A colourful room in a slum, where women and children come to work together, forget all their problems, and create art – that’s Dharavi Art Room for you. Set up by an art graduate way back in 2005, it is a place where dreams are shaped daily.
“I come from a single parent background and my family faced financial difficulties when I was growing up. Creating things, drawing, colouring – I remember how these activities made me happy. Art helped me share something with others, make friends, and communicate,” says 35-year-old Himanshu S., founder of Dharavi Art Room, who uses art to empower children and women living in Dharavi, one of the largest slums in Asia.
Himanshu, an artist and a graduate of Sir J.J. School of Art in Mumbai, started teaching art around 15 years ago.
As a college student, he would volunteer at a school where he and his friends introduced kids to art. Together, they would draw, paint on walls, take pictures, make music, and do many other creative activities. Himanshu noticed how these activities excited the kids and realized he wanted to continue working as an art teacher.
After working with various communities and NGOs, he decided to launch his own project in Dharavi. He had visited the area often to visit a friend and he became acquainted with the residents there. But Himanshu was dissatisfied that Dharavi was only portrayed in films and art by people living outside the slum. He wanted the children of the area to express themselves through art and show the world what Dharavi meant to them, what life in the slum looked like, the things that made them happy, and the problems they faced.
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Leaving a promising artistic career behind, Himanshu dedicated himself to this project and Dharavi Art Room was born in 2005.
“Art became the easiest medium for him to connect with children. It was the one thing that helped him heal and feel good about the world. And he thought that since kids in this neighbourhood live under so much stress as well, art can heal them too,” says 27-year-old Aqui Thami, who started working with Himanshu full-time in 2012, and is currently also finishing her doctoral degree in social work at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences.
Earlier, Himanshu would conduct classes for the children in public areas like the community playground, the temple, or a bus depot. He recently rented a small room in Shiv Shakti Nagar from a woman whose kids come for the classes too.
Himanshu mainly conducts classes on drawing, painting, and photography for children and youth between the ages of 5 and 22, and also for women of all ages. Initially, the kids just draw or paint whatever they want. As they advance in the programme, they learn to narrate stories through their drawings. Next, they begin to portray their own lives in Dharavi, what they see and experience there. They are also introduced to other art forms like photography, music, film-making, and crafts. Eventually, the students choose one art form and pursue that.
Some of the interesting projects taken up by Himanshu and his team include: ‘Ladieswallahs’, a photography workshop for women; ‘Muralswallahs’, a project for children to beautify their neighbourhood by painting walls and making small repairs; and ‘Musicwallahs,’ an initiative to bring music to the lives of the children.
Aqui conducts all music workshops and the NGO occasionally invites outside experts.
The children and women’s works are exhibited at different venues from time to time. Himanshu and Aqui also take the children on picnics and trips to malls, museums and other places of cultural importance.
While Dharavi parents were hesitant to embrace the art room concept initially, they have seen the difference art can make in their children’s lives. “We look at art as a way for these children to understand their own lives and those of their neighbours and cope with the problems they face. We want them to find solutions themselves,” says Aqui, adding that communal disharmony is one of the many problems prevalent in Dharavi and the art room helps children deal with that too.
Children from diverse backgrounds come together, make friends, learn about different religions, and slowly shed their reservations about mixing with peers from different backgrounds.
Art has become a huge source of empowerment for the women too. “These women haven’t experienced friendship, in the sense that they never went to school, and even if they did, they dropped out quite early and never made life-long friends. Then they became busy with housework and taking care of their kids. They never went outside of their homes to do something they felt good about,” says Aqui.
While the work is satisfying, Aqui confesses that raising funds has always been difficult. “Both of us (Himanshu and I) are always asking for money,” she laughs, adding that friends, family members and some crowdfunding campaigns have helped finance them.
They registered Dharavi Art Room as an NGO in 2015.
Last year, Dharavi Art Room worked with 1,200 kids and 60 women, and over the years, Himanshu has worked with about 6,000 children. They also work in partnership with schools and other organizations in and around Dharavi.
The impact of Dharavi Art Room is visible in the lives of the women and children in both small and large ways.
For example, a woman who had never been to school or had a job earlier, successfully found a job after the Ladieswallahs photography workshop.
Many parents also point out that their kids are more inclined towards attending school now. Himanshu says that one of the biggest achievements of the art room is that the children return to the classes every day, even though there is no attendance system. Sooraj, who started coming to the art room when he was very young, is in Class 12 now. At one of the exhibitions of their work, a woman was so impressed by his photography skills that she purchased a DSLR camera for him.
He now photographs parties and weddings in the community, which helps him earn some money to continue his education.
“Art has this inherent quality of healing and making people feel good. Anyone can feel good when they start using colours and start making things themselves,” sums up Aqui.
Know more about the art room here.