The artists of Urdu Park

Charty Dugdale | Updated on January 15, 2018
Come together: ‘Meena Bazaar’ saw the women of Urdu Park work on the same canvas

Come together: ‘Meena Bazaar’ saw the women of Urdu Park work on the same canvas


A community art project in Old Delhi is spawning some remarkable collaborative works. The distance between art and the hustle of everyday life is being bridged

A 16ft-long brightly coloured canvas blazes off a white wall at the British Council in New Delhi. Nothing unusual about that, you might think. But this painting, named ‘Meena Bazaar’, has been created by a group of eight women who are homeless. The artists — Binu, Neetu, Parveen, Rabina, Reshma, Ritu, Sabina, Sabrun and Shahzadee — stay in a blue rain basera (night shelter) in Urdu Park, next door to Meena Bazaar, in the shadow of the Jama Masjid in Old Delhi. The painting is a bird’s eye depiction of their world, under threat of demolition or ‘beautification’ from authorities.

Doughty artist Sreejata Roy has been working with these women at their shelter for two- and-a-half-years. ‘Meena Bazaar’ is the latest expression of their collaboration.

Roy describes herself as a “community” or “social practice” artist. This means she does not make objects for sale by private galleries, or to hang in museums. She does not have a “gallery practice” at all, operating beyond the bounds of the art market. She works with communities of people, often women, who are poor or disadvantaged in some way, and uses art as a tool to empower them.

There are artists across the world working like this, using aesthetics to affect social dynamics. The practice goes by multiple names (social justice, dialogic, collaborative, socially engaged art). Work tends to be site-specific and collaborative, produced by collectives or coming out of a community context. It often blurs the lines between art and life. Critic Claire Bishop has proposed that it represents the avant-garde of today.

Growing up in relative privilege in 1970s Calcutta, Roy had “no idea of social practice art”. She came to it later, as an art student in the UK, fascinated by the narratives of immigrant working women. When she returned to Delhi after completing her MPhil, she embarked on the Park Project in Dakshinpuri, which established her name in India and internationally.

Today she is working in two areas in Delhi. In Khirki and Hauz Rani, she and a team of local young women are investigating the gendered nature of public spaces. They have created a series of public paintings of women drinking at the chai stall, playing cards, playing football: seemingly ordinary activities which women in this neighbourhood never get to do. Roy explains: “There has to be a re-imagination of public space before it can change.”

‘Axial Margin: Urdu Park’, Roy’s project with the group of homeless women in Old Delhi, is her most challenging yet. “We are dealing with women who lead deeply traumatic lives, who have no income, and are under constant threat from their entire environment,” she explains. “As an artist I am asking how is it possible to work with them, to use art as a tool to bring them together, and to help them make some kind of change in their life.”

I enter the shelter quietly, taking in once again the worn concrete floor, strewn with sleeping babies twisted up in shabby dupattas (there are always too many, the women’s sexual health is “dismal”, according to Roy ), the splendid mosque through the little barred window, locked cupboards and health notices. There are new colourful flowers painted on the walls. Once when I sat here a little boy fell asleep on my lap. Today a fat rat scuffles up the air cooler.

A slight, dark-skinned lady in a midnight blue suit sits near me. She wears around her neck several strings with different objects on them: a purse in which she keeps her money, a black stone which keeps her cool, safety pins, and black thread to ward off the evil eye. Her tiny shoeless feet are cross-hatched with deep lines. Rabina, or Pagli, as she is known, smiles to reveal jagged remains of front teeth, then turns her attention back to her work: meticulously sticking gold sequins onto a circular design on a pink fabric.

There are more works in progress. Two women are sticking ruby-coloured sequins in a floral design onto a piece of pink fabric. Another has set her piece aside to breastfeed her child; she stares dreamily out of pale eyes. A meditative quiet fills the room.

In a gentle voice Rabina gives her age as 35 and says she has been living on the streets around here for 30 years. She has had six children, two of whom have died. Her two older children live in a care home in Lajpat Nagar, the two younger ones are with her here. Rabina likes Roy coming. She enjoys the sessions, finds them engaging, and a welcome break from begging. She hopes that even if she ‘cannot do anything’ she will learn something useful to pass on to her children.

The calm atmosphere explodes like a patakha (firecracker) as a fight breaks out over an empty two-litre plastic lemonade bottle (worth a few rupees) from the kabadiwallah (ragpicker). There is yelling, and accusations and tears. Parveen had “booked” the bottle but Reshma and Binu claim it, and Binu tightens her hands around the neck of a frail elderly woman who speaks out in defence of Parveen. It is an ugly scene.

But it is also an everyday scene, as demonstrated by the non-actors continuing to stick their sequins and the children continuing to play with miniature pots of paint. Roy attempts to negotiate a truce. She has a singsong voice and is not afraid to raise it when required, but it has little impact in this case, on the existing power relations. As they calm down, she walks away shaking her head.

Shaguna Kanwar, a social worker who knew the women well and eased Roy’s entry into the space at the beginning, explains: “There are internal fights over resources like the use of the bathroom or space in the shelter. They claim a certain space and say you are not allowed to enter, not allowed to sleep over there. There are fights over the TV.” She explains how the women who were born on the streets dominate: “They are more powerful, they know all the people around, know the map of the place,” and newcomers are bullied. At the beginning of the project, she and Roy “had thought of creating amity, sensitivity and empathy” in the shelter through art. “Can they come together and have a sense of belonging to the place and help each other out? Can they live as a community, like a joint family?”

Roy describes her methodology. They started by making maps. She found out about their lives, where they go, where they find food, the good and the bad people they encounter. When two girls went missing from the shelter — they were never found — Roy realised they had no photographs to show the police. So they held photography sessions; formal photographs of individuals, families and groups.

Next was skill-building. Many women were pregnant and in need of diapers and small blankets and they stitched these out of old saris. Each of them made two pillows, one to keep and one to give to someone in the group whom they loved.

Then painting: they painted an exterior wall of their shelter with a team from the India office of the Gates Foundation and this gave so much pleasure they moved inside. “When you wake up in the morning what do you want to see?” asked Roy. “Flowers,” they answered. “Why flowers? Because they recall their village gardens, also they want Urdu Park to be full of flower gardens and birds. They dream that,” she says.

Entering “real space” as an artist tends to be different from entering it as a community organiser, says Ravi Agarwal, whose own work spans art and activism. Aside from aesthetics, there’s “an open-endedness”: if you go in as an artist to work collaboratively with a group of people you have no idea about and often little control over the final outcome.

Roy and the women of Urdu Park ended the first chapter of their interaction with an open day, selling the small objects they had made; mostly paintings and sequins on cloth. Her partner Joy had postcards printed and mugs made. With the money raised they were able to buy things they needed like mosquito nets, repellents and medicines.

At the open day I bought an artwork, and it sits above my desk now as I type. Turquoise cotton stretched across a six-inch embroidery hoop is painted in brilliant colours. Red, orange, yellow, blue, green, purple, brown, black and white have been applied with a fine brush in dots and dashes and lines straight and curved. It is abstract, but at the same time I can see clouds, rainbows and mountains. I find it to be a joyous piece of work.

The artist, Parveen, a 20-year-old mother of four, was enthusiastic about the workshops. “Since she came we have been engaged with something, have been learning something. In the future, if we get out of this shelter I could use this creative skill,” she said.

When I asked her if there was a new sense of community among the women she answered, diplomatically, “I have the same friends as before.” But if the amity and empathy were still some way off there was no question the women had found a new sense of contentment, pride, and pleasure even, in their work.

‘Meena Bazaar’ marks a new stage in the project. It is the first work the women have produced collaboratively, working side by side on the same canvas. You can tell that different hands have painted it, but it is also unified, a strong singular work of art. Roy recalls how one woman’s work would flow into another’s and the negotiations and new relationships that emerged from its creation. ‘Meena Bazaar’ was well-received at the India Art Fair, where it also proved a popular backdrop for selfies.

Roy showed the artists photographs of it on display but was concerned that they would themselves turn into an exhibit if they visited, or would be overwhelmed by the very different environment. She hopes they will see it hanging at the British Council.

So what is next? The ideas spill off her tongue: more collaborative painting, another open day, a community kitchen, a book.

It is clear that ‘Axial Margin: Urdu Park’ is still very much a work in progress. Roy doesn’t “parachute in” and take “her share of the fun and go away, never ask those people if they want to engage with me more, stay with me more or not.” She commits.

‘Meena Bazaar’ is on display at British Council, New Delhi, until March 20. Open day at the women’s shelter on Sunday, March 19, 3-5 pm.

Charty Dugdale writes on travel and art

Published on March 17, 2017

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