Gitanjali Dang and Khanabadosh curate this series — Invisible Light — under which various themes will be introduced. Jagte Raho is the opening theme. Read an overview of the curatorial concept, here.

Also view 'Jagte Raho' — Chapter I: Gagan Singh Slows Down The News | Chapter II: Kush Badhwar and Pallavi Paul speak to the virus | Chapter III: Amshu Chukki looks at a protest that never happened | Chapter IV: Mo’Halla and the film Jagte Raho on everything that doesn’t disappear | Chapter V: Abhishek Hazra on How to Hide Your Hegel

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Chapter VI: 7 Isles Unclaimed or the Mumbai That Could Have Been

Land reclamation is the process of creating land from water. It has been employed on a large scale since the 17th century, often in places with a scarcity of land and a high population density. Extensive reclamation has taken place in Hong Kong, Singapore, Karachi, Beirut, Helsinki, Venice, Cape Town and Mexico City. Reclamation projects can range from stock-standard alterations of a foreshore, human-made islands in the shape of palm trees and world maps drawn for drones and satellites, to the making of plinths as the foundation for monuments in the sea.

7 Isles Unclaimed digs into Bombay's reclamation, the colonial project that converted seven islands — the Isle of Bombay, Colaba, Old Woman's Island (Little Colaba), Mahim, Mazagaon, Parel and Worli — into something closer to the peninsular shape that appears on maps today. 7 Isles Unclaimed commenced in 2014, undertaken by artist/researcher Ranjit Kandalgaonkar, artist/architect Vinita Gatne and The 6th Floor Collective, a collaboration between UK and Lebanon-based artists Polly Phipps-Holland and Tarek Salhany.

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(Above image: Screenshot of the 7 Isles Unclaimed project online)

The project starts with historical/archival research, looking at colonial records, maps and other accounts of and around the process of reclamation. “If you can imagine the time before it was taking place, reclamation was just an idea, a speculation. That speculation lingers in our experience of the city now and it’s that speculative quality I use in thinking about and working on the city today,” says Kandalgaonkar.

Some works that make up the project (Telescope Periscope and Tide Machine by Gatne) are physical contraptions. They are tangible, kinetic machines that deal with the line between land and water.

Other works approach the research to take on forms of storytelling, image and map-making (often adopting the language and imagery of the Victorian texts it draws from) that result in a dense network of little-known fact, historical could-have-beens, flights of fancy and concrete statistical data that reflect on ecology and the environment, science and technology, identity, power and politics in the city, then and now.

Here are those stories. All images and text by 7 Isles Unclaimed.

The Kodak Company Periscope

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(Above: An aquatic velocipede)

Photographic studios appear in Mumbai in the early part of the 19th century. Reclamation is underway and it’s not long before the easily accessible inland water bodies are a thing of the past. While photography is changing and people can now use the daguerreotype to take portraiture photographs, an interesting event starts occurring in Bombay. People hear about 'joyrides for the public' that are gathering momentum in England. Some erudite and street-smart businessmen hatch plans to monetise and corner this market in Bombay and its endless possibilities when it comes to entertaining the public. Keeping the proximity of water in mind and its easy access, the Kodak Company-run photographic studios decide to invest in a small project and The Kodak Company Periscope is born.

The plan is simple. To invest in hybridising a form of reverse-periscope with the aquatic velocipede(1). People sit in a velocipede and view aquatic life. Unlike a regular periscope, this one performs a reverse function, i.e. the capacity of looking into the water, hence unlocking the wonders of the ocean world.

(1) Aquatic velocipede: The great success of the bicycle as a means of transportation on land spurred many backyard mechanics to invent an aquatic counterpart. By the 1890s, several of these inventions were showing up in Central Park and became quite popular as recreational machines, a niche that they retained throughout the 20th century.

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Getting to Mendham's Point

The breach between Colaba and Old Woman's Island was unformidable and only covered by the sea at high tide. But between Old Woman's Island and Mendham's Point on Bombay Isle, there was a marginally deep channel, which in later years could be crossed on a ferry boat pulled by rope.

Mendham's Point was the old British cemetery across the channel (Mendham being the first person buried there). Today, one would have to stand facing the north at Colaba Police Station next to Leopold Cafe in South Mumbai and imagine Mendham's Point somewhere close to the Prince of Wales Museum and the hand-pulled ferry transporting people across this channel.

A stone commemorating the spot from where the ferry ran now lies within the confines of the Colaba Police Station. The northern stretch of the Colaba Causeway rests over this channel now, and the turtle population residing around the Old Woman's Island is long gone.

Gone too are the Koli settlements that once thrived here and cast their fishing nets along the coast till Al-Omani and back, which is how Old Woman's Island got its name, albeit a corruption.

The Submerged Forest

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(Above: The discovery of a submerged forest below the Prince's Dock)

One of the city's most beloved biographers, Govind Narayan(2) mentions a certain Dr Buist(3) in his mid-19th century account of Bombay. 

"Many geologists, including Dr Buist, were of the view that the five or six islands, which currently make up Mumbai were once one large island that might have been separated during a major earthquake or other catastrophe, leading to the current shape of Mumbai."(4)

"Further evidence of prehistoric eruption and depression is furnished by the discovery of a submerged forest below the Prince's Dock.

The remains, which came to light during the excavation of the dock in the closing years of the nineteenth century, were 32 feet below the high water mark, and consisted of a thick forest of upright stump of trees of a species still existing in the neighbourhood of this island, the Khair (Arabia Catechu).

There were in all 382 trees, 223 still standing erect and 159 prostrate, though still rooted in the soil.

They were found on a decayed trap-rock soil, overlaid by the thick stratum of clay which forms the real bottom of the harbour.'(5)

(2) Govind Narayan's Mumbaiche Varnan is, possibly, the first urban biography of Mumbai written in 1863 in Marathi by the Wilson College Professor. 

(3) George Buist LL.D. (1805⏤1860) was a Scottish journalist and scientist. 

(4) Narayan, G., Mumbai, edited and translated by Murali Ranganathan 

(5) Edwardes, S. M., The Rise of Bombay

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The Lone Sentry

The lone sentry stands in rapt attention, his shoulders relaxed but his gaze alert and mien robust. He stands testament to the naval might of the Marathas (Marhatta), adapting well to life between the waves in the early 17th century.

The Maratha Warrior: The Maratha (archaically transliterated as Marhatta or Mahratta) is a group of castes in India predominantly found in the state of Maharashtra. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, "The Maratha group of castes is a largely rural class of peasant cultivators, landowners, and soldiers. Some Maratha and Kunbi have at times claimed Kshatriya (the warrior and ruling class) standing and supported their claims to this rank by reference to clan names and genealogies linking themselves with epic heroes, Rajput clans of the north, or historical dynasties of the early medieval period. The Marathas primarily reside in the Indian states of Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka, Goa and Tamil Nadu. Those in Goa and neighbouring Karwar are known specifically as Konkan Marathas as an affiliation to their regional and linguistic alignment.

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An Offering to the Sea-Goddess

Upon hearing the news of the presence of a giant squid (or Genus Architeuthis) trapped in the gnarled mangrove roots due to the low tide off of the place that would be named Pydhonie(6); Kanhoji Angre(7) had his lieutenant send for three of his capable messengers.

"Go!!" he cried, "and appease that poor dying creature, with an offering and a prayer. She will determine our fate in the coming months, for she is most assuredly an incarnation of the sea goddess who watches over this naval fleet."

He was, of course referring to the impending Battle of Bicholim, which would decide the destiny of the power struggle between the Marathas and the Portuguese over Bombay and the Konkan coastline. The Marathas were fearless, and a constant niggling worry to the Portuguese as well as English fleets, but the wily naval commander would nevertheless deny no opportunity to allay the brewing hostilities.

He was so convinced of this creature's appearance as an omen that he further instructed his men to make sure it was to be made as comfortable as possible by continuously bathing it in salt water till it passed on... Somewhere, somehow the gods seemed to be listening, and prayers were answered for as history would show, the Battle of Bicholim never actually took place.

(6) Pydhonie: Etymologically the name is derived from the Marathi word Py which means feet, and dhoni which means to wash. Thus the name means "A place where feet are washed". This was probably the first land permanently reclaimed from the sea in Mumbai. "The name Pydhonie or "foot-wash" probably refers to a small creek that formed at high tide between the Great Breach (separating the islands of Bombay and Worli) and Umarkhadi (the creek between the islands of Mazagaon and Bombay). 

(7) Kanhoji Angre or Conajee Angria or Sarkhel Angre: (August 1669-July 1729) was the first notable chief of the Maratha Navy in 18th century India. Sarkhel is a title equal to Admiral of a Fleet. He fought against the British, Dutch and Portuguese naval interests on the coasts of India during the 18th century. As a result, his European enemies labeled him a pirate. Despite the attempts of the British and Portuguese to subdue Angre, he remained undefeated until his death.

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The Story of the Three Goddesses

One other legend must be recorded. It is related to the construction of the Hornby Vellard, the causeway that would solve the problem of the tide breaching the channel; 'the Great Breach' which flooded the low lying mainland at high tide.

It is to this effect that during the era of Mahomedan domination, the Goddess Mahalakshmi was so persecuted that she leapt from the shore into Worli Creek and remained there in hiding until after the Portuguese had ceded the island to the English. During the early stages of the attempt to dam the Great Breach, the Goddess appeared to one Ramji Shivji, a Prabhu(8) contractor, and to quote from The Gazetteer — "promised that, if he tendered his services to Government for the construction of a causeway, she would remove all obstacles, provided that he first remove the images of herself and her two sisters goddesses from their watery resting place and established them in a proper shrine on land. Ramji acted accordingly to these divine instructions and eventually, after the Hornby(9) Vellard(10) had been successfully built, obtained from the Bombay Government a grant of the site upon which the temples still stand."

It is an important history nevertheless because this event sparks what became the reclamation drive that was to grip the city for the next 300 years.

(8) Pathare Prabhu: The Pathare Prabhu community is a caste of Mumbai which settled in that region in the 13th century, and had gained prosperity during the development of Bombay by the British in the 18th century. 

(9) William Hornby: Governor of Bombay 1771-1784. He is usually credited with having built the Hornby Vellard which was named after him. It is a contentious claim as there is no report of it in the Imperial Gazetteer as reported by a later and much respected historian Samuel Sheppard, who writes..."Not content with only crediting Hornby with this great work, writers like Maclean and Douglas adhere to the pleasing fiction that he built it in defiance of the Court's orders". J.M.Maclean, in his 'Guide to Bombay' writes..."about the time the Vellard was finished, Governor Hornby, opening with his own hand the despatches, found an order for his suspension which, his term of office being nearly expired, he put in his pocket until he had finally handed over charge to his successor. The Hon. Court of Directors were excessively irate, and an order came out which, we believe, has ever since been in force that the Governor should never open the despatches in future, but that they should first be perused by one of the secretaries of Government." Again, Samuel Sheppard scoffs at this account. "There is no record of any of this, or of any other quarrel about the Vellard with Hornby, in the India Office. It is one of the fictions of Bombay much like the story of the embezzlement of the funds for building the Cathedral- that have been handed down from one writer to another." 

(10) Vellard: Portuguese for embankment

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When a story recedes, there are always residuals. "Like in any other large infrastructure project, a few individuals discussing something in a room can have long-spanning implications. There are moments before reclamation that, had the discussion taken even slightly other turns, could have resulted in Mumbai being completely different to what we know it as today," Kandalgaonkar explains.

What we, as readers do with these stories, discussed in ‘this room’, is multifold in possibility - use our own experience of the city to unpick the riddles, let them wash over us like tides on a tetrapod, or, none of the above.

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All text accompanying images by 7 Isles Unclaimed.

The online platform 7 Isles Unclaimed can be accessed here. Website by Vinita Gatne, Karen Menezes, Sajjad Anwar and Sanjay Bhangar.

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Artists in focus:

Ranjit Kandalgaonkar lives and works in Mumbai. His practice focuses primarily on unseen and ignored processes of urbanisation which he addresses in his project cityinflux.

Vinita Gatne engages in explorations and interventions through design, pedagogical, artistic and research projects which allow her to elaborate on the marginalised conditions generated in the process of urbanism.

The 6th Floor Collective is a collaboration between Polly Phipps-Holland and Tarek Salhany who live and work between the UK and Lebanon.

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Kush Badhwar is a filmmaker interested in media tectonics, collaborative practice and improvised and informal political engagement. More here.

Khanabadosh is an itinerant arts lab founded by Gitanjali Dang in Mumbai in 2012. More here.

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