Dharavi Art Room provides a Safe Haven for Children in Asia’s Largest Slum

Living in one of the most densely populated spaces on earth takes its toll on children. Dharavi Art Room is a sanctuary where children paint, play instruments and learn about themselves, outside standard curricula.

Deepak as a young school going pre-teen faces unique challenges. He is one of the million residents of Dharavi, where the average dwelling unit spans 18 square meters (195 square feet). With a population density about 11 times higher than the surrounding city of Mumbai, the cacophony that characterises Dharavi affects children adversely. “On my street, everyone is always shouting. It is not possible to sit and complete the school work or paint,” says Deepak. Other children who come to the Dharavi Art Room concur (read more here). Atul has been coming to Dharavi Art Room for a year now. He says that he can’t play in his house: “People are always getting drunk and quarrelling there.”

Himanshu S., the founder of Dharavi Art Room, understands how difficult it is for a child to cope in such relentlessly aggressive atmosphere. Brought up by a single mother he experienced economic challenges first hand. He was always shy and afraid to express himself before he experienced art. An artist who graduated from Mumbai’s Sir J.J. School of Art, he has been coming to Dharavi since 1999. Initially, he and co-founder Aqui Thami would work with children in any available public space. But gradually they needed a separate safe space, where anyone coming would be completely protected from physical, verbal or sexual abuse. With co-founder Aqui, today Himanshu’s small art room project has grown to touch the lives of the least empowered people in Dharavi. In 2016 alone, Dharavi Art Room worked with 1200 children and 60 women.

Today the Dharavi Art Room is housed in a  small rented room within the slum. Its walls are plastered with colourful paintings by the children in marked contrast with the visualscape of the rest of the slum. Today the centre has expanded beyond visual arts and into the realm of music. Further, the first batch of youngsters who came to the Dharavi Art Room are now being trained to become teachers themselves. This is the first step in a more community-owned approach to the project. The latest initiative of the Dharavi Art Room is ‘Muralwallahs’–an initiative to beautify the neighbourhoods through art by having the children paint colourful murals on the walls.

The Dharavi Art Room has also become more engaged with gender inequality to address the issues in the lives of children. Aqui says, “Once the girls reach adolescence, they are not allowed to come to the art room. They are mostly tasked with household work. So we decided to expand to schools so the girls don’t have to miss out.” In fact, younger girls who come to the Dharavi Art Room also complain of there being too much to do in their homes. Ashiya says “My mother tells me to do the laundry, the dishes, fetch water. But I just run away!” Spunky little Liza complains, “My mother always nags me about household chores and fetching stuff from the shops. But I say I don’t want to and even then she scolds me”.

Dharavi Art Room envisions art as a mean of self-exploration and learning about the community around oneself. Although it may not be obvious, Dharavi is not a homogenous community. There are ghettoes within the slum according to religion or to the region of India people have migrated from, and people rarely break these divisions to come together. Dharavi Art Room encourages this mingling. As Aqui points out, “Children quickly develop fast friendships.” More poignantly, as Pranav a regular participant in the activities, puts it, “Art room is not just a place to make pretty paintings but also for making friends.” Aqui weighs in to point out that the boys in Dharavi are forced to conform to stereotypical masculine roles of aggressor and protector. Dharavi Art Room provides them with a respite from toxic masculinity and teaches them to engage with themselves and others in more meaningful ways.

For the founders, Dharavi Art Room is also a tool for self-expression of the residents. Himanshu says, “It’s difficult to explain why art over more utilitarian things like English or computer lessons.  But art is a way of communicating and the children learn to express themselves through their paintings.” As the third largest slum in the world with a population density of nearly 28000 per square kilometre, Dharavi has attracted the attention of a lot of filmmakers and journalists. But these are external representations. The photo and paintings of the children of Dharavi let the residents themselves shape their narratives.

A young participant in Dharavi Art Room, Rajkumar, says, “I find it very peaceful here”. This is echoed repeatedly by all other youngsters. This peace, so crucial for self-reflection and learning in an embattled, fraught world, is propelling these kids to news heights. Sooraj who had started coming as a pre-teen is now about to graduate from school but he still comes here. The Dharavi Art Room has honed his skills and now he is a wedding photographer within his community and supports his education. There are thousands of other children in the teeming alleys of Dharavi waiting for their chance to shine. We hope Dharavi Art Room reaches many more of them and makes them a part of its unique journey.

The video is produced by Video Volunteers with the support of Vikalp Sangam. Article by Madhura Chakraborty

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