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Cotton Green

Artist Blog by Akshay Mahajan

As you walk through Bombay, your eyes are assailed by words, written as spoken at least twelve languages and many others at an unscientific count. Your nostrils filled with the compound scent of hot dust, attar, diesel fumes, woodsmoke from charcoal braziers, salted dried fish, and a persistent trace element of dried urine; you are walking much of the time, through the very sea itself. Licking your lips, does one taste sea salt or the sweat slowly trickling down one's brow? It's hard to rid oneself of these traces, like wet sand, Bombay sticks to your ankles. Dust it off at your own peril.

A decade after initiating "Cotton Green," a photographic project that intertwined Bombay’s colonial past with its modern urban fabric through the legacy of cotton, I picked up my camera once more. I intended to conclude this journey, to capture the final chapters of a story that began in 2012. However, as I revisited these familiar yet ever-changing landscapes, the project took an unexpected turn. Instead of closure, I found a new inspiration that led to the birth of "To die is to be turned to gold". This new direction was not planned but emerged naturally from the depths of revisiting the old spaces and seeing them anew.

"Cotton Green," as presented here, takes you into the heart of what was once an archipelago of seven disjointed islets. The project revisits the whispers of cotton as they rustle through the annals of Bombay's colonial past. These are not just narratives of a city coming into its own but echoes of a commodity - cotton - that knitted the landscape of the metropolis, threading fields, lives, and aspirations into a complex tapestry that Bombay wears to this day.

When cotton first touched the soil of these islets, it was pure and unassuming, a wisp of nature's genius. It did not yet know of the ships it would sail, the mills it would churn, or the hands it would tire. But as the British East India Company cast a covetous eye on Bombay, cotton found itself a character in a grander play of power, empire, and economic dominion.

Through the lenses, "Cotton Green" captures this metamorphosis. Each frame is a dialogue between the past and the present, where the ghostly echoes of spinning jennies disrupt the cacophony of today's city hustle. The decrepit mills, some standing like age-old sentinels while others give way to modern high-rises, are a testament to cotton's indelible imprint on Bombay's soul.

As we traverse the salt pans that once seasonally stitched the islands into one, the images provoke a contemplation of reclamation - of land and identities. The vast expanses that were tamed, dredged, and annexed speak of a hunger for expansion, fueled significantly by the cotton trade that burgeoned in the Victorian era, dictating the lives of the agrarian populace and shaping the burgeoning economy.

The photographs do not just frame the architecture of a bygone era; they capture the lingering gaze of a worker amidst the columns of a cotton godown and communities whose ancestries were intertwined irrevocably with the ebbs and flows of this commodity.

"Cotton Green" also ventures into the dark underbelly of this legacy - the exploitation, the drain of wealth, and the deep-seated scars left by colonial ambitions. It invites the viewer to reflect upon the uneven exchanges of the past and their manifestations in the social and cultural fabric of contemporary Bombay. As the journey concludes, the project leaves us with an unsettling yet necessary reminder: the city, in its modern chaos, continues to tread upon layers of its past, still feeling the weight of the cotton sack on its shoulders. The remnants of the colonial trajectory aren't just relics to be observed but are living, breathing aspects of Bombay's identity, cautioning us to tread respectfully as we shape its future.

Akshay Mahajan is part of Guest Room: »David Campany & Taous Dahmani«.