Tapping her feet to Bhojpuri music, “community architect” Swati Janu waits in her small shop in Khirki extension. She smiles at those passing by, hoping they would return the smile and visit her temporary “phone recharge ki dukaan.” In her small 8ft by 4ft shop, that she shares with an electrician, Swati occasionally returns her gaze to change the music track playing on her laptop, hoping it would draw more people towards her small set-up. The Bhojpuri song has ended. Shuffling through different folders, she settles for Afro-zouk music.
“I had always been interested in this concept of media downloads at phone recharge shops. They gave an interesting insight as to how people in the low income communities were mainly using internet for entertainment. So I chose to do my research on this,” says Swati. When people come asking for particular movies or songs, Swati gives them the desired media file in exchange for something from their own collection. During one such barter, an Afghan took home Caribbean music after sharing his own collection of Afghani and Irani songs.
Swati’s project is a part of the residency programme conceptualised by Khoj Artists’ Association. The month-long residency — Coriolis Effect: Currents across India and Africa — aims to document and exhibit cultural and historical exchanges between India and Africa. “This residency is an attempt to diversify the interactions between the two regions through art,” says the critic-in-residence, Persis Taraporevala.
In order to facilitate exchange of cultures, Swati came up with the novel idea of “creating cultural mash-ups” and projecting them across the street. Swati’s evening shows attract a lot of attention by the people of Khirki who curiously look at the projections on the dilapidated wall in front of her tiny hole-in-the-wall shop. In these shows, she plays a music video from one culture to the sound of another. For instance, the actors in the Haryanvi song Saali Aaja Atariya were once seen dancing to Iranian beats. Result? In Swati’s words, “Entertainment. Entertainment. Entertainment.”
In the month-long ethnographic practice-based research carried out by Swati, she confessed learning a lot about the African community. “After initial resistance, people started coming to the shop. But I noticed that the Africans mostly avoided eye-contact. It was the fear and reluctance that kept them away.” While conversing with visitors, she also learnt how a few people take Africans for a ride. “I observed that when it came to providing services for Africans, certain handymen increased their usual rates for no reason.”
Speaking to IndianExpress.com, Swati said that she knew the project wouldn’t change the world. She believed it was more of a social experiment to create communication channels between different communities living in Khirki. “It’s like being a curator of cultures. If a migrant labour comes to me asking for Bhojpuri songs, I ask him if he would listen to other songs. Sometimes, they agree. Sometimes, they don’t.”
The idea was to build a digital archive of what people in Khirki listened to or watched. From Bhojpuri music to Congolese, from rap to qawwalis, from cartoons to bhajans, from South Indian movies to latest Bollywood hits — Swati’s laptop has several folders dedicated to multi-lingual forms of entertainment. The shop also became a space for interesting conversations and confessions. “Once, I even had a young guy coming to me and asking for bewafa songs,” she says.
From Thursday, while browsing through Swati’s collection, visitors will also be able to play files from their own phone without any manual help. Mayank Chandak, a software engineer, helped Swati in building a set-up that would allow people in Khirki to access Swati’s multi-cultural digital library or add to it by playing songs from their own phone. “We are setting up a web server on the Raspberry Pi, which is like a cheap computer, using NodeJS. It enables developers to run JS applications from the desktop. We will then project the media files collected by Swati using Raspberry Pi.”
The entire set-up does not need active internet services. Speaking to IndianExpress.com, Chandak revealed, “The name of the local server and WiFi name has been made public. Users wishing to access this library just need to connect to the open local network in Khoj Studios and follow the instructions mentioned on the application on their browsers.”