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.
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 weekend saw two big celebrations in India, especially Delhi. Friday marked the 67th independence day of the Republic of India. Politically, it’s a somber event, lacking the fun and festivities one associates with 4th of July in the US. Our equivalent of a day filled with parades and festivities is on 26th of January, the marking of the establishment of India as a sovereign republic in 1950. But culturally, this doesn’t stop people from celebrating! Over time, kite flying has become associated with the holiday and in the days leading up to it, one can see skies across northern India smattered with a colorful array of fluttering and flying paper.
Two days later, the Hindu calendar celebrated Krishna Janmashtami, the birth of Lord Krishna, the eighth avatar of Vishnu the preserver and one of the Hindu Trinity of the divine. The festival has cultural as well as religious connotations as Krishna was a young, playful god, whose mischiefs and shortcomings make him one of the most accessible deities removed from the revered pedestal of awe that many others are placed on. The festival’s celebrations include musical enactments of the life of Krishna and recreating his famous mischievous antics of youth.
These two days are very big on Adhyayan’s calendar as the kids hold a performance filled celebration. Shows are put up every year, completely choreographed by the students themselves for the neighborhood and guests from outside. When I was conceiving my own project with Adhyayan, I had wanted to hold a pop-up performance in the community, which could act as an attractor for our ongoing project and be an experiment to test our way-finding interventions in the streetscape of the community. The overlapping of these festivals was a great coincidence and opportunity.
The week leading up to this long weekend of holiday and fun had the kids get quite caught up with the kite flying and the preparations for the plays and musicals performances and we slowed down our work on the project for a few days. My first week of mapping exercises with the students had produced some incredible graphic directions to their own homes. It was their first introduction to a mapping exercise, where by concentration only on the streetscape most pertinent to reaching their own homes they were learning lessons in identifying landmarks, both visual and sensorial, and understanding choice of movements when faced with multiples routes. They were also most importantly, identifying physical spaces that they realized would be uncomfortable for an outsider to navigate. In the process, they had created some beautiful drawing and maps of the village streets.
I had been trying to find a way to display these creations as well as make them accessible to more people outside the community to generate awareness. I decided to use this time to create cards out of these maps, something small and cheap enough to be mass produced, could be used as a stationary by Adhyayan in sending out invites/ notes for their events and which could generate an interest in the streetscape and neighborhood of Zamrudpur. This was an attempt at creating awareness flyers for the project, having a use as well. Additionally, the NGO tries to sustain itself without donations as much as it can, where most of their revenue comes from having created a small business of candle making, art and curios made by the kids themselves during various workshops, which they sell during the annual Diwali time festivities around the city. These cards also make an excellent stationary item for sale, which could add to their self-funding.
As I continue my explorations in navigating the streetscapes of Zamrudpur, I can’t escape the garbage problem of the community. While there seems to be a slight improvement in the municipal corporation’s role with our last week’s meeting and the realization of the community towards its power of proactive engagement with the government, and the slight initiative by food venders and shopkeepers to provide dustbins after our weekly community meetings, there is still a major gap in the way the households dispose of their personal waste.
In my master’s thesis, I had explored the potential of urban farming in another urban village of the city involving the strategic reclamation of parts of the Delhi green zone. Though at a larger, more practical scale, I was already warming to the idea of its potential in Zamrudpur. Despite Delhi having a number of optimum conditions for urban farming like the presence of a good soil, adequate sunlight and excess of flat surfaces in the form of waste plots / flat rooftops, not many people are engaging in it.
Along with all the navigation and attractor strategies in the village, I felt that urban cultivation could be the vital ‘activator’ for the community. Moreover Adhyayan with its students could be the perfect demonstrational and teaching set up to empower the rest of the community to accept its practice. Most households in the village, though live in tiny one-two room apartments, have access of the large roofs of their buildings that are currently used as spillover spaces. Moreover, the presence of a few families still engaging in dairy production provides the community with free excess manure. In short, they have the perfect set up to start growing their own fresh food, a lot, of which they can’t afford to buy too often from the market.
Additionally, some of my earliest exercises in the village with the children regarding mapping of spaces had brought out the jarring absence of a recreational public space within the community. While there was one small fenced green area, it was being used as an open dump by the surrounding buildings and the residents were accessing the neighboring colony’s municipal park outside the community for recreation. One couldn’t fathom why the community wasn’t actively claiming the park. It wasn’t just about cleaning up the space, there needed to be a conscious programming of the space to prevent its degradation into a dumpsite again. I wondered if a community garden could be that activity.
I came to Adhyayan with the basic idea for this project but once on site and with better understanding of all concerned elements, these 8 weeks have seen a lot of trials, errors and rerouting of strategies. The times when I’m not at Adhyayan I’ve been contacting my ex-professors of architecture, colleagues and friends, discussing the project with them and getting valuable feedback and suggestions. Ravi Gulati is the founder of Manzil, an organization working to empower youth from under-privileged communities to supplement their education beyond academia. Amit, the founder of Adhyayan was in fact a student at Manzil himself many years ago and started Adhyayan wishing to pass on the lessons he learned to the children in his village. Ravi has been a wonderful mentor and guide throughout the inception and duration of this project helping me evaluate and overcome many of the hurdles I faced.
On my mention of my interest of introducing urban farming in the community as another strategy of making them take ownership of their spaces and become an example to the outside city, offering an active and valuable demonstrational attractor, he introduced me to Kapil Mandawewala, founder and CEO of Sanjeev Fresh, an organic farming consultancy service based out of Gujarat, India. One of the key projects that Kapil is engaged in involves educational workshops in urban cities on urban farming. Kapil was kind enough to offer his services to hold a workshop with the students at Adhyayan. I wanted to have these children to initiate the practice in their community and become the tools of teaching the rest of the residents.
A few weeks ago, along with our explorations in way-finding markers and street art we started the process of reclaiming the ‘mandir wala park’ (park next to the temple). I had been in contact with Kapil who was guiding us on how to set up the space and the beds in preparation. Despite being a softscape, the main concern of urban farming here is that raised beds are needed. We procured the soil from nearby construction site’s excavation pit and the manure from one of the community’s cowsheds, all for free. Kapil then came and held a daylong workshop with a few students about urban farming, its practice and benefits.
One of the most important components of the workshop was the teaching of the compost creation. We are engaging in ‘Anaerobic composting’ of own kitchen waste – composting of household organic matter in the absence of air, in small containers. This allows for households to compost and dispose of their kitchen waste within their own homes as the container sizes are very small, and cause no unpleasant smells as it’s a closed system process, working with an absence of airborne bacteria. Since this was our first attempt, we worked on only one bed to test the outcome. We planned and planted a variety of spinach, red saag, gourd and Indian radish (mooli) in our community lot, and the children took many seeds home to plant on their rooftops. Our choice for round one was governed by choosing nutritious food sources that had the smallest growing cycle so we could see their progress within my stay and amend any errors for the subsequent planting.
In the following Sunday’s community meeting, we held a presentation and mini workshop for the rest of the community, and handed out different seed packets. Truthfully, I was very pleasantly surprised at the degree of the positive response. There started an interesting discussion that many residents took part in. Actually it shouldn’t have been such a surprise, since almost all the family have rural connections and still have family and agricultural lands that they are connected to outside of Delhi but are separated from in the urban city.
It’s been pretty amazing to see our seeds grow so well! This week we’ve started the process of setting up a few more soil beds!
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.)
This Sunday we had the first of our bi-weekly community meetings. This was a chance for us at Adhyayan to interact with about seventy senior members of the community including community leaders, the local political representative and the parents of the students at Adhyayan.
Though I had been exploring the neighborhood and talking to people on my own these past weeks, this allowed us all to collectively meet and communicate, as well as for us to show the adults some of the work the children had been working on and engage them in an experiment whose success lies in the active collaboration of the whole community and not just kids at Adhyayan. We have been lucky to secure space in the community hall Chaupal, which will serve as the venue of our meetings, screenings and exhibitions in the neighborhood.
Through the meeting, we explained some of the goals of our project – making the neighborhood more accessible and safer for any outsider, from a guest to a potential customer and business, and thereby breaking some of current stereotypes and prejudices that Zamrudpur village faces. By introducing the adults to the initiative, we hope to involve them in the upcoming weeks’ work in which we’ll take to the streets – painting, installing and scattering graphic markers throughout the neighborhoods.
Most importantly, the aim was to address the urgent and immediate issue of community ownership and neighborhood pride in the form of tackling the garbage and hygiene issues in the area. “We ourselves are the perpetrators and we ourselves have to live in the conditions that we create. Why is that we understand the importance of cleanliness and hygiene and thus take great pains to clean our homes, but don’t recognize the street outside as being the forecourt, the ‘aangan’ to the home.” Instead of us trying to preach about systematic cleanliness, we showed the children’s’ work where their capture of the everyday conditions from watching their own parents throw out trash to their choice in mapping the ways to their homes showed their astute observation and impact of the actions of their parents.
Movement through street submerged in water because of clogged drains, health concerns brought from unhygienic conditions and the loss of potential business from neighborhood communities due to unfavorable conditions harms the residents themselves. Therefore addressing the issue has direct and immediate consequences on their own lives and livelihoods.
An important consensus that came up was the need to include the shopkeepers in understanding the potential of our project in directly affecting their businesses. “Why is that kids from neighboring schools and Lady Shri Ram College don’t just walk up to their stationary and sweet shops? Why don’t residents of the next-door Greater Kailash and East of Kailash colonies frequent their grocers and corner stores? All of them harbor certain biases and instead choose to walk or drive a greater distance in another direction.”
The food and party afterwards was a good way to chat with some of the ladies who seem to have finally stopped eyeing me as a suspicious outsider and for the amazing kids to have an afternoon of fun. There’s nothing like samosas to get us Indians in a good mood!
Though we received a positive response from the community, there wasn’t an impulse for active participation from the adults yet. I hope that in the coming weeks, once people start seeing the installations come up in the streets, that there will be a greater interest and engagement.