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Making art to save Mumbai's mangroves

A citizen’s group formed to protect the city’s ecosystem has created a virtual art gallery to raise awareness about these forests

An artwork from the Make Art for Mumbai's Mangroves Campaign. (Parag Kamal Kashinath Tandel)

When Svabhu Kohli was growing up, mangroves didn’t figure in his definition of forests. “They somehow weren’t given much importance,” says the visual storyteller. Then, seven-odd years ago, he moved to Goa, close to a mangrove forest. “It changed my perspective,” he says, recalling the first time he went kayaking into the mangrove forests at the Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary a couple of years ago.

“I was transported into another realm,” recalls Kohli. The biodiversity he witnessed has inspired the artwork Cabinet Of Curiosity, which depicts dense groves of halophytic flora teeming with 18 species of animals, including a Lesser Flamingo, a leafcutter ant, a Bombay swamp eel, a vine snake and a black-headed ibis.

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Cabinet Of Curiosity is part of Make Art for Mumbai’s Mangroves, a campaign initiated by the Ministry of Mumbai’s Magic (MMM), a citizens’ movement to protect the city’s ecology. In April, to celebrate Earth Day, MMM put out an open call for young artists to create content about the city’s mangroves and the communities these support. It got more than 100 entries from 92 artists who shared their content on Instagram with the hashtag #MakeArtForMumbaisMangroves. These works, now on display at a gallery on MMM’s website, highlight the importance of mangroves to the city’s ecological balance, says Suma Balaram, creative lead, MMM.

Nitasha Nambiar's artwork
Nitasha Nambiar's artwork (Nitasha Nambiar)

Take Nitasha Nambiar’s evocative digital work, captioned “The only difference that is keeping our city from getting flooded by the sea is what man grows #mangroves”. It portrays an hourglass, the lower half containing an effigy of the city, and the upper with water, mangroves and animals, many of them fleeing as humans (represented by a pair of hands) decimate the ecosystem. The dense roots of the mangroves act as a plug, preventing the water from flowing down and engulfing the city. “It’s about time that we became aware that any more destruction to our mangroves is only going to affect our city,” says the Mumbai-based artist.

Mangroves, a group of trees and shrubs that thrive in brackish water, are usually found along the intertidal zone of the tropics and subtropics. The 20-odd mangrove species found lining Mumbai’s coastline, a bulwark against the Arabian Sea, help check coastal erosion and flooding. They also suck carbon dioxide from the air and release oxygen, says Pune-based artist Janaki Lele. Her paper art depicts an animal-filled grove where a tree trunk has turned red—it represents a pair of lungs. “The mangroves are the lungs of Mumbai,” says Lele.

Mangroves evolved during the Late Cretaceous period, about 50-70 million years ago. Once common across the seven islands that became the city of Mumbai, they “have been here for centuries, protecting the inland systems”, says Bhagwan Kesbhat, founder of Waatavaran, a not-for-profit and an MMM partner working on climate, environmental protection and community well-being.

In recent decades, Mumbai has lost 40% of its mangroves, home to diverse species: The Vikhroli mangrove forest alone has 16 species of mangroves, 82 of butterflies, 208 of birds, 13 of crabs, seven of prawns and 20 of fish, in addition to jackals, boars, mongoose, otters and leopards, according to an August 2017 article in the Hindustan Times. The depletion of this ecosystem is leaving the city vulnerable. A February 2020 study, published by McKinsey India, states that Mumbai is expected to see a 25% increase in the intensity of flash floods and a 0.5m rise in sea level. This is expected to affect two to three million people living within 1km of the coast.

Mumbai's DNA
Mumbai's DNA (Gary Curzai)

“For this city to thrive, we need to find a balance where nature and humans can coexist for the benefit of all,” says artist Gary Curzai, whose Mumbai’s DNA shows the primary roots of a mangrove tree entwining into a double-helix-like structure. Animals crouch on a network of rootlets sprouting from the central DNA-esque root, a nod to the ecosystem’s biodiversity, while two canoes containing Koli fishers float above it all.

“The fisherfolk still have an understanding and connection to the environment,” believes Curzai, whose father is of Koli descent. And they suffer most during ecological disasters, adds Kesbhat. “Bombay is a cosmopolitan city with a vast diversity of people, a diversity we celebrate,” he points out. “Why don’t we celebrate the biodiversity of Mumbai and inculcate the importance of our environment among the young?”

Svabhu Kohli's Cabinet of Curiosity
Svabhu Kohli's Cabinet of Curiosity (Svabhu Kohli)

The campaign seeks to do precisely this. “Our goal with Make Art for Mumbai’s Mangroves is to put a spotlight on Mumbai’s precious ecosystems to demonstrate collective support for their protection through the medium of art,” says Arpita Bhagat, campaign lead, MMM. As part of it, they will also be curating a zine with the works of 50 artists; this will be presented to the state environment secretary, along with the link to the digital art gallery that will stay alive on their website. For, as Bhagat puts it, “art has the power to percolate into our daily lives.”

This is why Kohli created Cabinet Of Curiosity. “I didn’t want people to look at these forests as just beautiful spaces,” he says—they do so much more, protecting biodiversity and supporting livelihoods. “It is inheritance in a way, and we know so little about it.”

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