SITE : STAGE : STRUCTURE is an archival documentary project. It is a Transmedia Installation that integrates books, objects, photographs, short films, audio narratives, and heritage walks as a way of revitalizing memories and telling a history that is absent from the formal narratives.
Mazgaon is a port and dock area of Mumbai with a rich heritage and complex history. An integral and once central part of the city seems to be almost abandoned, its history neglected, its heritage slowly corroded by the passages of Time and the amnesia of people.
The series of photographs is a cross section of a layered and multi-tiered space, which comprises historic architecture and iconic landmarks amidst more eclectic mix of temporary setups, chawls, shanties, tenements and its inhabitants. The highlight of the exhibition are the paintings, each presenting an important aspect of the city’s history and heritage; as well as photobooks of Mazgaon that document the changing demographic and visual identity of the space. The project maps Mathar Pacady – a catholic village, the remnants of Chinatown, a Bohri (a sect within the Shia Islam) family’s apartment and Darukhana where ships are brought to be torn apart on the dry dock. The project works in multiple directions by documenting the life and living conditions of these diverse communities within the area and the relationships and dynamics of people and places spanning 300 years into the past. Here I fight nostalgia by documenting it, recreating it through videos, conversations and staging ethnographic reconstructions of people’s homes.
Mazgaon has been important to me – my grandparents have lived in Mazgaon for 42 years, for more than my entire life. During school summer vacations, I visited their home and was taken to the famous Mazgaon Gardens. The Garden located on a hilltop offers stunning views of the docks, the ships and the urban landscape of Mazgaon and beyond. This vivid memory has remained with me and I was keen to revisit the space now as an artist.
Historically, Mazgaon has been important to Bombay. Slowly over a period of time, this importance has shifted and declined. Mazgaon has moved from the center of the city to its sidelines. Sites are explored through the lens of history and heritage by looking at the importance of each of these spaces to Mazgaon and to Bombay, and how collectively they formed Mazgaon.
Mazgaon is a vast and changing space. Between the heritage and historical spaces, there are newer spaces. Some of these are devoid of significant history, while others are waiting to be assimilated into the historical and cultural narratives of the future.
Sites revisited on a daily basis over a period of two years have resulted in these spaces becoming ‘stages set for the performances of the everyday’. This transformation is something that I want to make transparent as an experience.
Slowly documenting the Site gives way to the viewing of specific elements – doors, windows, elevations and props. As individual elements they provide the setting and the drama of life – Trivia and personal histories form the script; the seemingly ordinary architecture as well as the normal unassuming people of Mazgaon transform into the set, location and protagonists of the narrative.
Structure is involved with the architectural aspects of the space – the individual houses, individual structures, and personal spaces – the interiors. This leads to another level of enquiry that is concerned with the intimacy and privacy of space as memory.
The Project is a focused attempt to document the history and the present conditions of the people of Mazgaon. They contribute to the city’s self-knowledge as a place with a conflicted and tangled cosmopolitan past. Such projects enrich Mumbai’s art scene by offering something other than aesthetic wall hangings and floor pieces, or theory-laden group shows. In an era in which rightwing groups continue to insist on Mumbai narrowly as a Hindu Marathi city, counter-historical practices like SITE : STAGE : STRUCTURE serve much more than ethnographic curiosity.
Each aspect of the current exhibition can be extrapolated into a substantial body of work. At the same time this existing body of work needs to be disseminated beyond Bombay because it’s not the story of Bombay in itself, or the way Mazgaon has changed. Mazgaon is exemplary of the way several spaces/places in the country and the world are changing – silently, and without our knowing about it. It is like a falling teacup that we don’t see till it shatters. Fortunately Mazgaon and other places like that haven’t shattered yet. But they’re falling. It is up to us how soon we can look at them and how soon we can arrest that fall.
Memories matter in any day and age - I believe in the saying, “Those who forget history, are bound to repeat it”. In the context of the city and its people, the easiest thing would be to forget people who live beyond the perimeter of our immediate vision, but in doing so we condemn ourselves to be forgotten by others – A fairy tale, the origin of a deity, stories of old men recounting childhood and parents, origins of their home, recounting of a 75 year old friendship that lasted relocation to Calcutta and back, the memories of ‘Paradise Lost’ – accounts that do not enter a formal narrative – information that in the grander scheme of things seem not as important, but which we cannot afford to forget.
In this meandering process, I had the good fortune of being introduced to Rafique Baghdadi, a journalist and amateur historian living in Mazgaon for the last 60 years. His unparalleled knowledge, insight and his long lasting relationships with the various integral communities have allowed this project to take the shape it now has.
This project is a documentation of my intimate connection with various people, strangers whose lives are an open book to me. I realized how something as intangible as a community could be reflected very concretely in architecture, colours and spaces, and most importantly in the people, those who hold on and treasure its past as well as those who look towards its future.
This is Mazgaon from 2012 to 2014.
Ali Akbar Mehta