Background and Coming Years
Cybermohalla was inaugurated in 2001 by the setting up, in LNJP colony, an informal settlement, of an experimental lab in a room with basic technology of three computers with Linux OS, one analogue and one digital camera, one portable sound recorder and an analogue sound booth, and 15 young practitioners, between the ages 15 and 20 years, from the neighbourhood. The initial impetus was that if the lab can draw a relation between writing, researching, experimenting with digital technologies, and tap into different forms of knowledge, modes of cultural expression and emerging technologies of media circulation within the neighbourhood, it will be able to build substantial grounds of knowledge on urban life.
A vast range of practices, called “minor practices”, evolved at the lab – writing and listening to one another daily, reading, recording conversations in the neighbourhood, collecting printed materials, taking photographs, making animations etc. Minor practices are durational, done over a period of time through repetition, modification or in various combinations with other minor practices.
Within the first year of the LNJP lab, a rich archive of photographs (digital and bromide print) and recordings of soundscapes, interviews and conversations with people from the neighbourhood was created; a vast reportoire of animations, which both repurposed photographs and which were drawn with a mouse on the computer using the image manipulation software GIMP were produced; their writings, thick textural evocations of the neighbourhoods, difficult questions about the self, life of technological objects, stories of arrival into the city, accounts of travels, encounters and lived and imaginary landscapes, shared within the lab on a daily basis, commented upon, discussed and rewritten, built a dense vocabulary and relational world of ideas and concepts.
The practitioners worked out an internal rhythm that made it possible for the lab to become a self-administered place – evolved processes of self-learning and experimentation through the interlacing of various minor practices, worked out the timing and logistics for the opening, closing and maintenance of the lab, developed accomodative protocols to share equipment and other resources among themselves, discussed plans and projects to be undertaken, created internal processes of self learning, mutual recognition and transmission of learning to the young people from the locality who joined the lab over the months, worked out elastic schedules for practitioners who worked or attended school, and devised and debated on the terms of interaction with interlocutors from Ankur and Sarai as well as visitors to the lab.
Locality based circulatory forms
With a confidence in their capacity to produce their own thought and a vocabulary which could evoke the multiple, lived resonances of experiences, the LNJP lab formulated and produced its first public form, and which continues to be produced to this date – a wall magazine (a 12 page, A4 sized, photocopied journal of writings and photographs, produced every 40 days and pasted in close to 25 public places within the neighbourhood, with themes as diverse as work in the neighbourhood, the naming of lanes, travel, fairs etc.)
Sarai and Ankur's practice
A precursor to the setting up of the lab at LNJP was a month long workshop held with 15 young people invited by Ankur from the neighbourhood, in May 2001 at Sarai. The lab was set up in LNJP in June, in a space that was initially shared with Ankur's Learning Centre. After the lab was set up in LNJP, in June 2001, a range of practices began to be worked out between Sarai and Ankur – building neighbourhood linkages and practices, weekly conversations at the labs through the content being generated, different forms of technological and design practices, developing a lexicon, experimenting with minor practices and documentation of the processes, bringing into the lab people with diverse practices and from different places in India and abroad for opening up the dialogue. Translation of writings by the practitioners, from Hindi to English, has been seen as an integral part of the process in Cybermohalla, as it became apparent from the beginning that thoughts emerging from the labs will have an important presence in the current imagination of thinking about the city. In 2002, a bilingual publication, “Galiyon Se/by lanes” was produced from the writings of the LNJP lab practitioners, and released in Sarai in a function attended by close to 200 people from LNJP. A collection of writings was also curated for the second Sarai Reader, and since then every issue of the Sarai Reader has carried a section with writings from Cybermohalla. Translations are also circulated through different channels, such as lists, blogs, on the Sarai website etc.
Onto Other Neighbourhoods
Dakshinpuri, Nangla Maanchi, Ghevra and the "R&D Lab"
Over the years, this experiment has evolved into a network of locality labs in different neighbourhoods. The second lab, in Dakshinpuri Resettlement Colony, started in 2002, with practitioners from LNJP facilitating the conversations, along with interlocutors from Ankur and Sarai.
The lab at Dakshinpuri
At Dakshinpuri, experiences of and learnings from LNJP were shared by LNJP practitioners, but this dialogue over time also led to an innovation on circulatory forms within the neighbourhoods – wall magazines, occasional booklets, stickers, postcards; transmitting animated films over local cable networks; setting up of different occasions of dialogue by playing audio CDs and cassettes with sound recordings from the labs; weekly setting up of a thela (mobile cart) with print publications and audio recordings from the labs in weekly markets in the two neighbourhoods; hosting of locality events and exhibitions. An internal mailing list was set up for an online sharing and archiving of notes, experiments, writings and experiences between the two labs. (Postings to the list were initially in Roman Hindi, till it was technically possible to use Bolnagri, the phonetic unicode script that allows Devnagri font).
Book Box, a set of nine bilingual booklets with writings from both the labs, a CD with animations and a sound and text film, and a set of five postcards was produced in 2003. It was released in September 2003 at N5M4, Amsterdam, as part of the installation by Cybermohalla, titled “Before Coming Here Had You Thought of a Place Like This?” and also in a function in the Community Centre at Dakshinpuri. In 2004, Cybermohalla practitioners were invited to Play Mas, a young peoples' theatre festival organised by HAJUSOM! in Hamburg. A team of 14 Cybermohalla practitioners prepared a storytelling performace based on their own writings, titled, “What is it that Flows Between Us?” for the festival.
In 2003, in view of the need of a space of concentrated practices for the senior practitioners, the R&D Lab, was set up in the Ankur office premises. The R&D Lab became a site of interactions with practitioners from other spaces (such as with Nasreen Tatabatai and Babak Afrasiabi about built environments), long term residencies in Cybermohalla (such as one which led to the development of ApnaOpus), and also a space of intensification of tech interactions, and locality based projects such as wall writing. The biannual broadsheets, with writings from both the labs, and radio programmes are produced here. The R&D Lab has also been the site for the planning of long term interactions and workshops that CM practitioners have conducted on invitation from other projects.
The Cybermohalla tech set up is, since early 2007, entirely self managed by a team of Cybermohalla practitioners, led by Suraj Rai, a senior practitioner from the LNJP Lab, who trained himself through extensive reading, practice and interactions with techies and software programmers from Sarai and those who spent short durations on residencies at the R&D Lab. Tech manuals produced at the R&D Lab from these interactions have been circulated in the tech training institutes in the neighbourhoods and have been much appreciated for the openness and ease with which knowledge about Linux OS is shared.
A third locality based lab was set up in Nangla Maanchi in 2004, and practitioners from LNJP and Dakshinpuri took on the responsibility of setting up the lab and dialoguing with their new peers here. Notes from these interactions, Nangla Samwad, are still archived, in Roman hindi, on a blog.
Practices in Nangla Maanchi
In January 2006, the Nangla lab began preparations for a book about the making of Nangla Maanchi. Two blogs – one in Hindi and the other with translations into English – were set up to make the materials public.
By March 2006, orders for the demolition of Nangla Maanchi reached the settlement. Demolition began on 29th March. Practitioners from Nangla Maanchi, LNJP and Dakshinpuri blogged from the settlement through the six-month long demolition process – the first time in the history of the city that accounts of demolition were being made and publicly shared by people most affected by it. Translations were made available through the English blog. The circulatory forms, which had till now been produced regularly by CM practitioners, took on a very sharp edge and were able to intervene in this very difficult time. A special issue of the broadsheet, Tha-Nangla-Hai, was produced, 10,000 copies of which were circulated in the neighbourhoods and from bus stands. Commenting on the blog and the broadsheet, political commentator Siddharth Varadarajan writes, “The daily diaries and fly-sheets they produced even as their homes were being brought down by bulldozers is journalism of as high a quality as anyone can find in India today. Certainly their writings tell us more about the reality of "slum clearance" than any of our TV channels, and in prose that is better than what one normally gets to read in our newspapers.” [The Hindu, 3rd June 2006]
In these six months, the practitioners talked to people daily, also recording over one hundred hours of innumerable voices, creating a sound archive of the locality. Documents were collected as evidence for court proceedings; practitioners debated on how to frame the desolate topography of abandonment and destruction, visited evictees in their new houses and shelters in different parts of the city. Several media forms for circulation within Nangla and other localities – light boxes, stickers, scarves, labels for water bottles, matkas, gullaks (coin banks) – were produced with the couplet “It quenches the thirst of the thirsty, such is Nangla; It welcomes those who come to the city of Delhi, such is Nangla”. The CM thela was transformed into an “audio-thela” for one day; it traveled through the partly-demolished Nangla Maanchi for an entire day, playing the CM radio programme (Safar/Journey), gathering people around it and building conversations, specially with young children. A formal paper, “Documents as datelines: Making and unmaking of a settlement” from the experiences of Nangla Maanchi, was presented in an interdisciplinary international colloquium attended by historians, activists, artists, film makers, coders, etc.
From May 2006, practitioners began visiting the then barren Ghevra – the land for resettlement of 20 settlements from the city, along with Nangla Maanchi. (The resettlement process began in July.) Here, CM has been witnessing, recording and thinking about the process of the making of a resettlement colony through observation, conversations, interviews, meetings in homes, accompanying community workers from Ankur as they visit government offices to reduce the friction in getting basic amenities and documents pertaining to the new address in the city. Alongside, through micro-practices (making different media forms like boards with the new names of lanes in discussion, functional items for the new shops and tea stalls that are being set up), CM has been participating in the very making of the life of the new locality in formation.
Consolidated list of works by CM till 2007
We see the last seven years of Cybermohalla as having been an articulation of an important alternative to the global developmentalist discourse of how the “poor” are imagined and conceptualised. The low-cost locality based labs in which hundreds of young people from disenfranchised urban neighbourhoods have participated and, over the years, made substantial interventions, amidst different publics, show that materials, thoughts and insights emerging from this intersection of the dense experience of young people in urban neighbourhoods and creation of experimental spaces that give regard to and nurture intellectual life, can create new knowledge about our contemporary cities and questions of creativity, and leave imprints that spill out of the neighbourhood and local, into the international.
A consolidated list of seminars, events, art exhibitions, festivals, etc which Cybermohalla has participated in can be found here.
Cybermohalla's substantial contribution in the Hindi Public Domain, 2007
In 2007, Rajkamal Prakashan, one of the best known publishers in Hindi, published Bahurupiya Shehr, a collection of writings, stories, essays and blog entries by twenty practitioners from Cybermohalla. The book, which is a new body of writing by the practitioners, gives an image of the city from various sites, and has been very favourably received in the Hindi public domain. To quote from an essay in Anyatha (November 2007), a Little Magazine in Hindi: “By the dent of its creativity and ethics, Bahurupiya Shehr makes visible the invisible, makes audible the as yet unheard, unsettling a heavy vaccum that had made home in Hindi literature.” The book, launched in a public event in May 2007, and available in book stores across the country, has been reviewed extensively, both in the Hindi and the English press. Translation of Bahurupiya Shehr into English is now complete, and publishers are being approached with it. Translation into other languages is also in process.
CM practitioners have been in conversation with different groups about Bahurupiya Shehr. Among these was a day long workshop a team of practitioners conducted with the national curriculum syllabus committee of the NCERT (National Council for Education Research and Training), responsible for the creation of school textbooks, in July 2007. The workshop was about how school syllabi can begin to address the lacuna of writings on the city in textbooks for school children, and what the nature of texts that can be brought in, can be.
CM practitioners on CM
Within the different neighbourhoods, close to 450 young people have passed through the labs, each having practiced at the labs from between a few weeks to a few years. At any given point of time, there are around 25 practitioners in each lab, and a group of older practitioners (with an experience of between five and seven years at the labs) has emerged. Writings about Cybermohalla by its practitioners can be found here.
From the last seven years of Cybermohalla, with the setting up of experimental labs in neighbourhoods and the body of work they have succeeded in generating, we have learnt that possibilities inherent in the lives in the neighbourhood can only be realised through opening out and innovating on structures of 'gathering' and 'doing' together. The question which we now move forward with is, what can be a possible architecture which can do justice to the complexity of the available and potential intellectual and cultural life in these neighbourhoods?
On the one hand this will mean creation of new content for a flow through those circuits which are already alive in the neighbourhoods – the small outposts of a centralised library system, community centres that exist in every neighbourhood and which are used primarily for functions like marriages, annual and traveling fairgrounds and performative forms like Ramlila, new media infrastructures of cable networks, CD copying and exchange centres, music bands and DJ networks that accompany festive occasions, etc.
Simultaneously with this, we envisage the creation of structures (like Neighbourhood Hubs, Labs and Studios) and temporary structures (such as meeting places, performing places/events etc), making these a stimulating mode for people to come to, learn in and contribute to.
These processes will keep the question of rethinking and reimagining models and structures alive. We also realise that there is a deep need for imagining infrastructures of cultural life in the world today wrestling with social inequality and cultural difference, and see this experiment as responding to and speaking with this need and this urge. The emergence of a group of mature practitioners, with a depth of experience and their own specific intellectual concerns and areas of practice emboldens Cybermohalla as it plans this future trajectory.
A] An architecture for intellectual life in urban neighbourhoods:
A network of Neighbourhood Hubs, Studios, Temporary Structures, and Labs
Representation of the network
as planned for 2009
(JP – LNJP Colony, DP – Dakshinpuri)
Click on image to see, roughly, locations in Delhi
as planned for 2009
(JP – LNJP Colony, DP – Dakshinpuri)
Click on image to see, roughly, locations in Delhi
– Neighbourhood Hubs
Sites of aggregation. Sites for different artisans and practitioners in the locality to bring materials, to come to and experiment with their practice amidst others.
Over the last seven years of its practice, Cybermohalla has dialogued with innumerable 'neighbourhood practitioners' (poets, diarists, writers, collectors, musicians, dancers, singers, painters, masons, videographers, technicians, designers, photographers, readers, librarians) and a wide range of researchers and practitioners from trans-local contexts (coders, architects, writers, digital media practitioners, designers, legal researchers, urban researchers, translators, artists, and more).
The Neighbourhood Hubs will be sites of aggregations, where Cybermohalla practitioners will invite and work along with different researchers and practitioners, both from the neighbourhood and from trans-local contexts, to create robust encounters for a long durée engagement with different kinds of practices and ideas. We imagine these encounters to take on different forms – residencies for people with different textual and artisinal practices in the neighbourhoods; workshops with practitioners from trans-local contexts to share their skills, build models and bring new materials; dialogues over time towards producing documents and proposals for re-activating dormant or defunct structures of intellectual life in the neighbourhoods; tactical lab situations to design and produce books, CDs, intermediary print forms with a diverse range of materials for circulation in the neighbourhoods and beyond; occasional events, gatherings and readings.
Through sustained and innovative internal practices and consistent public dialogues, the hub will build in itself both a rich archival impetus, creating a gravitational pull from within the neighbourhood, and an energetic outward flow through its commitment to the public circulation of the insights, questions, concerns, excitements, models, designs and productions it engages with, produces and hosts.
Over the last year, a series of workshops and dialogue between two Frankfurt based architects, Nikolaus Hirsch and Michel Muller, and Cybermohalla practitioners, has enabled a model of the building. A prototype of the building has been shown in the European Biennial of Contemporary Art, Manifesta7 (“The Rest of Now”, Bolzano, curated by Raqs Media Collective) and has come to be regarded as a contribution to thinking about how small spaces can be designed in a way that they may be used by maximum number of people.
We plan to build the first hub in Ghevra resettlement colony in 2009, where it will be a space to create a rich body of work around the slow making of a new neighbourhood.
Small creative nodes set up by two to four older Cybermohalla practitioners to write, evolve practices to create encounters and interactions, imagine forms of gathering in the neighbourhoods.
Over the last few years, Cybermohalla practitioners have noted the slow, consistent closing down of public spaces of gathering in their own and other neighbourhoods. Libraries have closed, informal groups of musicians have disbanded, contexts in the city for performances for dancers and storytellers have shrunk, while other contexts – publishing houses, publicly present forms and sites of reading, sites practicing design innovations, etc – have remained altogether unavailable.
Taking cognisance of this, six of the older CM practitioners, Lakhmi Kohli and Rakesh Khairalia at Dakshinpuri, and Azra Tabassum, Neelofar, Yashoda Singh and Babli Rai at LNJP have set up one-room studios in Dakshinpuri and LNJP respectively. These are slowly being shaped by them as small creative nodes for their own practice, and as micro-contexts for gatherings for and an intensity of dialogue with neighbourhood practitioners.
Still at a very incipient stage at the moment, we envisage that over the coming years these studios will become significant hubs of cultural and intellectual activity in the neighbourhoods and the city.
– Temporary Structures
Dispersed, temporary structures designed for gathering, to create fresh imaginations and bring a publicness to the pursuit of intellectual life in the localities.
Over the years, the Cybermohalla labs have created contexts for dialogue with different people in the neighbourhoods – teachers, the elderly, people who work in workshops, etc – through “locality events”. Through this engagement, a whole range of practices to create forms of gathering and imaginations of temporary structures which can allow different kinds of expression to move between the textual and the oral, is emerging.
Drawing from this experience, in the coming years we envisage the creation of a number of temporary structures as sites for bringing a publicness to the pursuit of intellectual life in the neighbourhoods. Several models of possible structures have been created; two structures have already been given final shape and publicly launched in 2008 – one on the roof of LNJP, and the other, a machaan (platform on stilts) for a public reading of writings over one month, in a lane in Dakshinpuri.
Temporary structures will be designed and realised by Cybermohalla practitioners in collaboration with craftsmen from the neighbourhoods, who work across the city, and this intervention is also to open up creative possibilities of conversation with them.
Sites of durational practice by young people in the locality, to gather and practice over long durations.
Close to 450 young people have practiced at the Cybermohalla labs in the last seven years, producing a substantial body of work. The labs are spaces of experiment, where young people can spend a duration of time with others to explore their thoughts, and find different expressive registers for them. They are self-administered spaces and practitioners have created innumerable occasions of gathering and conversation in the neighbourhoods, bringing a vast range of people into dialogue with them. Over the years, the labs have gained a recognition in the neighbourhoods as important sites, and people approach the labs both for intellectual dialogue, and to share and form opinions on new developments in the city.
In the coming years, we will deepen the minor practices at LNJP and Dakshinpuri, adding new practices to our existing repertoire – through an engagement with the challenges experienced by practitioners in engaging with different materials and contexts, dialogues between practitioners over materials being generated, experimentation with available resources, interactions with practitioners from other spaces, and play with newer technologies within the neighbourhood.
New labs will be set up in other neighbourhoods in the city, extending the network of labs in the city. The older Cybermohalla practitioners will take on the challenge and the responsibility to imagine these spaces, set up them up and work out their own modalities and approach. Depending on the resources available, we plan to build five more labs in the next four years.
B] Neighbourhood Studies
Alongside the daily act of writing and thinking on different aspects of life in the city, a few focus areas have emerged for an in-depth examination and exploration. Undertaken in different degrees by all the practitioners in the CM network, they will be led by a small group of the senior practitioners on a sustained, long term basis. These areas will also produce possibilities of intersection with other research initiatives, both as a continuation of dialogues that have already been started, and the beginning of new ones.
– Life and times in Ghevra : Ghevra, established in 2006, is emerging as one of the largest resettlement colonies in Delhi, where inhabitants from all over the city are being relocated. These inhabitants had arrived into the city from different towns and villages and built their own different modes of living, over years, in the settlements from which they were evicted. The slow battle for infrastructure, re-imagining of forms of living, stitching together forms of belonging, making of sacred geographies, journeys into the city, search of employment, tenuous livelihoods, bargaining access to state welfare, etc are the various axes through which life is once again being negotiated in Ghevra, an in-depth account of which will be attempted from different vantage points over the next few years.
– Media environment : The media networks that have expanded and densified in Delhi post 90s are, to a large extent, nurtured in the city's various neighbourhoods which have become fertile sites of innovation, recycling, production and relay. Various social networks accrete around media networks and nodes of production and circulation here, and frequently find themselves in various degrees of conflict with the law. They are saturated with possibilities, but also fraught with social unrest. In the neighbourhoods, the perception of media itself constantly shifts. What are these social networks and sites of media production and circulation? How do people enter them and negotiate their way in them? What are the routes of circulation they create? The neighbourhood study on media environments will take on these and other questions, and search the metaphors and stories by which media is imagined and lived.
– Lives of “intimate strangers” : A neighbourhood is formed through the arrival and settling down of many different people over long periods of time. Different imaginations of forms of living jostle with each other, make space for each other and collide against one another. Myriad subjectivities give confidence to, disrupt, embellish, threaten and enhance the ways in which one coheres the fabric of ones own life. These subjectivities, and the nearness or distance, fleetingness or overbearance, collusions or collisions one experiences by turns with them in the course of ones life, makes them ones “intimate strangers” – who constitute ones life, but are not necessarily allowed to, or cannot, become a part of it. Lives of Intimate Strangers will be an exploration over time where practitioners attempt to stitch together biographies of different people in their neighbourhoods through how and what they remember, and how they are recounted or experienced by those around them. This exploration has already been started, and an essay by Lakhmi Kohli, “A Lifetime”, was included in the Manifesta 7 Companion Book earlier this year.
Translation is at the heart of Cybermohalla's practice. Cybermohalla sees itself as an incubator of ideas and experimentation that need a larger public to debate and enlarge them. To facilitate this dialogue, rigorous documentation of the processes and their articulation in the public domain has always accompanied the Cybermohalla process. Process translation of the various practices enables CM to bring into its ambit practitioners and scholars from various parts of the world. Translation of materials emerging from Cybermohalla into English for their circulation into diverse contexts through channels like blogs, lists and websites has enabled CM content to circulate and intervene in diverse contexts. These processes of translation will be elaborated further in the coming years.
D] Knowledge sharing and exchange
Cybermohalla practitioners have always been in dialogue with researchers and practitioners from other contexts. They have traveled within India and outside to share their processes and to engender imaginations of possible new spaces in different neighbourhoods.With this as the background, over the last few years it has been felt that a consolidated network needs to be created with intiatives and people in various other contexts and neighbourhoods to dynamise a new range of conversations around micro-structures and practices of cultural and intellectual life in the world today. For this, Cybermohalla will institute fellowships tied with residencies of short durations in Delhi, for people from different parts of the world to engage in a dialogue with it, to bring in new experiences and thoughts, and enlarge the domain of reflective and creative neighbourhood practices all over the world.
Click image to enlarge
For further queries contact jeebesh at sarai dot net