Can you take the stench of Mumbai’s Sassoon Dock? You can’t, but maybe you should

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Installation “Idea of Smell” by artist Hanif Kureshi (St+Art India Foundation)

If you are put off by the lingering smell of fish at Mumbai’s Sassoon Dock, a new art project in the city will make sure you cannot miss the stench even if you cover your nose.

As you enter the St+Art Project galleries at one of Mumbai’s oldest docks, an installation titled the “Idea of Smell” invokes memories and figments of imagination associated with different kinds of smell.

“You walk through a room where words, suspended in the air, activate your memory. And just like that, Kureshi evokes a range of emotions — from the visceral with sentences such as ‘Perfume of your ex’, to the endearing with ‘Mom’s cooking’, to downright repulsive with ‘Vomit’,” read a story on the art project in the Hindu Businessline newspaper.

The Sassoon Dock, built by a Jewish merchant in the 19th century, is home to one of Mumbai’s oldest wholesale fish markets, where frenetic business activity begins around sunrise. And yet, according to the art project organisers, Mumbai’s residents are not familiar with it, despite it being located in the centre of the city.

The St+Art Project, previously seen in the Indian cities of Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, and Hyderabad, has transformed the Sassoon Dock into a vibrant space for large-scale murals, installations and other mixed media artworks. Artists from Singapore, France, Mexico, Denmark, Austria, Spain and Australia have contributed to this project.

This initiative has re-introduced a forgotten landmark to the people of Mumbai, so much so that a visit to the waterfront gallery has become a must-do for the city’s residents. Social media websites are teeming with pictures of this two-month long event that puts the spotlight on a range of topics–the lives of the fishermen community (one of Mumbai’s oldest inhabitants), the polluting coastline, Mumbai’s relentless construction activity and the receding historical and traditional facets of the city.

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Mural, by artist Guido van Helten, showing a woman from the local fishing community

The Project, that came to India in 2014 with a group of artists, designers, photographers and film-makers, has democratised public spaces which are mostly dominated with political, real-estate, corporate, and religious advertisements. This new phenomenon, involving massive artistic creations done on landmarks of cities, creates the sort of engagement with public spaces that seems to be missing today. The “Idea of Smell” installation is one such attempt, among other 25-odd artworks, to re-establish that missing link with the city.

As an increasingly stressed and over-worked city population finds refuge in film theatres, shopping malls and cafes on the weekends, the engagement with art, culture and history of a city has become the pursuit of a comparatively smaller audience. In response to that, the St+Art Project is being perceived as a myth-breaking initiative, bringing home the point that art does not always belong to the realm of galleries and museums mostly frequented by the social elite and art connoisseurs.

In its own political—but subtle—way, the Sassoon Dock Art Project is also contributing to the conversation over the proposed redevelopment of historical and ecologically sensitive public landmarks of the city. The dock is one such landmark, expected to be transformed into a modern fishing village that will include an air-conditioned fish market, a museum, an amphitheatre, a food street and promenade for tourists.

 

As the day wound down and visitors began to leave the dock, I took in the sunset casting a pale shadow over the fishing boats. And I wondered about the future of this fishing dock and its people who have made this place what it is, as it braces for a multi-crore-rupee makeover.

The Sassoon Dock Art Project ends in December. Other famous spots in the city, such as the Churchgate station and Mahim, are also part of the street art project. To know more about the event, click here

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