Co-creating Mumbai afresh via ComplexCity

MUMBAI EVENT: COMPLEXCITY 2020

From a street play presented at the ComplexCity Bolti Bombay youth competitions. Pic: Vivek Venkatraman

Co-authored by Doel Jaikishen and Vindhya Jyoti


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Disillusionment, divide and doubt. That is the distressing picture media paints of almost every Indian city. People are fighting for their basic rights—a secure home, to pursue livelihoods with dignity, to practice their religion, to access basic health, sanitation and education amenities….the list is endless! In the struggle to just get by each day, the power to rebuild and restore the city through a better understanding of each other’s position and challenges—both individually and collectively—is often the last priority. Justice, equity and dignity continues to elude us, most affecting those who are poor and marginalised. The city’s identity as a welcoming and safe haven too comes under threat. 

It is we who have made our city what it is today. Take a moment to consider how each one of us contributes to the city. From the corporate to the unorganised sector the young and old, people across backgrounds, interest groups, socio-economic classes all leave their footprint on the city. And yet, we don’t often stop to think of and celebrate these networks, even those that directly impact our lives daily! 

Introducing ComplexCity!

Cities are complex. Cities are heterogeneous. Cities are dynamic. What gives cities these attributes are its people and that’s why it’s so important to talk and engage with one another. To bring out the voices from the mainstream and the margins, to connect with one another meaningfully, to  co-create a better future. 

These are the drivers that led Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action (YUVA), a 35-year-old non-profit development organisation committed to helping vulnerable groups access their rights, to organise ComplexCity, an annual festival to celebrate urban diversity and difference. From the first instalment of the festival in 2018, ComplexCity has been committed to curating a series of open platforms across Greater Mumbai—from youth competitions (Bolti Bombay), to city walks, cultural events (Culture Kaun), seminars and exhibitions (Equipolis), youth events (Making Mumbai) and film screenings (Living Mumbai).

These platforms enable people from across the city to openly engage, express and exchange views, to increase their interest and investment in the city-building and development process, form networks of support, and to act on pressing urban issues in a participatory and co-creative manner. As an organisation with a deep understanding of the urban context and challenges, the festival recommits us to do more for helping promote just and inclusive cities for all, to together shape and create a welcoming and sensitive city—of, for and by the people. 

The urban festival in its third instalment

The third edition of ComplexCity, from 11–23 February 2020 across different parts of Greater Mumbai, saw the active participation of 3,000+ people, appreciating and analysing the city in its many forms and critically engaging on how the city can be made more inclusive and sustainable. 

The excitement started with the competitions segment—debate, street plays and photography—where people from different backgrounds presented their thoughts creatively on a range of diverse topics, sometimes hotly debating them, sometimes letting their silences speak more than words can, or using effective gestures. The street play preliminary round was inaugurated by Maharashtra State Home Minister, Jitendra Awhad. The photography competition on the theme ‘People in the City’ provided rich perspectives on how the city views its own inhabitants. 

ComplexCity’s flagship event, Making Mumbai, is a day devoted to the youth—their participation in the city-building processes. A platform where they can share current and prior efforts in this direction, a safe space for them to deepen their motivation and networks, and plan for the days ahead. Energies peaked at this event, attended by nearly 600 youth, who stressed on why they are invested in their city and its future, and encouraging others to join them. 

Youth lead discussions at ComplexCity’s Making Mumbai youth event. Pic: Vivek Venkatraman
Youth lead discussions at ComplexCity’s Making Mumbai youth event. Pic: Vivek Venkatraman

Also 13 film screenings were held in colleges and communities tackling topical issues such as climate change, mental health, women’s empowerment, developmental challenges, etc. with participants from diverse backgrounds. Post screening discussions on the issue helped people articulate their thoughts, give space to contrary views, deepen perspectives on urban issues, and develop empathy for urban stakeholders. “It was the first time I saw girls playing football, and how they are gradually claiming their freedom,” said a participant after watching the film Khule Aasman ke Neeche

Equipolis, an urban exhibition at YUVA Centre, Kharghar, was another interesting festival showcase. Based on the theme ‘Sangharsh Nagari’ (City of Struggle), the exhibition went beyond traditional imagining of the city. By presenting different forms of housing and work —from how the homeless live, to life in rehabilitation and resettlement sites, the work and struggles of street vendors, construction workers, etc.—the exhibition presented an insightful and interactive way of looking at the urban landscape. “We should work to ensure that this city does not remain a sangharsh nagari,” said Datta Kendre, Senior Police Inspector (Traffic), Navi Mumbai, who attended the exhibition and talked about how different stakeholders need to work towards this.

City walks brought into focus many unknown localities and facets of the city. While Mumbai’s heritage and social histories were unravelled in the walk in the southern part of the city, a walk in Ambujwadi, Malad, helped people understand life in this suburb. 

ComplexCity also presented two cultural evenings, which showcased a wide repertoire of the city’s culture, from traditional folk music and dance to modern rap and hip-hop. “The cultural performances brought the audience closer by making everyone sing, dance and cheer with their neighbours of various backgrounds from all parts of the city. I felt that the joyful atmosphere made it impossible to stay uninvolved,” said ComplexCity participant Jakob Teigelkoetter. 

Let’s re-build our city!

We are often told the future is urban. This is where exciting breakthroughs will be made—digital innovations, in public infrastructure, healthcare, education, etc. But who are these advancements being made for, and are we taking everyone along? 

ComplexCity asks each participant this question and many more. Given the broad nature of change, the dream of this urban festival cannot be realised in a single instalment, nor has it been able to achieve drastic change in its first three years. However, it is heartening to see the public support we have received so far and early steps taken by participants offer promise. Over 8,500 people have connected with us directly during the festival (which attracted new attendees each year), who have taken this message to their homes and communities, and begun to drive change within their own localities, starting small and dreaming of scaling up (more on this in part II of this series).

The free and safe engagement spaces offered by the festival are also fast-shrinking across Mumbai, making us keenly aware of the importance of continuing to make these spaces available to the general public, being the very first step towards people’s collective action on and ownership of the city. ComplexCity has also been made stronger with the support of numerous partners, without whom this festival would not have been able to take its current shape. We thank each one of them for helping us dream more hopefully and positively of a better city for all. 

[This article is the first in a two-part series on how YUVA’s urban festival, ComplexCity, aims to help co-create a better city, and how youth across Mumbai are working towards this ideal. To know more about ComplexCity and YUVA’s work, please write to communication@yuvaindia.org]

Note: Co-author Vindhya Jyoti is Project Associate at the non-profit development organisation Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action (YUVA). Her work focuses on presenting voices and insights from the community and across YUVA’s themes of work, both online and offline, in different formats for diverse audiences.


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About Doel Jaikishen 6 Articles
Doel Jaikishen is Manager, Communications, at the non-profit development organisation Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action (YUVA). She has over nine years’ experience in editing and communications, and focuses on how YUVA’s work can be better positioned and communicated for increased impact.