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Building bridges through art

A unique art initiative in Delhi’s urban village of Khirkee forges a link between the original residents of a neighbourhood and its migrant population

The Khirkee Talk Show
The Khirkee Talk Show (Photo courtesy:Malini Kochupillai)

The latest issue of the quarterly hyperlocal newspaper Khirkee Voice carries a rather unique centrespread. Published in January, it features a pictorial timeline of the urban village of Khirkee, which was home to sprawling farmlands and a pristine lake till the 1960s. Over time, along with dust and grime, history started accumulating in this Delhi neighbourhood as farms began to give way to haphazard construction. Today, this mish-mash of homes and shops opposite Saket’s swanky malls, with an awning of wires on top, is home to a multicultural community, with its residents hailing from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Afghanistan, Iran and the African continent.

An illustration for ‘Khirkee Voice’ issue No.9 by illustrator Pooja Dhingra
An illustration for ‘Khirkee Voice’ issue No.9 by illustrator Pooja Dhingra

The timeline published in Khirkee Voice, titled “Time Traveling With The Community", looks at the personal testimonies of researcher Ekta Chauhan’s family—one of the oldest inhabitants of the neighbourhood.

It all started when the founders of Khirkee Voice, architect-artist Malini Kochupillai and visual consultant Mahavir Singh Bisht, introduced Chauhan to illustrator Alia Sinha. Together, they set about recreating images and stories from the past—for instance, an illustration of the Satpula Lake from the 1960s is accompanied by the wistful memories of 69-year-old Srichand Chauhan, who recalls the lazy afternoons when he would wallow in the waters with his buffaloes in tow. That was a time when the waters of the lake were clean enough to drink from.

An issue of the newspaper Khirkee Voice
An issue of the newspaper Khirkee Voice

Khirkee Voice is one of the handful of community-driven projects in the country which forges a link between the art world and the neighbourhood—the other significant ones being the Dharavi Art Room in Mumbai and Chitpur Local in Kolkata. Such initiatives introduce locals to the diverse sociocultural strains in their area. For instance, the Khirkee Voice forges a connection between the original residents and the migrant populations. Over time, it has helped overcome the fear and mistrust of the “other" to create a sense of neighbourliness.

Also, by bringing together artists, scholars and researchers, such projects seek to create a meaningful exchange between residents and new entrants from the art world.

The newspaper has its roots in 2016, when Kochupillai, an architect and urban researcher, was documenting the African community in Khirkee for a photography project. Soon after, she applied for the Coriolis Effect Residency at the Khoj International Artists Association, which looked at artistic representations of Indo-African ties. Kochupillai was keen to develop a form that was accessible to people on the street and didn’t seem intimidating—the form of the “newspaper" seemed ideal. She invited Bisht to join her at the residency. The debut edition was printed in both Hindi and English. Today, Kochupillai and Bisht are co-editors who conceptualize the issues together. While Bisht edits the Hindi edition, she works on the English one.

Since 2016, the duo has introduced several public art interventions in the urban village as well, the most popular one being a “talk show" between the locals and African residents. It was a collaborative intervention with Swati Janu’s Phone Recharge Ki Dukaan. Janu, an architect, had been working on long-term community projects in the neighbourhood at the time and had started Phone Recharge Ki Dukaan in a small shop as a platform for self-expression for the residents.

The aim of both the newspaper and the public art interventions has been to demolish stereotypes about the African community when it comes to drug peddling and prostitution. The form of the newspaper interested Kochupillai because it stood as a symbol of legitimacy. “A newspaper usually represents an identity of a place, people and nation and embodies a sense of collectiveness. However, instead of news and reportage, we have tried to use the form to not just tell stories of the locals but to look at the larger city through the lens of the neighbourhood," she says. While doing so, both Kochupillai and Bisht have noticed a sense of excitement in people when they see a mention of themselves or their acquaintances in the newspaper, giving them a sense of ownership and a new sense of responsibility towards the neighbourhood.

“We try to be as inclusive as possible and have stories from all strata. Sometimes, we try to draw parallels between the history of Khirkee and that of the African continent," says Bisht. For instance, one of the paper’s most consistent contributors, Andrew Ananda Voogel, has been writing a part fictional and part historical account about his great-grandmother having been taken by force as an indentured labourer to the Caribbean Islands from Uttar Pradesh.

Each issue has a broad theme, be it urban villages, love or local economies. The team also reaches out to a pool of existing and possible contributors whose practice intersects with the subject. So far, there have been collaborations with illustrators such as Gagan Singh, Pooja Dhingra and Shivangi Singh. “In the last issue, we asked a collective called Suryan//Dang to imagine a future for Khirkee in 2033," says Bisht.

Khirkee Voice features all the elements of a conventional paper—comic strip, photo essay, posters—but imagined differently. “Khirkee is home to a lot of members of the LGBTQ+ community and we did a story on one such trans person. People have misconceptions and we wanted to break those. The neighbourhood also has lot of hip hop and b-boying collectives. We talked about Ashif Khan, one such b-boy artist, and his struggles," says Kochupillai.

In the past decade, Khirkee has served as a canvas for several artistic projects. There is the Khirki Living Lab, led by Sreejata Roy and Mrityunjay Chatterjee of the artist collective Revue. It recently founded Khanapados, a kitchen managed by nine refugee women from Afghanistan, Somalia, Congo and Iraq living in the neighbourhood. Revue also started the Khirki Collective in 2015 to work on collaborative projects such as the Mobile Mohalla with local young adults. A group of 10-11 conducted interviews with the residents to understand how women negotiated public spaces. Objects and testimonies from this survey were exhibited as part of Conversing In Time, at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA) in 2017.

How do the creative energies from the various projects impact the neighbourhood? For one, it creates opportunities for engagements between the various artistic entrants. For instance, Khirkee Voice has in the past collaborated with Saif Mehmood and Aditi Angiras for a poetry discussion pop-up at the Khirkee Festival community exhibition at Khoj . “What helps is the presence of Khoj there. It becomes a sort of catalyst. Now there is KNMA across the road. Both of these have created tools of engagement with the neighbourhood as well," says Kochupillai.

She also observes that when people who reside and work in Khirkee see outsiders express an interest in the neighbourhood, it makes them more curious about the place too. In addition, the nature of Khirkee is such that the streets are spaces of constant movement—vendors, shopkeepers populate the area, the shopfronts act as street facades, and many homes have steps that come down directly on to the streets. According to Kochupillai, it is because of this that public art interventions become even more visible on the street. The talk show was a huge success. The shopfront was like a TV screen, you had the option of viewing from the outside or shouting into it. That kind of informality allowed for fantastic possibilities.

Mainstream art spaces have also found new ways of discovering the neighbourhood they dwell in. Besides Conversing In Time, the KNMA last year hosted Smell Assembly, which took viewers on a sensorial journey through the neighbourhoods of Majnu Ka Tila, fish markets of Chittaranjan Park and the spice market of Old Delhi. Anecdotes by manual scavengers and ittar makers, accompanied by immersive exhibits, in this show put together by researchers Ishita Dey and Mohammad Sayeed and curated by Akansha Rastogi, created a “social register of smells". The Mumbai Art Room too has created new ways of social engagement with a robust children’s outreach programme for those in Pasta Lane who would otherwise not visit a gallery.

Kochupillai feels that an important takeaway from such neighbourhood-centric projects is for galleries to set aside a certain amount of money each year to do publications or interventions about a community through the lens of the artists. “Every artist lives in a community and every gallery exists in a neighbourhood. Instead of existing in silos, maybe they should lend their shine to making art relevant to the places they are in. Artists are able to think critically and across disciplines. They can engage with urban planners, architects, school kids, workers and labourers and create art that speaks to everyone. That’s the way for the future," she says.

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