Akhada (wrestling ground), Gurgaon, India, Credit: White-Mazzarella/Mehta/Grewal 2013

‘Space to Wrestle With:’ Social Practice in Gurgaon

By Alex White-Mazzarella, Namrata Mehta and Soaib Grewal

As part of a grant from the Khoj International Artist’s Association, in the summer of 2013, we, Alex, Namrata and Soaib*, three artist-practitioners, facilitated a community art project in Tigra, an ‘urban village’ of the city of Gurgaon, in India. Over a month and a half, we worked with village residents to collectively reimagine the nature and use of public space here. This photo essay presents the participatory tools and processes that led to creating an akhada, a traditional wrestling ground, in Tigra.

*Alex White Mazzarella, Namrata Mehta and Soaib Grewal work as an interdisciplinary team with a range of experience in urban design, research and social art practices. Namrata and Soaib have consistently engaged with everyday Gurgaon life in their practice, while Alex brings to this collaboration his experience in community-based art practices in India and other parts of the world. Their work in Tigra was supported by the Khoj International Artists’ Association’s, “Negotiating Routes: Ecologies of the Byways” project. A publication based on this work was released earlier this year and is available at https://gurgaonecology.wordpress.com/.

Located 32 kilometers west of New Delhi, Gurgaon is the biggest hub of outsourcing companies in the world. In just 25 years, Gurgaon has grown from a cluster of villages to a ‘Millennium City’ of over 1.5 million people. This period of accelerated growth was driven by the private real estate sector, with landowners selling vast tracts of their agricultural land to builders of commercial and residential complexes. Today, the landscape of Gurgaon is a complex mix of state-of-the-art business parks, shopping malls, golf courses and gated residential complexes, with several old village settlements in the midst of these new constructions.

Figure 1. A tourist bus parked against a compound wall featuring fake foliage. The wall encloses one of Gurgaon’s many golf courses. In the distance is the familiar sight of a highrise apartment complex. Credit: White-Mazzarella/Mehta/Grewal 2013

The Gurgaon model of development is being replicated in new urban spaces across the country. However, the Millennium City’s viability, beyond its short-term boom, is already being questioned--specifically its environmental, social and cultural sustainability. While Gurgaon attracts white-collar workers from across the country to the many Fortune 500 companies based here, the city also has a large share of rural migrant labor, employed in lower-level, service sector jobs. Friction between these increasingly disparate socio-economic classes is becoming more evident, and is perpetuated in the exclusivity of urban space and privatisation of land. Common space is needed to help create and establish a collective social life and include diverse Gurgaon residents as active citizens.

Figure 2. A group of young boys play cricket on a road that functions as common urban space. Credit: White-Mazzarella/Mehta/Grewal 2013

In Tigra, agricultural land belonging to its residents was acquired by the government or sold to private developers nearly twenty years ago. Even though Tigra is today an ‘urban village,’ many families continue to maintain rural livelihoods, farming on land, now several miles away, or herding cattle for their milk. Tigra’s population also consist of rural migrants from across North India, who work in Gurgaon’s high rises, and rent tenement rooms from Tigra’s landowning residents.

Figure 3. New developments inch closer and closer to the outer limits of Gurgaon’s urban villages. Credit: White-Mazzarella/Mehta/Grewal 2013

Our activities focused on Tigra’s Baba Ram Mohan Johar (lake). Believed to be sacred for its water, the seasonal lake is located at the center of the village. The lake has dried up as a result of the deterioration of monsoon rainwater channels, and the subsequent drop in groundwater levels in the surrounding areas. Some areas of the lake-bed have been reclaimed as land for the construction of a community center, (which as of the year 2013, had been under construction for three years, and had yet to be used.) The incumbent Ward Councillor, of the newly formed local governmental body, Municipal Corporation of Gurgaon (MCG), proposes to build a boundary wall along the circumference of the lake to secure it from further encroachment. Having just barely defeated Tigra’s candidate by three votes, her proposal has a bleak future. It is especially opposed by a group of three village elders, self-appointed as the Village Development Committee.

Figure 4. A community meeting space is demarcated on the lake bed. Credit: White-Mazzarella/Mehta/Grewal 2013

Our discussions with residents revealed various opinions for future uses of the lake bed: some believed what was left of the lake should be used as grazing land for cattle; others held that it should be converted into a park for children; some imagined an old-age home on it; others believed it should be restored as a seasonal water source; and still others wanted to see it as a parking lot for the community center. Villagers also offered stories about the lake’s history going back seven generations. They discussed its sacredness to believers and its use as a playground by children. One woman mentioned how the lake was perhaps punishing the village for its degradation: “The lake, the house of God, was beautiful, but now it is doomed. Not because of the water but because of this wayward world and its bad deeds. The village cannot find happiness”.

Figure 5. Tigra residents gather together on the lake-bed to discuss its possible futures. Credit: White-Mazzarella/Mehta/Grewal 2013

On Sunday, May 5th, 2013, we invited village residents to the community center for a dialogue about public space. The day-long activities included a video screening (a film of Tigra residents’ recollections of the Baba Ram Mohan Johar), an installation, a viewing of public art, and a dialogue on imagining the future of the lake. Invitations were printed out and hand-delivered, door-to-door, the day before.

Figure 6. Residents from Tigra village watch a film in which other residents narrate their recollections of the Baba Ram Mohan Johar. Credit: White-Mazzarella/Mehta/Grewal 2013

A provocative question about land ownership—framed as a play on words—was painted on large pieces of paper and placed in the lake bed for Tigra residents’ interpretation. The words ‘zameendari’ and ‘zimmedari,’ translate roughly to ‘land ownership’ and ‘responsibility’ in Hindi, and present an open-ended exploration of civic values in Gurgaon--a city that is increasingly facing water, land management and ecological challenges. A series of land artworks also occupied the lake bed: the figure of a cow, to indicate the lake’s role as a grazing ground and bathing area for dairy cows and buffalos (owned by 60 per cent of the village); the ancient and auspicious Hindu symbol of the swastika–representing the lake as a holy place for pilgrimage; and a rain cloud– representative of the reservoir’s role in collecting monsoon rainwater.

Figure 7. The words zameendari and zimmedari, translate roughly to ‘land ownership’ and ‘responsibility’ in Hindi, and invite an open-ended exploration of civic values in Gurgaon. Credit: White-Mazzarella/Mehta/Grewal 2013
roof of the community center served as a viewing gallery for the land art and also as a space for continuing dialogue on the revitalization of the lake. A groundwater collection installation was created to explore how water from rooftops across the village could be channeled into the lake. While the objective of these dialogues was to envision how best to secure the lake’s future and prevent encroachment, the actual conversation revolved around politics, power structures, and class divisions that govern the village. Despite having designated a time slot during the day exclusively for women to join in the dialogue, none participated. Also conspicuously absent from the day’s events were the three village elders from the Village Development Committee
Figure 8. A village elder pours water into a pipe that channels water from the rooftop into the lake. Credit: White-Mazzarella/Mehta/Grewal 2013
Figure 9. Deepak, a young wrestler and resident of Tigra, interacts with us through the day. Credit: White-Mazzarella/Mehta/Grewal 2013

In the evening, a second projection of the film featuring resident recollections of the Baba Ram Mohan Johar (lake) took place at a centrally-located street corner, to which the Village Development Committee were especially invited (they attended the event). An open forum to discuss and critique the various views that were presented in the film followed the screening. During this conversation, Deepak and a group of young adults presented an idea they had been discussing for the community space: to build an akhada, or a traditional wrestling arena. Haryana, the state in which Tigra village is located, is known for its tradition of pehlwani (wrestling). The young men decided to self-organize to bring an akhada to the community.

Figure 10. A forum for discussion followed the screening of the film. Credit: White-Mazzarella/Mehta/Grewal 2013

An akhada is a gymnasium or wrestling arena, central to the social fabric of martial communities in northern India. While the form is physical, it also embodies a deeper spiritual aspect. Each day, a mound of earth is dampened with water and dug up to displace the tough topsoil. This work is performed religiously with fixed rites, one elder passing the shovel to the next. The space embodies collectivism in usage and custodianship, and both the space and activity are inclusive; within the wrestling circle all are equal and the practitioners don't observe caste distinctions. The camaraderie here is palpable and helps in promoting the neutrality of the space in an otherwise politically divided environment. According to Deepak, “A truckload of dirt, a bag of almonds and an image of Lord Hanuman is all you need to build an akhada”.

Figure 11. A photograph of Lord Hanuman at the Tigra Akhada, the patron deity of wrestlers and athletes, is propped up against a mound of earth. The deity’s blessings are sought just before training. Credit: White-Mazzarella/Mehta/Grewal 2013

Tigra’s akhada was opened with only the basic infrastructure required to begin a wrestling practice. It will be formalized over time, with the community contributing to its development. The akhada is a structure that requires very little initial financial investment, and allows for the easy testing of new design ideas. In this incremental approach, each new design element is added out of necessity. Here, users of the space are its designers, and must negotiate their different visions. Since the akhada is made by the people who use it, community investment is central to its sustenance. The sense of collective ownership and work in the akhada builds intimacy between people and the space.

Figure 12. A Tigra resident and wrestler works to loosen the topsoil in the akhada. Credit: White-Mazzarella/Mehta/Grewal 2013

At it’s core, the akhada is a form of community-driven urban design and planning, Although pehlwani (wrestling), and other similar sports, such as boxing, have been traditionally male dominated sports, there is a strong and growing space for women to participate and excel in them. The village of Bhiwani, also in Haryana, is for example a popular training ground for Haryanvi women boxers, and many families from villages across the state send their daughters to Bhiwani to train competitively.

Figure 13. A crowd of participants keenly watches wrestlers of different age groups practicing. Credit: White-Mazzarella/Mehta/Grewal 2013

We came in to Tigra, intent on questioning existing power structures that limit imagination and activation of public space here—age, caste, landownership and gender. The result of our work was that a group of Tigra’s young men organized to build the temporary akhada. The akhada is a space that is familiarly associated with inclusivity, though perhaps limited, in this case, to caste identities and land ownership, not gender. Given that the akhada was built in the public space of the community center, a sphere of Tigra village life that observably excludes women, and also that our dialogues were largely with men, both young and old, this outcome isn’t surprising. What emerged was an understanding that any instance of community art or social practice, in this case, the akhada, is also a wrestling space for the articulation of existent and potential or emergent community relations.

Figure 14. A young girl, traditionally excluded from entry into the akhada, stands on a rooftop for a view of a wrestling match. Credit: White-Mazzarella/Mehta/Grewal 2013
Figure 15. Young boys run laps while training in the akhada. Credit: White-Mazzarella/Mehta/Grewal 2013

Author Bio

Alex White-Mazzarella is a multi disciplinary artist, urban planner & facilitator who founded Artefacting as a socio-cultural practice that creates public art and initiatives from within communities to build capacity, cooperation and knowledge. With courage, multiculturalism and global insight in hand, Alex is passionate about bringing diverse audiences together to unlock people’s potential to learn grow and build with and through one another. He is also a painter with artwork in private collections throughout the world.

Namrata Mehta is an artist, designer and researcher. Her work combines tactical media art practices with social research methodologies to engage with people about the experiences of everyday urban life. Her interests span urban infrastructure, public service delivery, games for change, information and communication technologies, 3D printing, pottery and postcards. She currently works with the Center for Knowledge Societies (CKS), where she is conceptualizing the future of a Civic Innovation Lab in the city of Delhi.

Soaib Grewal is a designer, strategist, and entrepreneur. He has worked in many interdisciplinary environments designing and building everything from products to services to systems. He currently runs BOLD a firm that works with early stage ventures to create better solutions leveraging design, data and technology. He is interested in how design and technology can play a role in solving large systemic problems.

An Introduction to P[art]icipatory Urbanisms
Karin Shankar and Kirsten Larson
Research Notes from a Black Urbanist
Ronald Morrison
Ghetto Biennale and “Jalousie en Couleur”: The Politics of Post-Earthquake Aesthetics in Port-Au- Prince
Carolyn Duffey
Fugitive Moments and Public Memory: An Improvised Memorial for Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel X in Canberra
Rebecca Caines
Reimagining Fluidity: Colliding Bodies and Architecture at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
Ying Zhu
The “Good Death” of Buildings: Filling Gaps in Post-Earthquake Christchurch
Heidi Elisabet Käkelä
Spacehacking as Praxis: 3 Projects, 3 Perspectives: raumlaborberlin, Recetas Urbanas, Collectif Etc
Nathan John
Making of the Indignant Citizen: Politics, Aesthetics, and Housing Rights in Madrid and Rome
Andreea S. Micu
Critical Performance Spaces: Participation and Anti-Austerity Protests in Athens
Gigi Argyropoulou
Participatory Aesthetics and Makeshift Urbanism: Cases of Guimarães, Cova do Vapor and Terras da Costa
Joana Braga
‘Space to Wrestle With:’ Social Practice in Gurgaon
Alex White-Mazzarella, Namrata Mehta and Soaib Grewal
Windows on an Urban Village: Participation and Antagonism in Shaina Anand’s ‘KhirkeeYaan’
Rattanamol Singh Johal
invisible Zürichs: Multiplicity of Knowledges in Socially-engaged Artistic Practice
Cecilie Sachs Olsen
Seeing in the Dark: Unearthing Batumi’s Hidden Backyard Treasures
Lydia Matthews
Basketball Now!
Layla Nova Forrest-White
Assemblages of Difference: Place-making and Utopian Agonism on the Open-Air House Music Dance Floor
Kavita Kulkarni
‘O collective Happening’ in Shanghai: “Loose Space,” Participation, and what Sustains between Instantaneity and Permanence
Chiayi Seetoo
Squatting in Non-Spaces: Queering Art and Identity in Global China’s Guangzhou
Jenny Lin
Negotiating Informality: Social and Economic Strategies of Latino Food Vendors in San Francisco’s Mission District
Ginette Wessel and Sofia Airaghi
Beyond Bottom-Up in San Francisco: Public-Private Initiatives and the Potential for Proactive Citizenship
Antje K. Steinmuller