance photographer Jagdish Agarwal (62).

Two months ago, at Agarwal’s behest, five Mumbai photographers set out into the city’s meandering slums to document the lives of the hutment dwellers, who comprise 54 per cent of Mumbai’s population.

The images will be presented in an exhibition called, How the Other Half Lives, from November 2 at Hacienda Gallery, Kala Ghoda. The 39 photographs go well beyond the surface exposure Mumbaiites have to slums. How they wed, get a haircut, their daily scramble for water are some of the stories highlighted in black and white.

Mahidhar found compelling subjects in slums in Deonar, Wadala, Ghatkopar, Kurla and Dharavi. “They live in alarming conditions but they’re happy. Plastic waste is perhaps their biggest bane as is water scarcity. They steal water and railway tracks are their playground, but they smile through it all,” said the industrial and advertising photographer.

The photographs reveal that they have no water but have TVs, some have bikes parked outside crumbling huts and an old man’s favourite possession is a plastic chair perilously lodged in the centre of a busy railway track. “I found it remarkable that slums are demarcated according to caste. The common strain is they are a content people,” said freelance photographer Arun Kumar.

Though absorbing, the assignment wasn’t an easy one.

“They are weary of photographers, worrying that their illegal establishments may become a contentious issue. I had to make up a story about being on an assignment to find small Ganapatis. Only then did they ease up,” said artist Dharmendra Kanani (47).

“The exhibition is a necessary insight into their lives. Ours is an effort to document that aesthetically.”

As Mumbai’s skyline changes rapidly, hopefully this material will have a purpose in history,” Agarwal said.