Art Project: Dharavi Slum in Mumbai, India
Beginning: January 2007
Cooperation: Greta GUNTERN-GALLATI & Mukesh MEHTA


on the way to the recycling quarter


A good photo takes your breath away

It revives old memories and transposes you instantly to a coral beach in the Caribbean, a star cradle far out in the cosmos, or into long forgotten and very intimate feelings. A powerful photo inspires our imagination, stimulates our mind and awakens intense emotions: pity, enthusiasm, admiration, delight, pride, shame, guilt, fear, aggression and many more. A successful photo reveals the innermost substance of a human being, an animal, even a plant. It manifests the structures and dynamics of a piece of furniture, a landscape, a stone, a creek, a tree and it projects a film of events onto the screen of our inner eye.

Photography, whether a still shot or a film, strongly impacts our Zeitgeist. It generates new figures of identification, new myths and thus new values, rules and behaviours.


potter’s workshop


The Dharavi Slum Rehabilitation Project

The Dharavi Slum is situated in the very heart of Mumbai, a metropolis bursting at its seams. Today, about 19 million people live in Mumbai, approximately 55% of them in its slums.


Mukesh Metha with slum dweller


Urban planner and developer Mukesh Metha

About 15 years ago, after several years of professional activity in the USA, Mukesh Metha, architect und urban planner, returned to his origins in Mumbai. Soon thereafter he began to plan for the development a sustainable, slum-free Dharavi. In his own words: "I had an epiphany. I decided to dedicate my life to fixing the slums, because I realised: the people of Dharavi are my heroes.“


Mukesh Mehta’s basic idea

holds that slums should not be seen as a burden for society, but rather as a huge yet  dormant and precious resource that should be mobilised and used in a goal-oriented manner for the benefit of society and not the least for the benefit of the slum dwellers.


new Rehabilitation apartment house


Starting off from this basic concept Mukesh Mehta began to analyse the complex physical and social structures of the Dharavi Slum. Within ten years he developed a comprehensive project known as the Dharavi Slum Rehabilitation Project. A path-breaking idea always provokes both recognition and rejection. Today his Dharavi project is in the implementation phase. The majority of the slum dwellers are happy about it while a minority look at it with great misgivings.


Gottlieb and translator Pranjali
Greta’s daily shootings


In January 2007 my husband Gottlieb and I were involved in a music project in cooperation with instrumental virtuosos in Mumbai. Friends introduced us to Mukesh Mehta. Full of enthusiasm, he described his project to us and invited us for a short visit to the Dharavi Slum. We gladly accepted and entered a world we had already encountered by bits and pieces in the mass media. Nevertheless we were completely surprised by the slum dwellers we met randomly while walking through the slum.


"Welcome to India"


"Welcome to India"

A market woman sitting on the floor between baskets full of fruits and vegetables and wearing a colourful sari greeted us with a big smile and obvious pride in her English. With the help of a translator I asked her if I could shoot a few photos. I repeated this procedure each time I wished to make a portrait shot. Most people happily agreed, amazed and also proud of being in the focus of a foreign woman photographer. Some were highly amused, and we would laugh together about our impromptu photo session. On the little screen of my camera I would show them the photos I had just shot and they would study them with vivid curiosity and great fun. Often groups of children, adolescents and adults would emerge from out of nowhere and spontaneously pose in front of my camera enjoying this welcome entertainment.


ditch worker   


Poverty & Mysery

My husband and I had expected to see nothing but misery, despair and resignation, dilapidated dwellings and shacks, dirt and garbage, all the things so frequently  presented by the mass media. We did see such things and people: mutilated, old, ill creatures, beggars rummaging for food in the garbage cans, miserable individuals life had punished in an inexorable manner.


Washing clothes



Yet our surprise was great as we observed many dwellers and situations we hadn't expected at all. They lived in poor shacks that were kept clean and tidy despite the rusted walls and roofs full of holes and cracks. These people irradiated a healthy self-confidence, pride, serenity and quiet dignity that impressed us deeply. How many creative resources must lie dormant in these beautiful, open-minded and intelligent human beings! Children were caring for their younger siblings, gently carrying them in their arms or holding them by the hand.


caring for his brother


Children and adults with alert and questioning eyes, eager to explore the world and to strive for a better future.


young mother


The adults worked hard in scarcely paid jobs or ran their modest family business. They didn't shun hard labour that people in richer countries consider to be absolutely unacceptable and undignified. They produced ceramics, worked wood, leather and other materials, sewed and ironed clothes using machines and tools that we may find only in antique second-hand shops. Making very careful use of the very scarce potable water they were able to come by, women scrubbed floors and washed clothes. At the refuse dumps they selectively collected plastic bags and bottles, gracefully carrying the big bundles on their heads to sell at the recycling stalls.


recycling factory
shoe factory


People washed their faces and hands with the water from small plastic cups or  cleaned their teeth with their index finger covered with ashes.




Many women wore beautiful, multi-coloured cotton or even silk saris while doing their daily chores.  These saris attracted me like a magnet. They are a testimony to an ancient high culture and I do hope that they will not fall prey to what is called 'modernization'.


mending shoes


Beauty is no luxury, we need it as we need fresh food and water. "If I had but two loaves of bread", said the prophet Muhammad, "I would sell one and buy hyacinths, for they would feed my soul."  


separating the wheat from the chaff


We were deeply impressed by these people, and I knew that I would like to make many more portraits of them. It was evident that the slums were tremendous treasure troughs: their inhabitants should get a chance to develop their dormant creative potentials, a sine qua non for transforming the slums in to a world offering all its inhabitants the opportunity for education, health and well-being; and last but not least providing society as a whole, the country and the world with new and immense creative potentials and precious natural resources.
The next day we boarded the plane back to Switzerland. During the flight I carefully studied my Dharavi photos, and they deeply touched a cord in my heart. Intuitively I understood that the slum dwellers teach us a priceless lesson: It is the way we see our reality that transforms it and attributes to it a specific meaning. Happiness or frustration, spiritual rootedness or existential alienation are mental states that although influenced by our environment, are produced to a great extent by our mind.

At Zurich airport we received a cold shower. In one of the most affluent countries of the world we saw any number of empty, blasé, arrogant, embittered, anxious, resigned, helpless and depressive faces. Unlike in the Dharavi Slum, the people here seemed to be stressed, scurrying around like squirrels as if scared to miss something of terrible importance. There is some truth in the proverb: if you rest you rust. Yet you are burned to charcoal on the grill of acceleration if you keep racing day-in, day-out without distinguishing between the urgent and the important.

Two weeks later I returned alone to Dharavi and hope to do so again in the future. Thanks to the spontaneous and generous cooperation of Mukesh Mehta and the slum dwellers of Dharavi had the unique chance to embark upon an art project portraying the other side of the moon, namely those aspects of a metropolitan slum that the mass media usually forget to show to us..


school girl


Creativity — a virtually inexhaustible natural resource

It is my hope that the inhabitants of Dharavi will enjoy my photos and that their portraits will encourage them to maintain their serenity and dignity, the beauty of their saris and, last but not least, their solid spiritual rootedness. Despite their crushing poverty they still have the strength to attribute a deeper meaning to their existence -  quite unlike a growing majority living in highly industrialised countries all over the world.

Human creativity is the most precious of all natural resources. Human beings have an inborn right to mobilise their potentials and talents. Unlike other natural resources – oil, gas, minerals, land, food and fresh water - we steal from our planet and often waste mindlessly for individual purposes, human creativity is a virtually inexhaustible natural resource. Why? Because every creative achievement inspires and motivates other individuals and groups to strive for ever new creative achievements.

It takes a lot of imagination and courage to live in great poverty and misery and to maintain your serenity and dignity. The men, women and children I portrayed in Dharavi do have that imagination and courage. They deserve not only admiration and gratitude but also our cooperation on their way to a better future.




Slumdog Millionaire

The movie Slumdog Millionaire is about a young man of the Dharavi slum filmed 2008 at Dharavi slum. It won eight Oscars.


text: GG + GGG
April 2012