K-wada is a small chunk of Dharavi, Asia’s largest slum that hosts 1 million people of varying religious and ethnic backgrounds. Dharavi sprawls in all directions – upwards for two or three stories, and out and out and out. K-wada’s an interesting part of Dharavi. It’s the region’s largest pottery colony, home to some 1200 families. Around 600 of those families earn meager wages as amazing artisanal potters. The pots are stunning, but more amazing is watching the community at work – some work the clay, preparing it for the potters; other prepare the kilns; other still glaze the pots. The final products vary – some serve a strictly utilitarian purpose; some decorative; the majority find a niche between utility and decoration. The functioning, organized, delineated process of the operation is striking, contrasting sharply with larger Indian inefficiency.
Development is a tricky concept to grasp at home. It is even more convoluted in India, a country in the throes of modernization, industrialization, commercialization – all the “-tion” buzzwords affiliated with development. We went to the slum on Saturday to hold a drawing competition with around 30 of the children and to give the cooperative members their pictures, which I had taken the day before. The cooperative members were sincerely grateful and enjoyed the 7 or 8 basic portraits I had taken, which came out well. The lighting was awful, so some improvisation was required, but they were adequate. Anyway, at one point around 40 kids burst into a tiny office, surrounding a small desktop computer so they could see digital photos from a trip they had taken to the park. Technology be damned and all that, but the kids’ reaction to the computer, to the images, was priceless – the excitement, energy, and enthusiasm was palpable and contagious. There’s this side of modernizing – the amazing trickle of technology to societies who otherwise don’t have access to it. The people in k-wada aren’t marginalized by large MNCs, by the national government, or by any of the usual suspects – instead, repression comes from history; from an archaic, outdated caste system that, while buckling under pressure, manages to maintain a firm, vice-like grip on Indian society. Mobility outside of your designated lot in life isn’t a reality, it’s a pipe-dream. It seems impossible. Yet watching those kids – a few in particular – one gets the impression that things will change, that they have to change, that they are changing. The kids speak broken English, while their parents speak none. The kids read and write, few of their elder’s do. Many of the teenagers volunteer at the school as tutors, mentors, as little leaders – of their own volition, sometimes to the chagrin of their parents. They kids seem to yearn for something else. The parents, like parents everywhere, boast and show-off scores from their chillun that ARE as good as students from more prosperous areas. The ability is there – it always is, always, in every single person – but will the society let it flourish? And then, the flipside of all this, the loss of cultural customs to developmental homogenization. To the desire to escape the current lifestyle. Lays potato chips next to homebrew masala-laden hot mix. Plastic containers in place of hand-made earthenware. High capacity housing in place of sprawling slums. I’m in no place to judge that escapist desire. But, for the first time, I’m not sure where I stand with regards to development. There is life here that doesn’t exist elsewhere, energy and vitality and an approach to living that world is rapidly losing… but the need to ramp up production, the desire to create more product for as little money as possible, the pressure of modernization has lead to tremendous difficulty in continuing to actively pursue pottery in a sustainable fashion. The current kilns simply are not sustainable – from an environmental perspective, an economic perspective, and a political perspective. The sheer volume and thickness of smoke created EVERYDAY when the kilns are run is extraordinary. Sometime last week, I watched one elderly gent get caught between two kilns that were firing pottery and take a hacking deep breath – and then cough up blood and pass out. All hell broke loose, as children tried to move this fellow five times their size. Everyone mobilized to help him, and after a few minutes he regained consciousness. Then, the kids return to running around the kilns, playing cricket, chasing each other – blissfully ignorant of the poop they’re breathing in. Elders look on, relatively unconcerned. This is how its been, and how it will be. This is their lot in life. Long live tradition, but foofaa that.