In each city, the Lab takes on an entirely new face. Part of this is due to the individual context of the city, but equally responsible for shaping the Lab is the Lab Team at its reins. The four new Mumbai Lab Team members were announced recently, and the mix this time around is really exciting again. This interview with Aisha Dasgupta—a British demographer working in the field of health in Malawi —is the second in a series of interviews with Lab Team members to get to know them, their work, and what they are bringing to the table for the Lab in Mumbai.
Let’s start at the beginning: can you describe your own work briefly, and tell us how you are applying your skills here at the Lab?
At the moment, I’m working on my Ph.D., and my area of interest is the relationship between fertility intentions, family planning, and fertility in Malawi. I am based in Blantyre, Malawi, and I collect new data on family planning use, method-switching, and stopping of family planning in a rural area in northern Malawi. Malawian women still tend to have a lot of children—on average, six through their lifetime—and this high fertility [rate] may well be contributing to the high poverty levels and environmental degradation we see in Malawi. These are the sorts of issues I’m interested in. Before I started my Ph.D., I was working for Marie Stopes International, which is an NGO providing family planning, safe abortion, and maternal health services. And before that I was working more generally in international development, including the health sector and also agriculture, food security, and food systems. So my background is more broadly in international development, but with a focus on sexual and reproductive health and research.
As for what I’m bringing to the Lab Team, I think predominantly it’s the research skills. We’re doing a research study with a local organization and I’ve been providing technical assistance with designing [that] study. But I guess I’ve also been bringing a different set of eyes to some of the things we’re thinking about and working on in the Lab. A demographer does not obviously lend [herself] to some of the Lab’s activities, and so perhaps I can say I’ve been looking at some things with a slightly different perspective.
Can you talk a bit about the inspiration for the projects you’re spearheading? Are there things you came across in Mumbai that gave you direction?
Quite early in the process, when the Lab Team was beginning to think about privacy in Mumbai, we were keen to get some research findings to better understand the issues. We were keen to carry out a research study of some sort that could look into and explore notions of privacy as well as how these relate to public and open space. We have been working with a local organization called PUKAR [Partners for Urban Knowledge, Action & Research] who have carried out a study for us. I worked quite closely with PUKAR to design the study, using both qualitative and quantitative methods.
One of the other projects I’ve contributed to, again with the Lab Team and other partners, is a food series. The food series looks at a range of aspects of food systems: production and growing of food, discussions and debates over organic versus industrial, food safety, nutrition, environmental issues, not to mention cooking and eating. For me, one of the inspirations for this series was a quite obvious “double burden” in India, where there are still large swaths of the population that are quite visibly undernourished, and at the same time there are significant numbers of people who are over-nourished—that is, overweight or obese. So for me this double burden is an interesting one.
As a demographer, how do you go about looking at a city? Where to do you start and what is the process?
. . . I [have] described myself [to you] as a demographer. That’s probably because my technical training, my Master’s degree and my Ph.D. to an extent, is in demography, which is population studies. The types of things a demographer might be interested in are fertility, mortality, migration, aging patterns, urbanization, and so on. But I have been looking at the Lab project not strictly as a demographer, but more with international development in the back of my mind. One of the things that interests me is, why are some people rich and some people poor? Why do some people have and some have not? And why do some people have access to certain goods and services and others do not? These are the sort of issues and questions that interested me and that I was thinking about, especially at the beginning of the Lab process.
You work mostly in rural settings. Can you describe the experience shifting over to working in an urban environment?
It has been difficult, because it’s all quite new to me, and especially because compared to most of the other Lab Team members and David and Stephanie [Kwai, the Guggenheim curatorial assistant working on the Mumbai Lab], cities [aren’t] really my area. It has been a challenge and it’s been a steep learning curve. But it’s been good fun too—and what a great experience to start thinking more about cities and urbanization. I’ve also been inspired for my own work and research. Especially because of the shift where more of the world’s population now live in urban areas than rural, and most of the continuing urban growth will be in less developed countries.
One of the things that struck me during the Lab process is the role of anonymity and the potential for breakdown of close communities in large cities. In rural areas and villages, knowing one’s neighbors and social capital provide an important role, and perhaps may even be some sort of a check on social behavior, or offer the basis for mutual insurance system. If I struggle this week and you help me out, then I’ll help you out next week. Those are the sorts of social structures we may see in places where people are known to one another and communities are tight, as in many rural areas. I can see there is the potential for these systems and community relationships to break down in a large city, where in some cases there is more anonymity, or where housing arrangements are changed from a more communal nature (e.g. chawls) to high-rises where people live behind “closed doors.” It’s interesting to consider whether and how Mumbai experiences such changes in social and community relationships, and what are the implications [of those changes].
Among all the Lab Team members, your field appears to be the one most removed from the urban planning, architecture, and design stream. Can you talk a bit about the experience of working with others from such drastically different backgrounds?
It’s been a very, very new experience for me. When I tell my colleagues what I’ve been working on with the Lab, they’re often somewhat surprised to hear that I’ve been working with an artist, an architect, and an urban designer/planner, as it’s quite far removed from my field! That’s not only been challenging, but fun as well. Quite early in the process, I realized what different “languages” we all spoke. When I was using the word “development,” I realized that could mean something entirely different for an architect or an urban designer or an artist. Another reason I’ve enjoyed working with the Lab Team is I’ve enjoyed seeing the way they approach questions, issues, and ideas, which is very different from my background. And it’s been a learning experience for me to make connections to these other fields – and come across ideas that I would never have encountered in my home discipline.
What’s your biggest hope for what will come out of the Lab in Mumbai?
I suspect that these kinds of projects often reach the middle class, those already going to museums and museum activities, or individuals who are already cognizant of the sorts of issues we want to think about during the Lab. So one of my hopes is that this project is going to [connect with] people who wouldn’t ordinarily engage in these discussions, or wouldn’t ordinarily go to museum programs or events. My hope is that we reach a wide section of Mumbai.
Three words to describe the process so far?
Fresh. Experimental. Quirky.
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Photo: Arjunan Sanjayan