Mumbai’s Kolis fight to (re) take possession of their home
“We have lost everything. Who collected? however, we are displaced in our freedoms ”are the first lines of the poem ?? (erpal), meaning grievance, by the local poet of Koli Shahir Pundalik Mhatre; documented by the Tandel Fund of Archives, an archival project led by artists Parag Tandel and Kadambari Koli. The poem marks the many years of displacement of the Kolis from Bombay and the reclamation of their land by the city’s industries. The town’s original inhabitants, its dynamic fishermen, are now fighting a long battle against their own home.
Morning trips on Mumbai’s local trains are usually marked by gossip, sometimes quarrels at the entrance, between the fisherwomen of Koli, all carrying their daily stock. Most commuters don’t mind the seafood that comes with their daily commute, and even those who are vegetarians – some even avid – manage to indulge in the smells and sight of fish. You could argue that this is social conditioning, but it’s important to note that Koli women have for centuries refused to let their guard down. The Tandel Fund of Archives (TFA) often centers them in their community documentation, as Koli women play a key role in the economic distribution of fish in the city and interact with city dwellers on a daily basis.
Women who make the community
Originally called “Backward Class” by the British, the Kolis are seen as a lower caste community in the city, placing women in a social context structured not only by gender but also by caste dynamics.
Although Koli families are generally matriarchal in nature, with women dealing with the cleaning, cutting and supplying of fish in the female-dominated fish markets, the city’s decisions to demolish the fish markets and to expel Kolis from the city render many people powerless. Over time, it may appear that the otherwise natural juxtaposition of Koli women and the urban population has become a hindrance to the development of the city’s industries.
In a video clip of a woman Protesting the state’s neglect of their livelihoods, Tandel Fund of Archives calls it “Stormy Voice of the Women of Koli,” alluding to their loud volume echoing through the city. Mumbai is largely marked by this voice; it is characteristic of the women who roam the cityscape in a way many unimaginable. The founders of TFA, Parag and Kadambari, embarked on this journey to claim Mumbai’s history as their own – the Kolis – in order to understand contemporary issues that, for the community, exist because industries have reduced them to silence for their own development. They establish TFA’s social media as a repository of Kolis knowledge and experiences. It is remarkably a decolonized museum space, moving away from the four conventional walls and allowing Koli’s story to be lived; driven and written entirely by the community, for the community.
Read more: “Koliwadas are the living heritage of Mumbai and must be preserved”
A story of displacement
“The last fisherman in our family was my grandfather, after which we moved on to office jobs,” says Hari Gomoji, a Koli, residing in Versova Koliwada. After his grandfather, the tradition of fishing in his family came to an end and the successors adapted to industrialization. This is now common among young Kolis who are retiring from the practice.
As globalization hit Mumbai, the rise of the Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation (MIDC) followed suit, taking control and tagging several Koliwadas who, until then, enjoyed the benefits of fishing in smaller coves and waters. clear. “Once the fishing in the creeks stopped, there was no other means of subsistence for such a large community,” explains Ganesh Nakhwa in the Podcast ‘Marine Lines with Raghu Karnad.’ Ganesh, a Koli, was fighting the rapid decline in fishing practices after industries began dumping untreated sewage into the streams that fishermen depended on. Industries were also responsible for the large-scale displacement of Koli families forced to move away from the coast.
Historically, the subjugation of the community was established with the colonization of the country. Reclaiming their land also included an attempt to change customs based on colonial rule, and much of that was gendered. The Tandel Fund of Archives (TFA) has published a series of ethnographic visual material, tracing the history of the community to archive indigenous history in Mumbai, and as part of the series shared old images of Koli women whose traditional everyday clothing included the Kaashtha sari draped below the waist and almost always uncovered torsos. This was designed for functionality until colonization introduced the conservative blouse and imposed taxes on women who refused to comply. The arrival of the British and Portuguese along the coasts took agency from indigenous communities like the Kolis, who were left at the mercy of their power and Eurocentric ideas of the bodies.
The need to archive
TFA wonders as well as a public: what is a decolonized museum? Perhaps he documents Kolis as people who still live, share a community through its food, or maybe he’s asking questions, whatever the case, TFA exercises its authority through its work and through ongoing engagement with the community. Located in the Chendani village of Thane, they organized pop-museums to discuss Koli traditions that are on the verge of collapse, such as the specific Son Koli dialect and artisanal fishing practices that have been largely replaced by commercial fishing.
Frequently viewing her mother as the harbinger of history and memory, Parag repeatedly shares her relationship with fish and the Koli women’s relationship with fish, which is unprecedented. The intimacies they share with other women and themselves are visibly transferred to their processing of fish, which is slow and careful, defined by touch. Parag’s photos show the use of the hands as sensory feedback: a practice that evokes the scholarly history of a community. The fight against industries also includes slowly forgotten Koli Aboriginal recipes, and practices around fish that in the urban city of Mumbai are largely unknown. Indigenous fish recipes are rarely discussed, and in the context of overfishing and exotic fish, TFA brings an audience home; where the fish is a symbol, deeply personal and political.
Remember the story
At the forefront of the business, the Koli women have always carried the history and heritage of the community through practice. Much of the community’s oral history is rooted in folk songs that have been led by women, who wrote and interpreted them. Archiving these traditions becomes doubly important, since, as Parag says, most of the oral history is lost and the role of women in the community is dominated by patriarchal control over the livelihoods of the Kolis.
TFA maintains its archives through materials. From fishing nets used for artisanal fishing, tools used to cut and clean fish, to shipping the spices needed to cook Koli foods, memories are built through these experiences that are both tangible and intangible, and the TFA’s work includes them all. Not to hide from development but to criticize it, Parag also encourages the community to evolve over time but to preserve its identity.