Learning from Dharavi

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  • By: Anshuman Gupta
  • Posted on April,15 2016

by Parag Gupta

Often we insinuate slums with iniquity and sins where the vice flourishes like a disease causing organism in an open sewer. In our matrix of perception, slums are an indelible mark on city’s future; they have stained the visions of development, pulling cities back to their benighted existence. Often our vision of slums is restricted to acrid visions of impoverished souls living in swamp of squalor and despair. The hitherto ideals resonating with the global standards are shaping the urban landscape and its forms incongruous to the lifestyle of slum dwellers which poses a greater threat to their safety and settlement. Full of hopelessness and malignant notions of life, slums are considered parasites on utopian narratives of development. Regardless to their image formed in our vision if one visits to Dharavi: Asia’s biggest slum at the heart of Mumbai, one can witness a lifestyle of exuberance, a palette of emotions originating from myriad tangible and intangible forms of life. To others it might be a chaotic mixture of heterogeneous entities but from my eyes, it appeared to be an amalgamation of multi ethnic, cultural and religious groups intermingling everyday in the wavering economy to achieve an economic stable lifestyle.

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As I entered Dharavi from the road filled with garbage bins, air choked with exhausts of diesel while listening to deafening cacophonies of people shouting, screaming and honking for a parking spot, I discerned a narrow road of two lanes entering the slum. As I entered the labyrinth of tumultuous streets, the air and the soundscape started changing, fading into cool and pleasant messengers of delight. The polluted air diffused in the moisture of green plants, in the tasteful spices of freshly cooked meals and in the perfumes and colognes of indomitable spirits passing by. As I tread forth, the television programs, latest Bollywood songs and advertisements formed an atmosphere of domestic life sprouting. Voices of children: solving questions, learning and reciting poems, smiling to mother’s ineffectual warnings, garlanded the peaceful silence in the dark. As I went deeper and ambled along the narrow passageways the dominating presence of auto mobiles disappeared in the shadows of colourful flags tied overhead for celebrations. The traditional colourful attire of the dwellers and the exquisite beauty of jewels on feet and wrists of ladies compensated for the lack of colours and pride of their built form. As I walked by I saw people observed me, guided me and were standing outside of their doors, windows and narrow arches cleaved by a thin layer of cloth, forming a permeable membrane between the street and the house. Previously, the sky, ceaseless and of mammoth proportions was now reduced to the width of narrow passage way. Usually cool breezes of air gushed by and as the narrow walkways were shaded from either side the agonizing heat of the sun became bearable. As I looked towards the end of the street, the built fabric was the only connection left between the earth and the sky. The hierarchy of streets became evident with the limited view of the sky. As I entered the narrow pathways, the sky was reduced to a large infinite rectangle with its three sides always chasing you and the fourth making you tread forth in search of it, when the sky ended, I could make out the end of the street. In dark and gloomy streets, light reached the surface after endlessly splitting from a plethora of projections fighting for their space, the playful voices of children playing in the dark and gloomy streets obliterated my stress in entering those fearful spaces. The form and structure of the spaces were changing without a hint but always in sync with the dynamic equilibrium of the usability and the structure of space.

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The ingenuity showcased by the slum dwellers can put competent architects to shame. The use of construction materials like brick, concrete, wood and shipping containers in countless forms of geometry, imposing boundaries and inclusiveness with a sense of transparency was jaw dropping. The cunning way to give accessibility to the above floors by projecting them out by a measure of shoulder width of an average human and connecting it with a steel staircase sometimes reaching to two storeys was the epitome of efficient usability of space, gaining maximum from minimum. The continuity of structures were usually broken down by religious structures like churches and temples, paved with colourful tiles with a diagonal circulative pattern, giving a sense of enclosure while entering the demarcated space. As the passageways were getting narrow there was a discernible sense of cleanliness and the immaculate streets became the exchange arenas for domestic squabbles, study rooms for adolescents, meeting spaces for neighbours, gossip stations for housewives and workshops for industrial workers smiling, waving and creating ephemeral spaces to pass through. With every twist and turn the character, beauty and the relationship of the space with its inhabitants was deepening and intensifying. There was a presence of diminutive sense of seclusion, a pleasant solitary presence often punctuated by some social intercourse of benediction. I had to reconfigure my mental models to assimilate the understanding of patterns and the manipulation of these multi functional static spaces, which felt inviting and lost its presence with every turn.

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My few minutes of perambulation in Dharavi turned into hours and then into days. Gordon Cullen’s seminal work on Serial Vision in the Concise Townscape is exemplified on the streets of Dharavi: streets lightning up with warm sunlight, shaded with various projections trying to compete for their space above, walls oozing with polite colours of yellow, blue, white, red and green combined with rough grey texture of dilapidated structures, hierarchy of streets ranging from two-way roads to human scale alleyways accommodating two humans at most. Streets being the entry and exit points of small structures marking their soft presence with dominating doorways, threads running across the walls forming crescent under the weight of colourful pieces of cloth,small pots of plants exhibiting complexity in order shadowed by monolithic trees of twelve meters height, narrow lanes opening into unexpected small barriers of building extensions punctured with small openings serving as a ventilator and a connection to the outside. Narrow streets and gullies acting as play-fields to children, opening into human scale squares with sunlight pouring down through the shaded trees, swings tied up on the thick branches of trees. People engaging themselves in both active and passive ways, small un-built squares invigorated with vivid activities: grandmother drying spices under the warmth of morning sun, wives slaughtering the fresh catch of fishes and eels displaying the delicacies of sea food on the temporal stalls of numerous utensils. Dharavi emerged as a capital of energy and enthusiasm. Life dripped from every single part of it whether it was a small shop selling cigarettes or an electricity pole hidden under incalculable colourful multi lingual flyers, no single element failed to display the presence of vibrant life.

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The corporate societies and world class townships designed by international architects caste a lifestyle of luxury and comfort, the long and spaced balconies offers views and vistas of mountains, lakes and seas but fail to cascade a communal lifestyle sprinkling with humanity and nativeness. The global phenomenon in architecture has failed to exhibit the pluralistic social lifestyle in housing spaces, reducing it to only luxury and comfort.The long lifeless service cores, atriums and corridors echoes the silent noise of the absent. Cradling amidst the most unhygienic conditions, Dharavi perpetuates culture, sprouts happiness all over its depleted elements. The complexity in order catalysed my creative instincts. The tumultuous pathways were accentuated by discoveries revealing more about inner self, about how you feel it, how you take it. Streets were filled with children that brought out the child in me. Walking in the streets for hours from one place to another compared to seconds spent in elevators moving from one floor to another seemed of no equal measure. With every moving step the scale and the transparency of the streets always provoked some emotion and filled life, as opposed to the large lobbies and corridors of towers. The colours, joy, activities and the dynamisms occupied the most distant space of the heart: pleasant human interactions are enriched by friendly urban spaces, a chance meeting, eye to eye flirting, boy meets girl, friends meet acquaintances, old meets young, artists meets shopkeepers. Good urban fabric leaves the spaces open for all to walk upon and play upon. Often Dharavi captures our ambit of disgust and bring out the reflections of the filth that one has experienced in the past but this time, it broke prejudices about the Asia’s biggest slum residing in the heart of Mumbai. My explorations in Dharavi made me feel like a measure of time in history, a piece of geography and a tissue of humanity(culture) isolated itself from the shared global space.

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