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Socially Engaged Art & Delhi's Peripheries

Presentation with studetns from Social Design students at Ambedkar University Delhi. Credits - Aishwarya Ashok

Almost 9 months into our socially engaged art practice through Studio Otherworlds located in Kapashera, Delhi, we have had some profound observations about the possibilities and limitations in art engagement and social reform in Delhi's peripheries. With the spirit of sharing our experiences with public(s) across Delhi and explore synergies with artists, designers, and activists, we ahve been organising a number of public workshops across Delhi.

We decided to take this engagement a step further and engage with institutions that are working on socially relevant issues in the city. As a part of this endeavour, we approached a number of academic institutions and were pleased to be invited for a public talk at the Department of Social Design at Ambedkar University. Through the talk attended by approximately 50 students and teachers, we tried to establish the difference between socially engaged art, social design, and activism.

These divergent strands of social engagement although might at times start to look similar in their product, are profoundly different in both their starting point, and possibilities offered by them. We tried to explain this through our extraordinary collaboration, between an urban researcher and an artist. What does this synergy bring to the table. We also discussed with the students how socially engaged art temporarily snatches subjects from other disciplines into the realm of art, and how through this it can open new possibilities.

We illustrated our point through various socially engaged art projects, especially Granby Four Streets, that has been a constant reference for us. The specific problem of exploitation, alienation, segregation, and racialisation that the community of over 250,000 labour migrants are facing in Kapashera has housing at the centre of it. Housing and metabolism of the migrant in what I call 'tenement towns' sprouting all over the perihperies and in the extended urban region of Delhi is a source of wealth accumulation for the land-owning classes.

A typical tenement block (Kalonie) in Kapashera. Credits - Nitin Bathla

Maintaining the migrant as a 'permanently temporary' subject in the city and accumulating rent from this becomes a primary interest for the landowning classes, the Yadavs in case of Kapashera. To highlight the case of Kapashera, the 250,000 migrants located here are concentrated within an area less than 1, making it at least as dense if not more than 'Old Delhi'. The accumulated wealth from the tenements of Kapashera is fixed in spacious farmhouses, real estate, and expensive cars by the landowners with little investment in urban qualities or welfare of the migrant.

The 'permanently temporary' migrant however is not a passive subject to this oppressive regime, and resistance to the housing oppression is a part of everyday life here. However, invisulisation in its many forms is a part of a strategy to delegitimise and hide these forms of resistance. Whether it be invisulisation of numbers in the census, inexsistence of the tenements in the land revenue records, or the invisualisation of urban struggles under the mask of being an 'urban village'. These invisualisations allow the landlords to hold onto, consolidate, and accentuate their violent practices.

The task at hand for us as artists engaging in such a terrain was thus primarily to visualise these everyday struggles. We thus started by establishing a safe space within the community, where anyone could come and express themselves. Then we brought together a group of women artists that started stitching together a cartography of their everyday struggles and places of resistance. This came together as the first tapestery that we stitched together with the women 'A planetary map of fast fashion'.

The women of Kapashera with their tapestry. A planetary map of fast fashion. Credits - Bhavyaa Parashar

The tapestry allows us to expose the life, struggles, and potentials of Kapashera to public(s) all over Delhi. In the public workshops that we have been conducting all over Delhi, we have attempted to use a very wide diversity of spaces. Such as the labour square of Kapashera where the migrants come and search for daily wage labour, public parks in central Delhi such as Lodhi Gardens, the square of the landowners of Kapashera called Yadav chaupal among many others. This exercise not only the women to gain agency in expressing and asserting themselves as artists across a diversity of publics in Delhi, but it also allows them to come face to face with the landowners. Furthermore, it opens narrative possibilities to transmutate and resul in concrete possibilities.

A public workshop in lodhi Gardens in Central Delhi. Credits - Aishwarya Akshok

A public workshop at labour square in Kapashera. Credits - Aishwarya Akshok

Inspired from this stage of our intervention in Kapashera, we are now undertaking a number of other tapestries with diverse groups across the city. This includes a tapestry with the students of Amedkar University that are doing a tapestry with the women on reading the city. In another tapestry, the women are stitching a 'counter-masterplan' for Delhi with a coalition of community organisations in Delhi. While in another one situated with Kapashera, they are stitching another tapestry with 50 other women migrants from Sakhi Kala Manch, a women worker's union in Kapashera.

The project has also spurred a coalition of progressive forces in Kapashera to come together and explore possibilites of readapting tenement towns like Kapashera that symbolise the peripheral situation in Delhi. It is these possibilities in which we find ameliorative and emancipatory potentials of reforming the peripheral condition.

The Studio Otherworlds team, from left to right - Nitin Bathla, Sumedha Garg, Bhavyaa Parashar, and Aishwarya Ashok. A portrait by the women of Kapashera.

The Studio Otherworlds team, from left to right - Nitin Bathla, Sumedha Garg, Bhavyaa Parashar, and Aishwarya Ashok. A portrait by the women of Kapashera.

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