The Dharavi Biennale

by Emily Montasterio

blue double square

The recently founded Dharavi Biennale, an art exhibition in the largest “slum” district in India, addresses the health risks and violence within the Dharavi community. The use of art as an effective social service tool becomes a focal point through this contemporary biennial. When a project has one foot in the arts and another in social issues, how do we evaluate it? What language are we using to describe the role arts can play in social issues? These questions will be answered through a closer look at the Dharavi Biennale and how it was funded, organized, and led.



Dharavi is an expansive urban informal settlement located in Mumbai, India. The settlement hosts around 140,000 houses with between 750,000 to one million people living within 535 acres at a time.[1] As Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay, grew, Dharavi became its dumping ground. According to Liza Weinstein’s reporting in The Durable Slum, Dharavi was literally built on the garbage that came from building up the city of Bombay.[2] The people that fled to Dharavi were those unwanted in more developed areas of Bombay. These people include refugees, labor migrants, and others who couldn’t afford the land. As more and more people moved to Dharavi, it became labeled a slum because of its density but it also housed and still continues to house the majority of Mumbai’s working class.[3]

Dharavi is extremely productive. A rough calculation estimates that the money turn around daily is somewhere around a million dollars or fifty million rupees.[4] Slums are often considered the poorest of the poor, a place on the margins where the state has abandoned its responsibility to the people. However, it is very important to remember that the people living in these conditions have a made it their home, and in places like Dharavi especially, have became a powerhouse for production on many items that people use everyday like toothpaste and clothes, as well as a huge recycling facility. Roma Chatterji discusses the importance of exploring people’s subjectivity in these environments and how these people live on a day to day basis. She also explores how the conditions in Dharavi lead to everyday health and violence issues that goes unaddressed. [5]

Despite the constant production and support of the working class that Dharavi provides its members with, the living conditions are still poor and the resources limited. The slum faces a variety of serious health and violence issues. There are many organizations throughout Mumbai focusing on the poor living conditions of their various communities.

Health and Violence Issues

According to a report by the Society for Nutrition, Education and Health Action of Mumbai, cases of gender based violence, have been steadily increasing in women identifying and reporting economic abuse. This form of abuse describes women’s lack of access to resources and entitlement to property. In 2001, roughly 11 % of this abuse was reported compared to 70.6 % in 2011. Reports of sexual abuse has also been increasing since 2008.[6]

Violence and health issues with women are not the only issues plaguing the city of Dharavi. Tuberculosis cases are rising in Mumbai, specifically in Dharavi. Since March of 2015, 35 % of the people tested for tuberculosis suffer from MDR-TB, a mulit-drug resistant form of TB.[7] Along with these health issues, there is a large garbage issue. There is no organized structure for dealing with the waste and garbage that is continuously dumped in Dharavi. Not to mention there is only one toilet for every 1,400 people.[8] All of these health and risk factors for the inhabitants of Dharavi are being addressed through a variety of health organizations.

One of the many health organizations in Mumbai that is working towards solving these issues is the Society for Nutrition, Education and Health Action (SNEHA), as mentioned earlier in this paper. SNEHA is a registered not-for-profit organization that has been working in public health in urban slums since 1999. The organization works in partnership with communities and health systems building effective and replicable solutions, empowering women and their families in urban slums to improve their health.[9]

The numbers from the reports mentioned earlier on women’s violence have increased due to the SNEHA’s programs for intervention and reporting, which have given women the power and confidence to report the true conditions in which they are living. These programs are only a small part of what the organization is doing in order to improve the living conditions for women and children in Dharavi. Much of what SNEHA does is to inspire women and children to demand the rights they deserve. The organization believes that their work is essential to building successful and sustainable urban communities.[10]

Although there are organizations trying to improve the living conditions of Dharavi, there are also many people whose interests don’t lie within those who inhabit this slum. According to Shirish B. Patel of Economic and Political Weekly, there has been massive amounts of pressure to redevelop Dharavi, where the interest lies in profit rather than the people living there. In her paper Dharavi: Makeover or Takeover, she addresses key issues in the potential gentrification of this city.[11] This is a fear of many underdeveloped and ignored communities – that redevelopment in the form gentrification is the answer.

However, organizations like SNEHA are taking a different approach to fixing the issues within Dharavi. Rather than redeveloping the city of Dharavi from the outside, they are focusing on fixing the problems from within. Through a variety of programs SNEHA is working to educate occupants of Dharavi on the health and violence issues they live with everyday. Recently, they have looked to the world and practice of art to continue this education and to help the people of Dharavi to find solutions to these issues.

The Dharavi Biennale

The Dharavi Biennale, titled the Alley Galley Biennale, is three years in the making and is dedicated to a wide range of health and women’s issues within Dharavi. Some of the issues include the ever-growing issue of violence against women in Dharavi, children’s diets, other disease threats like tuberculosis, and lastly, recycling.  The project began in 2012 when the International Engagement Awards from the Wellcome Trust decided to support Dharavi’s project to give their local community and local artists the opportunity to participate in a series of art projects focused on relevant health issues. The art, health, and recycling Biennale opened this past February 15th, 2015 and stayed open for roughly three weeks until March 7th, 2015.[12]

The Biennale is a continuation of a community art project entitled Dekha Undekha (Seen Unseen). This community art project was led  by Priya Agrawal from SNEHA and Dr. David Osrin from the Institute for Global Health, University College London.[13] Osrin also works for the Wellcome Trust, where the Biennale got its funding from. The goal of Dekha Undekha was to use art to create workshops that foster a dialogue between those marginalized in Mumbai and the policy makers on health issues. It was based on the idea that local members of the community can learn artistic skills from more established artists that will help start discussions on health issues that they face every day.[14]

Many of these goals and projects continued into the Dharavi Biennale. SNEHA has stated that they strongly believe that, through this Biennale, education to the health issues within Dharavi can be explored by giving power to the local artists and community members of Dharavi.[15]

Located in three different areas of Dharavi, the Biennale’s Alley Galli Biennale title references the cramped and narrow streets of the slum. By hosting the Biennale and embedding projects deep within the community of Dharavi, it engaged community members that were difficult to reach, who are actually living within these health conditions that the Biennale aims to address. This enables the artists and NSEHA to speak directly with those affected, creating projects that the people of Dharavi can participate in and learn from. These projects were created in a variety of ways.

The Dharavi Food Project 


The Dharavi Food Project began prior to the Biennale and consisted of eight women of Dharavi preparing dishes and creating a discussion on the healthy food options available. Health experts from SNEHA along with other partnering organizations, local female cooks, and Indian curator, Prajna Desai, all worked together to create a program that helped the local people of Dharavi to realize the potential power of food in their lives. One important factor of these projects was that all of the utensils and food were directly sourced from Dharavi. By using items that were already available in the Dharavi community, those participating were able learn about how they could change their lifestyle using things that were already available to them. Besides just recipes, nutrition experts within the community helped to explain how food can be connected to sexual health. Participants shared their tips on certain spices and how they can affect sexual health, making this project more than just a chance to learn a few new recipes.[16]


Many of the projects also addressed gender issues within Dharavi, specifically the abuse of women within the community. Provoke/Protect is a local project started by a 50-year-old Dharavi woman Anjali Amma, who sewed “Stop Rape” on her saree. This saree became one of many unique pieces displayed during the Biennale to address the issue that rape is a woman’s fault. Known as the recycling slum, most of Mumbai’s waste is dumped into Dharavi. Making use of these products is common thread within the Biennale. All of the sewn pieces in this project came from recycled sarees sourced directly from Dharavi. This wearable art resulted in not only a photo shoot but also a fashion show for a Dharavi audience and portrayed women’s clothes as a protective symbol rather than a provocative tool.[17]

Ishara Puppets 

Perhaps one of the biggest projects of the Biennale was puppet work. Ishara Puppets was a project created to educate the Dharavi community on tuberculosis. Cases have risen in Mumbai from 53 in 2010 to 2,502 in 2013 with Dharavi being considered the “hotbed” of TB.[18] The Ishara puppet show sought to shed light on the current situation as well as provide preventative tips. The twenty-minute piece consisted of performers acting as life-sized puppets, wearing large Greek masks and performing songs about TB prevention to popular Bollywood tunes. Who made these Greek masks and who performed? Local women and artists both within and outside the Dharavi community created the script and carved the papier-mâché masks in a joint effort to put on the production.[19]

These are only a few examples of the many projects that the Biennale produced, all of which have been developing for the past three years. Although unique in every way, each project followed a similar format. There was both a health or wellness expert and a curator or artist mentor on every project. These health experts and curators came from both SNEHA as well as around the world to work directly with local artists and other locals in Dharavi. By working directly with community members and with an organization that has worked with Dharavi in the past, the projects were able to tackle issues of direct relevance to the community. They were able to start a discussion on the issues that the people living in Dharavi everyday wanted addressed. In some projects they were even able to find solutions to problems. For example, the small community of Kumbharwada in Dharavi is well-known for its smoke and pollution issues (Appendix D). Urban gardeners held seminars in this small community, educating locals on plants that can be used to purify the air in their homes.[20]

Emerging Trend of Biennials as a Form of  Social Practice

The case of Dharavi is not unique. Around the world a trend has emerged. Art biennials are becoming tools of social service for communities in need. The artists of Port-au-Prince, Haiti started their own biennial to give a voice for their Grand Rue community in the international arts world. Titled as the Ghetto Biennale, and started by local artist group, Atis-Rezistans, the biennial has been held four times and focuses on local artists exploring and sharing everything from day to day life within the streets of the Grand Rue to the traditions and customs of Voodoo culture in Haiti.[21] In this case, the goal of Ghetto Biennale was to give a voice to the artists of Haiti who were unable to share their works in other countries due to unjust international policies that forbid them from traveling and participating in international biennials elsewhere.[22]

After Hurricane Katrina, curator Dan Cameron founded Prospect New Orleans, an international biennial with the goal of rebuilding the city of New Orleans.[23] Since its start, Prospect has three international biennials with artists coming from all over the world. The creators of the biennial acknowledged that tourism was a large part of the economy in New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina. By making New Orleans and international art center, the hope was that some of the economical advantages that tourism brought before would be restored. Here the goal was to restore tourism in New Orleans[24]

The question remains, did the Dharavi Biennale achieve what they wanted? When working with the arts and social issues so closely intertwined and so dependent on each other, it is important to be clear about the goals, execution, and evaluation of said project. Determining and measuring whether or not the Dharavi Biennale is an effective way to educate and solve health issues within the slum is a difficult task. There are a few important factors to consider when using art as a social tool.

Funding, Leadership and Organization

One important question to ask when exploring the effectiveness of these programs is where the funding and organization comes from. Within this, it is important to consider the leadership of the project as well.

The Dharavi Biennale is funded by the Wellcome Trust, an independent global charitable foundation dedicated to improving health.[25] An important question to ask is why the Wellcome Trust? How are they connected to Dharavi and its people? David Osrin is a Wellcome Trust Senior Research Fellow in Clinical Science who has recently worked directly with SNEHA.[26] As stated earlier, he worked as a Senior Advisor for Dekha Undeka, the project that started the beginnings of the Dharavi Biennale. Osrin’s research work has concentrated on women and child issues in developing countries, specifically in India, Nepal, and Malawi.[27]

When asked about his participation in the initial project he stated that, “Ideally, the project is more about a process than a product, and I have enjoyed the unfolding of the process and the ways in which the artists have worked health issues into art.”[28] It’s important to know the funders and organizers intentions with these types of projects because they influence the outcome. This quote is particularly interesting because Osrin is focused on the experimentation aspect of this project. He is more focused on the process of what this project will unveil rather than fixing these health issues overnight. The discussion of health issues in Dharavi are key components in the organizational structure of the Biennale. The leadership and collaboration of the Dharavi Biennale came from both within and outside the community with a heavy emphasis on community participation in the project. Therefore, the project is directed to a clearly defined community, with representatives and artists from within having a say in how to discuss the health issues they

How can we measure the Dharavi Alley Galley Biennale as successful or not? The key is in the language. The specific language that the creators and participants of the Dharavi Biennale use prohibit it from becoming another form of slum tourism and create an example of how art can be used as a social tool.

The Importance of Language

Using the correct language to explain what the art is doing for a community is important when using art as a social practice tool. While some may argue that the art isn’t providing tangible results for the health concerns of the Dharavi community, the goals of the project are clearly stated. The discussion of health issues through the process of creating the art is what is important to this project.

So, if you are looking at the language used when describing the goal of the project, then yes, the work the Dharavi Biennale is doing is successfully working to integrate art and health issues for the benefit of the people within the community.


In conclusion, The Alley Galley Dharavi Biennale has established itself in the contemporary biennial world as a creative way for health experts, artists, and community members of Dharavi to begin a conversation on the current health issues plaguing the city.

Typically, social services and practices are evaluated based off the tangible results they provide or the direct benefits. When you bring arts into this mix, it can make its effectiveness or its impact harder to define because of the way arts are evaluated. This is where language is so important when using the arts as a tool for a social service. Clearly defining what the art is doing to help or aid a community in need is important, but it is also important that the community itself is a willing participant.

In the case of Dharavi, the Alley Galley Biennale wanted to open up a conversation about health and violence issues within its community. Through a three-way collaboration between health experts and artists both living in and outside Dharavi and community members that are living these risks everyday, the biennial was able to create art and workshops that educate and discuss the risks the Dharavi community faces.

One last thing to consider is where the biennial will go from here? This was the first official biennial of Dharavi and it was held less than a year ago. It will certainly be interesting to see where the organizers take it from here. Will they continue with the theme of health education? Will their organizational structure and leadership change? Will their goals change? All of these questions are interesting to keep in mind as the biennial develops over time.


“Art and Health in the Slums: Exploring the Health Concerns of Mumbai’s Poorest Communities.” Wellcome Trust. Accessed November 3, 2015.

Chatterji, Roma, “Voice, Event and Narrative: Towards an Understanding of Everyday Life in Dharavi”, Sociological Bulletin 54, no, 3. (2005): 428-435.

Beasley, Myron M. “Curatorial Studies on the Edge: The Ghetto Biennale, a Junkyard, and the Performance of Possibility”, Journal of Curatorial Studies 1, no. 1 (2012): 65-81. Accessed November 17, 2015.

Brown, Alan S and Jennifer L Novak-Leonard, “Measuring the Intrinsic Impacts of Arts Attendance,” in Cultural Trends 22 No. 3-4/September-December 2013, pp 223-233. Accessed November 17, 2015.

Daruwalla, Nayreen, Preethi Pinto, Gauri Ambavkar, Bhaskar Kakad, Pouruchisti Wadia, and Shanti Pantvaidya. “Increased Reporting of Cases of Gender-Based Violence: A Retrospective Review of a Prevention Programme in Dharavi, Mumbai.” Women’s Health – Open Journal Women Health Open J 1, no. 2 (2015): 22-30. Accessed November 17, 2015.

“Dharavi Biennale.”  Oct 2015.

“Dharavi Biennale.” Wellcome Trust. Wellcome Trust. Web. 25 Oct. 2015.

“Dharavi Food Project.” Dharavi Biennale. Accessed November 17, 2015.

“Dharavi Provoke/Protect.” Dharavi Biennale. Accessed November 17, 2015.

“Dharavi Growing Fresh Air.” Dharavi Biennale. Accessed November 17, 2015.

“Dharavi Ishara Puppets.” Dharavi Biennale. Accessed November 17, 2015.

“Drug Resistant TB Flourishes in Govandi, Dharavi; Cases Spiral to 2,500 across Mumbai – The Times of India.” The Times of India. Accessed December 3, 2015.

“GHETTO BIENNALE.” Accessed December 3, 2015.

Ingersoll, Katie, “A New Way to Think About Intrinsic vs Instrumental Benefits, of the Arts,” Createquity, 2015,

“David Osrin Profile.” Iris View Profile. Accessed December 2, 2015.

“La Biennale Di Venezia – History of the Venice Biennale.” La Biennale Di Venezia – History of the Venice Biennale. Accessed December 3, 2015.

Lancaster, John. “Next Stop, Squalor.” Smithsonian. March 1, 2007. Accessed October 22, 2015.

Long, Stephen. “Practicing Civic Engagement: Making Your Museum into a Community Living Room.” Journal of Museum Education 38, no. 2 (2013): 141-53.

Meschkank, Julia. “Investigations into Slum Tourism in Mumbai: Poverty Tourism and the Tensions between Different Constructions of Reality.” GeoJournal 76, no. 1 (2010): 47-62. Accessed October 22, 2015.

Nelson, Rachel. “Visions at the Scene of the Trauma”, Third Text 29, no 1. (2015): 14-30. Accessed December 1, 2015.

Niemojewski, Rafal, “Venice or Havana: A Polemic on the Genesis of the Contemporary Biennial,” In The Biennial Reader (Bergen Kunsthall/Hatje Cantz), 2010, ISBN 978-3-7757-2610-8, pp 89-103.

Patel, Shirish B., “Dharavi: Makeover or Takeover?,” Economic & Politcal Weekly (2010): 47-54.

Polak, Paul. Out of poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail. California: Berrett-Koehler, 2008.

“Press.” Dharavi Biennale. Accessed December 3, 2015.

“Prospect New Orleans – Home.” Prospect New Orleans – Home. Accessed December 3, 2015.

Roy, Ananya. “The Blockade of the World-Class City: Dialectical Images of Indian Urbanism.” Worlding Cities Asian Experiments and the Art of Being Global, 2011, 259-78. Accessed November 17, 2015.

Sanyal, Romola. “Slum Tours as Politics: Global Urbanism and Representations of Poverty.” International Political Sociology 9, no. 1 (2015): 93-96. Accessed November 17, 2015.

SNEHA – A Mumbai Based NGO That Focuses on Maternal and Newborn Health, Child Health and Nutrition, Empowerment, Health and Sexuality of Adolescents and Prevention of Violence against Women and Children. Accessed November 17, 2015.

“The Team @ Dekha Undekha.” Dekhaundekha WordPress. December 28, 2011. Accessed November 17, 2015.

Weinstein, Liza. The Durable Slum Dharavi and the Right to Stay Put in Globalizing Mumbai. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014.

[1] Weinstein, The Durable Slum Dharavi and the Right to Stay Put in Globalizing Mumbai

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

[4] Polak, Out of poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail

[5] Chatterji, Voice, Event and Narrative: Towards an Understanding of Everyday Life in Dharavi

[6] Daruwalla, Nayreen, Preethi Pinto, Gauri Ambavkar, Bhaskar Kakad, Pouruchisti Wadia, and Shanti Pantvaidya, Increased Reporting of Cases of Gender-Based Violence: A Retrospective Review of a Prevention Programme in Dharavi, Mumbai

[7] “Drug Resistant TB Flourishes in Govandi, Dharavi; Cases Spiral to 2,500 across Mumbai – The Times of India.”

[8] Lancaster, Next Stop, Squalor

[9] “SNEHA”

[10] Ibid

[11] Patel, Dharavi: Makeover or Takeover?

[12] “Dharavi Biennale”,


[14] Ibid

[15] Wellcome Trust, Dharavi Biennale

[16] “Dharavi Food Project”,

[17] “Dharavi Provoke Protect”,

[18] “Dharavi Ishara Puppets”,

[19] Ibid

[20] “Dharavi Growing Fresh Air”,

[21] “Ghetto Biennale”,

[22] Beasley, Curatorial Studies on the Edge: The Ghetto Biennale, a Junkyard, and the Performance of Possibility

[23] “Prospect New Orleans”,

[24] Nelson, Visions at the Scene of the Trauma

[25] Wellcome Trust, Dharavi Biennale

[26] “David Osrin Profile”,

[27] Ibid

[28] “Dekhaundekha WordPress”,

  • by Emily Montasterio

    Emily Monasterio

    photo sources:
    Images Source: "Dharavi Food Project." Dharavi Biennale. Accessed November 17, 2015.
    Images Source: "Dharavi Provoke/Protect." Dharavi Biennale. Accessed November 17, 2015.
    Images Source: "Dharavi Ishara Puppets." Dharavi Biennale. Accessed November 17, 2015.