Namma Katte opened on the afternoon of 28 February, 2022 with a “grand celebration”. A brass band led by the magnetic bandmaster Meesae Mani played the loudest, most rambunctious Kannada, Tamil and Hindi songs, and a hundred women danced on the street in this colony of small houses and shops in Bengaluru’s Lingarajapuram, where women are not usually seen dancing, or sitting at chai shops like the men, or doing much of anything apart from housework and going to and fro from their jobs as shop assistants and domestic help. Namma Katte — a Kannada phrase which roughly translates to ‘our adda/ hangout’ — aims to change all that, and it didn’t open quietly and unobtrusively. It opened with a bang; with music, dance and food.
“We danced because we wanted to tell the world that this is our space,” says Indu Antony, a Bengaluru-based multidisciplinary artist who has conceptualised and created the space. Designed as a place for the women of the neighbourhood to enjoy some time away from their homes, families and jobs, Namma Katte fulfils a basic human need that many women in India are denied: leisure and socialisation. It is a way to reclaim public spaces for women; especially for women who don’t have the luxury of meeting friends at coffee shops and malls, whose lives are often circumscribed by home and work.
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Opposite Namma Katte, a converted ‘shutter shop’ — a small store-space right on the street with a front shutter that’s rolled up during the day — are an anganwadi and a pay-for-use toilet complex. In front of it is a shady tree, and thanks to that, the inside of the space, painted a clean, bright yellow and with grass mats on the floor, is cool and airy even on a hot morning in April. As soon as you enter the space, the first thing you notice is the large swing that hangs from the ceiling. It feels like a symbol of sorts — indicating that it is okay to sit here and chat or simply swing for a while. “It has been a lifelong dream of mine to create a leisure centre for women — a space to bring back a sense of community and laugh and gossip together, have conversations, just do anything except daily chores,” says Antony.
She conceptualised the initiative as part of an artist-in-residency programme funded by the UK-based Wellcome Trust, which is collaborating with the Museum of Art and Photography (MAP) in Bengaluru on an international cultural programme called Mindscapes to support communities in understanding, addressing and talking about mental health. Antony was chosen by MAP as the artist-in-residence to work on a long-term project that would be in tune with Mindscapes.
She started by working with women at six anganwadis in the area to collect oral histories — their own stories in their own words. “We set up a small locked box and encouraged the women who came to the anganwadis — those who worked there and those who would come to drop and pick up their kids — to write something about their lives anonymously and drop it into the box. At first it was a trickle, but once we started doing workshops with them, it became a deluge. Over a few months, we collected over 500 stories,” says Antony, who conducted 30 oral storytelling workshops with her assistant, Shalini S. “It was challenging to get the women to open up about the trauma in their lives because of how much it is normalised,” says Antony. “They would say ‘I have nothing interesting to tell’. Slowly, when we started talking in a group, they opened up, but they would say ‘this happened to my neighbour’. Finally, they started saying ‘this happened with me.’”
It was somewhere along the way that the idea of creating the space that became Namma Katte came along. Along with it, Antony also introduced the idea of stitching one line from the oral histories onto pieces of cloth, which would give the stories some sort of permanence. She also started paying the women a small amount for this work, often so that they could justify spending time here to their families. When Namma Katte opened, they hung up the pieces of cloth with lines of text in Kannada, Tamil, Urdu and Hindi on the walls, covering every square inch.
There is a sense of bemusement in the neighbourhood as to what the women are up to in the space, says Antony. They often stop and stare at its stark, pristine interior — while the children are curious enough to come in and play around and sit on the swing, the men are often wary and suspicious. Some of them object to their wives coming here, ostensibly on account of the fact that there is a public toilet opposite and men often hang around it.
And some are more provoked by what they perhaps see as some kind of feminist rebellion.
Soon after they opened, the husband of one of the women who came here regularly turned up and started abusing Antony, Shalini and the other women. Then he went and tore the pieces of cloth from the walls and set a few on fire, yelling that they were teaching his wife “bad things” here and that she would stop taking her responsibilities seriously. “Earlier maybe we would have felt scared, but suddenly, there were 40-50 of us, standing together. We shouted him down,” recalls Antony.
There are plans afoot to use the space for small cultural events. In a few weeks, photographer Vivek Muthuramalingam, a Bengaluru-based photographer and writer who has photographed the area extensively, will hold an exhibition of his works — exclusively featuring his photos of Christmas and New Year celebrations in the area. MAP will conduct a 5-day children’s camp in May during the school holidays for drawing and storytelling. There’s a plan to hold a pottery workshop, and Kannada poet Mamata Sagar has promised to come and read some of her poems.
“Accha lagta hai yahan aake. Sabke saath milke baith-te hain, baatein karte hain. Dil ka dard bolke halka hota hai,” says Shabrin Taj, a young homemaker from the area who has walked in to show Antony some of her finished embroidery. Another woman, Glory Lourdes, walks up to Antony and they start laughing over some of the photos from the opening day, when they all danced like crazy. Slowly, women hanging out in their own katte is normalised — at least in one small Bengaluru neighbourhood.