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.
How can one really ease the movement of an outsider in a new terrain or coax entry where all other spatial signs are discouraging for a person unfamiliar with the place. As an architect I understand the principles of urban landscapes and human behavior, while as an artist and designer I want to address the issue in a way that synthesizes the different disciplines. An important component of way finding was the insertion of “attractors” which would be the points of generating interest in an otherwise unwelcoming space, landmark at important turnings and an artistic way of introducing infrastructural support.
It is basic human psychology that we can overlook negatives of our environment, if not associate a positive connotation with a space, if there is a presence of an art intervention in it. It is this very idea that inspires the creation of some of the most beautiful street art / urban installation in some of the most damaged public spaces.
My goal was to install these attractors at strategic points in the village to highlight a range of issues from the reclamation of a space, the cleaning up of another, to bringing light to some of the darkest streets. Like I’ve mentioned earlier, the garbage issue of the community has been a big problem and I’m finding the need to address it in every aspect of my project. It is integral to most of the problems of the community from their own infrastructure to the prejudices harbored by outsiders.
For the past 4 weeks, I had been holding workshops with the kids at making installations from waste to highlight a particular issue that they wish to address in their community. Some of the topics that came up and led to three-dimensional explorations where the concerns regarding dark and narrow streets or stairwells, the water shortage in the area and its wastage, and the excessive littering and spitting of betel-nut juice in the streets. The subsequent urban installations that came up were the students’ interpretations of making others aware of these concerns in the streetscape.
Our project was not meant to be a cleanliness drive for the community. Though we tried to tackle the issue to the best of our ability with the limited resources and time, we wanted to address the larger issue of the mobility through the streets. Therefore, our interventions which include cleaning of certain spaces are tied with the insertion of our public murals/installation in those spaces to highlight our role in reclaiming that space instead of the unusual attention to their duty on the part of the municipal cleaners.
Having established certain way-finding clues to guide people’s movement through the village, we now set about targeting spaces which are either important visual locations in the form of T-junctions & crossings, or those which are particularly unfavorable in passing through by either being too dark, narrow or trash filled. We started to art bomb these spaces. Our interventions are of 4 types – painted murals for striking visual impact, murals incorporating tactile and temporal elements, adding a textural or sound quality to them, to be experienced by touch for narrow streets where people’s instinct is to run their hands along the walls as they move along. Additionally, we are installing installations that incorporate light features for particularly dark spaces, and installations from reclaimed trash for spaces with a lack of adequate surface area to paint on.
We have been joined by a group of very enthusiastic volunteers from the neighboring Delhi University college – Lady Sri Ram College for Women in this street-art phase of the project, whose creative inputs and mentorship is great for the kids, only exposed to my thoughts and ideas all this while. These volunteers also form an important group of outsiders uncomfortable with entering and engaging with the Zamrudpur community, suffering from many of the prejudices I am hoping to fight. Having a small group actively work with us is a great way to start breaking this barrier, since they go back and talk to their friends about Adhyayan and the community, thus generating an interest among others.
This phase is also an exercise in taking ownership of spaces in the urban streetscape. By marking places that we are cleaning up, with art, the hope is to deter their re-degradation into unfavorable trash dumping sites. This has helped support our arguments and meetings with the government and municipal officials that we are trying to meet weekly, and maintain pressure on to become more active in their dealing with such urban villages.
This week I hit my first major set-back, and it was a disheartening yet learning experience. Working in Zamrudpur, a village in the heart of Delhi, with its many caste and cultural nuances, is the first time I had to work in such a capacity on ground, even in a place I call home, and I’m learning that its far trickier to navigate a socio-political landscape that the physical one.
In India, especially in small neighborhoods, open markets or communities, close knit units and narrow streets, force most of the movement to be pedestrian. Here, distance measurement and way guidance gets simplified beyond actual dimensions and the human body becomes an important tool itself. Distance is most often measured in steps (‘kadam’ literally translating to feet) and directions would be given in the form of “take the first left, and about 30 steps from there is my house” or “the shops are tucked away in the alley barely 10 steps from the temple entrance”.
The greater Delhi city has existed since the mythological period of the Mahabharata and over time, its many rulers have left marks of their rein in the form of forts, walls, tombs, gateways, mosques and pavilion. Currently there exist over 300 such structures, ranging from the Sultan Ghari tomb, the oldest tomb in India built in 1231 to the Qila-i-Mubarak (Red fort) built in mid 1600’s. When we realize that this is just one city in a country the size of India, logistically, it has been near impossible for the concerned bodies, the Archaeological Society of India (ASI) and INTACH to catalogue or maintain each and every one of such structures. Their current conditions range from those incorporated to UNESCO World Heritage site and well maintained, to those semi protected by fences, to many nameless remnants scattered around. Though the jurisdiction ruling states that no constructions can take place within 200 meters of any historical monument, it is often overruled either by illegal encroachment or by certain loopholes in the city byelaws.
Zamrudpur is home to seven 14th century tombs located throughout this small community. During the past two weeks I’ve been hunting the archives of the ASI and INTACH to find more information about them. Unfortunately there’s no historical record of these tombs, the only mention being that of a Maulvi Zafar Hasan in a record of the city’s historical monuments in the first decade of the 20th century, who also attributes them to being of unknown origin.
Owning to the village’s status as a lal dora urban village, there were some byelaws that it got exempted from and many that offered grey zones of interpretation leading to encroachments. In its growth and expansion in the heart of prime real estate of the city, its buildings and structures grew such that they’ve almost completely engulfed these historical monuments. Buildings have sprung up next to, around, and through these tombs, all but hiding them from plain sight.
As an experiment in way finding, I wanted to try calling out the location of these tombs through the winding lanes of the community. The small size of the community and the nature of their presence mean that the tombs are 15-20 meters at most off any of the main streets in the neighborhood. Expressing this in a layman’s anthropometric measurement understanding, we decided to paint markers exposing the nearby tombs and the number of “steps” that they were away from that spot.
I created the stencils, with which some of the children started painting around the neighborhood. Unfortunately, we had barely started, when a few residents created a commotion regarding our project. Many families have illegally encroached upon these tombs, using them as sheds for their cows, or extensions of their homes. They got afraid that our project was trying to raise the issue in the municipal corporation’s eyes. They’ve already been in court battles with the ASI for years regarding the status of these tombs. Despite our best efforts, and to try maintaining an acceptance of the NGO and our project in the community we had to abandon it mid way.
My personal opinions on the situation and the legalities notwithstanding, (I am personally against historical monuments becoming passive, caged relics, with my own thesis project exploring the possibility of establishing a weekly market in the another monument complex in the city – Hauz Khas monument), we understood the futility of trying to press this strategy in such a short duration of my stay and instead try another avenue to explore way-finding in the community. Way-finding clues, which would be visually engaging and provoking, instead of being mere signage guiding movement.
(This post was written at the end of last week, being uploaded now thanks to my ongoing struggle with the available Internet connection. This week, we’re trying a different strategy, that seems to be getting a good response and I’ll be able to critique better it once its finished completely.)