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Radical Housing and Socially-Engaged Art

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The first meeting happened on 25th March 2014 and there were participants from the KHOJ Food residency III to artists like Ravi Agarwal, Arunkumar H G, Aastha Chauhan and Akshay Rathore on Skype. It was a great brainstorming session and the foundations for an upcoming community art project were laid.

As much as we all had qualms about calling it urban farming, it was essentially that but haven’t Indian houses always done basic kitchen gardening? Spices, herbs, green vegetables and fruit trees in front lawns or back yards are in many people’s memory except my generation who were born in the Delhi that’s constantly fighting for more land to “develop”.

While living in this highly industrialized city, the Delhi residents are losing connection with food, nature and the act of growing. Fresh fruits and vegetables are expensive, glazed in synthetic chemicals and falling behind from the modern man’s daily diet.

After months of wait, the project has now started taking shape. Yesterday (6th August) Shraddha, Aastha and I went walking in the streets of Khirkee, an urban village in New Delhi, located right opposite the much known SelectCity Walk Mall in Saket. We looked for corners, abandoned properties, food shops and anything that could be turned into an #EdibleGarden. With this project being my first community & art initiative, as well as the first walk in Khirkee, I was walking with curiosity and some hesitation for how the locals might respond to our idea.

The concrete grey Lal Dora colony had people with a love for greens. Many balconies and shops had one or more planters and kadi patta being a favourite among many. There were hanging pots and grills of greens. Nothing got our attention as much as one man in Hauz Rani, who ran a grocery + drinking water supply shop. J.D. Khan had three small pots; rose and two others which he couldn’t name, right at the boundary wall of a community park.

We started interacting about his plants and he opened up to tell us he’d been planting for years. He has planted Jamun trees and a few other inside the park. His plants often get broken by the local kids playing and cut down for fodder for goats before Eid. Aren’t kids like monkeys? They are so playful and fun to watch, but they cause a havoc wherever they go. Nonetheless, he hasn’t stopped planting. He grows in his spare time and takes good care of his babies.

Right beside him was a chai shop and our walk on a humid Delhi afternoon had made us crave for a break. The shop owner Mohammad Yamin was another green crusader. He showed us his pots which had remains of chana, chilli and dhania in them. The little kids were again to blame.

He then took us inside the park and that’s when we felt we had hit a jackpot. These people were some of the few involved and conscious residents, often not easy to find. Their passion for growing trees and making their area lush green is inspiring. जामुन / Jamun, गूलर / Goolar (an Indian fig tree), मेहंदी / Mehandi (Henna), रात की रानी / Raat ki Raani and many I can’t recall had been thriving with a help and care of these men. The shops and residencies have pooled in money to buy a lawn mower, farming tools and a water pump for irrigation. The Govt. employed माली /gradener is least interested in showing up and on occasional complaints about dry soil made by the shops, he shows up and sweeps the park.

The park being a community space and un-interrupted seemed a good place to start farming. Its used daily by kids who play cricket, football and walkers. Hence we decided to pick the side space of the track (approx 10 feet wide), which is generally used to grow small shrubs. There is even potential to have a small pit for composting. The chai wala being a step ahead of us, has already been throwing his spent chai patti in one corner to make खाद / compost.

As a gesture, we gave them some seeds from Shraddha’s seed collection and plan to start planting food with them in the coming week.