Chawls of Mumbai: “The Social Network”, Mumbai (India) by USK Mumbai

When we began brainstorming on ideas for a reportage proposal from USK Mumbai, we evaluated many aspects of Mumbai that were unique to the city and its working culture – a city known for its fast paced and at times “cutthroat” work ethic, its ability to spring back from terrible natural calamities like floods or man-made ones like terrorist attacks, a city that is said to be a melting pot of cultures, professions, languages, a city that is more functional than poetic, more matter of fact than airy fairy.

How do you capture the essence of such a vibrant city with any one topic?! And then it struck us, the chawls of Mumbai were the perfect metaphor for the city, they had grown as the city grew, they had flourished as the city did with its commercialization and were now dying as the city brings on a new glitzy high-rise skin to wear.

In a sense, documenting life in chawls was our chance to see Mumbai in a whole new light, to see its human side from up close, to see the city’s struggles and hustle, to experience lives lived in cubby holes – just like almost all of Mumbai does. And so, we set out to document the human stories in chawls.

We reviewed a lot of existing literature on the origins, history and socio-political relevance of chawls. Specifically, we reviewed a book by Arch. Neera Adarkar et al on Chawls of Bombay, spoke to _______  and realized that the story we wanted to tell was not of its glorious pastbut of its vibrant present – the human stories of finding happiness and contentment, of ambition and hustle, of kindness and pride. Each visit to recce a chawl only cemented these stories further.

All wasn’t hunky dory, chawl residents have been at the receiving end of a lot of political misrepresentation, of builder interest in usurping prime real estate, and this made them wary of strangers in their midst. We had to cultivate contacts, establish our credentials as a not-for-profit venture, to create trust to enter these private spaces, but once this was established, we found all chawl residents so curious, so giving and open to strangers in their midst that they routinely offered us meals, invited us for celebrations and shared private stories without inhibition.

At the beginning, we put out thoughts on what we wanted the reportage to cover – the architecture, the festivals, the professions, but within the first few visits itself it was clear, we couldn’t inhibit how the story was coming together organically. Multiple reporters and their unique perspectives also meant that the stories could not be strictly compartmentalized, and the beauty was in the discovery of what they found rather than going looking for ‹specific things!

In the month of July, we started planning sketch walks in such a way that we could cover as many chawls as possible until December. Since most Indian festivals begin in the month of August, we looked for chawls that had unique ways of celebrating these or were known for their celebrations. At the end of all our sketch walks, we had a body of work that encompassed ____ sketches from ___ artists and over ____ stories gathered across ___ months.

Radhika Bawa

Healthtech Entrepreneur and artist at large ! Have been a regular urban sketcher since 2020. Mother of two grown up boys and until recently, pet parent to Ginger. I am a lefty! A marathoner as well as a trained classical dancer. A jack of all trades if you will.

As someone born and brought up in Mumbai and more specifically in the Maharashtrian neighbourhood of Dadar which is dotted with chawls, I remember visiting many a friends’ homes in chawls. I remember the open balconies where we could stand and watch busy market streets. So I jumped at the chance to help visually document this slice of my childhood. Going to chawls and participating in sketch-walks helped me relive some of these memories and also see the crumbling chawls in a whole new light.

Anita Alvares Bhatia 

I am Anita Alvares Bhatia, have been a part of Usk since 2017. Porto was my first symposium. I  love urban sketching! When one looks at Mumbai, it gets its identity and character from its residents, the food, the never die spirit, its ‘I can deal with any challenge thrown at me approach’,  the local trains, BEST buses, the sea front, the ports, the forests in the middle of the city with its leopards, cricket played in the streets – Chawls are this very intrinsic part of Mumbai’s heart like all these things its where the people who brought in industrialisation to the city lived. I wanted this to be our project and was thrilled when it was selected as such. Being a part of the project gave me a chance to show the world their beauty, the awesome people who stay there, the spirit they carry, their heart.  I wanted to depict all this through my sketches. I also have an interest in their their history, culture and social aspects and this project gave me a opportunity to get hands on.

When I sketch I become one with the surroundings, the sounds, the smells, stimuli being absorbed in my little world and us becoming one. Sketching at the chawls got me out of my comfort zone, I am not very   conversational and the only way to get behind the facade was to get to know the people. Making conversations, interacting and connecting with the residents to bring out their stories. I enjoyed these moments. Loved them and discovered I also have some reportage skills! Its been a fantastic experience.

What you do not know of me..I actually dream that I am sketching, many a times I am dreaming of going sketching. The pandemic has not helped there! The scratch of the pen on paper, the wetness of paint is so vivid in my dreams. It feels so real that when I awake up and I sketch!

The initial stages of the project called for networking to build up a contact list and identify prospective locations. I started with a empty list. Slowly and steadily I found people who could accommodate us to sketch at their chawl, or at a friend’s chawl, or a location where I could sketch the chawl from. Residents who were open to talk to me of their life in the chawl, their challenges, their families and history. Doing this during the pandemic and in the peak of the 2nd wave was another hurdle. There was fear of the unknown, trust needed to be built. I ventured out, I was driven. At times scared, but was positive… in a belief that all is well

In the growing up years I have stayed in a chawl too, my parents like the most part of the population in Mumbai were migrants from another State, city. As a little girl I had a carefree childhood residing in a Chawl and then in vicinity of many a chawls. I had so much fun and have such beautiful  memories. The sketches at the chawls is a tribute to the cherished childhood days.

Tanay kumar

I Joined USK in June 2020

Mumbai is a port city and being at the heart of trading industry which dates back 100 years back has an amazing story to tell. These stories are embedded within the lives of people who built this amazing town. Chawls of mumbai are probably where most of firsts happened.. whether it was start of a political party or celebrations of a festival. Being a part of this reportage gave me an opportunity to capture all of these first hand.

I slept at one of the local stations of mumbai continuously for 2 nights when I first came into the city. It made me feel safe as mumbai lived up to to its expectation of a city that never sleeps.

I come from a small town Jamshedpur and walking Into mega city Mumbai for me was like a dream. Over the years I built up an image of mumbai and the life around it, but The lives in the Chawls was very unlike what I had ever experienced in Mumbai. The chemistry between the neighbours, the hospitality and the warm welcoming ambience just embraces you. I enjoyed the side of mumbai which I thought never existed.

Zainab Tambawalla 

I’ve been a member of Usk since 2017. The idea of a reportage in helping unearth the real stories, is something I experienced during my last proposal. So when this opportunity came by, I wasn’t going to let it go unexplored. Since 20 years of living in the city, I’ve experienced Mumbai’s visual character to be a thin balance between the old and the new. The chawls are a huge part of that character. Through the duration of the proposal, I noticed how many chawls actually made up Mumbais landscape. The beautifully adorned balconies, the vibrant clotheslines, the chaotic yet beautiful clutter outside each home, everything looks like it has a story to tell. 

I think each sketch walk to every chawl was memorable simply because of the warmth with which we were greeted. Residents were eager and took great pride in sharing the stories of their space and their life.



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