There was a time when dolphins, known to the Koli community as eda masa (mad fish), used to swim up the Thane creek, much to delight of those who lived along the banks. “They don’t come anymore, of course,” says Parag Tandel, adding, “I also used to see a lot of mudskippers when I used to go swimming in the creek as a child. But those have disappeared too.” These changes have steadily turned the verdant environs of the creek into an unfamiliar, rapidly-urbanising area. For the 37-year-old artist, it was important to capture his memories of what once was, thus leading to the creation of a series of works which are currently on display in the exhibition, “Chronicle” in Mumbai.
A strong sense of history, both personal and communal, pervades the works, as Tandel attempts to catalogue the changes in the marine ecology that he himself has experienced, as well as the larger changes experienced by the Koli community that settled in and around the seven original islands of Mumbai, a few centuries ago.
The homage to this history of the community — and the history of Mumbai, in a sense — begins with a set of 12 fibreglass sculptures of the Olive Ridley turtle, which nests en masse along the Konkan coast, although it’s been years since they’ve done along the shores of Mumbai.
“This turtle is a migrant, just like my community. My ancestors migrated from Ratnagiri nearly 500 years ago and settled here, so we know that migrants have always played a big part in Mumbai’s history,” says Tandel, adding, “Even the man who cast these turtles for me is a migrant. He’s from Uttar Pradesh, where he used to be a farmer, and hard times forced him to move to Mumbai for work. He is incredibly skilled but, as he says, he needs to be this skilled in order to find employment here. And that’s the story of everyone, including people from the Koli community. We’re traditionally a fishing community, but we’ve all got different occupations now.”
The turtles are also a reference to all the freshwater wells that were once found across Thane. “Thanks to our geographical location, Thane has always had a very high water table. Almost every house had a well and in each well, you would find a turtle,” he says.
The story of the Koli community continues with “Trap 1”, a set of resin sculptures, which look like the swell of the sea, frozen for eternity.
Trapped inside these bulbous shapes are what look like drops of blood, a nod to the ancient method of fishing where the catch was often beaten with sticks when it was still in the water.
Given how memory gets distorted over time, Tandel was not interested in creating exact replicas of the marine life that is slowly disappearing in and around Mumbai and thus chose to give the works in the “Extinct Form” series a more primitive, protozoan shape. The colours he used, he explains, are a reference to the various shades of effluents that he has seen in Thane creek over the years. But it is in “Memory” that he makes his most direct reference to his own personal memories. In the luminous shadows that are cast under these sculptures, when the light falls on and through them, one can almost see the flickering shapes and colours that Tandel may have once seen.
In the same series, there’s also a set of distorted shapes made of copper-plated aluminium that closely resemble the rows of Bombay Duck fish, often found drying along the shores of Mumbai and Thane. “My mother used to sell fish and she taught me how to count using bunches of these fish. Each bunch had about a 100 dried Bombay Ducks,” he says.
Urbanisation and pollution may have irreversibly changed the character of Mumbai and Thane’s water bodies, but that didn’t stop Tandel from buying a house on Thane creek a few years ago. “My wife had insisted that if we buy a new place, it would have to be near water. That’s how it is for us Kolis. No matter what, we need to be close to water.”