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Life on the edge

Life on the edge
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First Published: Wed, Aug 12 2009. 10 24 PM IST

 Haji Ali, Mumbai. Manoj Patil / Hindustan Times
Haji Ali, Mumbai. Manoj Patil / Hindustan Times
Updated: Wed, Aug 12 2009. 10 24 PM IST
Many Indian cities and towns lie on the water’s edge. Mumbai and Chennai sit by the sea. New Delhi and Kolkata are gathered about major rivers, as are smaller cities such as Pune or Patna. So how well have urban planners understood the importance of these water bodies? If Soak: Mumbai in an Estuary—an exhibition at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai—is anything to go by, only poorly.
Lines drawn in sand or slush
Haji Ali, Mumbai. Manoj Patil / Hindustan Times
The work of architects Anuradha Mathur and Dilip da Cunha, Soak attempts, in its first section, to construct a historical critique of the way Mumbai’s landscape was imagined, represented and finally produced as a colonial enterprise. Mathur and da Cunha, who seek to straddle the realms of design, art, landscape architecture, history and activism, make a number of important points. They suggest that the idea of Mumbai as an island with firm edges is a created condition. In truth, much of what is “land” in Mumbai now used to be overrun by water in the monsoon. And in any case, who can draw a line on the sand to separate land from water?
Yet, marine surveyors and colonial administrators required such a line be drawn, so that the business of shipping and land management could go on. Ships needed precise maps, and lines would have to be invented to provide precision. Colonial administrators needed land for economic activity. So the lines were even extended out to sea to produce land in the guise of reclamation. What started with the British continued after independence.
The Soak function
Lines, Mathur and da Cunha argue, lead very easily to thinking in terms of walls along flow channels. A fictitious line representing the wished-for separation of land and water produces that separation in reality in the forms of defined drainage channels.
They argue too that as the colonial imagination separated land from water, it cast water as an enemy of the economic promise of land. Accordingly, a spreading flow of water over the originally semi-aqueous terrain of Mumbai had to be organized to free the land under it. But this obsession with drainage (and filling) to produce usable land, which still continues, fails to take into account that during the monsoon, that land must also be able to hold large volumes of water in times of excessive rainfall, as on that very wet July day in 2005.
Water cannot always be drained into channels alone, because they are never wide enough for the freak downpour. It must also be given space, or land, to soak into, hence the show’s title.
(With)standing water
This water-holding function is clearly discernible in Kolkata, where the Salt Lake area once held saline wetlands. Even more dramatic is the cleaning function of the East Calcutta Wetlands (ECW), which acts as a natural sewage treatment plant for the city and constitutes a protected Ramsar site.
“To the east of the Hooghly (Ganga), Kolkata is lower than the river’s high flood line,” says Partha Ranjan Das, an architect who worked on a proposed structured plan concept for the city in 2007. “When water overflows the river’s high banks, it can flood the city. Kolkata originally had a web of small creeks and rivulets that ran rainwater down into the salt lake to the east of the city.” Awareness about this crucial absorbing role of the semi-aqueous salt marshes and ECW developed only when the development of Salt Lake City was already well under way, with four of its five sectors (which today houses 435,000 people) already complete.
Vidyadhar Phatak, ex-chief planner of Mumbai Metropolitan Development Authority (MMRDA), agrees that in modern India, we only recognize the value of dry land. “Indian planners think of the river and the sea only in terms of disaster,” he says.
This very water has historically sustained most of our cities: Rivers have provided water for human consumption, diluted and taken away sewage; the sea has borne the international trading economy for centuries. Phatak laments that modern planners have been blind to older traditions of engaging the river positively, as in the temple-dotted ghats of Varanasi or Nashik. “Planning in India, unfortunately, is mainly seen as land management,” he says.
Course correction
In this context, Soak suggests a course correction. With project proposals for specific sites in the city, it indicates new ways of imagining the terrain of Mumbai, mindful of its estuary avatar in the monsoon. The location of the exhibition, its inauguration by the chief minister, its exquisite design, the expertise of the maps and drawings might suggest that it is a comprehensive proposal. However, it does not set out to be one, and should not be considered so. Soak’s achievement is to illuminate the complex interplay of the planner’s imagination and the natural base of a city such as Mumbai. It also provides valuable historical context. However, its critique and proposals are largely about one neglected dimension: Call it nature, ecology, or what you will.
But it is not enough for planners to focus on any one single aspect of the border between cities and nature. Planning action on Mumbai’s western coast involves many issues: the right to traditional residence and livelihood of fishing villages, the heritage value of sites such as the neglected forts at Versova, Mahim and Worli (which Soak celebrates with conceptual proposals), as well as remarkable religious sites such as the Banganga tank and Haji Ali. Evidently, the land at the edge of the sea is a special zone involving complex issues.
Between salt water and sea strand
The state and its planners have generally failed to acknowledge the sea as an active presence capable of pushing back if pushed. Surely this alone can explain their continual extension of the city into the sea through reclamation (Backbay, Nariman Point, Bandra, Charkop), or through marine outfalls that dump sewage further from land, and now finally the Bandra-Worli Sea Link.
The last, Mumbai’s latest showpiece, also shows the social complexity of the edge. You may be proud of the glamorous new symbol or depressed by elementary errors in the logic of its larger system, but the real social cost is being paid by the fishing communities along the Mahim coast, whose workplace is the now disturbed sea. They have protested vigorously, to little avail.
If, as the authors of Soak suggest, the story of Mumbai really begins with Mahim, then the newest entrant on the Mumbai land-waterscape has just made life difficult for the residents of its oldest part.
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CONNECT
The minimalist Signal desk lamp
Among the most famous forms of task lighting is the Signal Desk Lamp, a smaller version of a design by French designer Jean-Louis Domecq in 1950. The Signal was intended to light his own workspace, but its no-nonsense industrial aesthetic caught on at a time when Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier and others had popularized a minimalist approach. The clean-lined base supports a bulbous crown, its sole ornamentation the circular wire suspended below. Jielde, the company Domecq founded in 1953, continues to manufacture his designs and issued the scaled-down version six years ago in several colours, from basic black to cheerful red and mustard. ©2009 / THE NEW YORK TIMES
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Exhibition ‘Soak’ at NGMA, Mumbai
‘Soak’ runs at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai, until 23 August. Author-artists Anuradha Mathur and Dilip da Cunha both have backgrounds in architecture, with specializations in landscape architecture and planning respectively, and teach at universities in the US. The exhibition is complemented by a book of the same name (Rupa and Co., Rs2,500 at bookstores, Rs2,000 at the exhibition). More details, including their previous books and other team members, can be found at ‘www.soak.in’
Himanshu Burte
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Artful decorating suggestions for art collectors:
• Don’t let architecture dictate what you display. Contemporary pieces in a traditional-style house can look dynamic.
• Consider mixing paintings, photography and sculptures. Place three-dimensional pieces on furniture, on the floor or a pedestal. Allow space between pieces so they don’t compete.
• Hang art at eye level. It varies, but try a height of 60-62 inches.
• “Move around your art from time to time,” says US-based artist Wendy Wagner, past winner of the Hunting Art Prize. A piece can look surprisingly different in another part of your home.
• Use ambient and art-specific lights that can be adjusted for day or night. “It’s important to use enough,” says San Antonio-based designer Marcus Mohon, “So you notice the painting and not the lighting.” ©2009/THE NEW YORK TIMES
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— Benita Sen
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First Published: Wed, Aug 12 2009. 10 24 PM IST