The focus of my six-week residency at KHOJ is to develop an art project through generating dialogues and narratives with local communities in the neighbourhood of Khirki Village. This neighbourhood, along with nearby Hauz Rani, are part of the unauthorised colony of Khirki Extension in South Delhi.
The local communities here subsist on daily-wage earnings in small workshops and factories, as construction labourers, as artisans. Though barely seen, they remain a crucial demographic variable within the rapidly expanding and impersonal cosmopolitan ethos of high-end shopping complexes, business centres and corporate habitats. These hyper-visible yet invisible migrant communities are undergoing displacement from their places of origin often without social or legal protections and entitlements.
As a local presence, KHOJ enabled me to intervene in these localities, and interact not only with my target group but also people connected with these groups, and inhabiting the same area.
I conducted introductory sessions with the artisans and their employers at two design workshops in Hauz Rani. I later had a session with a few shopkeepers in Khirki Extension.
As part of these introductory sessions I visited the small factories and interviewed workers at their workstations.
The world of labour practices here is essentially very private, operating within its own norms, and quite sequestered. Drawing upon my previous fieldwork with working-class communities in England, I did not use a microphone – the presence of this technology can be alienating and intimidating, and force people into artificial postures and self-conscious expression. Instead, I followed the methodology of casual conversation with my subjects, documenting this in my notebook. I was relieved that I was allowed to use a camera on the premises.
From 22 April 2008, I began visiting the embroidery factories in Hauz Rani.
I first visited the workshop run by the person who is originally from Howrah, Bengal. He is friendly and hospitable. He runs a small unit of hand-stitched embroidery: ten workers, each working 12-14 hours each day. Prior to migrating to Delhi, he had worked in the field himself for several years. He trained mainly in his own village, Panchara. After much struggle he managed to open his own unity in Hauz Rani in 2003. He lives with his family in on the first floor of the rented two-storied building, with the workshop on the ground floor. The workers are mostly from Bengal and Bihar. They have either already been trained in their villages, or are being trained in this unit.
My second visit was to a small unit of machine-made embroidery. Four to five workers each work 10-12 hours each day. When the demand is high, they may work for up to 20 hours. The owner of this workshop also sells life insurance, as an LIC agent.
I initiated my plan to visit each unit twice, to document the work processes. I also arranged for personal interviews with the workers, at their convenience, on the KHOJ premises.
During our dialogue, I noticed the workers repeatedly using certain words and terms that are commonly uttered, and are strongly associated or bound up with their lives. I made a list of these words/terms, and tried to push the conversations through those words. I then asked each person to select one of these word and to talk on it, how it is connected with his work experience as well as his personal life.
I arranged sessions of conversations with workers from machine stitch unit on the KHOJ premises when their shift ends. Two workers from this unit came for the session; and interestingly, a worker from another unit, joined us. I followed the same protocol that I had used for my interviews with the workers of the other unit.