Matsyagandha: Low Tide Smells from the Island City

Bhavya Gupta

Part I: Critique

For my map critique, I am analysing the spatial and socio-economic aspects of a sensory map (specifically sound maps but focused more on smellscapes) with the help of Matsyagandha: Low Tide Smells from the Island City by Mumbai Paused as my core example.

Critical Questions:

Through this analysis, I am asking the following questions—

  • What can sensory maps tell us about the spatial as well as socio-economic aspects of a community or a city?
  • To what degree  are the class, caste, and gender scenarios reflected? Or are they a perceived/subjective version?
  • What about accessibility (for people with disabilities) as a challenge in a single sensory scape? How can we address it in our work and make it more accessible?

The concept of Smellwalking 

I learned about Smellwalking from this week’s recommended reading, Urban Smellscapes by Victoria Henshaw, where the author describes Smellwalking as a form of ‘sensewalking’. Smellwalking is a way to explore the olfactory (sensory) qualities of a space. The author argues that it is a methodology by which we can analyze and understand experiences and space.

The Nose Compass through Matsyagandha

Matsyagandha: Low tide smells from the Island City by Mumbai Paused (aka Gopal MS, a Mumbai-based photographer and writer) is a collection of digital photographs documented over 10 years. The author followed the smell around the city (essentially creating his version of a Smells Map of Mumbai) to find out the ‘hidden’ underlying smells that lurk below the surface and what it reveals about the city. Matsyagandha translates to ‘smell of the fish’ and is also the name of a fast train running in parts of Mumbai. 

Image is produced from Matsyagandha: Low tide smells from the Island City by Mumbai Paused (purchased Kindle e-book)

I also referred to the Smell and the City I analysis blog by Chirag Dilli where Samprati Pani, an anthropologist, asks the following questions—

“What do smells reveal about a city?” 

“How do smells make us see, understand, and know a city?” and 

“Is there a Mumbai smell?” 

The questions asked by Samprati takes me back to the critical questions that I put forward for analyzing sensory maps. I chose this map as Mumbai — a city that is a lot like New York, with a financial district, skyscrapers, high population density, and migration — is a place that can reveal different forms of sociality and segregation due to its makeup. Despite its similarities to New York, perhaps by mapping smells, and comparing the smells between the two cities, we can identify key differences. Another key reason for choosing this map and the city of Mumbai to critique the cartography of smell is it is also the city where I am carrying out my fieldwork research and creating my final atlas map. 

Smell and Labor

“What does the smell of sweat entail and what does it say about labor?” 

Mumbai’s geographic proximity to the Arabian Sea and the social structure of high population density and migration  has enabled hundreds of textile and cottage industries that employ thousands of workers. Over the decades, millions of migrants have made their way to Mumbai to sweat and earn a living. Some of them come to the city to become Bollywood stars, some come to start their own businesses or work at the stock market, while others come to earn as migrant workers in the informal economy to make and save some money to send it back to their families.

  Image is produced from Matsyagandha: Low tide smells from the Island City by Mumbai Paused (purchased Kindle e-book)

Thinking about the city with this added scape of smell really adds on to a new understanding of what it means to be a part of the city socially, economically and culturally. 

Smells that can be dividing

In a place like Mumbai, where you have big spice markets that emanate their strong and tempting aroma, the smells can also reflect one’s class and in the particular case of India, dominantly the caste. While walking in Mumbai galis (lanes), one can make a connection with the ethnic demographics of that area by its smell. The caste-based segregation has led to categorize food and their smell into ‘pure’ and ‘not so pure’. 

Smells that are Toxic

Mumbai is a city without space due its high population density. With a plethora of industries that emit smoke, In Dharavi, one of Asia’s largest slums, we find a plethora of industries that emit smoke, a large recycling industry, and narrow lanes with drains that are bunched together. Sometimes, it is difficult to know if it is a drain or a river. These toxic smells tell us about the capitalist and industrial composition of the city. 

Image is produced from Matsyagandha: Low tide smells from the Island City by Mumbai Paused (purchased Kindle e-book)

In the end, Mastyagandha led me to explore and critique the concealed socio-economic characteristics of Mumbai through smell. In India’s ‘city that never sleeps’ and ‘Sapno ki nagri Mumbai’ (City of Dreams Mumbai), the smell of the monsoon, the drains, the sweatshops, the streets and the famous Bombay duck (bambil) fish led me to understand that there is no one Mumbai smell. Mumbai is made up of a number of different smells that tells us something more about its social and economic structure. It also made me look at a city from a different sensory perspective — one that is more nuanced than what we see in plain sight. 

Part II: Critical-Creative Application

With my final atlas map, much like sensory mapping, I am also focusing on the audio aspects.  I am presenting the audio narratives of the community of women migrant workers and children that I am working with. I am not filtering out any background audio in my interview recordings with the women and children, as I feel they are an integral part of the narrative and presents us with how the community lives; they tell us about the space and the interactions happening outside of the camera frame. With this map critique, I am definitely taking forward how I can integrate other sensory cues to make my map more accessible by not simply relying on the visuals, as well as by adding an additional layer of subtle information.

Bhavya Gupta, Unheard Voices Project, 2021 

Additional examples presented in the map critique:

  1. Sounds of Mumbai by Tapan Babbar:  Which presents us with the question“What sounds define a city?”
  2. COVID-19 SoundMap by Pete Stollery, Music Chair, University of Aberdeen: A sounds maps that reflects how we can capture the temporal nature of sounds via sound mapping
  3. The Urban Smellscapes of Delhi by Amrita Chattopadhyay: She conducted one of the first smellwalk in Delhi. Through the smellwalk, she wanted to build a smell catalog that would enable us to understand a city beyond the narrow boundaries of the foul and the fragrant and look at Delhi from a positive perspective to create an urban smellscape. 


“Matsyagandha – Low Tide Smells from the Island City.” n.d. Amazon Kindle. Accessed March 18, 2021.

Henshaw, Victoria. 2014. Urban Smellscapes : Understanding and Designing City Smell Environments. New York: Routledge.

“Mumbai Paused.” Mumbaipaused Blogpost. Accessed March 20, 2021.

Dilli, Chiragh. “Smell and the City I.” Chiragh Dilli, 21 July 2019,

“Listen Closely to How Mumbai Sounds in This Interactive Exhibition.” n.d. Sounds of Mumbai.

Stollery, Pete. n.d. “This Is What Lockdown Sounds Like.” The Conversation. Accessed March 21, 2021.

“The Urban Smellscape of Delhi.” n.d. Sahapedia. Accessed March 20, 2021.

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