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Mumbaiwale: He goes with the flow

Aslam Saiyad’s photo project about life along Mumbai’s four rivers is equal parts surprise, social documentation and swimming upstream

mumbai Updated: Apr 11, 2018 20:04 IST
Rachel Lopez
Aslam Saiyad, 40, a photographer has been documenting life along Mumbai’s rivers as an ongoing project since 2012.
Aslam Saiyad, 40, a photographer has been documenting life along Mumbai’s rivers as an ongoing project since 2012.

Think of Aslam Saiyad as expert on current-affairs. He knows how Mumbai’s rivers flow, what happens along the Mithi at high tide, who comes out to play by the Dahisar and Poinsur rivers in summer and why the nullah in Oshiwara is really a river.

Saiyad, 40, a photographer has been documenting life along Mumbai‘s rivers as an ongoing project since 2012. “Growing up, we lived in Borivli, close to the Sanjay Gandhi National Park,” he says. “I remember swimming in the Dahisar river, but it was only as an adult, with a developed eye for detail, that I saw how much it affects the people who live along it.” The subject piqued Saiyad’s natural interest in archaeology, anthropology, history and local communities. “There are indigenous people living inside the park,” he says.

Aarti, a Wali girl, lives at Chunapada inside Sanjay Gandhi National Park. (Photos: Aslam Saiyad)

“I met Aarti, a Warli girl washing vessles in the river and was surprised to learn that she was a student at SNDT College. She would cycle 7km from inside the park to the entrance to get to campus every day.”

The images – on Instagram as @mumbai_river_photo_project – cover people, wildlife, construction, community life, landscapes and art. It also reveals how, through apathy, our rivers have been downgraded to swamps and nullahs. There are divers who jump into the Mithi to salvage items. Rocks marked in striped patterns indicate water levels. Many just show kids enjoying the water.

Saiyad captured Hasan, a man from Bandra, as he dived into the Mithi for objects to salvage. A three hour dive yields enough to earn Rs500.

The work affects viewers in different ways, Saiyad believes. “Most talk about pollution is generic,” he says. “People love WhatsApp truisms: Save Water! Use Less Plastic! We compose anthems, action plans. We stop people defecating in rivers by building public toilets that empty into the rivers.”

So when he displays his work at public places such as the Mahim Nature Park or the banks of the Dahisar river, it’s a wake-up call. “People look at a picture and ask where I shot it, not realizing it’s 4 km from where they stand.” He remembers a breadman who’d been cycling by the Dahisar river for 17 years and had never seen other parts of the water body. “Old residents tend to know about the rivers, the less well-off care for the rivers because they spend time there,” he observes. “But the middle class is disconnected.”

Saiyad’s images include children frolicking in the rivers.

The project has changed Saiyad too. “As a photographer, you can’t help but be involved with the people you meet,” he says. He’s raised funds to buy bicycles and school supplies for some of the kids who live inside SNGP. But he wouldn’t call riverbank dwellers underprivileged. “They live amid nature, see the open sky and have room to play; in many ways, we are the less privileged ones.”

rachel.lopez@hindustantimes.com