This year, Vikram Dhembare spent Dussehra at his table, closely studying a handful of delicate old leaves while carving in letters with surgical precision. It was a holiday, but time was precious: he wanted to try and save Aarey Colony.
When he was done, the leaves — which he’d collected from the Colony over the past few months — bore the names of various metro stops like Kalbadevi and Mumbai Central, across Mumbai. He finally uploaded the work on social media with one sentence: "Your ticket has been paid for."
The overarching message delivers a punch to the gut: the trees at Aarey Colony have, literally, paid with their lives for your metro ticket.
“We usually exchange Apta leaves on Dusshera, but I worked on exchanging a different kind of leaf,” smiles Dhembare.
Launching a campaign
Aarey Colony is in the news for the surprise felling of its trees (2,141 trees, according to Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited) between 4 and 5 October, and the unusual alacrity with which the civic authorities acted. Dhembare, a Mumbai-based creative art director at an advertising agency, was up late working and coordinating with volunteer and activist groups for his soon-to-be-launched campaign, Tickets from Aarey, when his phone buzzed with the news. “People shared videos of trees being cut at Aarey on WhatsApp groups.”
Dhembare knew it was now or never. “I was only halfway through my work but decided to post whatever I had.” So while the trees fell to the ground at Aarey Colony, he registered his protest from his home in Kamothe by launching Tickets from Aarey on social media. ‘The cost of this ticket is paid by the trees at Aarey and will be paid by generations of Mumbaikars to come’ says its first, ominous post on Instagram, along with a picture of a leaf with the inscription ‘Bus depot - Sahar road’.
Dhembare shifted to Mumbai from Satara years ago, for college. “Satara is a drought-stricken place, so I know the importance of trees. I used to go to Aarey Colony for treks and nature walks with friends, so I am emotionally connected to the place,” he says.
Saving Aarey with art
Nearly eight months before the dramatic developments of 4 October, Dhembare had introspected on how to try and save Aarey Colony. “It’s not feasible for us to attend the protests and go to court all the time. So I decided to use my art skills to get people to talk about Aarey and garner more on-ground support.”
The 35-year-old calls Tickets from Aarey a "passion project" and he doesn’t use the term loosely. He – and later, his team of artist friends – made frequent trips to Aarey to collect fallen leaves. Dhembare spent nearly two months experimenting with fonts, cutters, set stencil templates and even laser, before quickly abandoning that idea as the leaves went up in smoke. He finally decided to cut out the letters manually. “I also researched how to work on leaves. Old leaves curl up after a while, making it hard to work on them. So I started looking for slightly moist leaves and stored them between the pages of my books.”
When he finally had a prototype, Dhembare reached out to friends for more manpower and ideas. This included advertising professional Nishant John, who helped roll-out the campaign on a wider scale. John points out that these recent developments go against the current narrative on climate change. “Let’s flip the situation: will you remove 50 buildings to make space for a forest? Why don’t we, even though we have more buildings than open spaces?” 23-year-old art director Kinal Varu, who’s been tasked with working on the leaves, says, “In a place like Mumbai, which is so polluted, it is important to have a place like Aarey Colony.”
The team has, so far, distributed about 100 leaves, fashioned as postcards, to friends, colleagues and, family. “We hope that they will, in turn, share it within their social circles and help spread the word,” says Dhembare. “In the next few days we will, in collaboration with activists and volunteers, distribute the leaves to commuters outside metro stations wherever possible, without causing a disturbance. We are also going to hand deliver and courier them to celebrities, RJs, social media influencers and government authorities from today.”
Dhembare stresses that the campaign is not against the metro project. “But authorities should explore other options that experts have repeatedly spoken about, like Backbay and Kanjurmarg, before cutting down trees at Aarey to construct the metro car shed.”
The campaign is self-funded, says Dhembare and the team. “But the costs are not that high,” says Shivam Ingale, art director. “We have tried to keep the material as natural as possible.” Dhembare adds, “Even the paper that I have chosen to work on is pretty cheap. The only expense is printing, but we know printers, thanks to our profession.”
The ultimate aim of the campaign, he continues, is to save the remaining trees. “We also hope that we can replant trees to compensate for the ones that were cut and maintain the green space as it is.”
— All photographs by the author
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Updated Date: Oct 13, 2019 09:57:51 IST