Mumbai’s relation with water is complex, and nowhere is this most apparent than in the metropolis’ treatment of the four rivers – Dahisar, Poisar, Oshiwara and Mithi – which run through it. Over the years, they have come to be ravaged by pollution and urbanisation and scarcely resemble what they once were. It is this transformation that photographer Aslam Saiyad wanted to capture in his photo project Discovering The Forgotten Rivers Of Bombay.
The 39-year-old, who is a photography instructor and a manager at an animation school, recalled a happy childhood spent visiting the Dahisar river inside the Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Borivali, where he grew up. He remembered a pristine environment where families could once go for picnics. Old-timers he spoke to reminisce about swimming in its once crystal-clear waters.
“Now you talk to today’s generation and they don’t even remember that the city has four rivers,” Saiyad said. “Everyone knows Mithi river but that has become a nalla.”
Saiyad began visiting the Dahisar river while documenting the work of the River March project, whose goal was to clean up Mumbai’s rivers. During that time, he came across Adivasi communities who lived inside the national park. “I noticed some children standing in school uniforms a few kilometres inside the park,” Saiyad recalled. “They were getting ready to go to a school which was 7km away. And it surprised me because people living in one of the world’s richest municipalities didn’t have a basic mode of transportation to go to school.”
So Saiyad began to spend time on weekends in the national park, getting to know the communities. The focus of his project was not just the river but the communities around it. “Many of the communities here are dying out,” the self-taught photographer said. “I remember going for a function organised by the East Indian community where one of the banners read: ‘If our language dies out, with that we will also die out.’ So I want to tell stories of the river through the communities that live around it.”
The photographs document the livelihoods of the communities. Quite a few of them include portraits of lovers who are a world away from the bustle of the metropolis. “I feel like they make an ironic comment on the state of the river,” Saiyad said. “No-one will imagine that at the source of a gutter, lovers can have a quiet moment. People in the city don’t believe me when I tell them that the river is beautiful. Only my pictures serve as proof.”
Saiyad is planning to collect photographs taken by other people who visited the river in better times, as a documentation of their memories. This is why the title of his series Discovering The Forgotten Rivers Of Bombay includes Bombay, because the rivers that were forgotten existed in the time when Mumbai was known by its other name.
The first part of Discovering The Forgotten Rivers Of Bombay is centered around Dahisar river, and was exhibited early in March on the banks of his subject. “Sadness is an understatement for the feeling you get when you see the exhibition and the river behind it,” said Padmashree winner Sudharak Olwe, who inaugurated the project. “The pictures are there and the river is flowing and you question yourself, really what we are doing with the river? In most cities, rivers are the lifeline and in Mumbai, our lifeline has become the gutter.” Along with photographers Chirodeep Chaudhuri, Indrajit Khambe and Ritesh Uttamchandani, Olwe guided Saiyad on the project.
Saiyad is also working on a photography series called Finding Tukaram, which will explore the route that devotees of the saint take, but he has no plans to exhibit this work in an art gallery. “I have always thought that if I ever do a photography project, I will show it to the people who are part of it,” he offered by way of explanation. “I want to take this project to the street and only then can a dialogue be built around it.”
For now, Saiyad sees no end in sight. “Many photographers have told me it’s a lifetime project,” Saiyad said referring to his forgotten rivers project. “I am going to do it as long as I don’t get bored. The geographies are constantly changing and there are lot of dynamics to it so I don’t think I ever will.”