Women from Mumbai’s Dharavi slums make a creative social statement
Wander into Jeevan Hall in the maze that is Dharavi, once Mumbai’s largest slum, and you will find life-size images of 10 women wearing brightly coloured saris appliquéd with slogans such as Keep Out, 1,000 Volts Shakti and No Entry. But don’t let the words discourage you from exploring further: there’s a reason why they are there.
The elaborately decorated saris were created under Provoke/Protect, a project aimed at spreading awareness about sexual violence. It is part of the Alley Galli Biennale, a three-week festival funded by the British charity Wellcome Trust, held at various venues across the sprawling slum.
The newly empowered designers, all residents of the slum, shyly explain the ethos behind the venture.
Nirmala Punjabi, 54, a gender violence activist, said she wanted to design a sari to “ward off every man who looks at women with an evil eye”. Fifty-three-year-old Kismati Devi wanted hers to depict the tenacity she has developed “to fight anyone who messes with me”.
“Provoke/Protect happened because we wanted to hold a workshop on sexual violence with the community’s women. After the Delhi rape, they were receptive to discussion,” says Nayreen Daruwalla, a doctor and the Biennale’s project director who also works for the NGO behind the biennale, the Society for Nutrition, Education and Health Action.
Daruwalla, herself an expert on gender violence, brought together 10 women between the ages of 20 and 60 to participate. Along with Akshata Anil Shatye, head constable at a Mumbai police station, they talked about victims being stigmatised and blamed for sexual violence.
“This led to several discussions and a growing awareness of the fact that sexual violence is about controlling women,” says Daruwalla.
A few days into the seminar and participants were ready to channel their thoughts into creative pursuits. Each was given an old sari and bits of scrap cloth, all purchased from Dharavi’s second-hand clothes market, and Susie Vickery, the mentor artist assigned to the project, taught them sewing, embroiderers and appliqué. Most of the women had to learn the skills from scratch but not one of the beautiful creations betrays the lack of experience.
In fact, 50-year-old Anjali Amma, who was completely new to sewing, “stayed up every night to practise just to be at par with her contemporaries”, says Vickery. “Today, she is one of our best seamstresses.”
For her sari, Amma chose to draw around her hand and teamed the simple shape with two words: “Stop Rape”, while Devi’s colourful creation features a bear’s claw and the words Janwar Nahin Chalta Phirta Insaan Hain, loosely translating to: We’re not animals, we’re humans.
Punjabi chose to sew on a cut-out of the ubiquitous metre found on Mumbai’s rickshaws. Every metre has the words “Don’t Touch Me” painted on them, which struck a chord with Punjabi because the slogan was “spot on”.
Punjabi says she is glad that many men in the community are beginning to take an interest in their artwork. “I can find a change in the way our men look at us now. They don’t consider us to be weaklings anymore,” she says with pride.
• The Alley Galli Biennale runs until March 7. Visit www.dharavibiennale.com for more details
Updated: February 25, 2015 04:00 AM