In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the cotton mills were the beating heart of colonial-era Bombay (now Mumbai).
First established in 1854, these mills went on to attract migrant workers from across the region, eventually employing some 150,000 people by the early 1920s, including a sizable proportion of women. These workers produced an export that was critical to the survival of the colonial economy, and sparked the development of Bombay as a city, all the while living in the overcrowded tenements (chawls) that cropped up close to the mills. This area was later named “Girangaon,” meaning village of the mills.
But as colonial Bombay evolved into the 21st century metropolis of Mumbai, and the mills began to close down, the workers and their descendants had to contend with a new force: gentrification, which increasingly squeezed their humble lodgings in the centre of the space-starved city with towers of glass and steel.
The history and transformation of this key neighbourhood are the subject of the Mythologies of Mumbai project by the research collective Partners of Urban Knowledge and Action Research (PUKAR), funded by the Ford Foundation, among others. In an interactive exhibition that is available online and on display at Mumbai’s Columbia Global Center, the PUKAR team worked with HELM Studio to combine photography and interviews of long-time residents with virtual reality and other technologies, creating a unique and living portrait of a community in flux.
PUKAR specialises in what executive director Anita Patil-Deshmukh calls “community-based participatory action research,” which tries to democratise the process by training those who live in a community to archive it themselves. Working over the past seven years, the Mythologies of Mumbai project has relied on several researchers who were from Girangaon and therefore already deeply connected to the history and evolution of the mill area.
“One of the biggest advantages of this methodology was when these youth started connecting with the people and getting their narratives…they could get very granular and nuanced knowledge of the history of the place and the identity struggles that people were going through,” Patil-Deshmukh told Quartz. She added that their interviews revealed the dispossession that mill workers and their children and grand-children were facing because of gentrification, and how the process was slowly tearing apart the unique social fabric of the area.
“Suppose an oral historian had to paratroop onto the community from somewhere, he or she could have never gotten this kind of nuanced knowledge,” she said.
The result is a richly-detailed experience that takes the viewer from the history of the mills to the present-day lives of the mill workers and their families, who continue to reside in what remains of the chawls of Girangaon. Through videos and augmented reality experiences, viewers witness their cramped quarters, as well as the social and cultural connections that developed as a result. One series captures the parks and public spaces of Girangaon, while another documents its markets.
But the project also acknowledges the uncertain future of the area, given Mumbai’s rapid development and skyrocketing real-estate prices. Already, many residents have been pushed out by the proliferation of upmarket high-rises that now dominate the skyline.
In this context, the Mythologies of Mumbai project also aims to establish how the mill area community still plays a role in the present-day identity of the city, and how its evolution can inform future research on similarly developing cities across the globe.
“…though the mills might be disappearing and part of the past, the people from the mills and their legacies and heritage are very much part of our present, and hopefully our future,” said Ravina Aggarwal, director of the Columbia Global Center in Mumbai, who previously worked at the Ford Foundation and helped launch the project. “…(it) offers us a very good guideline for thinking about urban planning and how we might create a more inclusive city.”
Here’s a selection of photos of the Girangaon neighbourhood featured in the Mythologies of Mumbai exhibition: