Movies and media coverage have led many to see Dharavi, a densely-packed neighborhood in Mumbai that fits mazes of informal settlements and roughly a million residents into less than a square mile of land, as a slum, an add-on to an ever-growing metropolis. Netherlands-based designer Jorge Mañes Rubio and curator Amanda Pinatih, who first visited the Indian city in 2011 and have come to appreciate the craftsmanship and design skills on display, see more, and believe the mainstream mindset and terminology need to change.
"It makes a big difference if you look at Dharavi in a more positive way," says Pinatih. "For instance, this neighborhood is home to more than 200,000 micro-factories, and offers a great example of how small communities can grow and develop and be extremely productive if given the right tools. We’re interested in developing its design potential."
In association with Rahul Srivastava and Matias Echanove of the Mumbai-based architecture and design firm URBZ, Rubio and Pinatih decided to best way to alter that impression was to give the neighborhood’s designers a platform. The result, Design Museum Dharavi, which opened in February, offers a literal caravan of handmade items developed by locals, displayed on a pushcart that was also made in the neighborhood. A collaboration with local designers, as well as Shyanew, a Dharavi associate who has become the unofficial curator, the traveling display showcases everything from ceramics and pottery to hand-carved cricket bats. The museum even sponsored a street cricket tournament, complete with custom uniforms for four local teams. Funded by The Art of Impact and Creative Industries Fund NL, two Dutch non-profits, the endeavour is a different type of museum that challenges who we label as designers.
"It’s a big statement, a provocation maybe," says Pinatih. "It makes people think, what does a museum mean to them?"
Part of the idea, says Rubio, is to foster more dialogue between Dharavi and the rest of Mumbai, and showcase workers whose output is often seen as more functional than creative. The display of eccentric cricket bats was the result of local carpenter, Sandeep, experimenting with salvaged wood. A series of brightly colored ceramics vessels made by Nathalal N. Chauhan and Mitul N. Chauhan, family artisans in the Kumbharwada section of Dharavi who run a small firm that employs 10, were inspired by traditional water vessels and the service used for chai tea. The kinetic range of patterns and hues, showcasing Memphis-like colorways, were inspired by the improvisational nature of design in the neighborhood, where DIY construction can result in riotous facades and front doors.
Open for only a few months, the rotating display has already become a rare home for homegrown talent.
"Makers in India don’t have the same recognition they have in the States," Rubio says. "They're at the bottom of the ladder."
That disparity helped inform the museum’s plans for future programming, which include an exhibit on housing, which will invite Dharavi residents to create their own homes, a look at food manufacturing (residents are heavily involved in informal cooking and food preparation), and an examination of how issues of social caste influence Indian design.
Rubio and Pinatih will also be presenting the museum project at a conference in Amsterdam this summer, with plans to share information on creating similar projects in other neighborhoods across the world.
As they’ve discovered throughout their work, Dharavi, a former fishing village, was once beyond the outskirts of Mumbai, the island city that inexorably surrounded and swallowed up the area's informal settlements. Mumbai has become a neighbor, but could do a much better job of incorporating, integrating, and promoting the region’s design talent.
"Dharavi has been exploited as this apocalyptic place, where everything is misery, poverty and danger," says Rubio. "It’s been misused and misidentified, so this project seemed like a great challenge, to bring the focus to a completely different approach."
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