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Exclusive: Behind Dharavi’s museum on wheels

We speak to its Amsterdam-based founders on the conceptualisation and materialisation of the idea

HT48HRS_Special Updated: Jan 14, 2016 19:35 IST
Nidhi Choksi
Nidhi Choksi
Hindustan Times
Dharavi museum,HT48Hours,TED speaker
Design Museum Dharavi is set to display local crafts and host cultural events across the area.(Photo: Design Museum Dharavi)

When Danny Boyle’s Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire released in 2009, it squarely focussed on Dharavi’s slums. In 2011, when Amsterdam-based visual artist and TED speaker Jorge Mañes Rubio visited the city, he realised there was more to the locality, including its cultural heritage. It led him to initiate a project in 2012 called Design Museum Dharavi, a museum- on-wheels to showcase the local handicrafts made in the neighbourhood. In 2015, he sent out the first proposals for funding. Now, they are set to come to Dharavi to display local crafts and host cultural events across the area.

Excerpts from an interview with Rubio and Amanda Pinatih (art historian and critic):

Q) How did Design Museum Dharavi come about?

When Jorge visited Dharavi in 2011, he encountered a place full of energy. Inspiration and creativity could be found virtually everywhere. Sometimes, it seemed to arise in a purely accidental, almost effortless way. Families who mastered craftsmanship for generations live right next to those who are using modern manufacturing technologies, such as laser-cutting or CNC (computer numerical control; a machine used for embroidery). Yet, we continue to have a biased perspective when addressing such places.

Here, he also met a local team (who wish to remain anonymous) that later came on board. Amanda, as an art historian/critic and curator joined the team later when Jorge was back in Amsterdam.

Q) What appealed to you about Dharavi?

According to Oxfam statistics, 60 per cent of Mumbaikars live in slums, which occupy 15 per cent of the city’s land. Many of these so-called slums have little to do with the kind of apocalyptic imagery sold to the world in movies, books and tabloids.

A majority of homes in areas notified as “slums” by the government are built using bricks, steel and cement, by experienced teams of contractors and technicians. Around one million people live in Dharavi, and despite the tough conditions, they are capable of creating, designing, manufacturing and commercialising all kinds of goods. Their ability to reinvent themselves and their surroundings is exceptional, leading to the creation of “user-generated neighbourhoods”.

In Dharavi, there are hospitals, schools, gyms, temples and police stations, but a place to contemplate art (or design) is missing. We want to create that environment. As Dharavi is a vibrant and creative place, a design museum makes sense and at the same time, is a great challenge to accomplish. Our goal is to employ design to promote social change and innovation on a global scale.

According to Oxfam statistics, 60 per cent of Mumbaikars live in slums, which occupy 15 per cent of the city’s land. (Photo: Design Museum Dharavi)

Q) Tell us about the structure of the museum.

The Dharavi Design Museum will be a mobile structure, a sort of caravan, easy to tow by a small car or a bike (see graphic above). With an extremely flexible and modular construction, it will host workshops, lectures, exhibitions and cultural events, travelling throughout Dharavi. It is going to be a customised caravan that will be made in Dharavi. We aim to open in the first weekend of February.

Q) How are the finances being managed?

The project is funded by a Dutch foundation for arts and design: Creative Industries Fund NL, and by us.

Amsterdam-based visual artist and TED speaker Jorge Mañes Rubio is the founder of Design Museum Dharavi (Photo: Design Museum Dharavi)

Q) What stage of preparation are you in?

We’re currently designing the museum and will be doing this along with a design school in the Netherlands. We’re also making a list of all the makers residing in Dharavi. Besides that, we’re contacting local festivals like Make in India and India Design Forum, to bring Mumbai’s creative professionals to the museum. We will be travelling to Mumbai on February 1 and are going to deal with any permission (if needed) when the whole team is in Mumbai. We will also start meeting craftsmen together with the local team.

Q) What kind of handicrafts are going to be showcased?

From pottery to block-printing, textile weaving and dyeing, recycling (of aluminium and plastics), embroidery, laser-cutting, food design and culturally relevant objects, from a kite to a cricket bat. Selling is not the focus. We want to encourage the local economy by establishing new relationships between locals and the rest of Mumbai.

Q) How will this project benefit the locals?

From a creative point of view, Dharavi has outstanding potential. Mumbai has a spectacular artistic and design scene with museums, galleries and design studios. We will invite these institutions to come to Dharavi, join the Museum’s activities and see the possibilities this place has to offer.

By connecting different workers from the same industry and organising workshops, we can create links that they might use for their own benefits. For instance, someone who creates women’s garments might be able to outsource specific materials or designs that they never thought about using before. There is almost no waste in Dharavi because everything gets recycled or reused. We want to look at new possibilities to creatively use these recycled raw materials. We will be inviting people from the creative sector of Mumbai, so hopefully they can become new clients.

There is almost no waste in Dharavi because everything gets recycled or reused. (Photo: Design Museum Dharavi)

Q) Why didn’t you opt for a stationary museum?

Despite what we might think about informal settlements, building new constructions is extremely difficult in these areas. And Dharavi is no exception. Due to the high density of population and the informal nature of its economy, changes on the urban organisation are constant. Local neighbours know that if they want to build or modify any existing construction, it cannot look new and must be done with the biggest discretion. This unique environment asks for a unique solution — a museum that can travel.

Every week for two months, the museum will be relocated somewhere else, following its nomadic nature, bringing its activities to a different part of Dharavi. This way, the museum won’t just be an exhibition venue, but a flexible meeting point.

For more information, visit

5 international public art projects to check out

Cloud Gate, Chicago (2006): Indian-born and London-based artist Anish Kapoor’s first public sculpture. Shaped like a coffee bean and dubbed as “The Bean”, the sculpture is made of 168 stainless steel welded plates. Inspired by liquid mercury, it reflects the skyline.

Giant Rubber Duck, Amsterdam (2007): The series of inflatable ducks in various sizes is the creation of Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman; the first version was unveiled in Amsterdam. The rubber duck, which has been spotted at cities from Osaka to Sydney and Hong Kong, is also a big hit on social media. Hofman believes the toy helps connect people all over the world.

Federation Bells, Australia (2001): This installation comprises 39 upturned bells. The bells were created to mark the centenary year of Australia’s federation. Around 100 compositions have been specifically created for the bells and are played as per a weekly schedule.

Nelson Mandela sculpture, South Africa (2012): This sculpture designed by artist Marco Cianfanelli with the help of architect Jeremy Rose creates an optical illusion. What looks like a random collection of poles merges to form an image of Mandela’s face as you get within 35m of the sculpture. It is placed on-site in KwaZulu-Natal, where Mandela was arrested in 1962 and consequently imprisoned for 27 years.

Before I Die, New Orleans (2011): This public art project asks people to reflect on life and share their aspirations. Conceptualised by American artist Candy Chang after she lost a loved one, it started in an abandoned house in her New Orleans neighbourhood. A wall in a crumbling house was covered with chalk paint and stencilled with the statement, “Before I die I want to _____.” Over a thousand Before I Die walls have been created in 70 countries.

— Compiled by Soma Das

First Published: Jan 14, 2016 00:00 IST