After an intense, roller coaster of 12 weeks in Delhi, I’m finally back in the US.
Just in time for this year’s A Better World x Design conference being hosted by RISD and Brown University, whose theme this year coincidently happens to be “Way-finding”. I was honored to be invited as one of the presenters and talk about to my incredible experience in Zamrudpur. The conference was also a great platform to interact with some truly amazing people and organizations about their works across issue, scales and locations. It is really interesting to see how that one word can have so many meanings and connotations and the countless ideas that stem from it.
In the coming months, I hope to share this work at some other platforms around Providence like DESINE-Lab’s Student lecture series, Brown & RISD’s collaborative Design+Health Seminar and RISD Landscape Department’s Spring lecture series. It will be interesting to discuss the project and the idea with fellow design community and receive valuable feedback.
Looking back, 2 months seems like a very short time to initiate a big change in the lifestyle and mindsets of people. But while short-term deliverables were set during the project, their impact was palpable soon enough and I was able to see changes myself. ‘Delhi Diary’, a local lifestyle magazine became aware of the changing face of Zamrudpur and published an article on our project. I’m still well in touch with Adhyayan and the children and keep getting updates from them. Its heartening to see that the project did not end with my leaving, they’re moving to planting winter vegetables in the beds, starting more art projects and the amazing group of girls from the neighboring Lady Sri Ram college who started off by volunteering to help with our murals around the village have started other programs with the children.
Leaving Delhi is always a bittersweet parting for me, made exceptionally hard this time. I received the sweetest goodbyes from all the children and parents and I realized just how deeply I’d been accepted into the community and their lives. If no one else, my own perceptions of such neighborhoods will never be the same.
Back in the US, I’m currently in the process of using the map created by the children to build a proper document to send to Amit in Zamrudpur. This will be a basis to discuss the more serious infrastructure problems of the community, which was never previously mapped out with respect to its physical infrastructure. Streets too narrow for the municipal trash collector trucks to traverse are highlighted, while we get a graphic document.
My summer with the community has definitely made clear my personal interests in community engaged design and place making, and the role of art and interventions as being as key to this end as pure architectural or urban design. With my relocation to Boston, and not wanting to lose touch with such projects even on the east coast, I’ve joined the Congress for New Urbanism (CNU) and Boston Society of Architects’ (BSA) Lab for Art in Public Places, both great think tanks engaging in Tactical Urbanism as a means of creating democratic urban spaces. I look forward to collaborating with some great designers and thinkers on interesting projects around New England.
As I enter the final weeks of my stay in Delhi and my engagement with Adhyayan, it’s really inspiring to see a distinct pattern of our interventions in the community.
This week we finally completed our big consolidated map of the village. The original piece is a 5’x4’ compilation incorporating the handiwork of many children at Adhyayan. Once the final piece was completed, I scanned and did a few layers of editing to make it printable. As a test, we have created two billboards versions of the community map to be installed at two of the 4 entrances in to the community. If successful, we will be adding more in the coming days.
An important aspect of my work has been to include the residents and seniors in whatever activity we engage the children with. For a project that involves a whole community, it is imperative to have an active participation of every group involved whether it is the children, the adults, the aged, men and women. Each group brings its own thoughts, strengths and limitations and is thus vital for the sustainability of any intervention. In our biweekly community meetings, I tried to bring to the discussions, different phases and issues that we have been trying to address.
This week’s meeting’s agenda was the claiming of ownership of the streets. It was a topic that we bring up time and again; to counter the disassociation and unaccountability of the littering problem but this week we were able to support the message with process images and results of our ‘art-bombing’ intervention. This was an experiment that received a mixed response. While on one hand, the residents love the art the children are creating in the streets, and its come to my knowledge that people have even approached them offering to hire them as profession mural artists to work on spaces in and outside their homes and businesses. Many residents on whose properties we created these murals, have taken great pride in the work and have taken ownership of the space, maintaining it, as its something created by their (the village’s) children. However, there were some spaces where despite our hard work of changing its character, in full view of the surrounding businesses, got reduced back to being an easy target for collecting garbage and betel nut spitting. It is an issue that I need to reevaluate our strategy towards.
In this meeting we also ‘unveiled’ the map in front of the community. It was a project that had required walking a tightrope of dealing with the historical monuments present within the community. We wanted to celebrate the rich heritage and history of the village by the presence and association of the 15th century Mughal structures present on site, while being careful of the delicate nature of their present status and the ‘illegal’ encroachment by the local residents. As I mentioned in a previous post my personal opinions about caged monuments and active engagements, yet I understand the residents’ discomfort in coming under the authorities radar regarding their occupation of the monuments, their cowsheds etc. However, I strongly feel that there is a need to acknowledge the immense heritage in the midst of which they reside.
The map serves as a visual celebration of the village and its legacy. For a community that doesn’t even completely show up on Google Maps, being denied the very basic acknowledgement of their existence in the urban fabric of Delhi, this ‘map’ serves more than a planning record of its physical structure. In having the children draw out their spaces, we created a rich visual of the life and characteristics of the village, in their recording of their favorite snack vendor to the shoe repair man to the location of Adhyayan to the square where the elders smoke their hookahs, the life and secrets of the community is introduced to an outsider. It’s a navigational welcome into the spaces and people of Zamrudpur.
We were honored to have a dear friend and mentor, Ravi Gulati join us for the meeting. He is the founder and head of an organization, Manzil for the past 20 years working on a host of issues in and around Delhi. Amit who founded Adhyayan was himself a student of Ravi bhaiya and started the organization as an offshoot of Manzil with a wish to share his own learning. He was instrumental in connecting me with Adhyayan and offered an invaluable wealth of advice when I started working on the project.
It’s also been over four weeks since we planted our first experimental urban farming bed in the reclaimed community park within the neighborhood. Inspired by the wonderfully rich growth of our planting, we’ve started work on another bed, with the hope to strategically keep adding more. While the village residents were initially slow in accepting our initiative of urban farming on their rooftops, seeing the actual proof of the ease of growth of our demonstrational beds and the richness of our yield has raised the enthusiasm exponentially. We are getting approached every other day by some resident wanting to know more about growing organic food on their rooftops and requesting our help to set up their beds. It is this interest and initiative on the part of the community that is most encouraging and the best reward of our hard work.