The relegation of workers’ housing to grey spaces or planned illegalities has ensured the availability of a permanently temporary migrant workforce to fuel the extensive urbanisation shaping around cities like Delhi. These grey spaces emerge as tenement towns in place of former agrarian villages, run and developed by agricultural landowners turned tenement entrepreneurs that exploit labour migrants as permanently temporary tenants. The challenges posed by the invisibilisation of such relations manifested sharply under the COVID-19 pandemic. A radical feminist politics has been emerging at the interstices as a counter against such violent dispossession employing creative narratives and ways of protest. This paper discusses the need for approaches that transcend research-activism boundaries while engaging with particularly marginalised communities. It discusses the potentials presented by socially engaged art in empowering radical politics through reflections from a long-term art-based inquiry conducted with women migrants in Kapashera, a tenement town located around Delhi.
Kapashera in the global countryside of the empire of cotton
“The violence of market making – forcing people to work in certain locations in certain ways – has been a constant throughout the history of the empire of cotton. Cotton growers are still forced to grow the crop; workers are still held as virtual prisoners in factories. Moreover, the fruits of their activities continue to be distributed in radically unequal ways – with cotton growers in Benin, for example, making a dollar a day or less, while the owners of cotton growing businesses in the United States have collectively received government subsidies of more than $35 billion between 1995 and 2010. Workers in Bangladesh stitch together clothing under absurdly dangerous conditions for very low wages, while consumers in the United States and Europe can purchase those pieces with abandon, at prices that often seem impossibly low.” (Beckert, 2014, p. 381)
In the book ‘Empire of Cotton’, Sven Beckert (2014) follows the global history of capitalism through the humble yet ubiquitous cotton cloth. He explains how industrial capitalism was built on a radical recasting of local cotton industries the world over. This was done through a violent insertion of a ‘global production complex’ through colonial expropriation and slavery (Beckert, 2014, p. 140). This ‘empire of cotton’, linking territory, labour, markets, and capital, continues to drive metropolitan accumulation even today through labour exploitations in the ‘global countryside’ (Beckert, 2014, p. 155).
Kapashera, the location of our intervention, is one such intimately imbedded site in the global production complex of the empire of cotton. As Tom Cowan’s research highlights (see also: Bathla, 2019, 2020a; 2018b, 2019) hundreds of thousands of garment factory workers inhabit Kapashera in closely built tenement blocks. The latest public health census (2019) estimates approximately 300,000 labour migrants in an area of less than two square kilometres. Most of these workers are employed as casual and contractual labour and make long-distance migration from Eastern Indian states driven by forces of uneven development (Smith, 2010). Violence and coercion are exerted on the migrant workers in the form of both housing and labour by a class that Tom Cowan terms as the ‘village rentiers’. These are former agricultural landowners that have switched to tenement construction to enterprise on the affordable housing gap.
While labour migration and tenementisation has shaped Kapashera, it is not an exception, but similar settlement transformation has accompanied the extensive urbanisation of a ‘Delhi without borders’. The rapid extension of urban fabric that has accompanied the post-1990s economic liberalisation has generated profitability through the externalisation of ‘unprofitable infrastructures’ such as workers housing. This has resulted in tenement housing emerging in the villages whose agrarian land was valorised for urbanisation. A critical task is to understand the production of such settlements in relation to manufacturing centralities, condominiums, and strip malls.
However, as Oren Yiftachel (2009) reminds us, the production of such ‘gray spaces’ serves a dual purpose of maintaining migrant workers as a ‘permanently temporary’ surplus workforce. Thus, while millions of workers live in settlements like Kapashera for over a decade, they have no possibility to exert tenancy or housing rights. The enterprise of rental housing does not end at rental collection from the labour migrants but extends into a violence that is required to maintaining their ‘permanent temporariness’. This violence is extended through overt forms such as evictions, non-issuance of rental contracts, etc. and covert forms such as ethnic othering, gendering, and surveillance. Kapashera thus serves as an important site to not only structurally understand the reasons behind the proliferation of such gray spaces, but also the social struggles in remaking them.
Under the regime of rental maximisation exerted through the ‘village rentiers’, Kapashera lacks any open spaces or community infrastructure. With the exception of a few NGOs operating from tiny spaces, there are no spaces for recreation or safe spaces for women and children in the community. We thus felt a crucial need to establish a safe space as a community asset through the art grant. We felt that such a space could empower existing ‘radical politics’ within the community through allowing migrants, especially women and children, a space sheltered from violence, patriarchal norms, and practice of othering. We thought it might help empower subtle transgressions against dominant roles and hierarchies existing in Kapashera. The motivation of our socially engaged art inquiry in Kapashera was thus not to merely cast a critical view at ‘the empire of cotton’ from the global countryside, but also to identify and empower resistance against local and global hierarchies.
During the initial months of our engagement in the community, we conducted go-along interviews and walks (Carpiano, 2009) inspired by the dérive method from situationist geography (Pinder, 1996). We walked with a diverse range of actors in the community and could identify many latent potentials within the community. During one such walk, we identified some progressive actors among the village rentiers who were inclined towards the idea of introducing activity spaces for the migrants.
We were thus able to access an industrial loft at a subsidised rate, which we decided to open up to the community for a period of one year. The site where the safe space was located functions as a microcosm of Kapashera , located adjacent to both a manufacturing unit and to tenement housing for workers. We furbished the space minimally with as found furniture from the site, introduced play spaces for kids, and decided to make it freely accessible to the community. We decided to be in the space at least four days every week and organised a number of activities and workshops for the children and women. Gradually, as the community started to use the space, we made multiple keys to the space available for the community.
As the familiarity among the community for the space grew, stitching circles and activity groups started to emerge in the space. Women from the community started to bring house based work they would do in their free time to the space. As Kapashera is an important node in planetary metabolic flows, manufacturing leaves behind a huge volume of waste cuts and rejected pieces. This waste often finds its way into house-based work that women undertake in Kapashera and is transformed into rugs, covers, and tapestries through weaving and stitching.
We decided to employ this waste as a material in our project. We were interested in exploring both the site of the stitching circle and textile waste as a critical medium. The stitching circle started to emerge as an important site for critical discussions where the women would discuss issues like domestic violence, work, and economic problems. Building upon this symbolic site, we started to learn from the women and started to pick up on discussions in the circle exploring potentials for collective action and inquiry. A stitching circle started to slowly take shape among the women, serving as a symbolic space for collective art, conversations and healing.
Forming a collective
In August 2019, through the support of ‘Sakhi Kala Manch’, we were able to initiate a collective from among the women who frequented the space. A total of five women joined it initially and the circle eventually grew to include other women from across the community. The idea behind the collective was to formulate a forum through which the art-based inquiry could be initiated from within the community. Furthermore, through the collective we also wanted to channel the art grant and democratise the process through which its allocation happens within the community. We wanted to acknowledge the hidden labour that is put into socially engaged art and therefore share the art grant for producing resources within the community. The collective received a small monthly stipend through the grant, which it had autonomy over. What this allowed to do is to provide the women in the collective a possibility of making a break from their everyday routines and cast a critical look on the issues of memory, cohabitation, gender, space, and ecology. Every once in a while, we would introduce prompts in the collective, to which they would respond and discuss while stitching. Our intention was to develop a material and audio archive of these ideas and discussions, which as we will elaborate below came together as a collective tapestry. In this circle we initially experimented with directed and creative participation, where we started by introducing concepts and problematics to the group. However, gradually the participation moved more towards a collaborative mode where the women started to guide the themes, concepts, aesthetics, and ideas themselves.
An important moment in the project emerged around the naming of the collective. We put this task back to the women, asking them how they would name it. After a week of thinking, they came back to us with a name that transformed the way we approached our participation in the project. They decided to name their collective saat saheliyan, or the seven sisters. This was puzzling for us as the core group of women at this point consisted only of five women. It was soon afterwards that we realised that the women also included Sumedha and Bhavyaa (our former project archivist) in the collective. They saw us as one of them, as insiders.
When we inquired regarding the choice of number seven as the collective could increase or decrease in size with time, they responded by saying: ‘we began as seven and this will always remain with us’. In the representation for the collective, of which they stitched a self-portrait they depict themselves along with Sumedha and Bhavyaa. Without realizing it, our everyday lives had become entangled with the personal stories of the women through the project. The fact that they considered us one of them was an indication that they considered us as equals, as insiders.
During the course of the project, our participation in the project and engagement with the community has oscillated. We started the project as outsiders, a position that we were consciously aware of, which we utilised to gain liminal access between the various stakeholders in the community. However, the socially engaged art project allowed us to eventually become an integral member of the community, become one with it. This helped us flatten the hierarchy in art production through the project
Nitin Bathla is an architect, and researcher currently pursuing Doctoral Studies at ETH Zurich. His work focuses on the intersections of urbanisation and commodification of everyday life, especially through the questions of labour, ecology, and infrastructure. He researches in India and Europe and is currently working towards his PhD entitled ‘Delhi without borders’. Nitin regularly collaborates with film-makers, artist, and civil society organisations in order to bridge the research-activism divide.
Sumedha Garg is an artist, designer and educator. She has worked in communities across India and South Africa; on community healing and eco reparation through art, storytelling, and integrated learning models. Her work lies at the intersection of narrative design, integral education and sacred ecology. Through her practice as an artist and educator, she is exploring the relationships between community, place making and traditional knowledge systems.