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Radical Housing and Socially-Engaged Art

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Narrow lanes with buildings towering high on the onlooker, innumerable shops occupying the ground level establishments of the buildings, congested lanes which has skipped the ‘sight’ of the Municipality, with men from distinctive social backgrounds spanning across all age groups hanging out in groups near the shops or at the corner, on foot or on their shining motorcycles and the practical absence of women on the streets painted my first impression of ‘Khirkee’. Right at the first left turn towards Khirkee, we found the image of a woman clad in salwar kameez at the desk, which was one of the attempts of the project to put women behind the walls to women on the streets and their desires and visibility on the wall. The image was of Reenaji, a middle aged woman residing in the neighbourhood, who is a tuition teacher helping out the kids from the community in a small space on the ground floor of the building right next to her image. Clad in salwar kameez with a smile on her face, she came out to the door to meet us and I peeped in to see the class sitting in small groups of varying age groups and discussing ‘themselves’ and trying to help each other out in studies. We moved on to meet Veena, Binu and Kamini, the trio of the community which an earlier member of the project chanced upon on the streets. On reaching the lane where these three reside, Kamini’s mother seemed a little bit reluctant on sending her with us on account of her inability to juggle both the art and her studies. On further enquiry and making inroads to the deep blockage, her fears of her daughter being seen with the Nepali (Veena and the term used commonly for people with Mongoloid features) came out subsequently. More than her own blockade, it was the society’s untrusting behaviour towards the so called “outsiders” from their own country has been nesting and leading to such an aversion of the young girls being seen with the outsiders that perturbs her from sending Kamini. Trying to bring down the wall, we pursued her and tried to engage her through her knowledge and possession of skills like stitching to which she nostalgically nodded and reminisced about the age old days when she used to make lovely paintings and other art work. The glow in her eyes for a moment surpassed the neighbourhood networks and put her in the framework of desire and recognition that she yearns for. Further interactions and interventions seemed important.

Opposite to Kamini’s residence was Veena’s small wonderland to which we were graciously invited. A girl of 15 years dressed in a pair of jeans and a oversized t-shirt with hair pulled back and her pocket flaunting a green coloured smart phone, she was the first sight that contradicted the public space and the caricature of women we had painted in our minds. Her mother probably in her 30s opened up to us and along with two other elder women of the family who joined the discussion. The two women who were originally settled in Darjeeling enquired about the project and eventually showed extreme interest as they went on talking about the women of Nepal who march shoulder to shoulder with men and are seen extensively in public space. Veena’s flamboyance was the reflection of the social space that has been instilled in her since childhood. Certain words that seem subversive in the society’s dictionary was apparent on the faces of these women like clubs and the utter pronunciation took them to a very different urbanism that speaks of a different culture that the women seemed to be averse to.