In Govandi, a colony of rehabilitated PAPs and slum-dwellers mounts its own arts festival | Mumbai news - Hindustan Times
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In Govandi, a colony of rehabilitated PAPs and slum-dwellers mounts its own arts festival

BySatish Nandgaonkar
Feb 06, 2023 12:24 AM IST

In the midst of the squalor, two spaces stand out like an oasis of colour and vibrancy: Kitab Mahal, a library, and the society’s office, both of which are currently rehearsal spaces for 45 young boys and girls, practising for the first edition of the Govandi Arts Festival to be held in the colony from February 15 to 19

Mumbai: Natwar Parekh Colony is a world in itself. The dismal grey buildings placed like concrete blocks next to one another are visible from the Eastern Freeway, as is the mountain of garbage of the Deonar dumping ground right behind them. In this colony, enveloped by stench and pollution, live thousands of people who have been displaced from other parts of the city.

Mumbai, India - February 04, 2023: Artists and talented youth boys and girls seen preparing for the 5-day Govandi Art Festival, which aims to create a ‘safe space’ in this neglected Mumbai suburb and highlight the talent of its youth, at Govandi, in Mumbai, India, on Saturday, February, 04, 2023. (Praful Gangurde/HT Photo) (HT PHOTO)
Mumbai, India - February 04, 2023: Artists and talented youth boys and girls seen preparing for the 5-day Govandi Art Festival, which aims to create a ‘safe space’ in this neglected Mumbai suburb and highlight the talent of its youth, at Govandi, in Mumbai, India, on Saturday, February, 04, 2023. (Praful Gangurde/HT Photo) (HT PHOTO)

The 61 tightly laid-out buildings were constructed by MMRDA and the BMC in 2005 to rehabilitate both project-affected people as well as slum dwellers. Sunlight and space are scarce inside the 226-sq-ft tenements; outside, a population of 25,000 jostles for room with haphazardly parked two-wheelers, autos and street vendors. The fetid odour from the overflowing drains pervades the streets.

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In the midst of the squalor, two spaces stand out like an oasis of colour and vibrancy: Kitab Mahal, a library, and the society’s office, both of which are currently rehearsal spaces for 45 young boys and girls, practising for the first edition of the Govandi Arts Festival to be held in the colony from February 15 to 19 . A performance at the Kala Ghoda fest is also on the anvil on February 11.

In the society office, a group of teenagers is rehearsing a play on the theme of how society discriminates against Govandi and stigmatises an entire community. In Kitab Mahal, four teenage boys are grooving to Aaja aaja aaja, mere saath chal Govandi, a rap song they have composed themselves with mentors provided by the Community Design Agency (CDA) founded by architect Sandhya Naidu Janardhan. The cultural festival is a collaboration of CDA with the UK-based Lamplighter Arts CIC, Streets Reimagined and British Council and is part of the ‘India/UK Together, a Season of Culture’.

For Naidu, an architect from Columbia University, the festival is also an important point in a journey that began in 2016 when she met local resident Parveen Shaikh, who now works with CDA. “Sandhya Madam began visiting our colony,” said Shaikh, who was born and brought up on a Sewri pavement before her family moved to Natwar Parekh Colony in 2007. “She became our confidant with whom we shared our woes about our living conditions. She told us we needed to take ownership of this colony, and only then could things change.”

The conditions in the colony were a release from the pavements and slums all right but the residents’ euphoria soon gave way to disillusionment when they discovered the flaws of the seven-storey buildings: dysfunctional lifts, no clean water, no pumping system to lift the water to the terrace. “The joy of getting a roof over our heads in Mumbai soon gave way to a grimmer reality,” said Shaikh. “We finally had an address but it was difficult to find jobs in this locality. And our expenses had already doubled – we had to pay for water and electricity. BMC and MMRDA officials passed the buck to each other and it took us four years to get some help to resolve our problems.”

It was in these conditions that Naidu, a firm believer in designing spaces by engaging with a community to understand its needs, began her interventions before bringing in art to change public spaces. “There was a complete lack of social cohesion initially because the lottery system had brought different people from different places together,” said Naidu. “We would clean a street, and soon it would be dirty again. We held a Christmas party for 400 children, and 1,200 turned up. We then started waste segregation by cleaning and painting a space between two buildings and placed two garbage bins there.”

Post the Covid pandemic, the community felt the need for a library, and Kitab Mahal and a digital library were created. “Conversations with youngsters made us realise that they faced an identity issue,” said Naidu. “When they were living on the streets, the address was always an issue. Now they had permanent homes, but they were reluctant to reveal that they lived in Govandi because when they applied for jobs, they never got any callbacks.”

These experiences led Naidu and her team to organise the arts festival with two overarching goals. The first was to provide residents with access to high-quality artistic mentorship and a public platform to express themselves joyfully without minimising their lived experiences. The second was to use art as a gateway for those outside the neighbourhood to understand its human joys and complexities, washing away entrenched stigma and judgement.

The festival team then roped in three artists-in-residence, who have worked for the last three months to bring alive community stories and create contextual art. Jerry Antony, a storyteller and visual communicator, Nisha Nair Gupta, an architect and urban researcher, and Meera Goradia, who works with artisanal sectors, are leading a team that will document the richness of traditional practices in Govandi. Natasha Sharma and Bhawana Jaimini, who work with communities, are co-curators of the festival.

Among the festival’s highlights is a lantern parade by Lamplighters Arts CIC, an artists’ collective from Bristol, UK. The artworks and art procession in Govandi will be projected on the streets and buildings in Bristol during the Church Lantern Parade in March 2023.

Naidu and her team hope the festival will be the pivot that changes the way the Natwar Parekh colony community looks at itself. As, of course, the gaze of the city towards Govandi.

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