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Radical Housing and Socially-Engaged Art

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Another SUV backs into another narrow lane

Another brawl breaks out in front of another chai stall

Another road is being dug to lay another sewage line

Another shop opens on another busy street.

This one is a phone recharge shop.

I roll up the shutter and customers start trickling in. 

It is business as usual in Khirkee Extension and after a month long stint of running the shop as part of the Coriolis Residency last year; I have set up shop again. Spanning the length of this year, the Phone Recharge ki Dukaan is an interface for a community art project supported by Khoj – The Khirkee Storytelling Project.  While the previous shop which I had shared with an electrician was just a hole in the wall with stories swapped over the tiny counter; the new shop is bigger and offers the space for people to walk in and sit. Every week, they share their stories with me as I share media with them through their phone memory cards. While I copy Balma Biharwala and Ae Bhauji ke Sister into the SD cards of the Bihari migrant workers through my laptop, the ones who have been there over the last decade(s) tell me how the mall on the other side of the road used to be a jungle where they could defecate. The newer migrants, some as new as a week old in Delhi, tell me about their plans of setting up business here with one trying to coax me into being his first massage customer. I begin to learn of the codes of the street and a vegetable vendor tries to strike a bargain with me to park his cart outside my shop in exchange for sending his customers to my shop.

More stories are swapped as the ‘customers’ go through the community newspaper Khirkee Awaaz. They tell me of their individual stories around the people covered in the paper. The ‘naan wala’ is the uncle of the Afghani kids who descend on me one afternoon in a noisy swarm. The ‘yoga man’ is the best nocturnal friend of the guy who ties the shuttering at construction sites and loves the Bhojpuri remixes. A woman passing by stops to point out the heroine in the Khoon Bhari Maang  Bhojpuri poster on my shop wall as her daughter in law. I invite a group of Somalian women walking past to come in and they share with me the music of K’naan, their favorite rapper-poet-singer. I share with them the graphic novel The Horizon is an Imaginary Line, an account of a young Somalian refugee in Delhi based on the lives of refugees in Khirkee Extension. The talented trio from Khirkee 17 drops by one day to perform an impromptu rap in the street. While they are Bihari too, their music and style is an edgy, urban and contemporary take on issues ranging from gender to defunct politicians.


Khesari Lal as the hero and his female avatar in the music video ‘Sainya ae Sakhi’ meaning ‘Lover as Girlfriend’

Most of the ‘customers’ at the shop are Bihari, with Bhojpuri music videos and films dominating the media exchange. The diverse vernacular media shared reveals the growing popularity of the regional music and film industries. These movies cover the themes, desires and settings that the Bihari migrants can relate to, from the story of a new migrant in a big city who goes on to become a star to that of a wife in a village asking her husband who has gone to the city if she should also wear jeans like the urban women he has seen. The face that stands out in Bhojpuri stardom is that of the latest Bhojpuri star Khesari Lal Yadav.  What makes his movies unique is his versatility in depicting a macho male protagonist with as much aplomb as his role play of a nauch female protagonist. There exists a clear dichotomy between the rowdy hero, who woos his lady love by publicly teasing her, and his female impersonation, which originates from the Bihari folk dance form launda naach where men dress up as women in public performances. In Sarai’s latest Bioscope journal, Akshaya Kumar has talked of this contrast between romance and violence in Bhojpuri movies; between the seemingly progressive ideals of female impersonations by men and the regressive ideals of sexuality around notions of a ‘rebellious masculinity’.

A similar dichotomy plays out on the street before me, between the intimacy of my interactions with the community and the conflicts that I can discern between them, arising out of ethnicity, religion and gender. Can a phone recharge shop offer a community space for mediation and communication? Can sharing regional media of the diverse migrant groups between them help build empathy and create understanding? Can phone memory cards create a channel to listen to those who go unheard? Can the sharing of media transcend into sharing of stories and experiences?

– Your friendly neighborhood shopkeeper, Swati Janu