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Privacy in Mumbai: A Conversation with Curator David van der Leer

BMW Guggenheim Lab curator David van der Leer

BMW Guggenheim Lab Curator David van der Leer

Over the coming weeks, while the Lab is open here in Mumbai, you will hear many references to “privacy.” While the Lab Team in Berlin defined for themselves an overarching theme of  “making,” the Lab Team in Mumbai has selected privacy and the relationship of the individual to the community—especially in regards to public space—as a distinct sub-theme to the larger Lab theme of “confronting comfort.”

Before we launch into talking too much about it, though, I wanted to share a few thoughts with you from a conversation I had this summer with the Mumbai Lab’s curator, David van der Leer, to provide a little context and insight. In the face of much larger issues, privacy does not necessarily come forward as one of Mumbai’s most obviously pressing topics, he said, but it is the type of lens that could offer a great deal in helping inform decisions about design.

“What is happening in Mumbai at the moment is that it’s shifting quite drastically from a city that was always very heavily focused on community settings to a city that is picking up all of these concepts from the West,” David explained to me. “People are starting to live in different conditions—not always with the whole family, and often in smaller settings. It’s not a situation like in New York, where you suddenly have more single households than family households. But these things are changing, and that needs to be reflected in the organization of spaces.”

Traditionally in Mumbai, he said, privacy in the Western sense of the word is scarce (indeed, the word “privacy” doesn’t really even exist in the local languages). On the level of domestic space, whether a person is poor, wealthy, or middle class, there are people living all around him or her—be they close neighbors in the crowded informal settlements, or the live-in staff of the wealthy and middle class. David feels that an understanding of how this, and the current shift, is affecting people could offer clues about how to design new spaces in Mumbai to best suit its unique conditions.

“Part of the design community in Mumbai has started to focus on open space and on public space. I think it’s amazing, because there is so little public space or open space. But what needs to happen now is to also have that conversation in terms of design,” he said. “What I think we’ve seen is that many of the spaces that are being designed currently in Mumbai are fairly conventional spaces, whereas the city is a very exceptional city. Keeping in mind that there’s a different understanding of the relationship between the individual and the community, and this relationship is shifting quickly, it means that you also have a different starting point for the design and use of these spaces.”

Privacy is something I’ve thought about a lot since arriving here in Mumbai. I will admit that as a Westerner, the city has challenged my notions of privacy in more ways than I had ever expected, and has invited me to really question where those notions come from— how they affect the way I interact with the city and how the city interacts with me. It is a truly fascinating lens through which to start investigating the city and its social structure. As the Lab moves forward over the coming weeks, I look forward to learning more about what Mumbaikers have to say about this, and what it could mean for Mumbai and beyond.

  • 4262nd

    van der Leer…..sounds Dutch

  • Pandoba

    Too late for Mumbai guys ! If you had taken up this task sometime in 1960 ( or even as late as 1970 ) it would have been somewhat relevant to the context then. Now , almost 50 years later there is no possibility at all in evolving a strategy for the future ! Good luck !

  • Anushka rashada

    While the term privacy might not exist in Indian languages, people in India definitely have the need for it. Also, privacy has a rather subjective approach in this city. The need for private space does not always mean it in the physical sense, and especially in Bombay, this really is true.

    I’ve been living in Bombay for the past 4 years and I came here after having lived in a massively spacious house in my hometown. Apartments are tiny, transportation is always a chaos and the workplace is always crowded and permanently surviving on a space crunch, so, while in search for privacy, I found myself constantly stealing moments of peace and solitude in the hustling and bustling public spaces of the city like the sea facing promenades and the local trains.
    Anonymity in this crazy crowded city and the ‘non interfering’ attitude of the people has been a bliss. While one might not enjoy privacy in the physical sense, this city will teach a person patients and how to survive in peace amongst millions.

  • Anuj Daga

    I am not sure if you have heard about the movie “Piya ka Ghar”:

    The description of the movie on Wikipedia is terrible, but it explores this notion of privacy that you are talking about. In the above film, newly married Jaya Bahaduri moves into her husband’s house located in a chawl in Mumbai. The story shows how the couple negotiates their privacy in their social and physical space.