Mumbai — the city that holds many platitudes — the city that never sleeps, the city of dreams, the city of gold, but when you get a little closer and dig a little deeper, you find the city layered in a manifold. Over the years, different kinds of people from varied places, races, and communities have settled in the city and made it their home. But, it is the Koli community, who holds the strongest right to the title of being Mumbai’s first residents. Cross through Bandra-Worli Sea Link Koliwada, Versova Kolivada, or the Sassoon Dock and you observe their overwhelmingly busy world in action.
It is said the Koli community has been living in Mumbai for over 500 years — the times when the city was known for its coastal waters of the seven islands. There are many stories, including the city’s present name, which is said to have been derived from the goddess and patron deity of the city, Mumbadevi. As of now, Mumbai is a house of about five lakh Kolis, who are still making their living off the sea — fishing majorly — and what better way to celebrate this diverse community than documenting their illustrious journey for the generations to come.
A digital photo exhibition, Through the Eyes of the Kolis: A reflection on Mumbai’s past, present, and future, is one such initiative by the Bombay61 Studio in collaboration with Ministry of Mumbai’s Magic. Hosted by The Heritage Lab, the exhibition was launched on August 9 to mark World Indigenous Day. It showcases the community’s endeavours in the city through the lens of its first residents.
Dol net boats docked at the Versova fishing harbour | Sadashiv Raje
The four-part exhibition showcases a series of archival photographs from 1950 to the 2000s, highlighting the physical, socio-cultural, and ecological transformations that the community has witnessed over the years.
The pictures will transport you to the cluster of houses, beaches, community gatherings, boats dotting the sea, leaving it up to your imagination to fill in colours to the visuals. Besides, a community map of Versova Creek documenting archival stories from the Koli community complements the exhibition alongside archival imagery. The pictorial narrative of the generational history also gives a peek into the deep relationship the community shares with the natural environment.
“At The Heritage Lab, we believe that culture and heritage are community-created and community-owned, and therefore it is the responsibility of the community and citizens to preserve and protect. We’re excited to empower and highlight the voices of Mumbai’s oldest inhabitants,” Medhavi Gandhi of The Heritage Lab tells us.
Process of net installation | Sadashiv Raje
It takes only first glance at the photograph to understand the effects of rampant urbanisation in Mumbai and the rapid degeneration of its water bodies, the impact of climate change on the city’s coastline, and how the community has faced the repercussions.
However, it also shows the ability of the community to adapt to the changes it offered over the years and still hold its roots firmly. Aimed at exploring the physical, socio-cultural and ecological transformations, the exhibition is divided into four sections.
The first series of images, The Community and their Livelihood, explores how the community’s culture and traditions are interlinked with their occupation and traditional knowledge of sustainable fishing methods. The photographs highlight how rapid urbanisation and instant gratification for profits in recent years have affected the community. The second series, The Coastal Ecosystems, document the changing coastal ecosystem as fishermen are forced to go deeper into the high seas for their catch.
Still after 2005 Mumbai floods | Sadashiv Raje
Amidst all the series, we found Alteration of the Edges and Mapping the Histories interesting. With the intricate details about how Koliwadas are offered a cheaper cost of living for migrants due to expansion and construction along the coastline, resulting in overpopulation, the photographs depict the loss of belonging and cultural identity across Koliwadas.
“Through this exhibition, we relive the glory days of the community and how they are placed today in a bid to understand the transformation of the coastal systems of Mumbai. The exhibition hopes to reverse the amnesia of the urban youth and strengthen their relationship with their surroundings. We attempt to amplify the voices of the Kolis,” say Jai and Ketaki of Bombay61 Studio.
Worli Koliwada before the construction of the Bandra-Worli Sea link | Wilson Koli
With the heartwarming visuals, the exhibition exposes you to the life of Kolis, who have witnessed the evolution of Mumbai’s ecosystems more closely than any other inhabitants of this island city. Their intimate relationship with the sea for survival has also meant that they are the first to adapt and respond to the effects of the climate crisis.
It certainly offers an opportunity to experience this relationship through visual narratives and learn lessons of resilience from this indigenous community of one of the biggest metropolitan cities.