Shaina Anand, KhirkeeYaan, New Delhi, India, Credit: Khoj International Artists' Association, 2006

Windows on an Urban Village: Participation and Antagonism in Shaina Anand’s ‘KhirkeeYaan’

By Rattanamol Johal

Social space is produced and structured by conflicts. With this recognition, a democratic spatial politics begins.[1]

In January 2014, nearly a month after the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) won a significant number of seats in the Delhi Assembly Elections and was invited to form a minority government, its Law Minister Somnath Bharti attempted an unauthorized raid of a private house in Khirkee Extension.[2] The densely packed neighborhood, itself a spillover from Khirkee village, one of Delhi’s numerous “urban villages,” has offered affordable housing and an easily accessible location to lower middle class and migrant labor populations arriving in Delhi from various parts of the country (and recently, from around the third world), struggling to make ends meet in an increasingly expensive and inflation ridden, space-deprived capital.[3] The target of this particular (attempted) raid were immigrants from Sub-Saharan Africa, specifically Uganda, who were believed by the Minister and his accomplices to be running a drug and prostitution racket from their premises. Bharti claimed to be acting upon a series of complaints made by neighbors and residents, though he neglected to obtain an official search warrant, relying instead on the presumption of authority accrued to him from the newly won political position and bolstered by the coercive agency of the television cameras that accompanied him. Unfortunately for Bharti, himself a lawyer and activist, the local policemen whom he had hoped to co-opt in carrying out the raid, refused to participate in the absence of a warrant. Unable to enter the premises, the mob sought out four African women – two Ugandan and two Nigerian – in the street and forced them to provide urine samples for drug testing. All the samples collected illegally tested negative for the presence of illicit substances, while the targeted women alleged molestation and a blatant abuse of their rights.

This incident, an exemplar of the persistent tensions among diverse communities squeezed together in densely-packed neighborhoods across Delhi, provides one lens through which to view the contemporary mega-city, with all its urgencies and unevenness of population growth, infrastructure development, migration and assimilation. The events of January 2014, the manifestation of a bigoted politician’s personal prejudices, were certainly not an isolated occurrence. Rather, they emerge from an underlying web of complex relationships between and among subjects claiming various religious affiliations, caste positions, geo-political provenance, socio-economic class, and longevities of local residence – all situated in extreme physical proximity. Set within this milieu, Shaina Anand’s 2006 participatory art project KhirkeeYaan offers important insights into the conflictual “production” of urban space, foregrounding the problematics of community formation, affect, exchange, and antagonism. The project’s multi-faceted, episodic nature aimed at the possibility of forging linkages and conversation between strangers across diverse groups living and working in such close quarters.[4] All this unfolds under the specter of the State, which in Delhi makes its presence felt through the physical and immaterial apparatuses of the bureaucracy and law enforcement.

Alongside its traditional associations with centralized state power, institutional clout, and monumental architecture, Delhi has in the past two decades emerged as a site for vibrant research-driven, community-based art practices emerging from places like Khoj International Artists’ Association, which began as an artist residency space, and Sarai, a think-tank and urban laboratory of sorts initiated by the Raqs Media Collective with key collaborators at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS). The members of Raqs – Shuddhabrata Sengupta, Jeebesh Bagchi and Monica Narula – wax poetic on Delhi’s urbanscape and the role of the artist-thinker-researcher-instigator-catalyst figure within this ecology.

Delhi is overwhelmingly a city of migrants. In this giant mixer-grinder of dreams, hallucinations and nightmares, the artist finds herself a natural ingredient, bringing to the city’s obsession with speculation in real and unreal estates, the spice of sightings of tangential territories in the imagination. The artist is the migrant to Delhi who never stops migrating. She remains afloat and adrift, like the suspended particulate matter in Delhi’s air, thickening it, infecting it, infusing it with the buoyancy of many kinds of desire. Meanwhile, the city continues to make room for drifters, shape-shifters and other adventurers.[5]

In the same feature on Delhi’s art scene, published in a summer 2012 issue of Frieze Magazine, the Raqs Media Artist Collective recognizes the anomalous space of the urban village, falling outside the formal codes of municipal planning, as a vital incubator for various kinds of art and cultural initiatives. From non-profit spaces like Khoj to independent design studios and an entire commercial gallery district in Lado Sarai, spaces are produced, appropriated, repurposed, reinvented, and dismantled to accommodate what the city’s established institutions and infrastructures do not provide. In this gambit, the diverse communities that inhabit these neighborhoods must confront their new and changing neighbors, a process that is ever susceptible to reproducing hierarchies and power relations far more seamlessly than achieving the abstract ideal of cross-community mingling and respectful interaction. Although Raqs’ gloss evades any mention of these inevitable tensions, a project like KhirkeeYaan repeatedly reinforces the inherent complexity of these relationships, irreducible to binaries of any kind.[6]

Set within a dense urban village and its surroundings, the contiguous neighborhoods of Khirkee, Khirkee Extension, and Hauz Rani in South Delhi (collectively referred to as Khirkee), KhirkeeYaan made use of technologies commonly deployed for surveillance (CCTV cameras, television screens, cables, microphones etc.) to connect different sites within the urban conglomeration. To produce each of the seven episodes that constitute the work, four separate locations were networked, with live images and audio transmitted between them. The interfaces were activated by local residents present or placed at each site, prompting interactions between the diverse, disconnected and often alienated co-habitants of Khirkee, itself an anomaly within the urban landscape. The project’s title, KhirkeeYaan, both a composite of khirkee (window) and yaan (vehicle), as well as the plural for window, evokes the possibility of contact, communication and exchange across barriers. By creating a platform for dialogue, often prompted by a prescribed theme (singing competition, grievances about the neighborhood/city, doctor’s advice etc.) and occasionally intervened in by planted “actors” and the artist herself, the project allowed for a sharing of migrant experiences and often laid bare the conditions of unevenness and inequality that permeate the urban core. The “spontaneous” interactions varied widely in tenor and outcome, at times engendering bonds of empathy and trust while also creating situations of confrontation and conflict. This essay offers an account of three episodes from the series, discussing them in light of recent critiques of socially engaged, community participation-based art practices as well as in a lineage of critical theory that engages with urban experiences of potential and hope, exploitation and empowerment.

As a filmmaking project, KhirkeeYaan dispensed of conventional and consistent directorial and technical mediation, relying instead on a willful tweaking of the surveillance apparatus to serve an altogether different purpose. Anand’s project seems to deploy the well-known Situationst strategy of détournement – an appropriation or redirection of existing apparatuses towards subversive ends. Using an open-circuit television system, a cheaper and more disperse alternative to the CCTV surveillance that pervades most cities, Anand explores its potential for “local area network communication, micro-media generation and feedback…”[7] The deployment of an apparatus used for surveillance towards two-way communication and community use was enabled by a range of low-cost equipment – television screens (either already existing in the chosen locations or put there by the artist), microphones, low resolution surveillance cameras, cables of various kinds, a quad processor, audio mixer, radio frequency (RF) modulator and splitter, among other odds and ends. All interactions were recorded, now existing as seven episodes that have since been exhibited at galleries and festivals around the world. The artist and her team engaged in conversations with communities and individuals across the village to source consent, obtain assistance in setting up equipment (including running cables across village streets, from one site to another), and ultimately recruiting participants for the interactions to be realized. The entire project was hosted and supported by the aforementioned Khoj International Artists’ Association, a non-profit contemporary art centre that has been located in Khirkee Extension since 2002 and has a history of engagements with local communities, both through resident artists’ projects as well as their own community art initiatives.[8] The Khoj team played a crucial role in facilitating the artist in securing consent and installing the communication devices in both public (shops, streets) and private, otherwise inaccessible, spaces (homes, workshop interiors).

Art historian and critic Claire Bishop grapples with the notion of (participatory) art held up to the task of social amelioration in her book Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship.[9] Especially acute in the United Kingdom under New Labour, where the rhetoric of participation was called upon to draw into the sphere of consumer society those who had been excluded, Bishop echoes leftist critiques of New Labour cultural policy that sought to render inequality “cosmetic rather than structural.”[10] Other significant problems worked through in Bishop’s book are the criteria under which such work can be discussed and evaluated as art. Debunking binaries with clearly privileged terms (in the context of participatory art) such as collaborative vs. single authorship, process vs. finished product, deskilled production vs. artistic mastery, Bishop begins the important work of building critical discourse around this genre of work without resorting to tropes and platitudes about its aspirations and achievements. Critiquing another significant theorist of participatory and dialogical practices, Grant Kester, Bishop writes, “Kester’s emphasis on compassionate identification with the other is typical of the discourse around participatory art, in which an ethics of interpersonal interaction comes to prevail over a politics of social justice.”[11] Although, for the purposes of this study, I largely sidestep specific discussions of the work’s aesthetic qualities and artistic merit, they nevertheless undergird some of my provisional conclusions regarding the project’s unsettling effects within the social space it mines.

It is within this framework of an actively lived, socially produced notion of space that Shaina Anand’s project KhirkeeYaan intervenes, interfacing disparate spaces within a small geographical area. The social actors who produce this space (which itself functions analogous to other economic goods) – residents occupying the spectrum of caste and class positions, business owners, workers, guests, neighbors, strangers and interlopers – are acted upon by the possibilities and limitations it imposes on them as much as their actions, values, desire and demands shape the space. Henri Lefebvre, the philosopher par excellence of the quotidian, writes in the final chapter of his landmark volume The Production of Space,

In analyzing the social relationship, it is impossible simply to dub it a form, for the form as such is empty, and must have a content in order to exist. Nor can it be treated as a function, which needs objects if it is to operate. Even a structure, whose task it is to organize elementary units within a whole, necessarily calls for both the whole and the component units in question.[12]

Informed by his experience of May 1968 in and around Paris, Lefebvre recognized the complexity of grasping and describing the changing configuration of the social as undergirding the production of space within an increasingly urbanizing world. Space could, thus, no longer be studied or abstracted as a kind of geometrical/mathematical absolute, warranting instead an examination of the specific conditions and relations (of production) between actors that contribute to its articulation. Under such conditions, Lefebvre writes, “space ‘is’ whole and broken, global and fractured, at one and the same time. Just as it is at once conceived, perceived, and directly lived.”[13]

One could attempt, within the specific context of Khirkee, to untangle the Lefebvrian concepts of “abstract” and “absolute” space, where the former connotes a kind of top-down domination and implementation (echoing modernist principles) while the latter is associated with organicism and appropriation (by resistance movements and activists). Inhabited since the twelfth century, the medieval village of Khirkee and its surroundings underwent significant changes between the 1960s and 1980s as the largely middle and upper middle class neighborhoods of South Delhi, guided by the planning policies and initiatives of the Delhi Development Authority (DDA), began to expand to the land immediately surrounding the village core.[14] This core, colloquially referred to as the lal dora or “red thread” for the manner in which it is marked on the Delhi Master Plan, is the village area designated for habitation and falls under the administration of the village Panchayat or local governing body (following the predominant model for rural administration around the country). The land surrounding the lal dora, originally a combination of farmland and cattle grazing commons, was not authorized for any form of construction or development. However, as traditional agricultural and cattle rearing activities were largely abandoned within an increasingly urban context, this land became a grey zone for speculation and unauthorized building by developers and property brokers who made unofficial deals with its owners and occupiers. There has been an ongoing struggle between these groups and the city government, marked by a spate of demolitions and sealings in some areas while others have remained unchecked, often owing to the nexus between bureaucrats, local politicians and the land mafia.[15] In light of the operation of such forces, it is perhaps less effective to set up simple binaries between those who dictate the striation and organization of space and those who use it in a subversive or self-serving manner. However, it is undeniable that social space, in Lefebvre’s own words,

[C]ontains potentialities – of works and of reappropriation – existing to begin with in the artistic sphere but responding above all to the demands of a body ‘transported’ outside itself in space, a body which by putting up resistance inaugurates the project of a different space (either the space of a counter-culture, or a counter-space in the sense of an initially utopian alternative to actually existing real space).[16]

Drawing on a similar idea of potentiality and operating within the “artistic sphere,” Anand engages in an act of reconfiguration towards creating a counter-space in which those formerly disconnected, distanced or alienated by the dominant forces of spatial production are enabled to resist their alienation and establish channels of communication across spatial boundaries. However, it becomes evident fairly soon that this “initially utopian alternative” is in fact equally the site for disjuncture, communication lapses, slippages, misunderstandings, and guarded sharing. As demonstrated later in the essay, the artist’s role as catalyst and mediator compels her to intervene in such situations, specifically when interactions turn vitriolic and minority communities (often characterized by geographical origin or religious affiliation rather than numbers) are vilified by local hegemonic formations.

Within the ethos of collaboration based participatory art practices, the artist often acts as the supplier of a counter-apparatus, working closely with actors in the community to enable the production of an alternative or counter cultural space. Anand’s first point of contact in Khirkee was a local electronics shop, where her conversation with its owner is telling:

We spoke to Imran, the young owner of City Electricals, telling him about the project. “It’s called Khirkeeyaan” (window vehicle). “Through this device we hope to allow people to talk to each other and generate media that belongs to this street.” “Oh, an aina”, said Imran, a mirror. “Exactly,” I said excited. “But what’s the point of it?” “The same point as going for a movie, watching TV or reading a book”, I said. “You mean, entertainment, information, time pass… then it's samaaj kaam (society work) you are doing after all! It’s for the people! Sure, you can use our shop."[17]

The shopkeeper’s initial response to the idea of the project as being a form of social work is significant, especially considering the discourse within which much participatory art has been framed in recent years. Grant Kester, in his introduction to the 2011 publication The One and the Many: Contemporary Collaborative Art in a Global Context, writes,

…[W]e might view the recent proliferation of collaborative practices as part of a cyclical paradigm shift within the field of art, even as the nature of this shift involves an increasing permeability between “art” and other zones of symbolic production (urbanism, environmental activism, social work, etc.)…[T]here are really two decisive shifts at work. First, there is growing interest in collaborative or collective approaches in contemporary art. And second…there is a movement toward participatory, process-based experience and away from a “textual” mode of production in which the artist fashions an object or event that is subsequently presented to the viewer.[18]

Further elaborating the category of “dialogical” art practices, which he first developed nearly a decade ago in the book Conversation Pieces, Kester observes how this form has grown to encompass new media and now runs the gamut of art world contexts, from international biennials and institutional commissions to small, community and neighborhood based initiatives.[19] KhirkeeYaan can certainly be regarded within this framework, unsettling as it does all three philosophical categories identified by Kester as inflected by this “paradigm shift” – ontological (what is art?), epistemological (what kind of knowledge does it generate?) and hermeneutic (what methodologies are required to understand/interpret the work?).[20]

In order to consider KhireeYaan critically, both as an artwork and an intervention into a specific kind of Delhi neighborhood (the urban village) that sought to record its attendant complexities, potentialities, tensions and contradictions, a selection of three (of seven) episodes are discussed here. These three episodes, KhirkeeYaan #3: Mahasangram, KhirkeeYaan #7: Mahasangram Reloaded and KhirkeeYaan #4: Char Karkhana, offer a sampling of Khirkee’s populations (shopkeepers/small business owners, daily wage laborers, cultural producers etc) and spaces – both public (the lane and shops in episodes 3 and 7) and private (inside small manufacturing units in episode 4). The television screen at each location appeared divided into four quadrants, which displayed live feeds from each of the four recording sites. As such, participants (and onlookers) at every location were witness to their counterparts at the other three sites as well as to themselves. In addition to the artist’s extensive annotations on the project website, all seven episodes – recorded in the same format as that in which they appeared on the screens – are openly accessible online through Pad.ma.[21] These sources provide valuable documentation of the interactions that transpired, both in the process of negotiating the project’s realization with local actors as well as during the episodes’ filming. [22]

KhirkeeYaan #3: Mahasangram was staged at four different shops in the lane where Khoj is located. The lane is in many ways a microcosm of the larger neighborhood, with most village constituencies represented in some form. It begins with a Sai Baba Temple, transitions into property owned by upper caste Hindu landlords and rented by daily-wage laborers, continues through small businesses offering services (teashop, barbershop etc.) and then Khoj (itself a significant architectural presence), following which the gradual transition into Hauz Rani, with its majority Muslim residents and a different address scheme (the S- building numbers turn to E-), commences. Anand’s writing about the episode reveals the first traces of tension between her vision for the project and her dealings with a local, upper caste Hindu boy and occasional Khoj collaborator who was enlisted to assist her. Much like the episode itself, Anand’s report about her somewhat contentious interaction with the intern reveals the centrality of caste that feeds the politics of space and territorial control within the village.

He had come to pick me up from the airport, a week ago and was to work with us on this project, “about the Khirkee community”. He lived in the lane and is the only local youth who hangs out in the evenings at Khoj and even attends events. His family owns a lot of the land around Khirkee Extension. and even flats in other places in Delhi. I was told that he was a 'techie' and was to intern with me. Our working relationship was cut short very soon, as it appeared that he hated work of any kind, having never done any in his life, as he said he lived off the rent they made. To kill time he’d asked his father to open a little general store for him, but tells us that he soon realized manning a storefront was a lot of work. His shop, now a [public phone] booth, in the Khoj lane, was never open. Moreover, his refusal to come with me on my first walk in Khirkee, (because I was heading right, in the direction of Hauzrani and not left in the direction of Khirkee Village.), revealed too many problems and biases, none of which belonged to the project.[23]

The episode was filmed at a late hour, kicking off with a fair share of tomfoolery and inappropriate jokes between the all-male group of shop owners and their customers (some in a visibly inebriated state). Any attempt at a serious conversation about the problems of the village, the precarity of its population (the plight of migrants from Bihar came up), Hindu-Muslim relations, the sealing of shops by the Municipal Corporation (for being unauthorized operations), was obstructed by an extreme rigidity of positions, which quickly turned into an exercise in transferring blame and an exchange involving a string of polarizing statements around caste, class, religion and places of origin. About thirty-seven minutes in, a slightly slurring man appeared, demanding to know what Khoj is and does. Someone offered, “Advertising studio!” Aastha Chauhan, an artist and then coordinator of community programs at Khoj, appeared in one of the windows to offer a quick explanation. The hostilities continued and almost an hour in, an exasperated Anand intervened.

Listen! Listen! When I am looking at these four screens, I am an outsider, I am from Bombay. I am in these lanes, in Khoj since the past 8 days. I have sharp eyes, I observe a lot. Looking at these four screens I am able to see the mentality of people very much. One of the things is that we don't listen to each other. This one is saying something, that one is saying something and you all are shouting amongst each other. That means that for each one his opinion is important, what someone else is saying, you don't bother to listen. Is it true or not?[24]

Some attempt was made to bring order and civility to the conversation, repeatedly disrupted by Raju Bhai aka Baby Uncle, the owner of Baby’s Corner Store where one of the media stations was installed. Constantly undermining efforts to engage in a sustained exchange on any issue, he mocked and dismissed other voices with a cheeky confidence that emerged from a position of privilege (being a high caste Hindu and property owner in the village). The conflicts and disjointed fragments of conversation that span the length of this episode offer some of the most pertinent insights into Khirkee’s ground realities and related challenges (for the artist and other actors) in creating a platform for cross-community exchange. This episode’s fallout, underscored by the artist’s unplanned intervention with its distinctly disciplinary tone, altered the larger project plan by creating a need to restage the interaction on different terms for all involved.

In the book, The Present in Delhi’s Pasts, historian Sunil Kumar outlines the tensions that were created between the poor, predominantly Muslim residents of Hauz Rani and those of the neighboring upper middle class neighborhood, Saket, owing to the DDA’s construction, in the early 1990s, of a Sports Complex that catered almost exclusively to the latter constituency. The construction project was accompanied by a conscious disruption to pedestrian flows between the village and the modern housing enclave, with the result that each community became increasingly territorial and suspicious of the other’s actual or perceived encroachment.[25] Here, difference needs to be understood outside the predominant (Western) model of liberal nationalism, wherein local antagonisms are elided and transcended by national coherence – “a neutral shared space.”[26] The situation in Hauz Rani/Khirkee seems to demand an alternate paradigm – that of “the neighbor, and neighborliness” – sketched out by Ajay Skaria as a culturally specific and nuanced translation of Gandhian ahimsa (literally understood as “non-violence”).[27] Skaria argues that Gandhi critiques liberal modernity through the notion of “neighborly nationalism” where,

[n]eighbors shared nothing less (or more) than the kinship of all life; beyond this, the neighbor was marked by an absolute difference that could not be overcome by shared history or culture. In the face of such absolute difference, relations were created through tapasya, or “suffering.” The tapasya of neighborliness differed depending on the kind of absolute difference being addressed: the equal was met with mitrata (“friendship”), the subordinate with seva (“service”), and the superior with satyagraha (“civil disobedience”).

The complex social hierarchies and intertwinedness of neighborly relations in Khirkee exemplify the polyvalence of tapasya (forms and degrees of tolerance, in my understanding) as mediating between the migrant laborer and the original inhabitant, the petty bourgeois and the lumpen proletariat, the Dalit, the Muslim and the high-caste Hindu, the white, whiter, brown, browner and black.

As indicated earlier, the idea for the final episode – KhirkeeYaan #7: Mahasangram Reloaded – was sparked by the experience of filming #3, specifically the caste and regional tensions that emerged. Anand was particularly disturbed by the manner in which the former episode replicated existing social hierarchies, allowing the privileged participant(s) to dominate the conversation, hurl insults, needle and provoke, all while silencing, frustrating or exhausting the other(s). For this redux, the artist returned to the format of picking four establishments in the Khoj lane (though different locations were chosen except Baby’s Corner Store where the most egregious offender had appeared) but planted a foil. A National School of Drama actor, Tanmoy Sarkar, was hired to show up at one of the tea shops, posing as a migrant laborer from Bengal looking for work. In addition, the interaction was staged at an early evening hour in order to avoid the drunken aggressions that transpired in #3. The episode began with Baby Uncle dominating the exchange once again, in his loud, boisterous, irreverent manner. About fifteen minutes in, Sarkar who had been listening on the side, entered the frame at DADA teashop. Identifying himself as Bengali, he made an instant connection with other Bengali laborers in the adjacent window. The conversation turned to the problems of migrant labor in Delhi, touching upon the issue of police apathy and the dismissal of legitimate complaints. A few minutes later, a Muslim preacher (maulvi) appeared at the tea shop and Baby Uncle proceeded to provoke him by asserting that all terrorists are Muslims, to which the maulvi responded with exasperation and accused the media of being irresponsible and biased (he assumed a news program was being filmed). Aastha, from Khoj, appeared at KT’s Salon to remind everyone that one of the most heinous acts of terror committed in the recent past were the 2002 riots in Gujarat under the leadership of a Hindu right wing politician, Narendra Modi (then the Gujarat Chief Minister, now India’s Prime Minister). The interaction continued, taking twists and turns, with a good measure of spontaneous poetry, couplet recitals and jokes being shared, closing with a teenager rebutting Baby Uncle’s cockiness!

KhirkeeYaan #4: Char Karkhana explored the village as a site of production and labor with small manufacturing units that bring in workers from across the country. These units are largely engaged in tailoring, embroidery, carpentry and leather work, their products being supplied to stores and designers in India and internationally. The conditions in these workplaces, as the artist discusses in her annotation to the episode, were far better than those in sweatshops elsewhere.[28] She also notes that the factory owners were very open to the idea of their workers communicating with those in other units. Much longer than the other episodes, which lasted about an hour each, #4 spanned an eight-hour duration, documenting the units’ functioning and workers’ tasks through a significant chunk of their workday. The presence of the cameras in this case was perhaps closest to the operations of traditional surveillance, though the devices were in no way concealed, hidden or obscured from those being “watched.” Rather the media apparatus became a window through which workers across the units beckoned each other, tracked the tea vendor doing his rounds, sang songs, recited poetry, struck bargains and deals, and generally remained animated while working with their machines and tools.

The Marxist cultural critic Raymond Williams was prescient in writing, “A displaced and formerly rural population is moving and drifting towards the centers of a money economy which is directed by interests very far from their own.”[29] Perhaps today, more than a half-century later, these roving populations are not exclusively linked by an immediate rural past but by a chain of both intra and transnational displacements of the proletariat, akin to what Friedrich Engels so adeptly analyzed a century and a half ago in his text The Housing Question.[30] Where Williams looks to literature as an embodiment of such experiences, and Engels to the changing urban landscape of industrializing late nineteenth century Europe, I direct attention to a contemporary genre of art practice that engages with “community,” most active on the margins of our capitalist societies – in the sweatshops, ghettos, housing projects, shanty towns, slums and indeed the urban village.

In light of the two episodes discussed above (#7 & #4), which introduce and incorporate the characters of the migrant laborer, the deliberately planted provocateur and the incidental interloper, one could also read Khirkee as an inner-city quarter that constantly offers shelter to the figure of “the stranger.” First described by the early twentieth century German sociologist Georg Simmel in opposition to the wanderer “who comes today and goes tomorrow,” the stranger is one “who comes today and stays tomorrow.”[31] The stranger inhabits a space while being set apart from it as someone who is not from there, and could not be. Though Simmel’s example, drawn from a modern European context, is that of the trader (a category within which the figure of the Jew is accommodated), the question arises whether the precarious, unstable, impermanent, mobile body of labor that finds a temporary abode in Khirkee and lies outside “established ties of kinship, locality, and occupation” also adheres to the same classification?[32] Simmel’s stranger certainly enjoys a degree of agency, involvement, and participation in the host society that doesn’t seem quite available to the migrant populations of Khirkee. The constitution and texture of these migrant populations is itself worth questioning. This is not a homogeneous body, and recent decades have witnessed various waves of “strangers” making their way through. On the one hand, there’s a significant population of unskilled (male) labor from India’s rural hinterland. On the other, and more so in recent years, there are educated youth moving from smaller towns and villages to the capital in search of opportunities in administration, customer service and lower-level management at corporate offices, shopping malls, banks and the like. The presence of immigrant populations from sub-Saharan Africa, most prominently Uganda and Nigeria, has only been prominent and visible over the past half-decade. Workers in small manufacturing units within the village and elsewhere in the city continue to make this neighborhood their home and workplace. Alongside grows a burgeoning creative class of freelancers – artists, designers, dancers and choreographers – in search of spaces to develop and promote their professional practice.

The relationship between the communities described above defies any simple collective classification or theorization, constantly shifting in response to social, political and economic pressures. However, the “host community” in the village, mostly higher caste Hindu landowners who have outsourced their property to ruthless developers and tenement builders, maintains a visible distance from these groups of “strangers,” remaining comfortably cocooned inside their mansions with high walls and opaque gates. From here they orchestrate the rents and establish the conditions with which the “strangers” must comply in order to establish a temporary home in the village, often adjusted (on an increasing scale) for the degree of “strangeness.” The complexity of these relationships, marked by distance but also by proximity and everyday coexistence, give currency to Simmel’s concluding comments.

In spite of being inorganically appended to it, the stranger is yet an organic member of the group. Its uniform life includes the specific conditions of this element. Only we do not know how to designate the particular unity of this position other than by saying that it is composed of certain measures of nearness and distance. Although some quantities of them characterize all relationships, a special proportion and reciprocal tension produce the particular, formal relationship to the “stranger.”

Unsurprisingly the most recent (in this case, foreign and dark-skinned) arrivals into the neighborhood often end up having to negotiate the most inhospitable terms and conditions, including the greatest likelihood of eviction and criminal suspicion, as demonstrated by episodes such as the one this essay opens with. Specifically with regard to the encounters engendered by the relatively recent presence of black bodies in Khirkee, feminist scholar Sara Ahmed’s notion of “embodying strangers” is telling. Avoiding an ontological categorization of “the stranger,” which has in the past led to a fetishization of the concept and its problematic treatment in postmodern discourse around multiculturalism, she instead describes how processes of bodily identification (of strange-ness) create claims of irreconcilable otherness.

Through strange encounters, the figure of the ‘stranger’ is produced, not as that which we fail to recognise, but as that which we have already recognised as ‘a stranger’. In the gesture of recognising the one that we do not know, the one that is different from ‘us’, we flesh out the beyond, and give it a face and form. The alien stranger is hence, not beyond human, but a mechanism for allowing us to face that which we have already designated as the beyond. So we imagine, here, now, that we are facing an alien stranger: it allows us to share a fantasy that, in the co-presence of strange and alien bodies, we will prevail [33]

Such imaginaries are enacted by gestures that create increasingly rigid definitions of the “body-at-home…which enable a withdrawal from the stranger’s co-presence in a given social space.”[34] Anand’s project captures both the manner in which Khirkee’s diverse inhabitants are increasingly insulated in their own enclaves, while illustrating the potential of the street as a space for the production of non-utopian communities.

Dealing with the contentious and constantly transforming notions of social space in India, historian Dipesh Chakrabarty makes pertinent observations regarding the potentiality of interactions in the street and the bazaar, spaces that are for him paradigmatic of the outside (vs. categories of family and kinship that define the inside), where social life is produced.[35]

Speech and face-to-face interaction have to do, as we have seen, with overcoming the mistrust of the outsider in a space where transactions are contingent on trust…. The duality of this space is inescapable. It harbors qualities that threaten one’s well-being (strangers embody these qualities). Yet it provides a venue for linkage across communities (linkages with strangers). Speech and direct interaction produce such solidarity.[36]

KhirkeeYaan’s episodes reveal both the potential for conversation and reconciliation (albeit temporary and highly mediated), but also the continuing presence of substantial frictions and a deep sense of disconnect between the village’s constituent communities, which include the figure of the interventionist artist and the collaborative art institution.

I contend that conflict, far from the ruin of democratic public space, is the condition of its existence.[37]


[1] Rosalyn Deutsche, “Introduction,” Evictions (Chicago/Canbridge, MA: Graham Foundation/The MIT Press, 1996), xxiv.

[2] The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is a recently formed political outfit that grew out of a large, urban anti-corruption movement (2011-12), which came to be called India Against Corruption (IAC). Led by ex-bureaucrat and activist, Arvind Kejriwal, the AAP set itself apart from the IAC movement, calling on those who believed in direct political participation (through electoral politics) as the most effective strategy for targeting corruption, among other issues.

[3] The term “urban village,” an oxymoron, is used to describe formerly rural settlements (often with surrounding farmland) that now fall within the urban expanse of a city. The zoning and administration of these villages remains distinct from the urban districts surrounding them, creating a sort of in-between space with a great deal of unplanned construction and property speculation. Urban villages vary drastically in size, density and degrees of development and access to facilities. For more on the status of urban villages as a policy and planning anomaly, specifically within the urban fabric of Delhi, see Ajay K. Mehra, “Urban Villages of Delhi,” in Urbanization and Governance in India, eds. Evelin Hust and Michael Mann (New Delhi: Manohar, 2005), 279-310.

[4] This is gathered from the words of the artist and her institutional collaborators at Khoj, reiterated across different episodes.

[5] Raqs Media Collective, “Delhi – City Report,” Frieze Magazine, June-August 2012, http://www.frieze.com/issue/article/delhi/.

[6] In the same piece cited above, specifically regarding Khirkee, and? Raqs write(s),

In Khirkee village, for instance, it is possible to hear West-African French, Pushto, Persian and a host of Indian languages being spoken by many kinds of migrants who would not find themselves as welcome elsewhere in the city. These migrants bring with them forms of tolerance, artisanal skills and vernacular entrepreneurship that are crucial to the everyday life of artistic practice. More importantly, they hold in abeyance the binary categories of elite and subaltern, provincial and cosmopolitan, outsider and insider, queer and straight, recent immigrant and established settler – leading to the continuous articulation of the more fluid forms of self-hood and community that makes for a vibrant art scene.

I do not suggest that Raqs is unaware of or insensitive to the tensions and inequalities that pervade these spaces and interactions. Their own work – as artists, curators, theorists, and writers – including The Sarai Reader series they conceived and edited, are a rich source of deeply nuanced impressions, theories and speculations gathered from similar geographies and situations. My point is that the manner in which these projects and spaces are written about in art world publications and on websites and project descriptions tend to either eliminate or romanticize the antagonisms constantly at play.

[7] “Khirkeeyaan,” Chitrakarkhana, 2014, http://chitrakarkhana.net/khirkeeyaan.htm.

[8] For more see “KHOJ,” Khoj International Artists’ Association, 2014, www.khojworkshop.org.

For information on Khoj’s Commuunity Art programs, see “Community Art,” Khoj International Artists’ Association, 2014, http://khojworkshop.org/program_cat/community-art/.

[9] Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship (New York: Verso Books, 2012).

[10] Bishop, “The Social Turn: Collaboration and Its Discontents,” 13.

[11] Bishop, 25.

[12] Henri Lefebvre, “Openings and Conclusions,” The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1991), 401.

[13] Lefebvre, “Contradictions of Space to Differential Space,” 356.

[14] Sunil Kumar, “A Medieval Reservoir and Modern Urban Planning: Local Society and the Hauz-i Rani,” The Present in Delhi’s Pasts (Gurgaon: Three Essays Press, 2011), 48, 57-58.

[15] Khoj is itself located in Khirkee Extension, one such grey zone outside the lal dora. In the recent past, there has been new legislation from the Delhi Government to regularize some of these unauthorized developments outside the lal dora and re-zone this formerly agricultural land for construction (allegedly in a bid for electoral votes by the ruling incumbent). The precise implementation and fallout of this legislation remains unclear at the moment.

See, Press Trust of India, “360 villages under Lal Dora, restriction on farm land eased,” Zee News, http://zeenews.india.com/news/delhi/360-villages-under-lal-dora-restriction-on-farm-land-eased_855284.html.

[16] Lefebvre, “Contradictory Space,” 349.

[17] “Khirkeeyan01: hauzrani,” Chitrakarkhana, 2014, http://chitrakarkhana.net/Khirkeeyan/K1.htm.

[18] Grant Kester, “Introduction,” The One and the Many: Contemporary Collaborative Art in a Global Context (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 7-8.

[19] Grant Kester, Conversation Pieces (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004).

[20] Grant Kester, The One and the Many, 10.

[21] “Pad.ma - short for Public Access Digital Media Archive - is an online archive of densely text-annotated video material, primarily footage and not finished films. The entire collection is searchable and viewable online, and is free to download for non-commercial use.”

“All videos,” Pad.ma, 2014, http://pad.ma/grid/title/khirkeeyaan.

“Khirkeeyaan,” Chitrakarkhana, 2014, http://chitrakarkhana.net/khirkeeyaan.htm.

[22] The locations, participants and themes of the other four episodes are summarized below:

KhirkeeYaan #1: Indian Idols (The Hauzrani Spectricals) was set in a Muslim dominated section of the neighborhood – Hauz Rani. It was recorded in three electrical shops and a junk mart. A curious crowd of teenagers and young men gathered in front of the media apparatuses installed at each venue. Someone at the junk mart declared that it was to be an episode of Indian Idol, breaking out into a popular Bollywood number. Later, the assembled youth across the four sites took on screen names borrowed from notorious gangsters of the Mumbai underworld (made household names by the media and Bollywood) – Dawood, Chota Shakeel etc. They played competing gangs in a song and performance contest of sorts, scarcely hesitating to sing at the top of their lungs (often off-tune!), play music, make faces, recite poetry, provoke and curse casually. After editing the episode, the artist transferred it to CDs that were given to the host shops from where the participants could borrow, copy and share forward.

KhirkeeYaan #2: Khirkee Extn. Ki Kancheeyaan brought together a group of Nepali women to welcome a new arrival into the neighborhood. Men and children were categorically excluded from this exchange, being asked to leave at the beginning. Most of the conversation transpired in Nepali. Two of the participating women were based at Khoj, the wives of its Nepali caretakers. On being asked about her background, one woman shared that she was an adivasi (tribal) belonging to the Munda tribe (from Bengal) and had arrived in Khirkee through a love marriage to a Nepali man. Jokes and banter flowed, and the conversation felt quite effortless, shifting between their stories of migrating to Delhi, their marriages, and a palpable nostalgia for village life.

KhirkeeYaan #5: Doctor ki Salah created an open and free consultation with a local doctor specializing in Unani or traditional medicine who was particularly interested in responding to questions from children and pertaining to children’s health. Questions were asked about common colds, dietary recommendations and restrictions, body weight, headaches and the like. The doctor made some curious remarks - bird flu was attributed to America, encephalitis to Siberian migratory birds, taking steam with aspirin infused water was prescribed as a solution for the common cold and blemished skin was to be treated with hydrogen peroxide.

KhirkeeYaan #6: Khirkee Gaon ki Lugaiyan was set in the historic section of Khirkee village – the streets around Khirkee Masjid (after which the village is named), the fourteenth century ruins of the Tughlaq-era fortress-mosque structure. The population here differs significantly from Khirkee Extension and Hauz Rani, consisting of larger, joint-family units of upper caste Hindu families who have inhabited the village for generations. The surrounding lanes are dotted with small shops, telephone booths and beauty salons, catering to a slightly more elite (lower middle to middle class) clientele. This episode is set between a woman run telephone booth, a traditional upper caste (Chauhan) village household, the owner and clients at a beauty salon and a feisty domestic maid working in the neighborhood. The artist Anita Dube was planted into the conversation, without the knowledge of the other participants, having walked into the beauty salon at the opportune moment under the pretext of getting a wax. The conversation quickly turned into a confessional, a space where participants could speak and openly opine about the problems in their marriages and households, the effects of television soaps, the joys of being single, the empowerment they earned when their husbands left them or the hardships they endure in raising their children alone.

[23] “Khirkeeyan03: in the lane,” Chitrakarkhana, 2014, http://chitrakarkhana.net/Khirkeeyan/K3.htm.

[24] “Khirkeeyaan Episode 3 – One Lane (Shaina Anand),” Pad.ma, 2014, http://pad.ma/VW/player/00:58:50.077.

[25] Sunil Kumar, 60-66.

[26] Ajay Skaria, “Gandhi’s Politics: Liberalism and the Question of the Ashram,” The South Atlantic Quarterly (Volume 101, Number 4, Fall 2002), 956.

[27] Ibid., 957.

[28] “Khirkeeyan04: inside factories,” Chitrakarkhana, 2014, http://chitrakarkhana.net/Khirkeeyan/K4.htm.

[29] Raymond Williams, “The New Metropolis,” The Country and the City (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), 287.

[30] Friedrich Engels’ late nineteenth century analysis of the housing question in industrializing European cities experiencing a working-class population explosion revealed the bourgeoisie’s predilection for constantly displacing such communities. Their former shantytowns are either transformed into gentrified quarters or ripped apart under the pretext of infrastructure development, leaving such populations to re-settle in similarly crowded and decrepit quarters elsewhere.

The breeding places of disease, the infamous holes and cellars in which the capitalist mode of production confines our workers night after night, are not abolished; they are merely shifted elsewhere! The same economic necessity which produced them in the first place, produces them in the next place also. As long as the capitalist mode of production continues to exist, it is folly to hope for an isolated solution of the housing question or of any other social question affecting the fate of the workers.

See, Friedrich Engels, “How the Bourgeoisie Solves the Housing Question,” The Housing Question (New York: International Publishers, 1935), 77.

[31] Georg Simmel “The Stranger,” in The Sociology of Georg Simmel, ed. and trans. Kurt H. Wolff (New York: Free Press, 1950), 402.

[32] Ibid., 404.

[33] Sara Ahmed, “Introduction: stranger fetishism and post-coloniality,” Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality (Oxon, UK: Routledge, 2000), 3.

[34] Sara Ahmed, “Embodying Strangers,” in Body Matters: Feminism, Textuality, Corporeality, eds. Avril Horner and Angela Keane (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000), 85.

[35] Dipesh Chakrabarty, “Of Garbage, Modernity, and the Citizen’s Gaze,” Habitations of Modernity: Essays in the Wake of Subaltern Studies (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 73. Later in the chapter he writes,

The bazaar or the street expresses through its own theatre the juxtaposition of pleasure and danger that constitutes the outside or the open, unenclosed space. The street is where one has interesting and sometimes marvelous, encounters. Even when nothing out of the ordinary happens, the place is still pregnant with possibility. And such pleasures are by nature, transgressive because they are pleasures of the inherently risky outside. (75)

[36] Chakrabarty, 74.

[37] Deutsche, xiii.


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Author Bio

Rattanamol Singh Johal (b. 1987) is currently studying towards a doctoral degree in Art History at Columbia University. He holds undergraduate and graduate degrees from Macaulay Honors College (CUNY) and the Courtauld Institute of Art, respectively. Between 2011 and 2013 he worked in various capacities, including curator, archivist and publications editor at Khoj International Artists' Association, New Delhi. He has participated in a number of conferences, workshops and professional development programs including the Independent Curators International (ICI) Curatorial Intensive (in collaboration with Performa 11), SECAC 2011 (Savannah, GA), ASA of the UK & Commonwealth (Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi), CIMAM 2012 (Istanbul, Turkey) and most recently, the Orient-Institut & Forum Transregionale Studien 2014 Summer Academy for doctoral and post-doctoral researchers (Beirut, Lebanon). He has contributed reviews and features to ARTIndia Magazine, TAKE on art, The Fuchsia Tree and Art Papers.

For intellectual inputs and comments on an early draft of this paper, the author would like to acknowledge Professor Reinhold Martin and the participants of his graduate seminar, “Philosophies of the City,” offered through Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning & Preservation (GSAPP) in Fall 2014. In addition, an enormous debt of gratitude is owed to the editors and reviewers of P(art)icipatory Urbanisms, whose comments, critiques, and patience with my revisions have allowed this paper to achieve publishable form.

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