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Radical Housing and Socially-Engaged Art

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Twice a week the shutters go up at the Khirkee Recording Studio; with it, the hopes of three of us who now ‘woman’ the storefront. We hope that passers-by will cross the invisible barrier between the street & store and enter this space.

The invisible barrier is given physical form by the store’s counter, where we sit. It is from here that Swati built relationships since the early days of Phone Recharge Ki Dukaan. Now, as the Khirkee Recording Studio, it’s from here that we call out hello to familiar faces & curious onlookers and answer queries from the community. Sometimes this countertop becomes the line that divides two points of view in heated discussion. Sometimes it’s a meeting point for the diverse inhabitants of Khirkee to get to know each other. Tensions can flare in an instant because someone unwittingly said something offensive. In the next instant, the whole shop can erupt with the collective clapping to an infectious beat.

We discuss the ‘invisible barrier’ and what our presence does to contribute to it. We try to pull in those who stand in front of the shop, staring continuously, without moving a muscle for what seems like an eternity. One memorable instance of prodding them comes to mind. Two men stood staring at us and mumbling to each other. When asked how we could address their curiosity, one of them seemed to scuttle away, only to be violently pulled back by the collar by his friend, who guffawed, “Ee suar ka baccha sab jagah gaata hai, bathroom me bhi – abhi jhijhak raha hai!” (“This asshole sings everywhere, even in the bathroom – and now he’s hesitating to come forward.”) We wrack our brains over what this ‘jhijhak’ (lit. hesitation) could be. From differences in socio-cultural identities to simple stage-fright, it could be anything.

There are many, of course, who push past their resistance, their jhijhak. They enter through (what might seem rather cryptic from the street) a thick black curtain. They are now inside the studio, lined with neon green ‘chroma’ sheets. We explain how things work, where they will deliver their performance, where the cameras will be. We chat a bit about what they want to perform and how their recording might potentially be edited with different backgrounds to suit their performance. There are those who see this space as a resource to help them fulfil their ‘Khirkee Idol’ dreams, or at least get a music video out of it. There are others who are excited to unleash their newly minted rap verses and see the studio as a testing ground. Then there are those who walk in without an idea of what they want to perform, simply there because we have welcomed them warmly.

After the recording, performers pore over their videos and it has been a revelation to watch them watch themselves. Some have responded joyfully at being presented against artistic backgrounds, some have been a bit upset at their 5-minute song being shortened. The most moving response has come from the young African freestyler, whose stream-of-consciousness rapping left him emotional, when it was played it back to him. While recording, he had been unaware of the anger that was coursing through his free verse. Now, upon playback it seemed to bring up waves of feeling.

Sometimes we also see a melting away of jhijhak between people who may consider themselves different from each other but find common ground over a song, a lyric, a joke or a story. We wonder, will this interaction via the studio make them less hesitant with each other in the world outside? Speaking personally, the studio has melted away some of my personal jhijhak. It has also brought to the forefront spaces of hesitation with others, where I thought none existed.

Meanwhile week by week, we watch as the little green-curtained recording studio becomes a space for collaboration, where African beats meet Bhojpuri thumkas in a cover of a Ranbir Kapoor hit. Or a space for two rappers – one Indian, the other Ivorian – to talk about their rhymes. It becomes a space for a loud Indian comedian to josh with a reticent Afghan poet. And for the three people ‘womaning’ the studio to sift through their own constructs and imagine a world where similar bridges can be built through shared human experiences.

– Purnima Rao, collaborating artist at The Khirkee Storytelling Project