You smell Sassoon Docks before you see it. The olfactory hints grow stronger past the red and white archway, as you do some quick-stepping to avoid the strewn prawn shells that litter the way to the jetty. But few take this short walk by the warehouses, save the amateur photographer, curious visitor or restaurant owner. It’s precisely this that the St+art India Foundation is trying to change with its art project.
“Sassoon Docks is important not just because it’s the city’s oldest, but also because these fishermen are the original inhabitants of the city. There are many underlying layers to the space, which we would like to remind people of,” says Akshat Nauriyal, co-founder, content director & digital head, St+art India Foundation.
Unraveling the layers
Nowhere is the reminder more striking than at the revenue building. The site for most of the project’s installations and art works, it is located right opposite the jetty, offering a direct lookout to both the real and the imagined. Given the riot of colours, it’s hard to miss this facade. But it’s likely you would overlook some of the subtler elements, such as the fisherman’s yellow boots, nets or pinkish prawns that Do & Khatra have tried to incorporate into the wall. Easier to spot are the patterns at the lower end of the boundary wall that slink to the side — the polka dots, side stripes and floral patterns — commonly found on the saris and dupattas worn by the Koli and Banjara women. The fabrics even find space in German artist Clemens Behr’s installation that makes a commentary on the transitioning state of the city.
With 40 artists from India and overseas, the narratives are as varied as they can get. Where you have Singapore-based artist Tan Zi Xi making a commentary on the state of the oceans using trash, you have Avinash Kumar talking of how technology is threatening fishermen’s livelihoods. Away from these stark realities, some artists such as Yok and Sheryo are exploring the ethereal through local tales. The duo’s installation of the sea god Varuna and his vahana (vehicle), the turtle Makara, was conceptualised thus. “Speaking to the fishermen, we realised how much they value their boats and how it keeps them alive. When we heard about Varuna-Makara, the parallel struck,” says Sheryo, pointing to a boat donated by one of the locals. Their murals on the adjoining walls combine the tales they heard, of goddess Mumbadevi, who is revered by the fishing community, the Bengal tiger and even a line from a Koli song “Mi Dolkar”
Up and down the space, there are similar evocations, spun together after interactions with the locals. Initially though, there was suspicion and hostility to the art project. The fear that they would lose their land to “outsiders” still hasn’t entirely dissipated, especially for those who have stayed away from the projects. “When we approached them for the Inside Out project, there was some mistrust. We had to approach the community leaders to get our point across, but even then people were hesitant. But once we started, interest grew and people started coming in,” says Nauriyal, who’s in charge of the project along with Pranav Gohil.
Started by French artist JR, the Inside Out project celebrates local identities and stories using large‐format street paste-ups. In this case, roughly 300 blown-up portraits of locals were pasted on the warehouse walls, which helped broker a sort of camaraderie. You will see many upturned faces here, of community boys trying to spot familiar faces and women giggling at the ones they know as they walk through the buildings or back home.
“They told us politicians do nothing and have big hoardings, you guys do so much work so why not have your pictures put up?” laughs Parvati, crouched on the floor of the jetty with a group of women shelling prawns, barely looking up from her work. It’s late afternoon, but many like her are still at the jetty, filling the blue crates in a mechanical stupor, some chattering in groups to break the monotony. From the few makeshift stalls comes the hoarse cry, “Tai, bombil?”
The pace is different at this time of the day though. The chaos of the morning — with men pushing handcarts, egrets swooping in to steal fish and daily auctions taking place for wholesale buyers — has subsided. The activity has not. About 1,500 trawlers are said to operate out of Sassoon, bringing in some 20 tonnes of fish every day, half of which is exported.
It’s not just the frenzied activity at the dock that has been a challenge for St+art India, but putting a finger on the pulse of different communities working here. Over the past three years, the foundation has organised six St+art festivals and public art projects across Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru and Hyderabad. “Lodhi Colony [in Delhi] was essentially a residential colony, the people residing there, the space and facades were more or less similar. In Sassoon, though, every day has been a challenge. It’s a far more complex space. There were many realities we had to face and then work around to make this happen,” says Nauriyal.
The interplay has brought out the best for both sides though. Be it in Australian artist Guido van Helten’s massive portraits of the Koli and Banjara women that blend seamlessly into the dusty walls or The Fearless Collective’s murals that captures their thoughts and expressions. For the local women, it has been a chance to work with these artists, speak their mind and share their views. Even something as simple as stringing along the trash for Xi’s exhibit has helped start a dialogue on cleanliness. But it’s the addition of so much colour into their lives, literally and figuratively, that they are most happy about.
The Foundation is not done yet. To attract visitors, off-put at the very idea of visiting the dock, they have planned a series of curated tours, workshops, film screenings and music events throughout their run till December. Only, these have a more contemporary flavour. And even while the engagement continues at the dock, the artists move on to Mahim East, hoping to transform it into an open-air art gallery, and give a lift to Jindal Mansion on Pedder Road.
For Sassoon Docks, the art project is only the start. After months of negotiations, the Mumbai Port Trust has come up with a plan to redevelop the waterfront into a modern fishing village, hoping to turn it into a tourist attraction.
Built in 1875 by Sir Albert Abdulla David Sassoon, a Jewish merchant, Sassoon was Western India’s first ‘wet’ dock–one where ships could sail in regardless of the tide.The new draft includes an air-conditioned fish market, a one-storey museum and space for visitors to enjoy fishing and view the Arabian Sea among other activities. While the clock tower arch will remain intact, some of the older buildings will be torn down. The museum will be a new construction, exhibiting different aspects of the docks and its people. Clearly, there are massive changes awaiting the Kolis and Banjaras.
Exactly how that plays out remains to be seen, but you may want to follow your nose to the art dock for now. Whether you chose to take back the smell of Sassoon through Sam Kulavoor’s work or forget it by playing on your memory through Hanif Kureshi’s is something you should decide for yourself.
An edited version of the story was carried by Business Standard