A walk down the path from the bell tower off Colaba Causeway to Sassoon Dock in South Mumbai on a windy afternoon is a sensorial experience. The salty breeze carries with it the unmistakable whiff of fish. Fresh crab – pincers intact – is adroitly packed in crates of ice and loaded into trucks, accompanied by a quick yell of instructions. An egret or two swoop past, trying their luck at picking shrimp piled into baskets atop pullcarts. While the clamour of a bustling morning at the 142-year-old dock and the adjoining fish-market has died out, a feeble frenzy is still palpable.

White flags emblazoned with “Art for All” in Roman and Devnagri scripts flutter on bobbing trawlers. And you are compelled to stop in your tracks and notice 350-odd black-and-white portrait-style photographs of the local fisherfolk plastered across the frontal façades of eight warehouses since last month. These are part of the Inside Out Project, one of the many works that comprise the ongoing Sassoon Dock Art Festival, an initiative of the Delhi-based not-for-profit foundation St+Art India.

A global participatory project by French artist JR, the rendering of the Inside Out Project by Akshat Nauriyal – one of the founders of St+Art India – along with photographer Pranav Gohil and graphic designer Ravi Patel, confronts the first-time visitor head-on. “[The] people who are photographed here have an intricate, powerful relationship with the space they inhabit,” explained Nauriyal, who is also the festival’s content director and digital head. “There is a notion that only the faces of famous people can be pasted on walls, but here you have the people who belong to the space seeing their own portraits.”

The Inside Out Project. Photo credit: Pranav Gohil.

Manifesto for inclusiveness

Free of charge and open to the public, the festival espouses the idea of taking art out of the confines of the white cube and embedding it within public spaces, thereby regenerating neglected locales and providing emerging artists a platform to showcase their work. Co-founded by Hanif Kureshi (artistic director), Giulia Ambrogi (festival curator), Arjun Bahl, Akshat Nauriyal, and Thanish Thomas, St+Art India professes to uphold the importance of an audience-driven art-viewing engagement, one that is not outlined by the constricts of exclusivity and privilege.

The Sassoon Dock Art Project, in collaboration with the Mumbai Port Trust that owns the land, is the foundation’s seventh iteration in India since its inception in 2014, with further editions of public art planned in Panjim, Hyderabad and Chandigarh. “We’ve tried to adopt a sensitive and respectful approach to the locals’ way of living,” said Nauriyal. “For instance, the exhibition is open for visitors only post noon as the mornings are the busiest time at the docks, a rhythm that cannot be disrupted.”

The guided tours as well as the wall texts are executed in English, Hindi and Marathi, and free of jargon. The organisers’ claim of making the festival as inclusive as possible is evident. There have been efforts to involve the locals in the production process: to borrow their expertise for stitching nets to make artworks; to assist artists during installation; to set up food stalls at the venue; and to be part of the on-site workforce. However, extending an invitation to the locals to create their own mural or installation could probably have been a step further in making the festival truly democratic.

Guido Van Helten's Untitled. Photo credit: Pranav Gohil

Art in abundance

The dock, which sits on the edge of the land and looks out on to the sea, is a curious choice of location for a public art festival, which is spread over an expanse of 20,000 square feet. Built by Sir Albert Sassoon in 1875, the dock also comprised cotton spinning and weaving mills in its heyday. Sassoon Dock has always had a thrumming, productive ecosystem of its own, but has become a crowd-puller since the beginning of the festival.

Inside, the three-storeyed cavernous warehouse is populated with the works of 30 Indian and international artists, spanning colossal murals and site-specific installations, oscillating from the intensely elegiac to downright sardonic, to those verging on mythography, environment degradation, and changing cityscapes and cartographies. For instance, Sydney-based artist Guido Van Haiten spent his initial days in Mumbai at the dock with the local women, shelling prawns and making their portraits, three of which are transferred into massive photorealistic murals within the warehouse. The result is meditative and poignant, and radiates a sense of kinship between the women engrossed in their chores despite the surrounding din.

Singaporean artist duo The Yok and Sheryo’s Varuna Vessel draws parallels between the association shared by the fisherfolk with their boats, and the relationship between Lord Varuna, a deity of the sea, and his faithful vessel Makara. Tan Zi Xi’s installation Plastic Ocean is perhaps the most powerful one – an experience akin to being underwater, with the harsh reality of the surface completely covered in layers of plastic trash. The walls are covered with full-length mirrors, thus lending the illusion of the viewer being trapped in a vortex, making us worry about the impending ecological disaster we’ve created for ourselves.

Varuna Vessel by The Yok and Sheryo. Photo credit: Akshat Nauriyal

The ‘public’ in public art

Art can be deemed as public because of the kind of questions it tries to address, and not merely because of the volume of visitors it attracts or the traction it gains on social media. In this sense, the Sassoon Dock Art Project tries to reflect upon the tropes surrounding cultural dynamism, identity, gender roles, occupation, social and spatial integration, of a space entrenched in history, and of its people as inheritors of a history.

The process of getting the locals from the Koli, Hindu Maratha and Banjara communities to partake in the Inside Out Project was not easy. “It involved trust that worked both ways, of course, first from the locals’ end,” said Nauriyal. “It took some time for them to understand the project. Questions such as ‘Why do you want to put up photos? Are you going to make money out of this?’ emerged. We set up a makeshift studio at the dock, and waited for people to turn up. While the first two days saw no people at all, there was a gradual spurt and then one day almost 150 people showed up. It [the project] is not in isolation of the people it is representing; one has to make the effort to know them and interact with them.”

Undercurrents of uncertainty

While Sassoon Dock has primarily remained unchanged over the decades, in the wake of the long-debated redevelopment plan, the locals find themselves on precarious ground. According to Sanjay Bhatia, chairman of the Mumbai Port Trust, the various stages of the proposed redevelopment plan for Sassoon Dock include cleanliness and waste segregation; the circulation and regulation of traffic at the Old Dock; and initiating excursion services by the fishermen at the New Dock. Furthermore, there is a roadmap for New Dock Modernisation. This will be executed by the Maharashtra Fisheries Development Corporation through funding by the government. The final stage will involve the streamlining of fishing activities and “fish tourism” through the establishment of a museum, audio-visual centre and library.

Keeping in mind the fact that the Mumbai Port Trust is the key collaborator for the festival, it seemed rather paradoxical – albeit refreshingly unconforming – to come across interdisciplinary arts collective Alt-Q’s The Last Fishermen of Mumbai, an audio-visual piece that critiques the impending transformation of Sassoon Dock.

The Last Fishermen of Mumbai by Alt-Q Collective. Photo credit: Akshat Nauriyal

In a similar vein is architect Swati Janu’s Sassoon Studio, a participatory media art project set up through a temporary recording studio within the community of hawkers under the water tank at Sassoon Dock for a week. The recorded dance, music, or acting performances by the people were then screened at the festival. “The project hopes to bring these voices of Sassoon to the people of Mumbai, who might have forgotten about the city’s original inhabitants who now occupy its fringes between the city and the sea,” said Janu.

The art project is a momentary interjection at Sassoon Dock. While most of the murals will stay on, the installations will be done away with. Speaking about the afterlife of the Inside Out Project, Nauriyal said, “It’s going to stay as long as the forces of Nature allow it to; it’s as simple as that.”

Swati Janu's Sassoon Studio (work in progress). Photo credit: Pranav Gohil.

Ripple effect

The Sassoon Dock Art Project is certainly not the bellwether as far the creation of a public art space in Mumbai is concerned. It functions in more ways than just an exhibition – a spot for practice and prefiguration, a workshop, a studio, a space to rehearse, perhaps all at the same time. While the argument of an impending gentrification is not a new one to be made, the sudden opening up of the dock might lead to a sense of vulnerability among those living there; a fear of the otherness and elsewhereness within their own space, within a fragile ecology that is their source of sustenance.

On the other hand, while the festival is an attempt to enliven a neighbourhood, and as the organisers state, to engage with the locals, how far has it gone to bridge the divide between the privileged and the other, or the insider versus the outsider within the space? Or is it akin to a fishing line with no bait and no hook? While one cannot expect art to always have an evangelistic outcome, has the festival piqued the interest of a public as far as the consumption of an artefact of imagination is concerned? An emphatic yes. Does it obliquely instigate, provoke, or act as a catalyst for dialogue? Perhaps it does, even if it is in its own populist manner.

Clemens Behr's Sassoon Dock Painting. Photo credit: Akshat Nauriyal