I once remember having a conversation with a fisherman’s wife. It was early afternoon and the young woman was waiting at the port with her twin daughters looking out at the sea, trying to spot her husband’s boat in the fleet that was approaching. He had been at sea for almost 5 days, catching fish to sell in the market. I could see her getting angsty. The sea had been rough the last two nights. “This anxiousness is part of our life,” she tells me. “You never know what happens at sea,” she sighed, walking further along the coast. This single conversation brought much perspective into my life about the perspective of fishermen in general. Their lives are so vastly different from us, their struggles and challenges much more complex and relatively undocumented.
Fishing and the fishermen’s community has been the identity of Mumbai, with them supposedly being the city’s first inhabitants. But as Mumbai continues to grow haphazardly; finance, glamour and commerce have taken a dominant role to describe its character. However, a new vibrant project is unveiling itself this weekend at the iconic Sassoon Docks, that not just captures the lives of the fishing communities of Bombay, but also makes them a part of their revolutionary art project.
An initiative of the St+Art India launched in 2014, with the tagline ‘Art for all’, the ‘Sassoon Docks Art Project’ has collaborated with the local community and about 40 artists from India and abroad to transform once bleak spaces into vibrant art canvases that capture the lives of the Kolis, the Banjaras and the Hindu Marathas through installations, photo-stories, graffiti and art exhibitions. While the work is still in progress, the spirit of Sassoon docks comes alive in these 34 odd art spaces - indoor and outdoor spread across the Dock campus.
It’s early evening and the docks are bustling as usual. Ignoring the strong, pungent smell, I walk in to see the exteriors of MBPT Office’s drab yellow walls covered with portraits of people from the community against a spotted background– part of the global participatory art project, initiated by the French photographer JR, Vaishnavi Suresh, one of the team members who worked on this project tells me how more than 200 members from the local community showed up to get their portraits clicked. “It was overwhelming because when we started off, the community wasn’t forthcoming. I remember one lady asking me when we were going to kick them out. But this art was for them, by them. All artists spent a lot of time in the community listening to stories, understanding the culture, the lifestyle, the history before they took to colour. Now they are very much a part of this project and really happy with it too,” she says. The Sassoon Docks Art Project has also roped in contribution from these communities in odd jobs like stitching, painting etc and have duly paid them for it.
The staunch smell of the docks is getting to me, but the art here has the solution to that too. We walk inside a huge room adorned with hanging fish nets. Over it, are words beautifully carved out through fibre glass. ‘Fresh mountain air, Delhi Winter, Crayons, Fresh Concrete, Public Toilet ’ amongst many others, each associated with a different smell. The artist of this particular project, Hanif Kureshi, talks about how words are so powerful that they can momentarily transports one to the memory of a different aroma.” I couldn’t help but agree as I reminisce a particular memory of one Delhi winter.
We then walk into a dark room which has two parts. The first one captures the past of the Koli community through their vibrant posters, their clothes, the stories associated with them, while the other part has a huge instillation of a ship equipped with gadgets that critiques on how technological advancements have almost made this profession redundant. The future seems bleak.
The third room is full of plastic bottles and waste hanging low from the ceiling. The walls have been replaced with mirror and plastic is all one sees. Created by Tan Zi Xi from Singapore, this art project titled ‘Plastic Ocean’ aims to show people the viewpoint of a fish.
The next room displays a huge muriel of Koli and Banjara women in electric blue, the paper elaborately hand cut by an Austrian artist Olivier Hoelzl. It leads to another space that beautifully showcases the folk stories that go around in the community, especially those related to women-folk using white fabric and fish nets. A space also demonstrates the similarities between the landscape of Singapore and Mumbai through the works of Darren Soh, a landscape photographer from Singapore and Vibhor Yadav, an aerial photographer from India. The pictures capture how both the places were primarily fishing communities and are now advancing towards rapid urban development.
The floor above has a massive installation of a fish with its mid-body depicted as buildings. It is commentary on how this development is not sustainable at all. The top most floor is full of myth and magic with a stellar instillation of a mythological sea creature that the community believes, exists. It also incorporates other supernatural elements and traditions that the community lives by. The art at Sassoon Docks also finds a place in the toilets as the artist, Furqan Jawed, tries to experiment with the notion of what’s public and private.
As we walk out, I notice a giant instillation of a dog relieving itself. “We often shoo away the pissing dogs, but this instillation is to remind us that we too are pissing on the environment by littering around,” Vaishnavi explains honestly, sharing the artist’s vision behind it. The pissing dog instillation will be placed at several spaces where people tend to litter. I am then taken to the ‘Fearless’ wall, boldly done in hues of blue and mustard depicting the idea of sustainability as put forth by the many local women interviewed, beautifully encapsulating the spirit of their lives and the sea.
I notice a bunch of local girls gazing at the artwork and giggling amongst themselves. As I see their lives unfold through art, I ask them what they think about the Sassoon Docks Art Project. Puja, a young girl chooses to answer. “ Alag hai, acha hai, kuch toh ho raha hai humare liye” (It’s different and it’s nice. At least somehting is happening for us) she says coyly and runs off.
It’s getting dark and the bright colours of Sassoon Docks look even lovelier. I am suddenly reminded of a popular song of the Koli Community, Me Dolkar. Its lyrics, inscribed on one of the walls in the docks, translate to “As the golden sun sets, the ocean turns red.” I see a fleet of boats approaching. The fishermen return to the Sassoon Docks, a place that they have called home for long. Only now it’s a home that will forever celebrate their spirit.
There are many more art projects and much more in store at Sassoon Docks this weekend. Take a curated tour of the vibrant docks on Nov 11- Nov 12 at 3pm, 5pm or 7 pm. They also have an interesting line up of events at ‘The Dock Jam’ on Nov 18. For more details, visit their Facebook page here. For more stories and pictures of the Sassoon Docks Art Project, visit their Instagram page here.
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