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The HAT Project 2006/07 is supporting 20 exchange fellowships between England, South Asia and Australia

Clare Birks

Residency at Arts Reverie

Time to Think - Design for Living

Posted by Clare Birks on 30th November 2011

Time to Think bursary: An artist’s perspective on running an inter- cultural project in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India. 6 – 29 January 2010 'Be the change that you want to see in the world' – Mahatma Gandhi Title: Design for Living Encouraging young people to be active participants in their community’s regeneration; promoting a way of behaving, thinking and learning that supports lifelong personal and community development. Background Ahmedabad is one of the largest cities in Gujarat with a population of around five million. It is a city of two halves, divided by the river Sabarmati; on the eastern side is the old medieval city (entered by twelve gates) incorporating a labyrinth of narrow winding streets and Pols, and on the western side the new city with its towering sky scrapers and shopping malls. During a month’s residency at the Arts Reverie (Artist House) in the old city of Ahmedabad in October 2008, I made contact with Kiran Bir Sethi, Principal of The Riverside School and Prarthana Borah, Programme Coordinator CEE (Centre of Environmental Education). The Riverside School is a school whose cutting-edge research projects are turned into working models of pedagogical practices. The Riverside School's AProCh programme 'A Protagonist in Every Child' has demonstrated many successful examples of community and environmental projects. CEE was created in recognition of the importance of environmental education in India's overall environment and development strategy. The result of a unique partnership between government and a non-governmental institution, CEE was established as a Centre of Excellence in 1984, supported by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), Government of India. After these meetings, I made plans to return to India in January 2010 to participate in research with Riverside School focusing on urban regeneration in the old city of Ahmedabad. This was inspired by the discussion document ‘Ahmedabad 600: An Indian 21st Century Eco-Heritage City’ drafted by Kartikeya Sarabhai, Director, CEE; Susan Benn, PAL Founder Artistic Director; and Prarthana Borah, Programme Coordinator, Futures Group CEE (Centre of Environmental Education) Ahmedabad. The aim and purpose of the discussion document was to create a living model of environmentally sound practice in urban regeneration in the city of Ahmedabad. In addition, discussions were under way with Noah Rose at Creative Partnership at the Centre for Urban Education (CUE) to collaborate with schools in Greater Manchester and Oldham, communities with a shared manufacturing and textile heritage with Ahmedabad, to use the good practice gleaned from the Riverside School in a reciprocal research project where students would photograph their community, thus encouraging the students to be active participants in their community's regeneration and promoting a way of behaving, thinking and learning that supports lifelong personal and community development. Creative Partnerships, Centre for Urban Education (CUE) works with young people and their families and the professionals concerned with their education and care, in Greater Manchester, the North West of England and internationally. The Time to Think bursary I received from Cape UK enabled me to take time out from my design practice to undertake the work with the Riverside School. I wanted to learn from their good practice and reflect on a dialogue inspired by children at the school, 'making communities child friendly', and the CEE discussion document. My goal was to encourage awareness and debate, with the focus being the sharing of the findings with others, in the form of an exhibition of young people’s photographs created during the programme, to be presented at Arts Reverie in the old city on 27th January 2010, with a view to bringing back the research to England for a reciprocal exhibition of work in Oldham. I had also sounded out another agency in the city about possible collaboration. NID (National Institute of Design) is internationally acclaimed as one of the foremost multi-disciplinary institutions in the field of design education and research. My previous acquaintance with NID was during my visit in 2008 when I was invited by Dimple Soni, Head of Exhibition Design, to participate in the students’ project assessments. Diary – January 2010

1) Ahmedabad

I arrive in Ahmedabad on 6th January and drive through hot, dry dusty streets congested with traffic. Dignified police dance amongst the traffic directing it with batons; a solitary man digs with a spade in amongst it all, his bike propped up against the rubble. Devi Singh and Mohan (housekeepers) greet me at Arts Reverie, a jewel of a house set in a traditional Pol (an enclosed neighbourhood) in the old city.

Arts Reverie is a place to stay and work for artists, designers and makers, with a focus on contemporary crafts. Housed in a traditional Haveel and built in 1924 originally belonging to a Jain jeweller, the restoration of the building was carried out by the Ahmedabad Heritage Centre as part of the Indo-French Cooperation Project for revitalization of Ahmedabad.

When I arrive, Mohan makes tea and serves it on the roof terrace. Below me the Pol is alive with activity: dogs and cows stroll and graze, women squat at doorways washing clothes, small children play with a water pistol and children with satchels return for lunch.

2)Roof Terrace Arts Reverie

3) Old City

I brave the street, the background colours of the earth a palette, contrasting with brilliant primary colours, and pinpoints and splashes of colour. The sounds in the street – bells, sweeping, shouts, the voices of adults and small children, the hoot of a scooter, the bark of a dog, the bay of a cow and the call of birds – mingle with the smell of hot talcum powder, dung and urine. On the streets beyond the Pol is a cacophony of sounds, dominated by hooting and the roar of traffic, and the smell of petrol and diesel fumes. I walk to the House of MG for a swim.

The House of MG is a boutique heritage hotel. It was built in 1924 as a home for a wealthy textile magnet and restored to retain its old world charm. It is also an umbrella organization taking initiatives in creating a vibrant neighbourhood in the historic old city, promoting traditional craft clothing, architecture and food.

I am more confident than last time, but walking in Ahmedabad should never be underestimated; crossing the road is an art form. Don't rush or run – think cow: walk slowly and stop at regular intervals. I am revived by a Green House café special coconut juice, lemon & ginger and swim. The auto back to Arts Reverie takes me down the narrow winding streets of the old city, flanked by elaborately carved wooded buildings in various stages of disrepair, temples and extravagant bird-feeders. The traffic, congestion and pollution are extreme; rickshaws, carts, bikes and scooters are jammed together, interspersed with cows and the occasional intrepid car. Our way is hampered at one stage by a goat in a knitted jumper. I returned to view kites being flown from the roof tops, handled expertly by young boys, and silhouetted against the setting sun.

4) Riverside School

I leave for The Riverside School by flagging an auto rickshaw, and discussing the destination and price with the usual dramatic discourse.

On arrival at the school, I find Kiran in the foyer of her new senior school surrounded by teenage pupils and teachers debating policies relating to the school and current affairs. I’m directed to my assigned year group, Year 2, and meet with Key Stage 1 leader Janesville Meath and class teacher Amphora Desalt. They explain how far they have progressed with the project to which I'm linked: 'How do we make tourists experience the unique features of Ahmedabad in 4 days'. So far the children have applied by letter for the jobs/roles assigned to the project, been interviewed and all the jobs have been allocated: food, shopping, site seeing and festivals. We discuss how this will fit in with my project itinerary and arrange dates for a heritage walk in the old city and visits to Arts Reverie. We view the work they have done so far as well as the letters they have written to apply for the jobs/roles. Lunch is an informal affair out in the yard, with everyone's open lunch boxes revealing an assortment of Tiffin towers and Tupperware containers filled with dal, rice, naan bread etc.

I have been invited to the Grade 1&2 sleepover: an annual event, promoting holistic education. Preparations begin in the afternoon by preparing and cooking kedgeree. I am on the firewood collection team; others are assigned to preparing vegetables, rice and lentils, and getting ready the giant container, coated in mud and sand to protect it from the flames. Bricks are arranged to support the pot, then straw and dry leaves are added, along with some small twigs, which are then set alight, followed by larger pieces of wood. After the flames die down a little, the pot is placed on top and in is thrown ghee, oil, tick leaves, spices, vegetables, rice and water.

After all the preparations, we travel by bus to Koba village by the river to view the wildlife and experience the delights of walking into the sunset and back again in the dark. In total, the group consists of forty-eight children, two teachers and four or five supporting cast. The going is at times hard: small children, encumbered with torches and water bottles and walking on uneven ground, with thorn bushes on either side of the path, in pitch blackness isn't a recipe for peace and tranquillity. Two and half hours later, with a few scratches and tears, we return to the village. We get onto the bus and, with spirits revived and the radio playing, we have a joyous return journey. The kedgeree is delicious if a little burnt.

Next step is to get into our pyjamas and sleeping bags. I am assigned to the couch in the office, but that has been taken by the leader of our expedition, so I am given the mattress in the library, but when I come to get into my bed there is someone else in it. After some deliberation, I retrieve my mattress. I lie looking at the ceiling thinking: is this going to be an undisturbed night?

Hours later, after very little sleep, dawn emerges, with the sound of chattering six- and seven-year-olds and a few teachers barking instructions. Children's parents start arriving around 7.30am and I am whisked off in an auto to get some shut eye at Arts Reverie.

Saturday is a blur of sleep and revising my project proposal. I am glad to have heard back from Dimple Soni, Head of Exhibition Design at NID, and her students, and arrange to meet on Monday 11th January to discuss my project with them.

On Sunday, I walk to the market under Ellis Bridge, buy kites and a line, then have lunch at the House of MG and walk back through market. I try to get to grips with the camera, photographing the kite flyers on the roof tops. I am relieved to get onto the internet at Arts Reverie, but am dismayed to get an email saying that one of the managers at Arts Reverie has insisted that it is not possible to exhibit work as discussed because of the condition of the walls in the space.

At NID on Monday, it is good to meet with Dimple and the students. We view the CD of photographs taken by the students from Oldham and discuss the project outline. They in turn show me examples of their work. We agree to meet at the House of MG for the Heritage walk on Saturday evening and then to return on the Sunday morning to take photographs, afterwards returning to Arts Reverie to review the site for the exhibition. We exchange contact details, but before I leave, one of the students, Sumegha, gives me a watercolour painting expressing two contrasting images of a cityscape.

5) Sumegha Mantri Watercolour

During my second visit to The Riverside School I attend a Grade 2 class and observe further investigations into what a city is and whether it is a living entity. After lunch I once again attempt to show the CD of photographs taken by students from Oldham but am discouraged by the teacher and feel disappointed.

Kiran and I meet to discuss how best we were going to work together. We agree after discussion that the children have debated and written about their findings but haven't created any visual representation of the city. It is agreed that each group will make a poster of their chosen aspect of the city to share with the class and exhibit at Arts Reverie. After all this I jump on the school bus home with a number of niggles in the back of my mind.

Following this discussion with Kiran I am conscious that in her mind the arrangement is very much along the lines of 'what can you do for us?' with little interest being shown in the project about which I had sent her information or indeed about any collaborative work with schools in England. Kiran is charismatic, dynamic and passionate about her school and her beliefs; she is surrounded by enthusiastic supporters and the teachers I had dealings with and spoke to all extolled Kiran's beliefs and the school’s ethos to the letter. However, I had anticipated her and the school being a little more generous with their time and I would have appreciated it if she had better prepared the staff with whom I was going to be working.

Therefore, after a lot of thought on my part, I reluctantly decide that it would be best to stop working with Riverside School.

My main concerns being:

>The class was unprepared for my visit. >The class was preoccupied with other activities. >The class teacher was reluctant to let me share the photographs from Oldham.

Given this situation I did not feel it would be possible to carry out the project as originally conceived. Instead, I decide to focus my attention on working with the NID students and young people from the old city.

6) Kite Festival (3)

On 14 January I go to the annual KITE FESTIVAL! The river bank public site is deserted apart from one kite flyer and a few visitors looking around the abandoned displays. In contrast, the roof tops in the Pols in the old city are full to overflowing with kite flyers. Music, along with the sound of excited kite flyers, fills the air all day and the sky full of dancing kites. As the sun sets, the fire lanterns are released, interspersed with fireworks: explosions of sounds and colour.

On 15 January, I meet with Prarthana Borah at CEE; all is peace and tranquillity in this lush green campus in contrast with the traffic congestion outside its gates. We discuss the exhibition and I tell her about the CapeUK bursary and how I hope it will lead to developing a long term relationship between schools in England and CEE.

7) Old City (3)

In the evening of 16 January, I meet the NID students at the House of MG for the shuttle to Mangaldas ni Haveeli: a beautiful two hundred year old house in the old city and one of the finest examples of carved wooden architecture typical of that time. It was bought by the Mangaldas family in 2006 and has since been restored with the support of Heritage Cell of the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation. I am introduced to Debashish Nayak, Adviser Heritage Programme and we are guided on a Heritage walk in the old city.

The following morning we meet once again, beginning at Swaminarayan Mandir Kalupur. We weave our way through the narrow streets, taking photographs; one of our first stops is at the site of the eminent poet and reformer Dalpatrain. A lot of the buildings are beautiful with intricate carving denoting to whom the house belonged. We are shown the entrance to a Pol, with the keeper’s booth above the gate opening; the gates have been removed to provide ease of movement for motorcars. We visit temples and marvel at the carving. We are shown round an empty house which encompasses forty-five rooms and a central marbled paved courtyard with carved staircases and doorways leading off from all four sides; it is a similar footprint to Arts Reverie but larger. We are told the kitchen was always near the entrance to the house so that the women could keep an eye on what was going on.

We stroll through the book market and finish our trip at Junma Masjia: a magnificent mosque with a central pool and large open courtyard, the perimeter ringed with a formation of archways: the biggest open expanse I’ve seen whist I’ve been in the old city. There’s enormous sophistication and depth of history in Ahmedabad, with the old and the new rubbing shoulders. In this city you can become a time traveller: one moment you're in the 21st century, the next transported back to the past with people living in houses that haven’t changed for centuries, and household tasks that are identical to their forbears. The first sound I hear on waking each day is the sound of running water falling into pots in the yard outside; women squat on the paving by the tap, bucket to one side, slapping the washing against the paving slabs, and, soap in hand, scrubbing across the saturated fabric; they may have a mobile phone tucked in the folds of their saris but the image is a historic one.

After the tour we visit Arts Reverie to discuss our findings and view the display area. I have received a parcel of photos from students at Grange, Breeze Hill and Chadderton Schools in Oldham taken with the support of Noah Rose from Creative Partnerships. I share the Oldham photos with Devi Singh and Mohan; they are fascinated by the buildings and landscape in England. We compare the similarities between Ahmedabad and Oldham: both have horizons punctuated by mill chimneys, Hindu Temples, Mosques, markets, and shops selling Indian food and clothing.

Later, I go to visit Jagdip Mehta at his home in the Heritage House in the old city, walking through the narrow, dark streets on the way. The house, once found, is easily identified as it is the only house with a garden in the old city. Jagdip welcomes me and introduces me to his wife and mother. We retire from the kitchen to the sitting room, resplendent with a traditional swing seat (although it is difficult to conduct a conversation with someone sitting on a swing as you start to feel sea sick after a while). He gives me the family history (they are all accomplished musicians) and the history behind the house, speaking of how the house was restored with the support of the French Government and the fact it is a guest house but primary a family home. I am given the tour and then we exchange cards and discuss the possibility of his son and me walking the old city the following day, as I have expressed an interest in him taking photos for the exhibition as well as the NID students.

8) Vegetable Market

Jagdip’s son, Nishant Mehta, arrives promptly the following morning. We head off with our respective cameras and he talks about his affection for the old city. We photograph, amongst other places, his college, where we meet Pino, his person festooned with cameras: a son of Ahmedabad now living in Texas and a US citizen.

We visit 'Manekchowk' vegetable market, shops, Temples and 'Kandoi': Pure Ghee Sweet Merchants since 1845. I purchase a box on Nishant's advice (we sample before we purchase: it is taste bud numbingly sweet), which is then expertly wrapped. The sweets are beautiful, some decorated with gold and silver gilt paper and displayed like jewels.

We visit his sister’s old school, Vanita Vishram High School, and the secretary proudly draws attention to a marble plaque outside proclaiming the fact that Gandhi attended the school.

Our final destination is to a large empty house with several women sitting at the entrance, one being the caretaker; it transpires that this is Nishant's Grandfather’s house. The house has electricity but apart from that it is as it was a century ago. It is based on traditional lines with a central tiled courtyard open to the sky, drainage for rain water around the periphery, rooms leading off on all four sides with a balcony above and more rooms off. There are old photographs on the walls, china in a wall cabinet and a swing seat.

Back at Nishant’s house we have thali for lunch with his mother and grandmother. His mother then prepares a tiffin box for him to take with him to work at a call centre, a forty-five minute drive away, where he works 4.00pm – 1.30am. His ambition is to be a sound engineer. I am delivered back through the narrow streets to Arts Reverie on the back of his scooter.

9) Nishant Mehta

On 23 January, I meet with Richa one of the designers from SEWA (Self Employed Women Association) and discuss the work she does with the women who enlist. She visits Arts Reverie for the first time, even though Arts Reverie and SEWA house are close neighbours. We visit her work building: a substantial Pol house on three floors with a terrace. On the ground floor two women are making block printed sheets; one woman is crouched on the floor making jewellery. Upstairs they are working on embroidery and patchwork. Later that day, I accompany Meg, a ceramic artist from Sunderland University who is staying at Arts Reverie, to take more photographs with children living in and around Arts Reverie in Dhal Ni Pol, We are getting close to the date of the exhibition and the management have conceded (at last) that if I take especial care with the space I can exhibit the photos.

NID students, Sumegha Mantri and Samyak Jain, come to Arts Reverie in the morning with the work they want to display:

>Sumegha – 'Old Gates to a New City': a composite photograph 2mx1m; her comment on the Riverfront Development Project.

>Samyak – 'Pieces Of Time': a selection of beautifully photographed images of the old city, illustrating its timeless qualities photographed by himself and Anisha Crasto.

I'm responsible for creating an installation of the photographs created by the young people in Ahmedabad & Oldham. Including photographs taken by Nishant and the children from Dhal Ni Pol and the Young People from Oldham. The piece will illustrate the similarities and differences between the two cities. After my final visit to the printers, Sumegha and I begin pinning up work.

The exhibition

Guests begin arriving at 7.30pm on the 27th January, firstly the Mehta extended family, followed by families from Dhal Ni Pol, artists, NID students, Prarthana and children from Riverside School. The exhibition was well received by the visitors, with many favourable comments. Pino, appreciating the diversity of the photographic images, welcomed the opportunity to discuss and air his views about the old city. Lemon water and samosas were circulated, visitors lounged in the exhibition space and others continued their conversations out on the adjoining roof terrace taking in the view of the setting sun over the old city. I was interested to note from the groupings in the space that there is interaction between Prarthana, artists, students and the Mehta family, but very little with our immediate neighbours the Shah and Jain family. I am delighted that Anupa Mehta, art consultant and writer, and co manager of Arts Reverie and The Loft Gallery in Mumbai, purchases two of Samyak and Anisha's photographs to remain on permanent display at Arts Reverie.

10) Exhibition (4) What I learnt My enquiry question: Encouraging young people to be active participants in their community’s regeneration; promoting a way of behaving, thinking and learning that supports lifelong personal and community development. Ahmedabad is an extreme example and a good place to begin. It is a city in flux, a city of two halves, one old and one new, beset with many obstacles, battling with congestion, pollution and poverty and the challenges of preserving and maintaining the old whilst striving for the new. In response to the enquiry. Young people and children photographed the surroundings in which they lived in Ahmedabad and in doing so were encouraged to look at and see their surroundings with fresh eyes. Prior to taking the photographs the young people and children interviewed were asked about their city and how best to represent it to visitors, most cited examples in the new city. Nishant Mehta was one of a the few young people I talked to who spoke with real affection and passion for the old city and appreciated its beauty; few wanted to continue living in the old city but appreciated that it was a tourist attraction and therefore worth preserving. The NID students were critical of the way the Heritage Municipal Corporation promoted the old city to visitors and felt the operation should be restructured. Some thought it claustrophobic, dangerous, noisy and dirty. Others cited one of the reasons for many of the buildings’ deterioration as being the dispersal of the nuclear family. Families that have split up let out the properties to tenants; consequently, many of the properties are not maintained. After taking the photographs and attending the exhibition all of them expressed the opinion that they had enjoyed the experience of taking the photos, and agreed that it had given them the chance to stand back and look at the space they lived in. At the exhibition they appreciated the opportunity to show their photographs and compare them with the ones taken by the young people in Oldham and to discuss their city and hear other peoples opinions about it. It did make most of the participants more aware and more appreciative and caring of the community and space they lived in. For me it became evident (from the exhibition) that one of the greatest barriers to encouraging interest and ownership in preserving and restoring the old city is communication between different classes and castes. The artists and academics (who are fluent in English, Hindi and Gujarati) all spoke together but not to the inhabitants of the Pol. House of MG and Mangaldas ni Haveeli do much to promote the old city and Mangaldas ni Haveeli is a stunningly restored advocate for what could be achieved. Lokesh, an artist working on multi-cultural projects, who visited the exhibition, spoke about the need to build bridges between the communities to support the process of development. One of the reasons I visited the city in January was because of the Kite festival. It is a time when the architecture of the old city comes into its own with the whole city erupting into a terrace and roof party. Families and friends congregate from all around the world at relatives’ or friends’ houses. Some of these houses are only used once a year for this purpose. If only a small part of this energy, exuberance and camaraderie could be channelled into creating interest and funding for community development it could be stupendous.

In mounting the exhibition I feel I created a forum to encourage debate around an issue that affects all of us: Taking responsibility and caring for the environment in which we live. Overall, I feel the exhibition succeeded in bringing disparate groups together to debate and air the enquiry question through images and discussion.

However, I would still like to achieve my original aim of having a reciprocal exhibition in Oldham of the work exhibited in Ahmedabad and bringing CEE and interested schools together to promote environmental awareness.

Special thanks to: Kiran Bir Sethi, Prarthana Borah, Madeleine Irwin, Sumegha Mantri, Samyak Jain, Nishant & Jagdip Mehta, Megan Randall, Anupa Mehta, Jeremy Theophilus, Barney Hare Duke, Noah Rose, Dimple Soni, Devi Singh, Mohan. Staff, Students and Pupils from NID, Riverside School, Rachana School, Grange School, Breeze Hill School, South Chadderton School and the inhabitants of Dhal Ni Pol, Ahmedabad. Quotes from Exhibition visitors book : ‘A wonderful opportunity for us all. Thank you Clare. You've been an inspiration.’ Sumegha Manti

‘Just loved it, particularly the contrasting cultures shown in the photographs; it’s great.’ Bhasmang Mehta

‘Very innovative use of space. Great to have group ideas on a common ground.’ Lokesh

‘Very evocative. Perhaps you will see this as an ongoing record of cities in flux.’ Anupa Mehta