Reclaiming Her Space

A community project reflects on the daily negotiations of those who inhabit the urban village of Khirki and its neighbouring areas.

Written by Damini Ralleigh | Published:August 26, 2017 1:31 am
khirki village, dastaan e khirki, afghan refugees khirki, khirki extention delhi, indian express The pop-up kitchen (Photo: KNMA)

Inspecting everyday freedom through the lens of gendered identities in the urban village of Khirki where desires, protests and aspirations remain hidden in its many nooks, gave birth to the performance text, Dastaan-e-Khirki. A girl dreams of roaming around the neighbourhood after dark, another hopes to choose her own clothes, while another has found an unusual way of claiming her freedom by jumping from terrace to terrace in the congested
urban village.

Performed by the Khirki Collective, the group comprises young adults, and was formed as a result of artist Sreejata Roy’s engagement with the neighbourhood where immigrants from Afghanistan and several African countries navigate life with migrants from Bihar and the local populace — all too aware of the differences.

“The project started in 2014, when I realised, as a result of another project that I had done in the area when the malls were coming up, that women’s participation in the public domain is limited. So we got a bunch of women together — some were from Camaroon, some were housewives, others were construction workers’ wives, small businesswomen like momo-makers, teenagers and so on — and conducted discussions about how they perceived the public space and what freedom meant to them. Through this dialogic method, various ideas about female mobility emerged,” says Roy, who has curated the exhibition “Conversing in Time”, on display at the Kiran Nader Museum of Art (KNMA).

These ideas and desires have also been projected on the walls in Khirki village. The performance text is a collection of personal narratives that emerged from the Collective’s interviews and informal discussions with the women living in Khirki and its neighbouring areas. It borrows from a platform created previously for the community to voice themselves — Mulaaqat Ki Galiyaan or Lanes of Encounters — in the form of a magazine. Its sixth edition was launched as part of the exhibition.

Another attempt to unravel the everyday life on the streets is visible in “Imaging My Steps” that comprises hand-drawn maps of Khirki and Hauz Rani. The maps reflect a more experiential interpretation of the areas, marked often by their relationship with food, emphasising the symbolic ties between the various elements that constitute them, rather than merely depicting the locale’s geography.

khirki village, dastaan e khirki, afghan refugees khirki, khirki extention delhi, indian express Dastaan-e-Khirki being performed at KNMA (Photo: KNMA)

“It was important to represent the neighbourhood in a way different from Google Maps. The participants were asked to observe the streets using all five senses. These observations could be represented in any form — writing, drawings, collages — thereby enabling a deeper dialogue between the observer and the creator,” says Nian Paul, geographer and PhD scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

A wall in the museum stands as an archive, titled “Her Memory of the Present” — a photograph of a child with a woman, presumably her mother, is placed in a frame of cracked glass, along with knitting needles, a lipstick, an old exhaust fan, a woollen top, a broken spoon, a feeding bottle, among others — creating a genealogy of mobility shaped by their gendered experiences of forced eviction, aspirations and marriages. They act as a registry of objects that acquire new meanings, as they set out to create a home away from home.

A further rumination on Khirki and its surroundings can be found in the food maps and recipe books on display in the white cube. The reflection was extended with food pop-ups hosted by members of the various communities that inhabit the urban village — steamed, stuffed fish called Niboke from Congo, Pota Kaleji (chicken liver) with rice and mooli and bhindi chutney from Nepal, the subtle interplay of flavours in Buroni Byanjan from Afghanistan, and robust mutton curry with bread from Somalia.

“Food is an essential part of Khirki. It forms a place of union between people from different ethnic backgrounds,” says Roy. Roobina Karode, director and chief curator, KNMA, adds, “If one is to build a museum for people then democratising the museum space is imperative”.

The exhibition is on till December 15.

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