Anatomy of a Modern Protest Movement

SUPPORT FOR ANNA ON SOCIAL MEDIA: Thanks to Facebook and Twitter, the urban Indian youth, famously detached from the goings-on in the country, came out on the streets to support the anti-corruption movement – not only here but abroad as well. TOI-Crest looks at the anatomy of a modern protest movement.

The urban Indian youth, famously detached from the goings-on in the country, came out on the streets to support the anti-corruption movement - not only here but abroad as well

I try to change my display picture, update my BBM status and send out a tweet as often as possible. I feel like I really need to do my bit for the country, ” a college student was overheard saying outside Mumbai’s Azad Maidan where protests against the anti-corruption movement are still under way. Once used to reconnect with long-lost school friends or to post vacation pictures, social networking sites have surfaced as the new forum for political activism. The world’s attention is now on the potential of the digital sphere in historical revolutions as witnessed in Egypt and Tunisia. Though set in a vastly different political context, and used to different ends, the power of social media to drive citizen action in India has become apparent as Team Anna’s call to action resonates through the Internet.

From earlier this year at Jantar Mantar to the culmination of the protests when Anna Hazare became a household name, the anti-corruption movement has harnessed technology and social media tools to engineer large-scale protests. Not only has the movement deviated from traditional methods of mass mobilisation, but it has also brought young urban India into the fold of political activism. Ritesh Singh, a third-year computer science student at IIT Khargapur, created the ‘India Against Corruption’ Facebook page in December last year. Since then, the page has gathered more than four lakh supporters. There are also several regional chapters and over 150 unofficial Facebook pages devoted to Anna Hazare and India Against Corruption.

The ‘Students Against Corruption’ group has been encouraging students to use social media for the cause by sending out messages such as “Students should share and promote this page for the goodness (sic) of the nation . . . This is the thing dat we can do for our nation. . . This is wat India needs. . . Promote it, share it, blog it, discuss it . . . then feel the change. ” Petitions, calls to action and encouragement to join Hazare’s fast also became commonplace in the last three months. The blog post ’10 Ways to Support Anna Hazare on Social Media’ by social media manager Sorav Jain has been shared 256 times on Facebook.

Relying on symbolism such as Gandhian photographs and references to the freedom struggle, Team Anna has created a media phenomenon. Text messages such as ‘Behri sarkar ko janta ki aawaz sunai nahi de rahi hain! Lets show ppls anger!’ and ‘ANNA ki aag shuru ho gayi hai, Inquilab Zindabad’ have helped in creating mass support. Meanwhile twitter has been abuzz with dialogue, support and reactions to the protests, as Anna Hazare’s campaign became the top trending topic in India over the past few weeks. While the image of Hazare meditating at Raj Ghat became iconic on August 15, 2011, Team Anna’s voice was heard on the TV, on mobile phones, YouTube and even on T-shirts. Developers are in the process of launching an India Against Corruption game, India Against Corruption mobile applications, India Against Corruption browser toolbars and more.

Though digital activism is often criticised as passive armchair activism or slacktivism, the use of technology in organising social protests has brought a different kind of activist on the street: young, urban India. “It’s not as if what is happening is new, but it is happening on an unprecedented scale, ” says Nishant Shah, research director for the Centre for Internet and Society, Bangalore. “Traditional media has also done this in different ways, but in the past the protesters have been the disenfranchised. The use of social media has mobilised a new constituency – it has brought the urban middle class to the street. However, the use of such tools is producing a different kind of exclusion. There is a noticeable lack of poor urban people in the protests. This is not the representation of 1. 2 billion Indians as it is being made out to be. ”

The use of social media has garnered support for Team Anna from the unlikeliest parts, catapulting ‘India Against Corruption’ (IAC) into a global phenomenon. Young Indians living in places like New York, Singapore, London and Hong Kong are tweeting, facebooking, organising and gathering to talk about Hazare and his cause. Some young professionals have even taken time off from their careers to fly down to India and physically support the cause.

Sunil Khaitan, an investment banker working with Deutsche Bank in Hong Kong flew down last Friday to attend the protests at the Ramlila ground and address the crowd at Mumbai’s Azad Maidan. Khaitan, 28, is originally from Kolkata and graduated from IIM Bangalore in 2006. “I was involved in the Right to Information movement in 2005, have been in touch with Professor Trilochan Sastry at IIM Bangalore, and have been tracking this movement from the days of Jantar Mantar, ” he says.

Khaitan is also active in the Hong Kong chapter of IAC, which organised a meeting on August 21, 2011, attended by over 300 people. “There is a clearly outlined process on the IAC website which tells you how to conduct a meeting, ” says Khaitan. “As the news channels are not available in HK, so many people are not aware of the real cause. So we talked about the points of contention and showed videos with Arvind Kejriwal, Kiran Bedi and Hazare addressing the crowd. ” He argues that harnessing social media has helped get people from different walks of life involved with the Hazare movement.

Social networking sites have also helped create a close-knit Indian community in Hong Kong. “Anna has also made a big point about the youth being present in the protests, and it is easier to connect with the youth through social media, ” says Khaitan.
“Peer pressure also comes into the picture in that age group – people want to get involved to appear impressive to their friends. ” But though technology has brought a new demographic of Indians into the realm of protest, it manifests its power through the oldest form of networking – word of mouth.

This piece appeared in the Times of India Crest Edition on August 27, 2011.

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Cold Christmas in Ranwar

CHANGING CITY: Bandra’s old villages, once oases of peace and timelessness amid the growing clutter outside, are steadily being destroyed

On a sleepy afternoon in Ranwar, Agnes Pareira sits outside her 100-yearold bungalow into which she moved as a bride 45 years ago. Her mind wanders to Christmases past when everyone gathered to celebrate with in the village square, and each house was decorated with fairy lights. “Now everyone has left. That house and that house,” she says, gesturing disconsolately to the spaces on which incongruous buildings now puncture the villagescape. “You can’t tell when it’s Christmas in Ranwar anymore.”

A 400-year-old East Indian Catholic village, listed as a heritage precinct in Mumbai, Ranwar is one of the original 24 pakhadis that made up Bandra. Once a rice-producing village surrounded by paddy fields, its bungalows looked on to the sea before Bandra Reclamationwas created. Arranged along the central Veronica Street, Ranwar stretches from Waroda Road— a narrow lane off Hill Road—towards Bandra Reclamation. Time seems to have stood still in this charming enclave, where the chaos of Bandra is completely cut off. Just outside, where Hill Road teems with glass-fronted shops, impregnable traffic and chic cafés populated by Blackberry-toting college students, Ranwar’s leisurely pace seems a world away.

Ranwar village aerial view. Photocredit: Vivek sheth and The Busride

The strong Portuguese influence of the area is reflected in the 100-year-old cottages topped with sloping red Mangalore tiles. The original house style (dating back 140 years) is a single-storied structure with an attic used originally to store grain, since the original families mostly were paddy owners. Most of these houses either fronted on to or had a back facing a vestigial open space where residents interacted and kids played. The style is similar to most original pakhadis in Bombay, such as Chuim, Shirley Rajan and Pali village.

However, where once the doors to everyone’s houses remained open, today houses are locked and porches are walled off, with grills covering the large windows. While most of the houses were tenanted properties let out to old East Indian families, today the demographic of Ranwar is rapidly changing, rupturing the fabric of its community life. As the number of residents steadily increases, the village infrastructure is proving inadequate. The narrow lanes are blocked by oncoming traffic, with residents squeezing their cars into all available corners. Sewage lines laid in the 1920s are now thoroughly overburdened. As residents are finding it increasingly difficult to maintain their sprawling houses, the lucrative offers from builders are more appealing than ever. With residents moving out, the original community is disintegrating as the demographic of the area is transforming.

Ranwar village winding lanes . Photocredit: Vivek sheth and The Busride

“Speaking dispassionately the houses are all more than 100 to120 years old and do have structural issues with walls buckling and metal reinforcements being added,” says Ayaz Basrai, who along with his brother Zameer runs the Busride, a design studio based in Ranwar village. “But what is coming in their place are some extremely soulless creations. Massive tall boundary walls destroy the pedestrian experience; sunlit courtyards used to dry masalas are now so shadowed by surrounding highrises that the entire culture has been geographically shifted north.” As a result, there is a complete displacement of the villagestyle culture of Ranwar, which offered a rare model of an urban village in Bombay.

The Basrai siblings have been documenting the rapid developments in the precinct since they moved in 2006. In the past five years, six of the approximately 42 bungalows in Ranwar have been razed. “The architectural styles are vibrant, and full of inspiration for new sensitive builders and architects, both in terms of functionality (verandahs, balconies and openings) and style (colours, rails, trellises),” says Basrai. “An informed, sensitised response, with other motives at its heart apart from pure profit, would allow this fantastic example of an urban village to endure to the next generations.”

Ranwar village balconies . Photocredit: Vivek sheth and The Busride

Enclaves such as Ranwar are important not just individually but for the whole cultural landscape of the city. “A future of Bandra without villages like Bandra would result in actually wiping out the Idea of Bandra, which is what is creating the real estate haven in the first place,” says Ayaz. “We need to have a localized FSI plan for these villages that allows the transfer of FSI to the main arterial roads and preserves these villages unconditionally. Bandra’s appeal is not on Linking Road or in its gloss, it’s here in the pakhadis. This is where its cultural zeitgeist is created, and the new building models just do not respect this.”

Conservationists are looking to find development proposals that respond to the distinctive social, historical and cultural context of the Bandra villages before they are lost in the all-engulfing builder-driven chaos of the city. “Pakhadis are part of the identity of the city,” says conservation architect Vikas Dilawari. “They were developed keeping in mind unique social concepts. Today they are all being brought into a homogenous mainstream. This does not work because you cannot use a common yardstick for development through the city—keeping in mind its unique context, a proposal for sensitive development must be prepared.”

This piece appeared in the Times of India on August 21, 2011

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Of motherlands and mothers

Artists from South Korea and India mix memory with metaphor

The remembrance of a former time can be a potent thing, colouring not only our past but also our present. The transformative power of memory is the muse for Sakshi Gallery’s ongoing exhibition, Intarsia: Memory Trace featuring work by Kim Seola, Lee Hayan, Schon Mendes and Shivani Aggarwal.

Shivani Aggarwal

In Aggarwal’s work, memory takes the shape of a red thread. Embedded in her subconscious from the childhood recollection of watching her grandmother knitting, the red thread weaves through her work to signify various psychological states. “The thread almost began knitting itself into my work, ” says Aggarwal, 36. “It signified bondage in some works and in others it referred to memories which I had been knitting and working with. ” Initially using a real thread in collages and installation pieces, she later started painting its image in her work – stitching, knitting, repairing, binding, and prickling. In her photographic work, she takes a realistic image and transmutes the meaning of the image with an overlay of paint. Using images of knitting needles, pins and cutters in situations where they do not perform their traditional usage, she relays her private musings.

Lee Hayan

For Lee Hayan, 25, intimate memories are tied to a wider context of the politics of feminism. “Finding reverberations between my personal history and my world of interests creates a space where I construct and verify an identity, which connects me to the world around me, ” says Hayan, a native of Pyoungtack in South Korea. This reflects in her work, where she places her own self-portrait within references from art history and popular culture to create what she terms ‘second stories’ that challenge stereotypical notions of feminine representation. For instance, in Unfinished Lines in a Monologue for Frida Kahlo she inhabits the masculine garb of the Mexican artist Kahlo, while holding in her hand a plait of hair with a red ribbon signifying a traditional Korean custom.

Kim Seola

Also from South Korea, Kim Seola, 28, delves into elements of natural beauty from her hometown, Yousu-si. The traumatic experience of various car accidents in the family, bankruptcy, having her house burnt down and the destruction of the pristine beauty of her hometown by unchecked development – are all experiences that filter into her work. “The process of creating for me is almost like a metaphor for confronting memories that I hold from my own personal past and private history, ” says Seola. Her delicate artistic idiom turns these memories into tender metaphors – a pile of ashes signify lost dreams, forgotten spaces manifest in feathers, and ropes of coir represent human ties. Emptying the canvas of its busy preoccupations, her work focuses on a single object of muted beauty.

Schon Mendes

For all the sparse minimalism of Seola’s work, Schon Mendes’ canvas is cramped with a bustle of memories, each jostling for attention. The 24-year-old Goan has sketchbooks full of scribbles capturing a particular mood or expression that caught his fancy. These come together in his kaleidoscopic urban vistas, where many contradictory things happen simultaneously, coming together in a mosaic-like fashion. “The city is never silent or dormant as it is teeming with human energies and activity;energies of different kinds, frequencies and intensities, ” says Mendes. “I am interested in a simultaneous panoptic narrative – one that comprises many diverse minute narratives that are woven together onto the canvas by my imagination. ”

Intarsia: Memory Trace will be on until August 27 at the Sakshi Gallery, Mumbai

This piece appeared in the Times of India Crest Edition on August 20, 2011

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Desi Top Chefs

An exciting new generation of chefs is pushing the boundaries of contemporary food

Gresham Fernandes

HAMMING IT UP: Gresham Fernandes, 30, is the group executive chef of Impresario Entertainment and Hospitality, which owns Salt Water Cafe and the Mocha chain of coffee shops and runs the kitchen at The Tasting Room at Good Earth

Chef Gresham Fernandes is on a mission to reacquaint palates with the pleasures of pork. Swine dining, his monthly ode to the pig at Salt Water Café, is a dinner for which up to 20 people can register. It has 20 dishes that range from the Goan pork vindaloo to Brazilian sorpotel to roasted pork shoulder with milk jam. “Pork is a meat that no one really explores. On most menus the only thing you would see are pork chops or pork tenderloin. We cook right from the nose to the hoofs.”
Fernandes has a natural affinity for pork as he grew up in an East Indian family in Bandra. He says that he has been experimenting with food for as long as he can remember. “Both my parents worked so breakfast was never made,” Fernandes says. “I began to find my way around the kitchen at a fairly early age. My grandmom was also a great cook, so I grew up watching her cook. I was cleaning chickens and cutting pigs at ten.” After graduating from the Rizvi College of Hotel Management, he spent over three years training at The Leela.
Today, he is the group executive chef of Impresario Entertainment and Hospitality, which owns Salt Water Cafe and the Mocha chain of coffee shops and runs the kitchen at The Tasting Room at Good Earth. He is also in the process of opening an independent restaurant called Shroom in Delhi. Set to open in the first week of September, it is Fernandes’s dream project. “It’s not going to be just Italian or French; it’s experimental, fun-dining.”
Fascinated by molecular gastronomy, Fernandes’s biggest inspiration is celebrated Spanish chef Ferran Adrià. “Adrià has raised the bar to a whole new level,” says Fernandes. “When we approach ingredients we think, ‘This is foie gras, caviar or truffle, this is very expensive and should be prepared in a particular way.’ For him every ingredient was equal. He could cook with a banana and really explore its taste.” Inspired by Adrià’s unusual pairings — such as tuna and watermelon — Fernandes introduced a trout with strawberry sauce at Salt Water Café.
At the same time, Fernandes stays close to his roots and his adventurous cuisine is peppered with East Indian influences. His crab cakes have the tang of his grandmother’s masala and he does a prawn pickle ravioli. The chef’s favourite food is still the food of his childhood — and anything to do with pork. Fernandes’s dream meal is braised Iberian pork tails and pan-fried langostinos (a crustacean) at Mugaritz, a Spanish restaurant. “I hope that’s my last meal,” he says.

This piece appeared in the Times of India Crest Edition on August 13, 2011.

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The Dharavi Akademi of Art

SITE-SPECIFIC ART: Chai shops, scrap heaps, water pipes — site-specific art blooms where it is planted.

Aloud bang echoes through Mumbai’s Mehboob Studios as gigantic cardboard canisters are shot through the air, releasing splatters of red wax. A few days later, the detritus of Anish Kapoor’s iconic Shooting into the Corner finds its way to Dharavi, in order to recycle the cardboard canisters. When the waste was discovered by the artists of Artefacting, they decided to re-create the seminal work in a new context. On a winter Sunday last December, the two worlds overlapped unexpectedly. Improvising in the rubble-strewn bylanes of Dharavi, the kids recreated Kapoor’s canon. The waste was then used to create art installations that resemble beehives.

Rooftop installation by Artefacting Mumbai

Through this and other inspired acts, the stark walls of the art gallery that make up the proverbial ‘white cube’ are splitting at the seams and there is a cascade of inspiration flowing on to the streets. Sitespecific art that is created keeping in mind its context, often commenting on its surroundings and involving community collaboration, is gaining popularity in urban India. Though not frequently enough, artists working in India are more than ever leaving the space of the gallery and immersing themselves in the context they are engaging with. The results are installations, workshops, performances and photography exhibitions in city streets that allow art to generate public dialogue on pertinent social issues.

The separation of art from daily life – evident in that unfortunate act of having to ring a doorbell to enter an art gallery – often makes artistic creation a distant and alien thing for the general population. The term ‘site-specific art’ was first used in the mid-seventies by young sculptors such as Lloyd Hamrol and Athena Tacha who were commissioned to do projects for large urban locations. The medium has gained such popularity though, that some public art installations are now an ingrained part of their environ, such as George Segal’s 1992 permanent installation Street Crossing at Montclair State University, Isamu Noguchi’s iconic Red Cube circa 1968 at HSBC Building in New York City and Olafur Eliasson’s Waterfalls under the Brooklyn Bridge.

Artefacting Mumbai

Artefacting Mumbai has been attempting to break the boundaries of what constitutes public art and bring attention to patterns of settlement being displaced by contemporary urbanisation. In the winter of 2010, urbanist and visual planner Alex White Mazzarella, city planner Casey Nolan, and Dutch photographer Arne De Knegt, immersed themselves in the context of Dharavi and spent three months interpreting their surroundings. Their experiences with the people and places of their neighbourhood have been documented through artwork that is scattered through the area – on walls, on doors, in street corners and even on the occasional rooftop. The usually unremarkable constellations of corrugated tin have been brightened by unexpected murals, montages of painting, fun signage that says things like chai-wallah and pipe-wallah, video screenings on walls, as well as a display of photographs of Dharavi residents.

Artefacting Mumbai

“The art world has been sanitised into these isolated white spaces. There is not much artistic dialogue to do with different social movements anymore – it is all about the interior lives of the artists, ” says Alex White Mazzarella. “It should not be about making art in isolation, rather about doing art in a living place. Life is art. ” Artefacting is evidence that materials that were previously considered waste, when artistically rendered, can come alive. “What was scrap for us, he made art out of it, ” says Ravi, a second-generation Dharavi resident who works in a godown. “Now we look at these buildings differently. ” The exercise made both the residents of Dharavi and the citizens of Mumbai, approach the space from a different vantage point. “It is artwork because people come to see it everyday, ” says Mazzerella. “For the period when people were coming specifically to see the art, Dharavi’s 13th compound became an art gallery. ”

Tushar Joag - Hypohydro Hyperhighrise

In Fluid City, a public-art project curated produced by ArtOxygen and the Mohile Parikh Centre, seven Mumbai-based artists carried out site-specific interventions across Mumbai from January 6 to 9, 2011, exploring the central theme of water. Fluid City approached the highly contested subject – the inequity entrenched into the system of water distribution and appropriation in urban areas – through public art. “We asked the artists to investigate the absurdities and contradictions unique to the issue of water in the city. There is scarcity side-byside with excess, ” says Claudio Maffioletti, co-founder of Art Oxygen. This was followed by an indoor exhibition at StudioX in April.

Prajakta Potnis' Tracing a Disappearance

In many instances the project sparked curiosity, dialogue and even confrontation, as the artists interacted with local residents of the areas that came under the microscope. “So much was happening in the contemporary Indian art scene inside the space of the gallery, but not much happening in the public forum, ” says Maffioletti. “Having the installation in a public space is important because we believe that the participation of the aam admi of the city is integral to the project. ” The works of art included Parag Tandel’s sculptures created out of the waste of the Thane Creek, Tushar Joag’s live installation of a human pyramid in the form of a fountain mimicking the festive spirit of Gokul Ashtami, Pradeep Mishra’s flamingo-adorned flags at Sewri Fort and Prajakta Potnis’ tracing of the original contours of Siddeshwar Talao in Thane draw attention to its fast-shrinking borders. As Potnis drew a chalk line that displayed the discrepancy between the original size of the lake and what it had been reduced to due to encroachment, some people collected from local authorities. “They said I would get them into trouble by showing how much they have eaten up from the original boundary, ” says Prajakta Potnis. “That day I was very nervous but it restored my faith in art. ”

Urbz water mapping

Also engaged in the issue of water in cities, the Urbz collective are combining photography with urban planning in their water- mapping project. Having conducted photography workshops at the Dharavi Shelter, they asked the children, who were familiar with the use of the digital camera, to look at where the water they use in their homes comes from simply by walking along the pipes in the neighbourhood. They took pictures and described what they saw in their own words. “We chose to do a project on water because it is uppermost in people’s minds, ” says Urbz’s Rahul Srivastava. “As we feel that children are the most informed residents of the area, we asked the children to take photographs that both document and comment on water flows and water systems in their immediate surroundings. ” The pictures will then be displayed at an exhibition at the Dharavi Shelter, for outsiders to come and view them and bring the conversation into its context. In the next phase, they plan to bring in a water-systems specialist who will ask the children to reflect on the way water is being used in their homes, how it gets evacuated and where it goes afterward.

“KHOJ has been pushing boundaries to explore the possibilities of art through its various programs including its focus on public art, community art and socially engaged practices, ” says Gayatri Uppal who heads the public art initiatives at KHOJ International Artists Association. Negotiating Routes: Ecologies of the Byways is one of Khoj’s site-specific public art projects which has been in progress from 2009 onwards and is supported by the Royal Norwegian Embassy in India. The projects, addressing the transformations taking place in various localities, combine research, archiving of local knowledge and art creation by artists.

Sanchayan Ghosh Workshop in Fuldanga Image Courtesy KHOJ International Artists Association

Sanachayan Ghosh’s project for example, which is ongoing, explores the changing pattern of domestic and social life in the Santhali community in West Bengal. Ghosh is examining the rift between the old way of life and the new generation of Santali through collaborative workshops of papermaking with bamboo leaves. He is also archiving traditional designs and patterns along with more contemporary cultural works. On the completion of each workshop, an installation with bamboo watermarked papers will be created in collaboration with the participants in each village. They will all be installed together between the spaces of the two public sculptures on Santali life by Ramkinkar Baiz inside Kala Bhavana in Santiniketan, West Bengal, as an interface for dialogue.

Public art projects engage people in a way which purely political discourse is not able to. Encouragement from the government would help a great deal. “Governments are not looking at cultural policy at all in the planning of urban environments, ” says cultural critic Tasneem Zakaria Mehta. “Yet, as Richard Florida, the well-known American urban historian, points out in his book The Flight of the Culture Class, as jobs become more skilloriented, manufacturing will not be the driver of urban economies as in the past. It will be the service sector which needs huge design and creative inputs. To be successful in this area, we need to create the right cultural context that attracts creative people and encourages creativity. ”

This piece appeared in the Times of India Crest Edition on August 13, 2011

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Mutiny in the Shanty

Dhor Chawl in one of the poorest districts of Mumbai was home to dalit poet Namdeo Dhasal who launched the Dalit Panther movement from here

REVOLUTIONARY ROAD: Dalit leaders like BR Ambedkar were active in Dhor Chawl in Arab Galli. Photocredit : Prashant Nakwe

The lashing rain has settled, creating little lakes along the embattled road. A little girl gleefully jumps up and down in a puddle, her chappals slapping against the soles of her feet. From further down the road intermittent announcements blare from the loudspeaker of a masjid that towers over the lane. Here, at the crossroads of Haji Restaurant, Medina Bakery and World Touch Communications is Dhor Chawl. Located in Arab Galli, in the vicinity of Kamathipura and Pila House, this chawl, historically the home of dalits and Muslims, today has small-scale industries and residences. The nondescript surroundings, however, belie its rich history.
This is the place where BR Ambedkar inspired the large and politically active dalit population of the chawl on various occasions; where Revjibuwa Dolas, a wellknown dalit leader and colleague of Ambedkar, lived and held meetings; where a plethora of cultural activity took place through wellknown working-class tamasha and theatre groups. And this is also the place that fostered activist-poet Namdeo Dhasal and the political Dalit Panthers movement.
Dhasal came to Mumbai from his village in 1957 and moved in with his aunt into Dhor Chawl. While his father worked for a butcher, he studied under a street lamp to escape his congested room which he shared with ten sub-tenants. Distressed by his surroundings, he later turned to poetry, and penned his first poem while he lived in Dhor Chawl. “I had experienced the evils of the caste system both in the village and in Mumbai,” he says. “Those who are affected emotionally turn to artistic experience—some write novels, some draw, some paint and some write poetry.” Fashioned from a blend of idioms—the Mahar dialect that came down to him from his family, Bambaiya (Mumbai’s unique tongue), and traditional Marathi literary traditions—Dhasal’s poetry portrayed an honest, unsentimental, visceral vision of life in the chawl.
“The way that my people were victimised because of the caste system is what inspired my poetry,” says Dhasal. “In a chawl, it doesn’t matter if you are Hindu, Muslim or dalit, it’s a tough life. This is what trickled into my poetry.” Dhasal published his first volume of poetry,
Golpitha, in 1973, where he depicted the tough conditions that dalits endured. Unlike the more refined poetry that Marathi audiences were accustomed to, Dhasal’s poetry brought them face to face with the harsh realities and used the vocabulary of the red-light milieu. His writing went on to win him national acclaim and a lifetime achievement award from the Sahitya Akademi.
His blunt but charismatic personality, and the feeling of community created by the shared spaces of the chawl, allowed Dhasal to found the Dalit Panthers in 1972. “Namdeo Dhasal was a colourful character even in those times,” says local historian Deepak Rao. “He had a strong personality, was very aggressive, gave fiery speeches, and yet was full of fun. I recall they would have get-togethers with biryani and drinks. He drove an open jeep, and knew everyone in the neighbourhood.” Along with Raja Dhale and Arun Kamble, Dhasal spearheaded the Dalit Panther movement which had its conception in Dhor Chawl.
“The feeling of inequality, when we were not treated as human beings, is what fired the movement,” says Dhasal. “Though there was a large dalit population throughout Mumbai, no one paid us any attention—neither the ruling party nor the opposition. When we started the Dalit Panthers, we got a great response. We didn’t have money for bus tickets but our meetings were attended by over two lakh people. Everything started from Dhor Chawl.”
The vigilante organisation, which saw its heyday in the 1970s, was one of several political movements to be born and nurtured in the chawls of Mumbai. Inspired by the Black Panther movement amongst African Americans in the United States, the Dalit Panthers were a radical militant organisation, who distributed provocative pamphlets and protested against the mistreatment of dalits. Spread out throughout Maharashtra, most of the leaders of the Dalit Panthers were young literary figures.
However, in the 1980s, an ideological dispute weakened the dalit movement. “When the mill element went away, the next generation became scattered; people have moved away to other parts of the city,” says Rao. “There was also infighting which led to splinters within the Dalit Panthers.” The neighbourhood has undergone changes as well in terms of the social fabric and industries. “The face of the area around Dhor Chawl is transforming, Shuklaji Street has changed entirely,” says Dhasal. “Commercial complexes are opening up, there’s even a hotel. The old markets of smuggled goods have vanished since thanks to globalisation everything is brought in legally.”
The sentiments that once echoed through the neighbourhood stay alive only in Dhasal’s poetry. “While I write this at night/ it’s three o’ clock/ Though I want to have a drink/ I don’t feel like drinking./ Only I want to sleep peacefully/ And tomorrow morning see no varnas.”

This piece appeared in the Times of India on August 7, 2011

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‘Bangladesh hasn’t achieved a sense of closure from the war’

QUESTION OF FAITH: Tahmima Anam’s second novel in her Bangladesh trilogy, ‘The Good Muslim’ , has as its backdrop the aftermath of the 1971 war of independence. As the nation is burdened by the guilt of crimes unaccounted for, individuals are haunted by choices that are not entirely their own. The book follows the lives of two siblings — Maya, who has returned to Dhaka after a decade spent as a country doctor in the north of Bangladesh, and Sohail, who is haunted by his memories of war and has converted to Islam. In the microcosm of Maya’s family is mirrored the state of Bangladesh, as bitter remembrances are silenced in the hope of a national consensus. Anam was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh in 1975. Her first book, ‘A Golden Age’, won the 2008 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book. Now based in London, she has had quite an international upbringing, living in Paris, New York, and Bangkok, thanks to her father’s UN career. TOI-Crest catches up with the soft-spoken, young author.

Anam says the book asks the reader to challenge the notion of what is a good Muslim

You come from an academic background, having earned a PhD in social anthropology, so why did you decide to write about this period in Bangladesh’s history in the form of a novel? 
I did a long oral history project on the Bangladesh war and by the end I had collected many stories of war survivors. And I realised that these stories were full of drama – not only were they about war, but they were about families, about love, about heroism- and I wanted to write something that would include all the human moments that we don’t often read about in history books. So I thought about writing a novel instead, something that would capture the spirit of that time and place, not just the facts. 

The title posits the question of what being a good Muslim entails, and this drama is played out in the clash of Maya, a progressive doctor, and her brother Sohail, a practising Muslim. Where does this question take you through the book? 
The title is supposed to provoke a question in the reader’s mind. Which of these characters is the good Muslim ? Is it the religious character, or the secular one, or the character of the mother, who balances the two? I wanted the readers to come to their own conclusions. 

As someone who has spent most of her life outside Bangladesh, and was very young when the events of the novel took place, how did you go about researching the book? 
I grew up listening to stories about the war from my family. These stories were a way of connecting to Bangladesh despite my not living there. The research went beyond the family, and included many war survivors from different walks of life. I travelled to different parts of Bangladesh, and interviewed freedom fighters, student activists, army officers, etc. In the end, the characters were an amalgamation of people I interviewed, family members and, of course, my imagination. 

“She remembered the sight of dead men with their hands tied behind their backs, their faces lapped with blood, and she remembered every day she had worked in the camps, scooping bullets out of men with nothing but a spoon and a hunter’s knife. ” Maya’s memories of the war haunt her through the course of the book – what is the role played by remembrance here? Do your own memories, and those passed down from family, of the period post-1971, figure in the book? 
Many Bangladeshis of a certain generation are haunted by their memories of the war – and even people like me, who weren’t born yet, have a strong emotional connection to the war. It’s the moment of origin, and so it has that strong mythical presence in the public imagination. Also, we haven’t, as a nation, achieved a sense of closure from the war- there hasn’t really been a sense of reckoning with the past. So I think that contributes to the sense of haunting, to the sense that there’s a lot of unfinished business. 

The extremes depicted in the book – Maya’s adamant secularism and Sohail’s radical zeal – bring to the fore the fiercely contested nature of religious identity in Bangladesh. Rather than creating a polarising effect, as is common in the present fashion of novels dealing with radicalism, the book invites thereader to empathise with both. Was it difficult to write from both viewpoints? Are there points at which they converge? 
Creating both characters who were three-dimensional and real for the reader was a big concern for me. I wanted Sohail’s conversion, in particular, to feel believable and to have a sense of inevitability. This was the hardest part of the book to write, because I had my own biases and preferences to deal with. I think the key was to build up the strong connection between the two characters, so that the pain of their eventual alienation can be understood in that context. 

The protagonist Maya, who has been working as a doctor in the north of Bangladesh, demonstrates an enduring desire to be ‘good for something’. However, her notions of modernity appear often misplaced in her circumstances, causing unintended harm to those she gets involved in. Do you think that such attempts to ‘save’, from without, and lacking true understanding of the situation, can be harmful? 
Maya’s flaws have mostly to do with a sense of overconfidence, and perhaps a lack of sensitivity. She’s bold and uncompromising, and that makes it difficult for her to really understand the lives of others. For instance, when Sohail comes to her and tells her he’s found his faith, instead of trying to accept him, she pushes him away and ridicules him. Perhaps if she had taken a slightly softer approach to begin with, he may not have become so distant from her and the rest of the family. 

There are multiple homecomings in the book – Sohail returns from nine months of fighting, Maya returns from being a doctor in the north of Bangladesh and Joy returns from driving taxis in the US. As someone who has lived away from Bangladesh most of her life, what does homecoming mean to you? 
Being far from home, it’s easy to have a sepia-tinted view. So when Maya returns to Dhaka, she’s shocked to find that her friends have changed and the city is unrecognizable. I often find that living away from Dhaka allows me to maintain an affection for it.

 This piece appeared in the Times of India Crest Edition August 6, 2011

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Questionable Counseling

You can be the expert: Applicants to Western universities often end up consulting expensive ‘guidance centers’. This piece appeared as part of a cover story in the Times of India Crest Edition “In a League of its Own” on how the country’s rich and bright are vying to go straight from school into the elite Ivy League

Hiring consultants to conduct studies can be an excellent means of turning your problems into their gold, ” says Norman R Augustine, president and chief operating officer of Martin Marietta. Consulting is often called the art of charging inordinate amounts for advice you don’t really need, and very often already know. The booming business of education consulting is no different. While tiger mums and tiger kids alike chase the mythical ‘perfect college application’, a few suave education consultants are swooping in and offering to do it all for them.

The swanky career guidance centers opening up in metros across the country offer services that range from psychometric testing and career planning, high school mentoring, college and university selection, coaching for entrance examinations, resume building, putting together a statement of purpose, application essays, recommendations, financial aid, visa, ticketing and even a pre-departure session that tells you what to pack.

“They have information on what really matters in the application and how to master the SAT – information that would take us a lot of time and effort to gather, ” says Aparna Somani, whose daughter is currently in the process of applying for her undergraduate in the United States. “They charge the earth, and I’m sure if you put in enough effort you could make do without a consultant. But they offer you a safety net because you know they have successfully sent so many other students before. I would say if you can afford it, why not visit once? For me, it was worth the money. ”

And that money is often a sizable amount. To determine a suitable career through psychometric testing, counsellors charge up to Rs 16, 000. While certain consultants can charge anything between Rs 10, 000 to 15, 000 for a single meeting, a full package of services can cost approximately Rs 35, 000. “I felt when I visited them that there is nothing they told you that you wouldn’t know have known if had bought a Princeton review guide or a US News & World Report ranking, ” says Aditya Parikh, a 2009 Grinnell College graduate who visited a consulting service firm in Mumbai before applying. “They give you standardised advice but it’s definitely not worth the amount they charge. ”

What is really questionable is if we can trust the advice we are paying for, for a critical career decision. Take, for instance, the question of choosing a school. Tieups with universities often prompt college counsellors to encourage students to apply to second or third-rung colleges, rather than aiming for the best possible. “Certain consultants push you to colleges where they have a vested interest, though not all do that, ” says Somani.

While there are such a large number of universities and liberal art colleges in the United States alone – over 3, 000 of them – Indian students tend to gravitate to a few. Different colleges are appropriate for students of different profiles, interests and aspirations – a factor that is not always taken into account. “The ones that counselors funnel you towards are not necessarily the ones best suited for you, ” says Parikh.

“Very often it’s because they have placed people there, have connections at the school, or an arrangement whereby they receive a commission. I have even heard of counselors getting under-qualified students into colleges by facilitating donations. So it’s not like you are going to someone who has an open mind and your best interests at heart. Though it takes more time it would be much better for a student to put in some time, read up about the schools, visit if possible, and then decide which is best suited for them. “

Some names are changed on request

This piece appeared in the Times of India Crest Edition on July 30, 2011.

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Lost in transformation

The unchecked urban development that’s sweeping through cities is destroying traditional social networks and architecture, from Mumbai chawls to Delhi’s villages

An unrestrained urbanisation is transmuting our cities. Horizons are punctuated with scaffoldings and a new grammar of glass and steel is taking shape, as old buildings and neighbourhoods are replaced with small pieces of Singapore. Enclaves of unique architectural styles are slowly being gentrified and brought into a homogenous mainstream.  While edifices classified as heritage structures are preserved in a frozen place in history, living landscapes are being ruptured carelessly. The built form is not only an object of historical and cultural interest, but an essential ingredient to the intangible social fabric of the city.”Transformations that are happening are pushing out the traditional inhabitants and new people are moving in who do not have the same social patterns, ” says Vikas Dilawari, a conservation architect based in Mumbai.

Though India has a variety of architectural idioms and techniques, cookie-cutter replications are gaining popularity. “Traditional architecture came around with strong response to social, cultural and climatic consideration, ” says Dilawari. “This is what is being eroded very fast. The interaction of designers with users is being replaced by the builder and quality of space is being replaced with arithmetic of space. ”

With the removal of architecture from its context, there is a slow extinction of features such as open spaces, balconies, high ceilings, pedestrian-friendly thoroughfares, exposed brickwork and indigenous material such as kota stone. “The kind of architectural design that is done today is a mechanical replication that is not sensitive to its location and surroundings,” says architect Ashish Ganju. “This is largely because the means of production have become so highly standardized and the repository of building materials is so narrow  – the capacity of human beings to create meaningful cultural objects that impact people is being lost.”

These are not individual transformations, but rather a decipherable pattern which is percolating through the country. Examples of this can be seen in the distinct vernacular idioms of Kochi, Ahmadabad and Allahabad, the chawls of Mumbai, the timber houses of Himachal and erstwhile urban villages such as Khotachiwadi, Ranwar, Matharpakdi, Khirkee and Hauz Khaz in Delhi. The sophistication and diversity of India’s rich urban heritage is being replaced with a facile cosmopolitanism. “We first shape our building and then our buildings shape us” is what Winston Churchill had said and is very apt summation,” says Dilawari. “What we miss is good urban design today which can be the heritage of tomorrow.”


Festival preparations at Phanaswadi chawl- Photograph Rupali Gupte

The chawls of Mumbai, those neglected counterparts of its swanky high rises, offer a unique window into the culture, society and history of an island metropolis in the midst of molding itself in the image of a ‘world class city’. In the late 19th century, the textile industry prompted a vast influx of immigrants from the hinterland. Constructed by mill owners and private builders to house the growing community of migrants who gave the city its cosmopolitan flavor, the over-crowded chawl became the quintessential icon of the working-class dwelling. Chawls have been alternately disparaged and romanticized, on one end viewed as jam packed and unsanitary on the other as multicultural enclaves that nurture community life.

A chawl – roughly translated from Marathi as room fronted by a corridor – is a linear or C-shaped building of one or two room housing units that share a common balcony. Originally derived from the typology of army barracks, chawls are typically two or three-storied with a common toilet and washing area on the ground floor. A usual kholi consists of one room, which functions as a living and sleeping area and usually comes with a small mori for a faucet. Often there is a kitchen that serves as a bedroom for another couple. The scarcity of working-class housing meant that very frequently however multiple households were shared a single kholi.

The chawl’s shared spaces gave rise to a strong sense of community. “These mundane typologies were transformed by their inhabitants into active political, social and cultural spaces, ” says Neera Adarkar, architect and urban researcher, who edited the anthology ‘The Chawls of Mumbai’. “The BDD chawls in Worli, Lower Parel and Sewri have an open sense of community and nurtured a variety of cultures. This interface between the public and the private is almost lost from buildings today. ” The hotbed of political activism during Independence, chawls cut across class, community and religion. The courtyards came alive during public festivals like Moharram, Ganesh Chaturthi and Gokulashtami, and served as a forum for the art forms such as bhajans, powadas and tamashas. “Living in a chawl is like having a large joint family, ” says artist Atul Dodiya, who was born and brought up in a chawl.

However existing chawls are often left to decay until they need to be redeveloped, making way for cinder block apartments. Though many have argued that chawls have become obsolete, they continue to serve a valuable purpose in the cramped housing circumstances of Mumbai. “Even if the mill worker is an obsolete icon of the 20th century, the chawls in Dadar, Mahim, Matunga, Parla, Borivali and Girgaon are occupied by middleclass families with white collar jobs, ” says Adarkar. “It is not enough to simply dismiss or idealise them. ” 


Dolma Long Institute & Nunnery - Photo credit Ashish Ganju

Set against the in rugged background of soaring mountains, the architecture in the himachal region blends right in, thriving in the rather harsh climatic conditions. “What is disappearing is our substantial architectural heritage,” says architect Ashish Ganju who has worked extensively to revive indigenous building idioms. “It is the loss of an entire vernacular tradition which responded to the region, geography, and climate. The culture emerged out of its link to the natural forces and the elements.”

As the hills are prone to earthquakes, the traditional structures in places like Mandi and Rewalsar were ingeniously made earthquake resistant by combining timber frames and masonry (brick or stone). The walls were plastered with mud to provide insulation, while the roofs were covered in local slate that fit the landscape, were easy to maintain and ensured dry interiors. “The traditional building techniques are being replaced by cement-intensive construction, with thin walls covered with cement plaster, and reinforced concrete flat roofs (which leak), ” says Ganju. “This is largely a result of the aggressive marketing of building products like cement and other industrially produced materials like steel. ” Traditional building skill sets are being neglected and hence slowly vanishing. On the other hand, the new materials are not used optimally because they require a know-how which is not yet easily available. In places like the Dolma Ling Nunnery in Dharamsala, Ganju is attempting to apply Buddhist principles to develop an grammar which mediates between climate and place.

“The quality of the built environment is degrading significantly, in terms of loss of convenience, comfort, and maintainability, while becoming much more expensive overall,” says Ganju. “This decline, over time, begins to adversely affect the overall life style of the people.”



Khotachiwadi - Photocredit Urbz

Nestled in the midst of Mumbai’s grizzly, bustling, chaotic urbanity is a small piece of the sleepy village life that inspires grandmothers’ tales. Khotachiwadi, a small enclave of Portuguese architecture founded in the late 18th century by East Indian settlers, seems to deny Bombay’s frenzied bustle. This is engendered by a mixture of the built typology – low rise, high density with narrow streets and few cars – and the friendly laidback nature of its original inhabitants.

Designated a heritage precinct in 1995, Khotachiwadi’s architecture has a diversity of typologies such as individual bungalows, chawls and apartment buildings. While the bungalows display Portuguese influences, there are also flourishes of vernacular styles and modernist Art Deco. Most of the houses are made of wood, fronted by a spacious verandah or porch, a courtyard at the back, fascia boards, balustrades, and external staircases. Incrementally developed, the neighborhood belies its own transformation from a plantation by the sea, to an East Indian settlement.

“The beauty of places like Khotachiwadi and Khirki Village in Delhi is that they know how to be urbane, ” says Matias Echanove of the Urbz, an urban research collective. “They have deep roots;they are connected to the larger context, yet also appear to be slightly detached;not fully buying into the development craze they see around them, as if they had seen it all before. They are self-contained and preserve a very strong sense of identity, without being exclusive or gated. ” The neighbourhood’s distinct identity, then, is derived from its unique social fabric as much as from its beautiful edifices. “People are walking in the street. Neighbours are talking to each other, sometimes shouting at each other,” says Echanove. “But when something goes wrong they know how to come together. My friend Jimmy leaves his door open all day; people come in and out all the time. He has sparrow nests in his 150 years old bungalow.”

Originally 65 houses, the redevelopment of the neighbourhood has left only 28 bungalows standing. Along with architectural beauty, the new construction lacks the sturdy quality of these elegant low rise bungalows with thick walls and high ceilings, which have sometimes weathered two centuries. “The point is not at all that places like Khotachiwadi should be turned into Archaeological Survey of India sites and barricaded, with a ticket booth at the entrance, ” says Echanove. “It is of course, exactly the contrary. In order to exist and survive, neighbourhoods must continue their journey through time and keep on evolving continuously. It is the dynamic interaction between people and the space they inhabit that must be preserved at all cost. ”



Khirkee extension - Photocredit Urbz

In the shadow of Khirki Masjid in southern Delhi, is a sprawling village where small shops and cottage industries are interspersed with residential houses and artist studios. Though the masjid, built in 1375, is a protected monument under the Archaeological Survey of India Act, the living heritage of Khirki and the adjoining extension is quickly disintegrating.

A neighborhood in the true sense of the word, Khirki has a dynamic cultural identity along with its historic value. Based in Khirki, the Khoj Studio has organized several participatory public art projects. Sculptor Aastha Chauhan, who heads their community arts initiative, has facilitated projects ranging from local shop makeovers to clay toy-making with neighborhood children. “Khirki came alive post 6 pm,” says Chauhan. “The lanes turned into lovely open air living rooms, exciting bustling places. If people wanted to watch the tv in the barbershop they would simply put a couch on the road.”

With developments such as the ‘Select City Mall’, specialty hospitals, luxury hotels, cineplexes and international schools in the vicinity, Khirki village is undergoing a period of flux which threatens to rob it off its unique identity. “The older houses are being demolished, and are replaced by multi-storied buildings of extremely poor quality,” says Chauhan. As Khirki is slowly engulfed in Delhi rapidly sprawling urbanization, the village is losing some of this community. “Khirki extension housed a lot of places for culture, theatre and art that are quickly vanishing because of the many complex issues that the area is faced by . The land rises have skyrocketed because of the mall and there are infrastructure problems because it is a contested area,” says Chauhan.

While the architecture of the area is transforming from single occupancy homes to multi-storeyed buildings that lack quality or infrastructure, the erstwhile rural immigrants who made up the original population of Khirki are being replaced by middle income residents who work in the new facilities in the area. “The smaller kholis of working class labour who were brought in to build the mall are being replaced by the new type of residents of the neighborhood – guards at the mall, call centre employees, hospital workers,” says Chauhan. “With the new developments the idea of shared open places is going. The average man cannot access places like Nandan park.”

Along with the changing demographic, is the loss of the small scale industries such as garment workshops.  “At the end what is lost is not just one type of architecture in favour of another,” says Chauhan. “What is lost is a mindset, a lifestyle, a way of interacting and connecting with ones neighbors. Everybody is a stranger now in Khirki, fighting over parking space.”


Ranwar village square- photocredit Vivek sheth and The Busride

If you happen to wander off Bandra’s maddening Hill Road, down a small street called Langrana Lane, you will be forgiven for thinking that you have stumbled upon a Portuguese hamlet. Ranwar, a 400-year-old East Indian village on Veronica Street, is one of the original pakhadis (villages) of Bandra. Arranged in a zig zag pattern that seems haphazard at first, are charming, antiquated cottages.

Like most original pakhadis in Mumbai, Ranwar’s architecture combines vernacular expression with a heavy Portuguese influence. The houses are topped with red Mangalore tiles and feature Balcao style sit-outs, ornamental trellises, attics meant for storing grain and wooden columns and beams. “Most of these houses either fronted onto, or had a back facing a vestigial open space, which was traditionally used to hold small rosaries, make masalas, allow children to play outside etc, ” says Ayaz Basrahi, Mumbai based architect from the Busride Design Studio located in Ranwar. “All these work at a pedestrian scale, where there was a free interaction, an extremely close knit community because of all the social spaces that were allowed to exist. ”

Landlords in Ranwar, unwilling or unable to bear the sizeable maintenance costs, are selling them to builders who promptly erect high-rises in their place.  Since Basrai moved in in 2006, six bungalows have been razed to the ground. The most debilitating casualty of the redevelopment of Ranwar is then its lively street culture. The outdoor porches are used to buy fish or enjoy a chat with neighbours while the square hosts events ranging from Rosaries and prayer meetings to football games. “The biggest loss to Ranwar is a complete displacement of culture,” says Basrahi. “The architectural language of Ranwar physically creates these conversations by forcing interactions in its fantastic meandering vestigial spaces. The scale of the village is critical, tall buildings here puncture big holes in the village map.

This piece appeared in the Times of India Crest Edition on July 30, 2011.

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PING OF HEALTH: As Mobile healthcare gains popularity, information on diseases from polio to AIDS is now available via cellphones 

When asked if kissing or holding hands causes pregnancy, 41% of girls in rural Karnataka and 57% of girls in urban Karnataka said yes or that they didn’t know, according to a study about the health issues of school students by the Belaku Trust, a Bangalore based NGO. It was this kind of evidence that brought Nandu Madhava’s attention to the problems caused by the dearth of basic healthcare information not just in rural, but more surprisingly, in urban areas in India. While the number of deaths due to easily preventable illnesses continues to be astounding, health care clinics and hospitals are often inaccessible or ill-equipped. By contrast, there are an estimated 500 million mobile phone connections within India alone. The availability of a mobile connectivity in places without paved roads and basic infrastructure are creating a perfect opportunity for mobile phone-based health care.

“While in the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic, I was working as a translator for doctors who were performing free surgeries,” says Bangalore born Nandu Madhava. “All of the doctors I met said that people in emerging markets suffer deeply because of the lack of basic health information. People aren’t aware of things as fundamental as being inoculated for Polio or Hepatitis. You don’t have to reinvent the vaccine; you just have to get the information to people.” Having completed his two-year stint in the Peace Corps Madhava moved to the corporate world and worked as an investment banker with Goldman Sachs in San Francisco. Thereafter having completed an MBA from Harvard Business School in 2006, Madhava moved back to India.

Finding himself drawn to the idea of starting his own socially conscious enterprise, Madhava began to research public health issues in India and found some surprising results. “The challenges I observed in India were even greater than in Latin America,” says Madhava. “According to most World Health Organization statistics the trouble lies at the bottom of the socio-economic pyramid. However I found that there are tremendous health challenges throughout the pyramid. Things like diabetes are exploding in urban areas in higher income demographics.” Realizing that increasing access to accurate and relevant information is the simplest way to make a substantial improvement in public health, Madhava official launched mDhil in 2009.

Nandu Madhava, CEO mDhil

Mobile healthcare is gaining popularity in many emerging markets as an empowering tool. While the national government in Malawi uses mobile phones to track juvenile malnutrition; phones in the Philippines have been outfitted with microscopes that help trace malaria. In countries with higher internet penetration like the US health information websites such as WebMD, Everdayhealth and Revolution Health are hugely popular. MDhil plans to provide a combination of these services. Aiming to combine these uses, mDhil provides everyday healthcare advice via text messaging, desktop and mobile web browser, and digital content.

Initially funded in the classic bootstrap method that most start-ups practice in their infancy, in early 2010 mDhil received venture capital funding.  The start-up capitalizes on the exploding opportunities provided by the growing mobile industry. As teenagers as a group are active users of cell phones and the internet, it allows them to find reliable information about normally taboo subjects such as sexual health and contraception. As off last month, mDhil announced that they are collaborating to provide content for the launch of Bharti Airtel’s SMS-based health pack at the rate of about one rupee per message. Though originally only focused on sms subscriptions, the launch of 3G data networks in India and the proliferation of low cost smart phones, are enabling mDhil to move towards a web browser where content is free and advertising supported.

“We work with experienced doctors and physicians to provide quality content and put in a lot of effort into being creative,” says Madhava. “So it’s not a doctor sitting on a desk, but we think about we can make a discussions around things like HIV engaging.” The website offers advice on topics such as cardiac care, stress management, diabetes, maternal care, sexual health, exercise and weight reduction. “ I think it’s a very good thing if people have a source to give them advice that helps them lead healthier lives,” says Dr Samrat Shah who is a cardiologist, diabetologist and specialist in internal medicine consulting at Cumballa Hill Hospital, Saifee Hospital and Elizabeth Nursing Home in Mumbai.  “Preventive medicine is much better curative.”

“The youth have a lot of questions about reproductive health and women’s health,” says Madhava. “I don’t guarantee a lot of things in my business plan, but I go guarantee that ten out of ten teenagers have questions about sex.” The website and sms service thus deal with subjects that are often considered taboo, such as sexual health. “On a broader level, perceptions are changing,” says Madhava. “Government programs are promoting HIV education. People are realizing that if you want to lead a healthier life it is important to openly discuss these things.”

As its core focus is urban youth, mDhil strives to make everyday healthcare accessible, interesting, and even entertaining with features like celebrity interviews, quizzes, cartoons and recipes. The most innovative part of the website are the videos that cover topics ranging from fitness advice from an IPL cricket coach to family planning. “Its difficult to talk about some things – like cervical cancer- in the 160 character limit on sms,” says Madhava.  “When we launched our videos in January 2010, we had about 50 views a day, and today we have about 500 views a day.” They are looking to soon dub the videos in vernacular languages, starting with Hindi, to reach out to rural markets.
Their reach is growing exponentially; in January 2011 they had only 200 fans on their facebook page, which now boasts a whopping 40,875 fans. While in September last year the service counted more than 250,000 paid users, Madhava is looking to reach a few million users in five years as the mobile phone market continues to expand.

However, Madhava believes that alternate healthcare services such as these will not be sufficient for plugging the healthcare gap. “I wish I could say that there was one silver bullet-like magic solution that could solve everything,” says Madhava. “The government also needs to have a greater reach in its healthcare efforts. In the United States health is a trillion dollar industry and there are still a lot of things that need to be done. It’s not a one-day effort; we need to look at health as an evolving problem.”

This article appeared in the Times of India on July 17, 2011

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