Mumbai: discover a new exhibition of digital photographs that explores the life of the first inhabitants of Mumbai, the Kolis

Mumbai’s Ministry of Magic is on a roll. From the creation of the city’s first interactive biodiversity map to production Marine Lines – Mumbai’s hidden worlds, from the suburbs to the seaa compelling podcast series hosted by journalist and author Raghu Karnad as well as the creation of a new zine, Create art for Mumbai’s mangrovesFeaturing original artwork by 50 artists, the collective tells stories about Mumbai that we don’t often hear.

A good example of this is a recent digital photography exhibit they collaborated on – Through the Eyes of the Kolis: A Reflection on Mumbai’s Past, Present and Future. Curated and developed by Versova-based Bombay 61, an experimental think tank working on architecture, urban design and public participation, and hosted by arts and culture digital media platform The Heritage Lab, the he exhibition is presented in four sections, using archival photographs from the 1950s-2000s, sourced from the Koli community by Bombay61 Studio, and complemented by a community map and Moodgrass illustrations that draw on the stories orals of the community – in particular of the Versova Koliwada.

Among the four sections – The community and its livelihoods; Coastal ecosystems; Edge weathering and story mapping – we recommend starting with the last one, which provides insight into the history of the Koli community based on folk tales and independent conversations. Believed to have first arrived in Mumbai in the 12th century from the banks of the Son and Vaitarna rivers, the Kolis established fishing hamlets called koliwadas along the coastline of the city’s islands. Today, there are about 39 left.

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Many of the early Kolis were Buddhist, with some converting to Christianity (especially in Worli) with the arrival of the Portuguese in the 16th century, and later the British in the 17th century. Based on conversations with Versova Koliwada elders, Bombay61 has created maps that show the rivers that traditionally flow into Versova Stream as well as the different types of fish traditionally found in and around the various koliwadas of the city (Bombay duck, kolim or shrimp, shingala or catfish, oysters, crab, kolambi or shrimp, pomfret, surmai).

Tracey L. Sweeney