Mumbai’s famed dabbawalas (tiffin carriers) have been operating for over a century, a world-renowned and unique lunchbox delivery system that supplies hot lunches from homes and restaurants to the city’s working class.
The complex-yet-efficient supply chain model of dabbawalas was praised by the then Prince of Wales and now King of the United Kingdom, Charles III, and became a case study for top management institutes in India and abroad. For many migrants who moved to the coastal megapolis, dabbawalas have been delivering homemade food making them feel at home.
As a tribute to thousands of such ubiquitous dabbawalas who manoeuvre through traffic jams on their cycles and swiftly make their way through crowded local trains and station areas to deliver tiffin on time every day, a nearly 14-feet-high shiny and glittery sculpture created by artist Valay Shende was put up at Haji Ali traffic junction in Mumbai in 2017.
Shende moved to the city from Nagpur in 2000 to study at the JJ School of Arts and members of Mumbai’s working class, including dabbawalas and commuters on local trains, became subjects of interest for him and he created art pieces on them. The statue at Haji Ali junction was installed in partnership with Harsh Goenka of RPG Art Foundation and the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC).
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Shende made his first art piece on dabbawalas in 2008, and a large sculpture was erected at Haji Ali in 2017. “I get to see more public art overseas when I travel there for exhibitions. In India, and especially in Mumbai, it is very less in number. We have limited contemporary art installations in public places and that was disappointing. The idea behind the statue was to show public art in Mumbai and dabbawalas, who are considered iconic management gurus and represent the city’s working class, were the perfect subject to start with. They are passionate about their services to thousands of people. Dabbawalas have maintained utmost perfection and the installation is a tribute to the services they provide every day.”
The sculpture is made of countless glittery stainless steel discs of several sizes and shapes coated in golden colour.
“The discs have shiny and reflective surfaces… The idea is that the artwork shall reflect the atmosphere around it. If someone stands closer to the statue, he or she can see his or her reflection in it with the non-stop movement of people and vehicles in the background, which is unique to this city. The welding of each piece of the discs together represents how atoms and molecules are weaved in this universe. We have used high-grade steel material that can cope with any kind of weather,” Shende said.
He added, “It is a figurative installation in a new and signature style. I invented it when I was in Paris in 2006 and created two sculptures of sex workers from Kamathipura. The Dabbawalla statue is created in the same style and it took me nearly seven months to complete it.”
Subhash Talekar, president of the Mumbai Dabbawala Association, said, “We have been serving the city for nearly 130 years with a lot of hard work to ensure that our customers get tiffin on time and we have earned their goodwill as well. The statue will make the passersby remember the importance of dabbawalas and also promote the dignity of labour.”
However, he said dabbawalas witnessed a difficult period during the Covid-19 pandemic as their otherwise uninterrupted services came to a standstill.
“Our services have slowly resumed after one and a half years of hiatus. We were severely affected as most of the people were working from home. Now, just over 50 per cent of dabbawalas have come back to work. Earlier, over 1,000 dabbawalas would pick up, deliver and return tiffin for nearly 25,000 people… Many schools have stopped using our services and several office-goers are still working from their homes. It will take at least two to three more years for us to function at full capacity like in the pre-Covid times.
“The statue depicts how dabbawalas belonging to the Maval region of Pune district including Junnar, Mulshi, and Ambegaon, who wear white Gandhi topi (cap), which has become synonymous with their presence in the city, stand firm and continue with their ‘essential’ services despite all odds including traffic, local train delays, and heavy rain,” Talekar added.