Artist Sudhir Patwardhan’s association with Lower Parel began in the 1970s when he was a radiologist working at the King Edward Memorial and Mahatma Gandhi Memorial hospitals in the heart of Mumbai’s mill district. Through the Marathi poems of Narayan Surve, which centred on the mill workers—people who found resonance in Patwardhan’s canvases—and post-2000, when the Sakshi Gallery (which represents him) was situated there, this association continued.
A crumbling textile industry had devastated the mills. In the second half of the 20th century, trade unionism was on the rise, localized politics had evolved—and the sirens were eventually stilled. As the protests for mill workers’ rights unfolded in the 1990s, Patwardhan hoped architect Charles Correa’s vision for the redrafting of Mumbai itself would be adopted. It wasn’t.
“I watched bridges and chimneys being felled, and life beneath the bridges rearrange themselves around the changing visual and socio-political scenery. The bridge becomes a metaphor for not only a bygone age, but an inevitable acceptance between two eras, a moving on, even if only out of a lack of choice, as it were,” says Patwardhan. Expression of these socio-political strands can be seen in his work Lower Parel (2001), a painting which, along with Alice Creischer’s installation Apparatus for the Osmotic Compensation of the Pressure of Wealth during the Contemplation of Poverty (2005), inspired the exhibition Social Fabric.
This multi-medium exhibit, which will be on show at the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum, explores colonial history and issues of capital, international trade labour and radical politics through textiles, in collaboration with the Institute of International Visual Arts (Iniva), a UK-based contemporary visual arts organization, supported by the Goethe-Institut, Max Mueller Bhavan. That it will be the first multi-disciplinary exhibit of its kind held in an open-to-the-public space in Mumbai on an issue that defines the city, is telling of how this issue has been neglected.
The exhibition references Karl Marx’s commentary on the global craze for textiles, the impact of European colonization, and the state of the weavers—a history that prompted Mahatma Gandhi to pick the spinning wheel as his emblem for the freedom movement.
Grant Watson, senior curator and research associate for Iniva, and co-curator of the exhibit, says: “The exhibition was inspired by the work of two artists who refer to the production and trade of textiles in their work—Alice Creischer and Sudhir Patwardhan. It started with two works, one by each artist, and developed as a concept from there.” The works of Celine Condorelli, Archana Hande, and Raqs Media Collective will be featured alongside. The exhibit, which took two years to put together, showed in London from January-March and in Lund, Sweden, from April-May. The exhibit has evolved with each city, with the Mumbai showing co-opting our own history with the mills.
At its core will be fabrics originally collected for the Paris International Exhibition of 1855, from The Collections of the Textile Manufactures of India by Forbes Watson, from the Bhau Daji Lad museum collection, an 18-volume collection. It will also feature an exhibit of vintage mill advertisements and a staging of the play Chitraghoshti by Awishkar, a Marathi theatre company, again inspired by Patwardhan’s works.
Tasneem Mehta, managing trustee and honorary director of the Bhau Daji Lad museum, and co-curator of the exhibit, says: “We also have dioramas of the first mill ever built, of a weaver’s home, of the chawls, on display. It’s about the culture—the dances, theatre, festivities and music that resulted from the mills, and for us at the museum, it is also the culture of the space in which we exist at Byculla. I have been trying to set this exhibit within that context and also that of what the museum represents. It has many layers. It’s not just the revisiting of a nostalgia-driven history; it’s about contemporary art, living histories, oral histories, theatre, contextualized by our rich archives.”
When the book One Hundred Years, One Hundred Voices: The Mill Workers of Girangaon—An Oral History—written by Meena Menon and Neera Adarkar in 2004, with a legendary introductory essay by historian Rajnarayan Chandavarkar—inspired Ramu Ramanathan to write the play Cotton 56, Polyester 84 the following year; when it was adapted into lyrical literary Hindi by Chetan Datar and subsequently staged by Sunil Shanbag, the chain of public discourse consolidated the voices of mill workers at the peak of the protest years, not permitting Mumbai to neglect the cause.
The Social Fabric exhibit will also feature recorded readings from the book and a staging of the play by Shanbag’s company Arpana. Menon is hopeful the exhibit will reclaim the issue, which has been fading from public memory. The 30th anniversary of the union leader Datta Samant-led crippling strike in January drew few eyeballs, even from mill workers, who have moved out of the increasingly gentrified spaces they once occupied. The Shiv Sena established its validity in politics associating with the rights of migrant mill workers; the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) seeks to establish its identity by fighting migrants. The mill lands have been sold without the promised one-third land for public space, or homes for workers having being adhered to. The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation’s proposed textile museum on land belonging to India United Mill Nos. 2 and 3, is stuck in red tape.
“There is no space in my memory for nostalgia,” says Menon. “These are real rights the workers have been fighting for. It’s a fight against displacement, and compensation for that displacement. The government of Maharashtra had legislated some part, one-third, of the mills’ land to the public, which was subsequently overturned by the Supreme Court ruling. The public of Mumbai has been cheated out of its ownership of these spaces and the opportunity to replan this city. So it is, in fact, a very living history.”
The stakes for the land are now too high, the workers are tired of asking to be heard, Menon says, pointing out: “There’s also been a fragmentation of Mumbai. The mills and the issues surrounding it were once a unification process. They were a metaphor for Mumbai itself. Now each locality has its own advance locality management, or ALM (local panchayats). So each Mumbaikar is a voice for his square of land. Who now speaks for the city at large?” The organizers hope the exhibition will pose the question back to the city’s migrants.
As Surve, the poet of the workers, sang: “The mountain and the mustard seed/ Are both within me./ Such is my prowess, the prop of the universe /But am lacking for a room to my name.”
Social Fabric will show at the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum, Byculla, Mumbai, from 23 September-11 November (closed on Wednesdays). For details, call 23731234.