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Radical Housing and Socially-Engaged Art

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Moving back to Delhi in the summer after a stint at film school, I was fresh off of an emotional and psychological roller coaster mourning the loss of my mojo. I was in search of a pet project that would trigger some form of personal revival.

I had been curious about Khirki village for a while. Owing to the interaction between the immigrant settlements of Afghani and African refugees and the local Jat and Muslim population, the social culture that has managed to evolve here is so magnificently unique. Hoping I could tap into it in some capacity, I shot a most random email to Khoj (not really expecting much).

To my surprise, a week later I found myself sipping coffee at Rustom’s with Radha. She told me about these 10 year-old girls that come to Khoj to learn Bharatnatyam and whether I would be interested in doing something with them as well. I was more than excited and we scheduled to meet every Wednesday.

I was one part overwhelmed and one part enthusiastically working on grand plans of introducing the girls to stop motion, creative writing and maybe even shooting a little film. I put together a set of activities, hoping I would be able to provoke thought and engage them creatively. But little girls are a tough audience and these kids were very clear on what they wanted to do, which was either to draw or play games.

From the start we had a few forces working against us. The girls belong to Afghani refugee families that arrived in India less than a year ago, which meant that there was a strong language barrier was our first hurdle.

Since the circumstances of their immigration are so tense, their families are extremely cautious and wary of the people and spaces they interact with. Despite being only ten they have hectic lifestyles, juggling between school, long hours of tuition and extensive domestic responsibilities. All this in the absence of amicable public spaces meant that their time at Khoj was their only time to let loose.

I realized that I couldn’t and didn’t want to coerce the girls into participating in projects just because I found them interesting (because at the end of the day who was I?). What was paramount rather was to gain their trust and get them to behave freely around me. All I wanted was to provide new avenues for them to invest their energy and to relax and have fun while doing so.

We divided our sessions between art & craft and games. We drew maps, family trees, landscapes and even designed our own mehendi. We crafted paperclip puppets that we did little acts with, painted diyas for Diwali and most successfully we made rubber band jewelry. I found a set of really interesting theatre games online (, which I’d recommend to any inexperienced adult brave enough to engage a group of children.

I also compiled a small library for the girls. We spent a few sessions practicing their reading skills. Interestingly they all read English rather fluently but they can’t understand any of it.

Slowly the girls started responding and I’m proud to say that by the end of our time together they were enjoying themselves. They began having favorite activities, which they would request over and over. They started showing up for class earlier and earlier, so that by the time I arrived they would charge at me all at once. One of my favorite times together, (because it was initiated by the girls)was when they decided that they wanted to dance. Each girl selected an Afghani pop song and gave each other impromptu performances. The Khoj hall became our safe place. With all the shutters down and the doors closed, the girls finally felt easy enough to dance, sing, laugh and scream.

There is something about the way kids love you. When they finally decide that they trust you and allow you into their thoughts, the connection that transpires feels so strong and unexplainably pure.

I hugged them all goodbye today and I really wanted to keep extending the conversation so they wouldn’t have to go. Every time I sat with them I made a mental note- google Pashto tutor. Their energy is so contagious that I truly wish to be a part of their world, their jokes, their emotions and their stories.

During our sessions, there was a lot that we wanted to say to one another. But feeling each other struggle, we would often bite our tongues, smile things off with a “koibaat nahin.”

There were times when they made me want to rip my hair out. They switch between angelic giggles & heartwarming conversations and a high energy- impatient- competitive- mob. Regardless, I always caught myself grinning the whole ride home, discussing my girls for long after my friends had lost interest.

There are a couple of takeaways from the whole process that intrigue me. The first is that the are girls quick self assessors, deciding what is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and ‘ugly’ or ‘beautiful’. They have a strong aversion to producing ‘bad’ work and show quite a bit of resistance to participate if they decide that they can’t do a task. Many would shadow the girl who was for instance drawing the ‘best’ and as a result by the end of the session we would have several versions of the same sketch.

They prefer copying images from colouring books and magazines rather than draw free form and from their imaginations. This came as quite a surprise because I had the perception that children love being uninhibited and carefree self-expressers, but my girls were quite controlled and harbored a strong need to be by the book. In fact a girl attempting things differently would casually single herself out with a humorous remark, finally declaring ‘mamji this isn’t for me.’

But there was obviously grey to this pattern and it eventually began surfacing. Whenever we sat down to draw or paint, the first attempt at the activity would be nervous and self-conscious. They spent the most time trying to make it look ‘good’. But while some girls would be waiting for the rest to get done, they would attempt the activity again as a way to pass time. With every new attempt they would allow themselves to be more and more experimental.

I was most surprised by how maturely the girls would handle themselves, especially during little class conflicts. The same girls that would be getting pranked and hassled or arguing over the right to a sketch pen would suddenly in a matter of seconds, tap into this inner calm, compose themselves and resolve the peace. In literal seconds it would feel like the fight never happened. I know it sounds less grand than I’m feeling it but if you could only see the look in their eyes in that moment. For a moment they turned into little women.

My time with my girls is (hopefully) on a brief sabbatical. Now that we’ve formed this comfortable relationship I’m really keen to come back and reattempt some of my initial plans. Our time together has helped reinvigorate my optimism and patience.I think about them every few days, how they’re spending time, what’s troubling them and keeping them happy.

I am supremely grateful to Khoj for allowing me to do this and just supporting individuals who are keen on interacting with community spaces and cultures for their own learning and giving them such a tranquil and warm space to do so.