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Opening new windows

A unique art project based in Delhi's Khirki village and Hauz Rani is helping women in the two urban villages reclaim public spaces

The Khirki Collective creating a wall painting of girls playing football in a public space. Photo: Revue/Khirki Collective
The Khirki Collective creating a wall painting of girls playing football in a public space. Photo: Revue/Khirki Collective

If you were to visit this tiny studio, located in the cramped by-lanes of Khirki Extension in New Delhi, you would come across a unique map. Hand-drawn on the wall are an assortment of sketches and narratives that present an intimate glimpse of the urban village. The landmarks on it are far from usual—there are mentions of the “repair-wale uncle", the “aunty sitting on a chabootra", “sunsaan gali", personal narratives about “an afternoon in the park" and more, drawn from the Khirki Collective’s engagement with the public spaces within Khirki and Hauz Rani.

For the past three years, a group of 10-11 young adults from the area has been conducting interviews with the residents and undertaking research to understand how women negotiate these public spaces. Images of the map, among other objects, are currently on display at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, or KNMA, as part of the exhibition Conversing In Time.

The show is the result of a sustained year-long project, Mobile Mohalla, funded by the KNMA and initiated by the artist collective Revue. “We have been trying to create a platform for young adults from different backgrounds to be able to interact and feel comfortable with one another. The Khirki Collective is an outcome of that," says Sreejata Roy, who founded Revue in 2011 along with Mrityunjay Chatterjee. The roots of Mobile Mohalla lie in the duo’s previous project, Network and Neighbourhood, which was supported by the Khoj International Artists’ Association. As part of that, Roy and Chatterjee created collaborative projects with the local people of Khirki and Hauz Rani—settlements that have a huge migrant population. In 2015, they started a dialogue with the women in the area on how they perceive and negotiate public spaces. More and more people joined in, among them Nian Paul, a research scholar and social geographer from Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Asked why the group chose to focus on these particular urban villages, Paul says: “Khirki and Hauz Rani are unique in terms of their location in context of the changing urban face of Delhi. They are located opposite consumerist spaces such as Select Citywalk and health care centres like Max Hospital. It’s interesting to see how the residents—a mix of migrants, immigrants and refugees—are interacting with these areas."

Most of the men in the area draw their incomes from the rents they receive, so they spend a large chunk of their day on the street. This creates a strong masculine presence in the area. “Some women here work in parlours, food joints, and at stores across the road, which is seen as a contradiction to the social structure in Khirki," she says. “They have to dress a particular way, which is again in opposition to the cultural practices of the neighbourhood. We have narratives of single women being thrown out of flats because of the way they dress." These stories have been spun into performances, which are being staged at the KNMA, and have been published in the magazine, Mulaqato Ki Galiyan/ Lanes Of Encounter, editions of which also form part of the exhibition.

The project is also about changing mindsets—it’s about creating a platform for a dialogue with the men in the area, and through that, making the spaces their own. For the past couple of years, the team has been conducting sessions with young women on their desires and notions of freedom. “For some, freedom is as simple as sitting in a dhaba or a stall and having tea," says Roy. These aspirations have been translated into wall paintings by the Khirki Collective.

The group in conversation with a cobbler about the reactions of his customers to the wall painting behind him.

If you walk around, you will find paintings of women having tea located right above a real tea stall, or depictions of young girls playing football. “I love football, but my family doesn’t allow it. I wanted to draw that," says 16-year-old Vidhi Chhetri, one of the members of the collective. She and the other team members have also been talking to the men in the area about the idea of women in public spaces. “Some don’t like the idea of women from their family having tea outside, while others are welcoming it. A barber uncle from the area shifted his stall to be near one of the paintings drawn by us. He takes care of it and also talks to the girls and boys on the wall, whenever he is bored," says Chhetri. Images of these murals can also be seen at the exhibition.

Mobile Mohalla has also given working women an avenue for networking. Members of the collective visit every lane, collecting pamphlets about local businesses. This information is then published in Mulaqato Ki Galiyan. “The members have also acquired new skill sets. We have created animations of our interviews and narratives for the exhibition," says Chhetri, who aspires to be an artist. While the project has given a new direction to Khirki’s young populace, it has also allowed museums such as KNMA to bring a sort of informality and warmth to the white cube space. “On one side of the exhibition are works by S.H. Raza and F.N. Souza, from the show Stretched Terrains, and in the museum’s reception area are memory objects collected from locals, immigrant families, working women, and more," says Akansha Rastogi, senior curator at the KNMA.

In addition, a food map of the area created by the collective, and pop-up kitchens of Afghan, Somali and Congolese food, have also been showcased. “The year-long project and the culminating exhibition really showcases how art and artists can be used as a mediator between a museum and a community," she says.

Conversing In Time is on till 30 September, 10.30am-6.30pm, at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, 145, DLF South Court Mall, Saket, Delhi.

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