Designing a 'soaking' portrait

Mumbai Monsoons

Designing a 'soaking' portrait


In July 2005, Mumbai, the urbs prima indis was flooded by unprecedented rains, the highest recorded in India to date. The deluge claimed huge losses to life and property — at least 419 people drowned; several asphyxiated in their cars, while others navigated waist high waters to wend homewards on foot. Many were the suburbanites with narratives of sojourning two days on the road, in public transport or availing the hospitality of friends, employers or strangers.

The floods of July 26-27, 2005, have been used as a point of departure for a thought-provoking exhibition titled ‘Soak — Mumbai in an Estuary’ currently underway at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), Mumbai.

Authored, designed, and drawn by husband and wife architect-designer couple Anu Mathur and Dilip DaCunha, ‘Soak’s’  portrait of Mumbai was inaugurated by Maharashtra chief minister Ashok Chavan. ‘Soak’ is the latest endeavour for the duo who have focused their artistic and design expertise on cultural and ecological issues of contentious landscapes and diverse terrains, including New York, Sunderbans, and Rio Grande apart from two landmark projects, the ‘Mississippi Floods: Designing a Shifting Landscape’; and ‘Deccan Traverses: the Making of Bangalore’s Terrain’.

‘Soak’ addresses the question of legacy and reinterprets the urban landscape through the use of artistic elements like 77 historical maps sourced from the Harvard College Library, the Royal Geographical Society of London and the British Library, 90 innovative photographic works and drawings and a multi-media installation titled ‘Collective Memory.’ Visitors are invited to submit their own photos and videos recounting their experiences.

This interdisciplinary use of landscape panorama, the framework of map making, montage, digital and sound media have been intelligently used binding facets of design in a meaningful way. Underlining the necessity of re-imagining the language of the coast and coastal settlements, ‘Soak’ exposes a complex terrain that has been forgotten and buried deep under a metropolis that had grown over and obliterated the past and the real beneath.

“The exhibition is unique in that for the first time, with the support of the National Gallery of Modern Art, it will be bringing awareness of contemporary concerns of cities, using design to create a public dialogue,” says Kavita Khanna, director, ‘Soak’ who was galvanised into requesting Mathur and DaCunha to create the exhibit after she saw their work on the Mississippi floods at the School of Design, University of Pennsylvania, where Anuradha and Dilip are faculty members.

Lauding ‘Soak’ as art in progress, a platform for dialogue, and a ground for new imagination, Rajeev Lochan, director, NGMA observes that ‘Soak’ “extends the language of design, planning and architecture in a conceptual, visual and graphic manner, treating the Mithi river as a metaphor with a sense of totality. It addresses intangible pertinent questions relevant to society, geographical issues, and anthropological concerns of our time. ‘Soak’ transcends the representations of technology, ecology and many other facets of design that inform interventions in the city.”

Anuradha and Dilip feel the city must look at “interventions that hold  monsoon waters rather than channel them out to sea; that work with the gradient of an estuary; that accommodate uncertainty through resilience, not overcome it with prediction.”

“We have made the monsoon an enemy or at the very least an unwanted guest in Mumbai when it is our inheritance, indeed our life,” says Anuradha. “Isn’t it amazing that we’re still trying to predict the monsoon? We cannot help thinking that if all the resources spent on predicting the monsoon were spent on accommodating it, the flood of 2005 might never have occurred. We have somehow convinced ourselves that prediction is necessary. How did the monsoon become an object of prediction? How did we come to visualise the monsoon as an outsider that comes in, an outsider that can be managed?”
But the monsoon is not the only outsider that has become an irritant and object of fear in Mumbai. When Anuradha and Dilip visited Mumbai in 2006, a year after the flood, the Mithi “which had underperformed on its task of draining the land had been singled out as the culprit.” Looking carefully at Mumbai’s terrain, we realised that we have cultivated ourselves to see the Mithi in Mumbai when it is the other way round. Mumbai is in the Mithi, an amazing estuary, a fluid terrain between land and  sea that is constantly in flux.”

‘Soak’ spotlights this state of flux in three sections occupying three levels of the NGMA.

On the ground floor is the large installation of video screens atop large cartons of newspaper clipping attesting to the floods. The first section of ‘Soak’ traces the drawing of the coastline; its tentative beginnings in early European maps (which are paintings actually) and its pursuit in the “fair weather season” by English and Portuguese marine and land surveyors in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The second section of ‘Soak’ is titled ‘Estuary’ and draws out landscapes that survive beyond the eye of the surveyor and pervasive colonial descriptions, both appreciative and critical, that begin by seeing Mumbai’s terrain divided into objects in geographic space.

These landscapes, which include swamps, talaos, and bazaars, occupy the fluid and open gradient of an estuary, a terrain that operates more as a filter between land and sea than a line between them.

The third section of ‘Soak’ proposes 12 initiations in a terrain that reaches from the hills of Salsette in the north, with their access to the sea all around, to the five historic forts of Worli, Mahim, Rewa, Sion and Sewri that were once Mumbai’s waterfront sentinels. “Each initiation works to resolve the problem of flood not by enforcing lines but by transforming Mumbai into a place that absorbs the monsoon and sea, a place that accommodates soak, says Dilip, “as an alternative to flood. Flood cultivates a desire to control the divide between land and water. ‘Soak’, on the other hand, does not assume a divide. It works with a gradient of wetness, taking monsoon and sea as intrinsic to the landscape of Mumbai, rather than an outsider.”

‘Soak’ is intended to fostering public awareness and involvement, with the aim of impacting decisions on the ground and in policy. To this end, FICCI supported by the Maharashtra government, Bombay Stock Exchange, Maharashtra Chamber of Commerce, Industry & Agriculture (MACCIA) and Asia Society, organised a high powered conference on the perspective change required for Mumbai to become a forerunner in the design of sustainable urban infrastructure.

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