Wednesday, June 16, 2010


In 1973, Beuys wrote: Only art is capable of dismantling the repressive effects of a senile social system that continues to totter along the deathline: to dismantle in order to build ‘A SOCIAL ORGANISM AS A WORK OF ART’… EVERY HUMAN BEING IS AN ARTIST who – from his state of freedom – the position of freedom that he experiences at first-hand – learns to determine the other positions of the TOTAL ART WORK OF THE FUTURE SOCIAL ORDER.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Claustrophobic Cubicles

It is not really possible to adequately describe my interaction with the Municipal Corporation of Delhi [MCD], beginning in October 2008, during the process of acquiring an official lease that would enable Ankur Bal Club to intervene in the park in Dakshinpuri as part of a public art project.

The encounter with the municipality took the shape of a series of Kafkaesque recursions within the gloomy recesses of the three-storey MCD office in Green Park.
This struggle continued for eight months. Later I received the agreement letter from the MCD.

But by then I was too exhausted to appreciate the miracle. All I could remember was months of rushing from one desk to another, pleading for appointments and signatures. Consumed with anxiety over the fate of our file among the thousands of others being arbitrarily resuscitated and obfuscated in the labyrinth of the municipality office, I forgot who I was; I relinquished my self-image and cherished identity as an artist. I became just another insignificant, irrelevant, invisible cog in our local government machinery – a cavernous, apparently unmoving mill that, however, does indeed grind slow and exceedingly fine.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Insightful Perspectives

Our early interventions in the park had aroused reactions ranging from hostile to apathetic to aggressive. Obstacle after obstacle came up when we began our dialogues with the residents. It is difficult even now. However, the pens of some local youngsters freely offered insightful perspectives. The excerpts below illustrate the blurring of private / public spatial boundaries, as well as the activity and modes of resistance in both public and domestic spheres:

Eventually when Amma could see that we were ignoring her presence, she with the help of her son attempted to cut the tree down at midnight. She started weeping and shouting while her son managed to cut one of the branches. She started calling everybody in the neighbourhood to save the tree from the hand of her son; she acted as if she could not tolerate this brutality, whereas she herself was behind his action. The neighbours called the police. Her son was taken to the police station and the MCD fined him Rs 4000. This was a really exorbitant sum for a poor woman.
-- Tina

One day the open space by our lane drew our attention. We had heard that a park would be coming up there. A few yards away, a house was under construction. We brought a spade and dug up a section in the open space to turn it into a akhada, the arena where kabaddi is played. And then, stealing sand from a loaded truck, we filled in the dug-up space and really turned it into an akhada.
-- Uttam

The municipal tap in Talkatora Garden gave yellowish water, but it was used because it allowed women to socialise there. Women who came to get water enjoyed the moment of freedom, to sit around the tap and talk while waiting for the water to come. Some talked about their kitchens and cooking duties and kinds of food, others vented anger at family pressures or in-laws. Sometimes someone would be showing off new clothes; at other times, amidst giggling and laughter, the serious fact of a domestic problem would suddenly come up. We young girls, not able to empathise with such issues, would start playing while waiting for the water.
-- Aarti

Today I have a chabutra, the raised platform attached to my house, but it is not even big enough for me to cut vegetables on. The big chabutra of my childhood enabled women to do some of their household work sitting on it. That chabutra has been transformed into a beautiful house. But people still gather there to talk to each other, even though there is no actual platform to accommodate them. It is a habit, though they can’t use the space for any kind of collective work since that space is someone’s house now.
-- Guddu

Even today, I feel like playing that game, though my age and circumstances do not allow me to do so. When I have time, I sit on the chabutra by the bus stop of lane 17 because there I get the opportunity to recollect that game of ours --. I feel I am chasing the old cycle tyres of my childhood when I look at the buses, scooters or cycles and the persons riding them. Even today, I am fond of the circular movements of tyres. Sitting on the chabutra by the bus stop of lane 17, I watch these tyres as well as spend time with my friends.
-- Aniket

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


Lyn replied with an anecdote about a moment when she had been on holiday in Greece. Strolling in a city marketplace, she witnessed a group of tourists throwing their paper cups and greasy sandwich boxes towards one of the modern, elegantly designed bins, and then walking on. Lyn instantly realised what the market cleaner would feel when he or she came on duty and saw the mess. She unhesitatingly scooped up the litter and quietly slid it into the bin. (Sreejata ‘My diary’ 06)

During my student years in England, I supplemented my stipend by doing manual work in various places. One of these was the Heinz food factory. I also worked in the laundry and cleaning department. The job involved cleaning and putting it into bins, and then cleaning out these massive bins.
My elderly English colleague Lyn worked alongside me frequently. One day I asked her why the workers in the factory’s production unit were so callously unconcerned for their fellow workers in the cleaning unit – they would throw rubbish towards the bin they were passing, but never bothered to check if the items went into the bin or littered the floor; in the latter case, they would usually leave the item for the cleaning crews to dispose of. So she narrated her experience being a cleaner herself.

When I started visiting Dakshinpuri resettlement colony two years ago, the park at the corner of J Block had been abandoned and ignored by the neighbourhood for a long time.
The park is situated on MCD land. None of the local residents bother to clean up the space; nor does the MCD have any sort of regular presence. The municipality does not try to stop people from misusing the park as a convenient site for inappropriate behaviour. Despite an MCD bin and a men’s latrine along the main road opposite the park, locals have gradually but efficiently turned the open space into a public toilet and garbage dump.
However, people still utilise the filthy site, treating it as a shortcut to the main road. The park is in fact the only open space for the residents of J Block. The shopkeepers from the weekly Friday market continually throw garbage into the park; over the weekend, it becomes even filthier. There is no authority, collectively assigned or self-proclaimed, to place any curbs on the varieties of nuisance.
When Ankur Bal Club, for which I am a facilitator, decided to create strategies of intervention with regard to the park, we wondered how to sensitively push the issue of ‘reform’. Rather than take an oppositional stance, we decided to invest the space itself with meaning, to make the site relevant to the local community; we visualised re-shaping the park as a gift to the locality. We have been involved in this practice since July 2008, focusing on first cleaning the site, and then slowly making it beautiful.
Seeing that there was no single person willing to take the responsibility of overseeing the clean-up, initially we started sweeping the park with small brooms. These were inadequate for that large area, so we hired the rag pickers who came to the MCD dumpster outside the park to drop off the domestic garbage they collected. They swept the park on alternate days for Rs 50-60. But this did not really prevent people from throwing rubbish into the park from long habit, or keep a few obdurate families from using the space as a latrine.
So it turned out that during the day, Bal Club members and facilitator would sit on charpais in the park and try to convince people to not throw garbage there. Oddly enough, when residents became defensive they would each blame the other, and there was no solution to the problem of accumulated filth. As the anchor of the park project, I was continually thinking about the problem, even relentlessly concluding at one point that the only solution was to fence the park off with barbed wire. Some of the older residents actually seemed to find this viable.
The people found us trying to police locals who were in fact keenly interested in our efforts to revive and beautify the park, but who could not change their habits of littering.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The summer heat has gradually infiltrated and then dominated the city. In the afternoon, the park is deserted, except for goats who relentlessly masticate the dry fallen leaves. The ‘uncle’ who runs the betel shop takes his post-lunch nap under a small tree. Calm has spread across the area. It is too hot for those who generally create a ‘nuisance’ in the park. But in addition to this, people have started using the park as their place of leisure, and have become aware of the need to keep it clean.

The only problem in the peaceful environment is that the drinking water tank is always near-empty. There is never enough water in it to satisfy the constant thirst of people who want to sit under the big banyan tree. There is no other source of public drinking water in Dakshinpuri.

Recently, a colleague remarked that he could no longer find any piaos, the traditional drinking water troughs with taps that one found in the streets of Delhi. Till about eight years ago, people did not carry drinking water; they depended, as they had always done, on the ever-reliable and ever-flowing piaos. Today, these civic structures seem to be near-extinct; the culture of public drinking-water supply has found a new avatar in the omnipresent Bisleri bottle.

Dakshinpuri used to have community municipal water taps on the side of the road or on the corners of lanes. Today, each house has its own taps, and the public taps are defunct and corroded relics. Gone, too, is the community practice of gathering at the tap to socialise while filling vessels. If there is a water shortage, people in their homes have no option but to pray for benevolence on the part of the city water board.

The lone, small, functioning public faucet on the main road outside the park does not attract the residents of Dakshinpuri, who say, “That tap is for slum-dwellers.”

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Each day when I enter the locality of Dakshinpuri, the women seated in front of their houses wave to me, ask in greeting, “Hope all is well today?” I reply with a smile.

The houses are narrow two- or three-storey buildings with small windows and doors. Wrested from minimal space, balconies and staircases angle into the lanes. Courtyards spill into the lanes as well. This is where most of the women spend their time, sitting on cots that they push back when motor vehicles force their way through.

These residents rarely leave their lanes other than for household-related tasks, such as buying vegetables in the nearby Friday market. Occasionally they go shopping with the men of their families. The cots drawn together in the lane are their primary social space. In the early morning, a few women might go together for a walk in the scrubby green belt close by, disregarding the park which is right across from where they live.

I first encounter Anu’s mother, who sits on her small front step, waiting for the water or for her grandchild to return from the first shift at school.

Yashoda waves to me. As usual she is seated on the cot in front of her house, busy with some domestic task or the other, knitting, or chatting with her neighbours. Sometimes she just sprawls lazily, observing the lane. She says this is the only place where she can spend her free time.

Anita runs her own small shop which, however, does not seem to draw any customers. She occupies herself with domestic tasks while she waits for someone to stop by for a chat.

Chitrasathi is an energetic woman I often see in pink sneakers, walking rapidly to some destination; she stops along the way for a few minutes to speak to her neighbours on their cots.

Kamlesh, Anita, Krishna, Sita, Yasoda, Chitrasathi and Vidya, all residents of Dakshinpuri for at least the past twelve years, are the most visible in this block. Sometimes they argue fiercely over small issues, but they always support each other in times of crisis, and celebrate festivals together.

Initially when the Bal Club and I tried to intervene in locality issues, the residents opposed and obstructed us. Things changed when these women began to participate in our park-related activities. They clarified that even though the park is used by almost everyone as a place to dump garbage, it is also regularly used in other ways.

For instance, Yashoda says that during summer she spends hours in the park at night when there is a power cut, despite kinowing that all kinds of filth has been thrown there. There is literally no other open space in the locality. She also says that during festivals, mud from the park is dug up and used in the rituals. The residents visualise a green and healthy space that they should keep clean, but somehow they are not able to break the pattern of current usage – ‘nuisance’ and garbage dumping.

They are keen to join our discussion, and spend the evening in dialogue with us about how to re-design the park so it can be used in the most generous collective manner possible.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

An encounter

An Evening Event was collectively produced by the young members of the Ankur Bal Club, local residents of Dakshinpuri, and a artist/media practitioner (myself), at the site of the municipal park. This project developed through the generation and compilation of narratives linked to and embedded in the locality of Dakshinpuri and the park, with participants describing their relationship to the site and to shared spaces within it.

People were passionate in their articulation of both past and present experiences. They also lamented certain losses and erosions and erasures, as well as celebrated certain transformations of common spaces within the park.
However, it is not as if our interventions were easily accepted, received, assimilated or understood by local residents. Our efforts to initiate regular dialogue with people faced many obstacles, which became a theme for the insightful narratives of the youngsters we worked with.

In very general and literal terms, it is difficult to categorise which spaces are shared/collective, and which are personal. There are multiple claimants, each staking out an area within the garbage-strewn zones of the park.

Our first significant encounter was the resistance from a local resident to our intervening in the shared space of a large banyan tree that is central to the park. The dense shade cast by thick foliage and dense aerial roots clustering like pillars from canopy to ground offer relief from the scorching sun; the tree seems to protect the park like a mascot and sentinel. In actual fact, the tree did have a self-appointed custodian: a 90-year-old woman who everyone knows as “Amma” in the neighbourhood of Dakshinpuri’s J Block.

Amma strolled in the park with a stick in one hand, the other hand on her waist to support her bent torso. Her face was deeply wrinkled and etched with fatigue, and her eyes were perpetually anxious. As migrants, she and her husband had planted the tiny sapling in Dakshinpuri and nurtured it as if it was their own child. By the time it was full grown, Amma had lost her husband. She considered the tree her own property, and vigilantly opposed people she considered to be intruders in the park.

Park-users of all ages find her opposition and hostility impossible to confront; most do not even sit under the tree. We were no exception. The moment she observed us in the park she became very anxious; she stared at us till we were unnerved. Sometimes she walked up to us and requested us not to sit under the banyan; she began sweeping the spot with a broom, pushing the dust and grit towards us and thus forcing us to leave.

We returned to that site persistently, however, and decided to make it a central node in the practice of organising sessions of dialogue with the local residents. To facilitate this, we made a swing from a small plank and were preparing to hang the swing by ropes from a branch of the banyan tree when Amma came rushing towards us, shouting and waving her stick. Dodging her assault with difficulty, we tried to explain that the tree was not her private property and that she could not prevent us from putting up the swing. Her response was stubborn and aggressive as ever – she simply could not understand how it was that ‘her’ tree was actually not within ‘her’ jurisdiction, and that she thereby had no authority over it or over whoever wished to utilise what it offered as a public space.

One morning we found that the rope supporting the plank had been cut. Disappointed, I asked the youngsters working with me to attach the swing to fresh ropes and hang it from another branch. One this was done, the swing was in use all day, by children as well as by some of the women who joined our dialogue session. Amma prowled nearby, brandishing her stick, restless and sullen. I requested her cordially, and then forcefully, to not interfere in our work. She was furious, and warned us to not sit under the tree. Later she forced her family members to cut the ropes again. This took place a few times, and each time we confronted her, there was little support for us from her neighbours.

Eventually, seeing that we were not going to succumb to her threats, Amma compelled her son to try and cut down the tree at night. Weeping and shouting, she urged him on till he managed to hack off one of the branches. Meanwhile, she simultaneously began raising a commotion and calling on everyone in the neighbourhood to save the tree from her son’s brutality. Annoyed by her aggression and contradictory behaviour, the neighbours called the police. Her son was taken to the police station and the municipality fined him Rs. 4000 for illegal chopping of a tree and damage to government property. This sum was a considerable amount for a struggling, working-class family.

Upon arrival at the park the next morning, we learnt what had happened. Like the neighbours who described the incident to us, we too then fell into silence, unable to sufficiently unravel the complicated strands of the logic of property, community, entitlements and claims with regard to the inherent ambivalences, privileges and demands of shared/collective space.