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Radical Housing and Socially-Engaged Art

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A look at the project over the last year…

*Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear

I like cities. I think of them as living organisms, beasts really, life throbbing through the many layers and intricate, interlinked networks. The neighborhood phone recharge (top-up) shops form one such underground network, scraping the underbelly of the city, by selling pirated digital media within the dense, informally built settlements of Indian cities. It is an ingenious solution that came about on its own to provide media on phones to those who may not have access to uninterrupted internet supply or may lack the technical know-how on how to download it. This self-made solution is a symptom of urban informality in emerging economies of the world. The informally self-built neighborhoods of Delhi act as urban sponges, taking in the migrant populations from across India and other countries due to their low rents brought about by lack of building regulations and state planning.

Khirkee Extension. Image credits: Khirkee Voice. Artist: Ita Mehrotra

Khirkee Extension is one such informal settlement, termed an unauthorized colony, around the urban village of Khirkee. It is one of the most culturally rich and vibrant neighbourhouds that I have come across in Delhi, with a local population of post-Partition refugees who are the landlords and a migrant population who are the tenants – made up of male workers from Bihar, students from across India, refugees from Somalia and Afghanistan, and immigrants from Russia, Nepal and the African countries of Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Congo, Uganda, South Africa among others. Despite the diversity or due to it, there have been several tensions between the more conservative locals and the newer arrivals with different and relatively more liberal lifestyles. This has also been due to the xenophobia of African nationals which came to light with the case of a local political leader conducting unwarranted raids on the homes of many in 2014 as demanded by the local residents.

I began working on The Khirkee Storytelling Project through 2017 with the support of Khoj Studio which has been vested in engaging with the communities in Khirkee Extension in the midst of which it is situated. The project took off from a shorter, incipient project that I had developed during the Coriolis residency at Khoj in September 2016. The idea was to explore ways of getting the diverse communities to get to know each other, to be able to build empathy through an understanding of how similar each others’ stories are and to be a part of a shared activity. I began by looking at the spaces of encounter, where people passed each other and got together the most, which happened to be the streets and shops of Khirkee. I began to see the phone shopkeepers as media curators who not only gave the customers the media they wanted but also suggested new media and created their own lists based on their understanding of the local demand. These entrepreneurial media curators are the middle men easing people into their first digital experience, be it by selling media or helping them create a Facebook account, a human connection for troubleshooting information which is fast disappearing. I wondered if I could be the middle woman here and decided to set up my own media centre as a community hub in the neighborhood. I began by understanding the trade from the other phone shopkeepers in Khirkee and rented a small hole-in-the-wall shop during the residency which I shared with an electrician.

Image credits: Sitara Chowfla

Apart from buying recharges (top-ups), you can buy a movie from a phone recharge shop for Rs 10 or 2BG of songs for 40 Rs but it is all done under the radar as anti-piracy raids are common. So, instead of charging money, I asked my ‘customers’ for any media of their choice from their phones in exchange. And, thus began the creation of a multi-cultural media archive of what the people of Khirkee were watching and listening to. Most of the people who frequented my shop were the male Bihari workers and other local men who used such shops regularly and were more than happy to get free media, along with the boys of the neighbourhood from whom I learnt the most about sharing media. There were hardly any women who could participate in the project due to its public nature, which has been its biggest drawback, and many told me that they were not allowed to frequent shops and had to rely on their male relatives to get phone recharges for them. I began to invite people from other communities to partake in the project and some brought Somalian, Afghani, Nigerian, Congolese and South African music and movies on pen-drives even though they did not have to use the phone recharge shops as they could afford data or Wifi, and were adept at downloading as well. Over media exchange, stories were swapped as well and the regional media of each community became a way for me to get to know them and sometimes for them to know each other, if someone was interested in watching/ listening to media from a different culture.

Sharing the Khirkee media archive at the Khirkee Festival in Dec 2017. Image credits: Pallavi

The sustained project in 2017 continued the compilation of this media library and I learnt of the different vernacular genres of media in the community ranging from ‘Bewafai ke gaane’ (songs of heartache) to Medium Bollywood songs (from the 90s, so, neither old nor new) to Madrasi (used to refer to any movie from South India instead of just Tamil) action movies that were dubbed in Hindi to qawalis (couplets in Urdu) to Niaja songs to Hindi movies dubbed in Somalian. This media exchange continued for the first 5-6 months of the project at which point I began to ask people if they might be interested in creating their own media or watching self-made videos with their friends in it instead of celebrities. We shot a few impromptu performances at the shop with the local hip hop and rap group ‘Khirkee 17’ to gather feedback and the response was very favorable, though it became clear that the videos needed to be well made. And, that is when the project slipped from archiving into its second phase of co-creation, with the phone shop transmogrifying into a local recording studio. The setup of the studio drew from the low-budget regional studios at which most of the videos I had come across were made, offering a subversive alternative to mainstream media which often overlooks themes and settings that rural-urban migrants could relate to more in their own vernacular media.

In an abstract version of these low budget studios, a makeshift studio was created within the shop using chroma key/ green screen curtains to be able to customise the backgrounds. This is also when two film-makers, Pallavi and Purnima Rao, joined the project and I had a team who began supporting the creative and production processes. With bright signs and messaging which made the studio sound like a video booth, people began to drop by to get videos made, with music videos emerging as the most popular media form. We had hoped to either work around stories or performances, but the latter took over due to the need for a platform to self-express and showcase the local talent which was abundant, as we realised over time. The studio became the collaborative space we had hoped for with people, mostly the youth, from different backgrounds beginning to jam together impromptu. We had spontaneous drop-ins which we recorded and others were more planned with props and costumes.

The design of the backdrop became a major component of the co-production and overtime, we switched to using mobile phones not only for recording and editing the videos through apps I learnt about from some of the younger boys, but also to create music through various apps. Rap became the dominant form of performances with its subversive, street appeal and we had rap performances in Bhojpuri, English, Hindi, Punjabi and Ivory Coast French. Ravi, one of our star rappers told us that he wanted his rap to be about the voices from the street and representing Bhojpuri culture. The front of the shop began to be incrementally populated with posters of movie stars and musicians from different cultures of Khirkee and a large part of the project came to be about representation of different communities through their media.

For many, especially the younger ones, developing their craft through free verse rap, hip-hop, singing, acting and making funny videos themselves through mobile apps, was the motivation for being a part of the project. While for others, it was more about career advancement, such as in the case of Bhojpuri singers who had pre-recorded audios and needed videos made for a digital presence online, which would have otherwise cost a lot of money at a regular studio. Here we also realised that using mobiles for a more accessible, participatory medium was not always favoured by some, who insisted on using high tech equipments for more ‘professional’ videos. The aesthetics of the videos varied with those of the performers and we tried to draw from the existing videos of the genres they favoured more. Looking back, it was a creative process of co-production within the community where it has been the objective to tilt the weight, vision and responsibility more onto the roles of the participants than myself and the team, wherein they became the team as well, becoming stakeholders in the project and taking ownership of the studio, in its regular running and inviting newer participants in.

Image credits: Suresh Pandey

We screened the videos on the wall opposite the studio and showed them to passersby and more people got involved in the project that way. One of the offshoots of the project was The Khirkee Talk show, a collaboration with a fellow artist Malini Kochupillai. In a typical talk show format, with the difference that it opened on to the street with a live audience, we began to host talk conversations between an Indian national on one side and a national from an African country on the other. The idea was to be able to ask each other anything in an open environment to dispel biases and ignorance which has led to an ‘othering’ and xenophobia against communities from Africa. Conversations ranged from food, marriage systems to politics, sports and movies, for the first time giving people a space to interact with those they might pass by every day but know very little about.

Khirkee Talk Show. Image credits: Pallavi

The videos made through the project over the last year were shared at another phone recharge shop to be distributed through the community and also showcased as part of the Khirkee festival towards the end of the project in December, in Khoj and the community park. You can also find them here on Youtube. When we began, it was felt that a slow and long term project is the only way to be able to create something meaningful with the community. After a year, I am beginning to realize that it needs to be slower and longer!

– Your friendly neighborhood shopkeeper, Swati Janu