Snapshots from our project at Diamond Library, where students 'hawked' it stories and archives, chanting slogans they had composed.
In August, our team worked with the students of Class 8 to develop suggestions for reactivating Diamond Library one of the sites that had been selected for a community intervention by the students. The students had lots of questions and challenged us continuously- why Diamond Library, how can we possibly save it, can't the government do this instead of us? We explored all these questions through the workshop, and were even joined by Mr. Sheel who gave the students feedback on their solutions.
While developing these solutions we often questioned our role as artist-facilitators, how far should the form and content be created by us and how far should the students co-create it. As much as we wanted the students to take complete control, we realised that they too needed a framework to work within and respond to. Finally, we created and overall structure for the intervention at Diamond Library, asked them for ideas without revealing our structure to them, incorporated their ideas into our structure, and gave them the responsibility of developing the content. We have to continuously test different modes of participation and co-creation to understand how we enable people to contribute based on their strengths, interests and capacities, instead of of imagining co-creation as a uniform, equally divided process.
Some of the ideas given by the students were: Showing a trailer on Diamond Library on the road and handing out flyers, making posters, going house to house and publishing images on the internet. Look out for our next post to see how our Diamond Library Intervention shaped out!
Over the summer our team went through several ups and downs, we saw many team valuable members leave the project due to other commitments and went through several funding rejections. The students were on holiday and without the workshops, the project lost a lot of momentum. As artists we were used to constant doing, making and creating but the summer forced us to put aside our urge to produce something and instead spend some time building new relationships and deepening our understanding of the relationship of the Chitpur community to their history and their locality.
One of the most memorable conversations was with the Sheel brothers of the Diamond Library, a historic publishing house and book shop in the locality. Mr. Sheel had so far been a skeptical participant, engaging the students when they visited his shop for interviews and showing up for community meetings, but always remaining wary of our intentions. After all, many artists, researchers and film makers had come before us, documented their archives and interviewed them, but their business had not benefitted in any way. However after spending a long time talking to us about our project in his shop, he invited us over again in a week to show us some of the objects he had in his archive.
An old artwork, remixing images from popular media and original illustrations to create book covers for Jatra Scripts
A book on the fight between Goddess Lakshmi and Saraswati and a medical manual on how to ensure your child is born a boy were shown to us with a word of caution to take the latter in the context of society a 100 years ago.
Mr. Sheel, saved the best for the last- a wonderful collection of 100 year old wooden blocks originally etched and used for printing.
We also met Chayanika De, a feisty woman who was a fifth generation resident of this locality and art teacher, she shared her family's story with us and enthusiastically invited us to include her art students in the workshops. This was another happy moment for us as it was our first step towards building relationship with residents and expanding the project beyond the school.
These conversations reinforced the need for us to expand our understanding of our practice- conversation, and a willingness to truly listen are critical, as is the ability to make ourselves and our art useful in some way. We also understood usefulness in a new way, as Mr. Sheel said, he finally trusted us not because we helped him increase his business but because we invited them to all our events and workshops and did not disappear after a single interview. We are slowly understanding that people don't expect art to be utilitarian to be useful, but hope their identities and their presence is acknowledged and included in some way or the other.
This month Hamdasti Founder Member, Sumona Chakravarty participated in an Arts Management workshop as a part of the 2014 Art Think South Asia Fellowship. The two week workshop brought together arts managers from across South Asia working on diverse projects like a theatre festival in Dharamshala, a platform for artists in the North East and a public art festival in Karachi. Sumona's biggest takeaway from the experience was the importance of the process of strategic planning with the entire team in order to develop ownership and buy in. Plans may continuously evolve and fail, as we often see with Chitpur Local, but its more important to ensure everyone on the team co-creates and owns an overall vision and direction.
Photograph courtesy ATSA
On April 26th our team of artists and the students set up an exhibition of the work developed through the workshops so far. During the week preceding the exhibition we met up with local residents, teachers and shopkeepers and invited them for the event, as well as sent home invitation cards with the students for their families.
Manuel Klappe, an art-historian and curator from Amsterdam, who was in Kolkata on a residency collaborated with us in designing this participatory event. It was on his advice that we created this giant map, linking it with red thread to spaces we had explored through the workshops and with yellow to possible future interventions. We also brainstormed about ways to create maximum participation and elicit the most frank feedback, and involve the students as key facilitators and planners.
We then facilitated a one day workshop with the students where we collectively created questionnaires for visitors. Each questionnaire was created by a team of four students, each with a specific role- writer, photographer, sound recorder and interviewer. Each team, selected one spot in the locality that they had explored during the workshops and created questions about the possible community based cultural events, installations and exhibitions that could be developed at these sites.
Then after post school preparations...
We were ready the next morning, with the students extremely excited about their new role as ushers, guides and interviewers.
Details about the feedback we got coming up in a subsequent post, but all in all everyone was extremely enthusiastic and we look forward to many such events in the future!
On April 5, we got together at Studio 21 for our second event- an open studio of our work so far, and a wonderful presenation by Dr. Paula Sengupta, artist and scholar at Rabindra Bharati University, Kolkata.
Paula di shared her disseration on printmaking at Chiptur and then expanded our understanding of Chitpur's heritage art forms by describing the connections between printing, jatra, jewelry making and other trades. She also shared her experiences of walking down Chitpur recently, tracing the remains of these urban art forms.
Following her presenation, we invited our guests for an open review of our work in progress. Here are some glimpes from the evening.
After an intense workshop in January, followed by an event at Studio 21 to clarify our thoughts and understand the ways in which we can move forward, we conducted the second round of workshops at the Oriental Seminary School in March. The students continued to work in three groups- jatra, printmaking and local histories. This time they used the skills in art making they had learnt at the first workshop to begin to express local stories.
Rajasee, Nilanjan and Purnaa's printmaking group learnt about different forms of graphic representation- pictograms, maps and illustrations, and created a series of visuals to depict important spaces within their school.
The jatra group, ventured out into the neighborhood and explored the narrative elements of a jatra script- titles, themes, character design, narrative structure etc. through scripts and posters collected from jatra producers in the locality. They then developed their own jatra stories and visualized posters for the same.
Avijna, Manas and Rajdip extended the idea of documenting local naratives to include mapping as an important part of the process. Using Google Maps, as well as by conducting strolls and drawing sessions in the neighborhood, the students documented important cultural spaces.
In the next phase of our project we will start venturing out to develop small interventions or events with the students at public spaces. We will work over the next month to develop an active engagement with local community members who will now join us as key collaborators as we step beyond the boundaries of the school.
After much brainstorming we came up with a name for our project. We desperately needed something that would quickly communicate the nature of our project to the community participants. It needed to imply participation, exploration and action and could not be as boring as our previous name- Chitpur Heritage Action Group! Here is the logo...
The faces are from old woodcuts of jatra artists, and the architecture detail is from the Oriental Seminary School, our main community partner. We also tried to capture the spirit of the 'rowak' which is a typical feature of North Kolkata's architecture, where people gather in the evenings on the front porch of the houses. It's a lot for one logo.. but we hope everyone at Chitpur finds something they can relate to in it!
On March 1, our artists, Hamdasti mentors Sharan Lal and Paula Sengupta and other guests got together at Studio 21 for the first Chitpur Revisited presentation. Sharan kicked off the discussion with a presentation on urban typologies starting with Palmanova, Italy in 1570 and ending with Brasilia, Brazil. He compared these highly articulated, planned typologies with the organic formation of Chitpur and compared how they affect the communities that live in these diverse urban spaces.
Sharan's talk, helped us contextualize our interventions at various heritage sites within the larger social and spatial relationships on Chitpur Road. It helped us to think about how our designs could augment the positive social functions of public spaces on Chitpur and perhaps even counter the negatives of Chitpur's unregulated organic growth.
The artists then presented their work in progress and we divided up our audience into feedback groups, with each group giving feedback to one project. Some of the key points that emerged was the need to involve girls from the area, the relevance of integrating technology and social media into our community based approaches and the need to find alternative stories of Chitpur by going beyond the street front into residential spaces.
Ananda Bazar Pratika, the leading news channel in the State, came for the event and did a wonderful little piece on our project that evening.
Chitpur Revisited: Community and Space on Chitpur Road is the first in a series of forums at galleries and cultural institutions across Kolkata. We hope you can join us!
Through these forums we aim to create a broader discussion on social art practices, gain critical perspectives on our projects and build a network of interested project participants across the city.
More importantly we hope to activate a dialogue about Chitpur and it's relevance to the city today.
We are a Kolkata based non-profit dedicated to promoting civic engagement through participatory art projects.