MUM­BAI’S RAIN­BOW SHINER

She has cre­ated art pieces out of shabby slum walls in Mum­bai city. But artist and so­cial worker Rou­ble Nagi has achieved a lot more than just giv­ing slums a colour­ful makeover

Society - - CONTENTS - By Arwa Jan­jali

She has cre­ated art pieces out of shabby slum walls in Mum­bai city. But artist and so­cial worker Rou­ble Nagi has achieved a lot more than just giv­ing slums a colour­ful makeover

Seven years ag o,an artist to start a came for­ward the city beau­ti­fy­ing drive of She took her of Mum­bai. gar­den at gar­dens (pop art to pub­lic streets and onto the Worli Sea Face) ini­ti­at­ing in Ban­dra), in­stal­la­tions ( in ‘pub­lic art’ con­cept of the un­heard see Now, we sud­denly the city.

once dingy slums of Mum­bai pop­ping up like colour­ful ham­lets ev­ery­where, thanks to that very artist. But Rou­ble Nagi is not just an artist, who is spread­ing beauty with her fab­u­lous makeovers of the sup­posed ugly pock­ets of the city. In­stead, she is quite lit­er­ally giv­ing a new lease of life to the un­der­priv­i­leged with the strokes of her brush. Whether it’s Dhar­avi, Jaf­fer Baba Na­gar or the Dhobi Ghat, Rou­ble is bring­ing about an ex­em­plary trans­for­ma­tion that she has aptly named the ‘Misaal Mum­bai’ project. She is as much a pas­sion­ate artist as much as she is an ac­tive hu­man­i­tar­ian. In an in­tense ex­change, she shares with So­ci­ety her ful­fill­ing jour­ney of com­bin­ing her two loves – art and so­cial work.

“I told my friends from the so­cial cir­cle to leave their sani­tis­ers be­hind. The tagline of the project is ‘equal­ity, not char­ity’ ”

THE SEED IS SOWN

“I have been teach­ing art in the slums for al­most eight to nine years now. The first day I en­tered the area, I didn’t like the way peo­ple lived there. So along with con­duct­ing my art classes, I would al­ways think what more could I do to make the sur­round­ings bet­ter. It’s not like slum dwellers are not happy. De­spite ter­ri­ble liv­ing con­di­tions, they are happy. But I wanted to bring colours to their life and add more hap­pi­ness through art. So I started with paint­ing Dhar­avi. What fol­lowed was Jaf­fer Baba Na­gar in Ban­dra and it con­tin­ues with more than 13 slums in our kitty,” Rou­ble nar­rates. In a city like Mum­bai, which throws nu­mer­ous chal­lenges on a daily ba­sis for its towns­folk to get past their rou­tine lives, Rou­ble set out to achieve a feat, which not only in­volved chang­ing the face of slums but also peo­ple’s mind­sets. What were the chal­lenges like? “A lot of peo­ple ad­vised me against it, say­ing slums are dark and dan­ger­ous. But I have lived there for so many years. I don’t think they are dark and dan­ger­ous. There are ap­pre­hen­sions and fear be­cause there are all kinds of peo­ple liv­ing there but then there are all kinds of peo­ple liv­ing ev­ery­where. So why are we judg­ing these peo­ple just be­cause they are liv­ing in slums?” she ques­tions em­path­i­cally. There was an ini­tial road­block though with slum dwellers com­ing up to her and ask­ing whether she had come to ac­quire their land. They then went on to beg for money to pay off their chil­dren’s school fees and ration in­stead of paint­ing the walls. “That’s when I ex­plained to them that it’s not just about beau­ti­fy­ing their walls. I wanted to wa­ter­proof their house dur­ing rains. I wanted to re­pair their bro­ken roofs. I said we will also try and build some toi­lets as clean wa­ter is al­ready there. We will pick up all the garbage. It’s about hav­ing a cleaner neigh­bour­hood as they con­tinue to live here. That’s when they started un­der­stand­ing that ‘oh my god, she’s here to give and not to take’,” the game changer re­counts. For Rou­ble, ‘it was al­ways about peo­ple and do­ing some­thing for them and not about how good or bad they are go­ing to be to her’. “In these ar­eas, peo­ple are used to hav­ing peo­ple come over and make empty prom­ises. So it’s very nor­mal for them to have these ques­tions as that’s the ex­pe­ri­ences they have gone through. But I also know for a fact that when you are gen­uinely try­ing to do some­thing good for peo­ple, they will come around and lis­ten to you. And the day you can get them to sit and lis­ten to you, you have won the bat­tle. So we worked our way up. It wasn’t a cake­walk but it wasn’t too tough either as I was very clear that I am here to make a con­nec­tion with peo­ple,” she re­veals. In an at­tempt to form a con­nec­tion, this artist has gone on to paving a way into peo­ple’s hearts. “I have a huge ex­tended fam­ily now. I worked to­wards form­ing this bond and the kind of love we have re­ceived from every­one in re­turn is amaz­ing. I feel happy as an artist, as a hu­man be­ing and as a woman. Also, I have a few thou­sands grow­ing up artists with me,” she states, shar­ing how she got young­sters and women from the re­spec­tive slums to paint along with her team. “It was very im­por­tant to have com­mu­nity in­volve­ment to arouse a cer­tain sense of own­er­ship and value in them. Get­ting them to paint the walls with me was the only way of get­ting them to main­tain it in my ab­sence. So I made sure three peo­ple from every lane were there with us,” she says talk­ing about her team of painters, which also com­prised of vol­un­teers from col­leges, work­ing pro­fes­sion­als, artists and oth­ers. “It’s been a fan­tas­tic turnout. I also made one per­son the head from every lane, who would be re­spon­si­ble for the main­te­nance of clean­li­ness and hy­giene – the dust­bins not be­ing stolen, every­one putting the garbage in the dust­bins, no spit­ting on the walls, etc,” she in­forms. It is a holis­tic ap­proach for Rou­ble when it’s bring­ing about change. “We do a lot of skill de­vel­op­ment classes along with my

art, es­pe­cially with the youth. There are these two kids Karan and Ar­jun from Shivshakti Na­gar, who are chore­og­ra­phers and wanted to teach. We found some way of giv­ing them that ex­po­sure. I also em­ployed three boys from one of the slums, who are vol­un­teer­ing with us now. As an artist, I guess I am born to do what­ever I do through colour and art. But so­cial work is also my in­ter­est. And when I do it through art, it be­comes much more pleas­ant,” the cru­sader, who also works to­wards the cause of ed­u­ca­tion through her Rou­ble Nagi Art Foun­da­tion, con­tin­ues. And noth­ing stops her from mak­ing the ex­pe­ri­ence pleas­ant, even if it’s telling her friends from the so­cial cir­cle to leave their sani­tis­ers be­hind if they want to come paint with the rest. “The tagline of the project is ‘equal­ity, not char­ity’. We are here to help and sup­port as many as we can in our ca­pac­ity,” she clar­i­fies.

THE WAY FOR­WARD

With so­cial ini­tia­tives as sig­nif­i­cant as Rou­ble’s, one thing that gen­er­ally be­comes a damp­ener is the sus­te­nance of it all. How does she see that hap­pen­ing? “With re­spect to main­tain­ing hy­giene stan­dards, there has been a big change. If you went to Worli Koli­wada on the first day, you would be shocked be­cause ev­ery­body was sit­ting and shit­ting out­side. Now also they are, but the num­ber has re­duced by 60 per­cent, which is a bless­ing. We started around 16 new toi­lets there, which were made but closed. So we are re­open­ing them and re­pair­ing them. I got the whole team of BMC (Bri­han­mum­bai Mu­nic­i­pal Cor­po­ra­tion) in­volved there, in­clud­ing the BMC com­mis­sioner. The gov­ern­ment has now made it com­pul­sory that every­one has a toi­let in their house and the work will now start on that. So yes, main­te­nance is never go­ing to be easy. If I ex­pect that there is no garbage thrown on the streets there, I would be fool­ing my­self. But to even come to 60 per­cent lesser is a lot to achieve and I am sure we will achieve that 40 per­cent also in the com­ing days,” she says, her voice echo­ing con­fi­dence. As for the art­work on the huts, she says, “Van­dal­ism is huge in our coun­try. I have had so many of my pub­lic in­stal­la­tions bro­ken. But for this project, I have tried my best to use colours that would last at least for the next two to three years. I have used pre­mium colours and all the strain­ers were made by me. I have mixed my own colours.” The walls of the huts were noth­ing less than a can­vas for Rou­ble, who took pic­tures of the huts, sketched them out and painted them in her stu­dio, be­fore start­ing with the colour­ing on site. “It’s not just about tak­ing a roller and brush and start paint­ing. It was a thought over thing, that each wall should have a char­ac­ter. Each wall be­came like an art piece. So that when you see the area from a dis­tance, you see a beau­ti­ful, ab­stract can­vas. Also, be­cause peo­ple are liv­ing in those houses, we made sure we kept them in the loop about their likes and dis­likes as well, with re­spect to colours and de­signs,” Rou­ble ex­plains.

EVO­LU­TION OF ART: FROM ART GAL­LERIES TO PUB­LIC SPA­CES

“Dur­ing the in­au­gu­ra­tion of my ‘Par­adise Gar­den’ out­side Me­hboob Stu­dio last year, I had said that for me, art is not to be kept in a mu­seum alone and it is not only for the elite. Es­pe­cially pub­lic art, as the term clearly sug­gests, is for peo­ple. It is for peo­ple to en­joy. When I started the Mum­bai beau­ti­fi­ca­tion drive, there were hardly any sculp­tures in pub­lic ar­eas. Hence, when I set out to do my first in­stal­la­tion in a pub­lic space seven years ago, I had in­vited so many of the so-called artists to cre­ate in­stal­la­tions with me and get the re­quired per­mis­sion from the gov­ern­ment. These were artists who were far more se­nior and big­ger than me at that time. But none of them came for­ward. Prob­a­bly be­cause it wasn’t a paid project. And to­day, they are dy­ing to get these spots and put their sculp­tures out there as it’s brand­ing for them now,” Rou­ble tells us. Art on the whole has evolved im­mensely. “Few years back, peo­ple were not aware of art. To­day, In­dian artists have gone in­ter­na­tional. A lot of peo­ple want to be­come artists now. But you have to have your heart and soul into it. You can’t use your mind too much. When you are cre­at­ing, you have to cre­ate with your heart,” she in­sists. Apart from ‘Misaal Mum­bai’, she is busy cre­at­ing nine pub­lic in­stal­la­tions for dif­fer­ent cities. She is also ex­cited about cre­at­ing an art­work for a royal fam­ily in the Mid­dle East. “A big plus for an artist is that age is not a fac­tor. In fact, the older you get, your art is ap­pre­ci­ated more. So even at 80, you can con­tinue work­ing,” she signs off, hint­ing at her long in­nings.

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