Dharavi, located in Mumbai and one of Asia’s biggest slums, is now home to the world’s first slum museum 'Design Museum Dharavi'. The museum reflects the nomadic nature and disparate skills of more than one million people who live in Dharavi. It gives Dharavi workers and craftsmen the chance to display their skills, and take their creativity to the next level. Design Museum Dharavi is conceived by Amsterdam-based artist Jorge Mañes Rubio and art historian Amanda Pinatih with the help of local artists and designers. The organizers of the museum say they want to challenge people’s perceptions of slums by highlighting the creative talent that resides in them.
The museum is a mobile structure, easy to tow by a small car or a bike. With an extremely flexible and modular construction, it hosts workshops, lectures, meetings, screenings, exhibitions and all kinds of cultural events, travelling from place to place throughout the informal settlement of Dharavi. The museum on wheels showcases clay tea cups and saucers, terracotta water filters, reed brooms, painted wooden objects and textiles, all made with local or recycled materials.
Kumbharwada in Dharavi is an establishment of potters. It is around a hundred years old and forms the largest community of potters in Mumbai. The potters are originally from Saurashtra, Gujarat. Kumbhars means potter and wada colony, hence the name Kumbharwada - colony of potters. Jorge and Amanda took help of these local potters in Dharavi to come up with their tea cups designs showcased in the museum. The museum plans to relocate every two months to a different location within Dharavi.
Talking about this extraordinary experience Rubio says, ‘This specific approach will aim to interact with the local population in a new way that constitutes a melting pot of crafts, skills, traditions, creativity and technology. This way the Museum won’t just be an exhibition venue, but will also be a flexible meeting point where individuals can showcase their skills, find potential clients, teach workshops to the rest of the community and take their own practice one step further.’
The first exhibition was held in February featuring ceramic pieces made by the Chauhan family, who run a pottery workshop in Dharavi that goes back four generations. Soon after that the museum’s focus was on cricket with different bat designs. For this the museum moved to the modest square of Dharavi to a field within the complex.
“When we chose cricket as the main theme for Design Museum Dharavi’s second exhibition, we did so because we were inspired by how this game is being modified and reshaped in the streets of Dharavi. Anything close to a wooden or plastic stick will do as the perfect bat, balls differ in size, materials and colours, stumps are painted on walls, and rules are bent again and again to adapt the game to the size of the chosen location. What ‘Street Cricket’ symbolizes in Dharavi is the local’s flexibility and ability to change and reinvent themselves on a daily basis,” narrates the artist duo.
Rubio says it was not easy to set up the museum in such a dense place. But the community leader of Dharavi Shyam helped them to establish this. Shyam has been born and raised in Dharavi and comes from an old family that masters the craft of basketry and broom making. He is a social worker, helps children studying for their exams, he is a part-time worker at URBZ.
Mumbai, known as India’s financial hub, has long been a magnet for migrants seeking better economic opportunities. Half the city’s 22 million inhabitants live in slums. Dharavi has featured in several Bollywood movies, as well as the Academy award-winning Slumdog Millionaire (2009), which triggered a wave of slum tours and criticism of slum voyeurism.
“The initiative is a way to positively encourage the residents to collaborate in a cultural environment with a long term objective of impacting the perception and future of constantly evolving areas such as Dharavi. Experience, intuition and imagination will be cleverly recombined in order to merge both the tradition and creativity that glows in the streets of Dharavi. By creating a Design Museum, a place for contemplation, we make this city within a city more liveable. Our main intentions are to acknowledge the citizenship of these people, to recognize their equal rights compared to the rest of the city, and promoting a greater exchange between formal and informal economies,” says the curators.
Challenging the preconceived curatorial notions of design institutions today, the museum aims to feature a much more flexible program, encouraging residents to interact with cultural events. When the museum closes, Amsterdam will host a conference in the summer of 2016, where the results of the Design Museum Dharavi will be exhibited and pondered upon. Experts from different disciplines will join the conversation and share their vision and ideas based on their perspective and professional experience. The curators hope the project can be used as a model for social exchange.