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Digging deeper

A two-year-old research forum is roping in freelance writers, activists, filmmakers and artists to conduct research into the lifestyles, cultures and communities of Mumbai. Aarefa Johari writes.

mumbai Updated: Nov 04, 2012 01:00 IST
Aarefa Johari

There is nothing unusual about a group of post-graduate or PhD students poring over archives and writing long thesis papers. But when a motley group of freelance writers, social activists, journalists and artists toil for months, pounding pavements, interviewing people, working in libraries and analysing streams of data, there’s certainly something interesting going on.

The group in question comprises eight amateur researchers enrolled in the Urban Aspirations Mumbai Fellowship programme, run by Urban Aspirations in Global Cities, a two-year-old forum for research on the city.

Through the first edition of the Mumbai Fellowship programme, which began in March, the forum has given intensive research opportunities to people who are not full-fledged academic scholars. Their research projects — in the form of theses, short films or documentaries — will offer insight into different aspects of the city’s culture, from dance bars and drag queens to electronic waste.

In February, their finished projects will become part of a Mumbai archive at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) headquarters in Deonar.

“The research fellows must have at least a post-graduate degree,” says Shilpa Phadke, an assistant professor at TISS. “Their research will contribute to a body of knowledge on the city and we hope it will foster engaging debates.”

While the Urban Aspirations research fellows come from all age groups, this is not the first time that the city has encouraged non-academic research. For eight years, non-profit organisation Pukar (Partners for Urban Knowledge, Action and Research) has been conducting an annual Junior Research Fellowship programme, in which groups of 18- to 30-year-olds are assigned a guide to help them research aspects of the city that they are familiar with.

“It is good to have people who have a stake in what is happening in the city do research on local aspects,” says Kamala Ganesh, a sociology professor at University of Mumbai. “But such researchers need training and guidance, and their work cannot become a substitute for academic research.”

Kaiwan Mehta, director of the Mumbai-based Arbour forum for research in architecture, believes amateur researchers must be sensitised about conducting responsible research. “Such research is important, but the researchers must be aware of their limitations,” he said.

Boy meets girl
Jehangir jani, 56, artist, activist and filmmaker
Project: A 10-minute fictional film about the lives of middle-class transgender individuals.

Artist Jehangir Jani has worn many hats. In the late 1990s, he worked for a few years with the non-profit Humsafar trust, which supports people with alternate sexualities. He then dabbled in filmmaking, bringing out two short films.

This year, as an Urban Aspirations research fellow, he has combined these two interests to work on a short, fictional film based on the lives of transgender individuals in Mumbai’s middle classes.

“While transgenders from lower socio-economic strata often have nothing to lose by being open about their identities, those in the middle classes find it very difficult to express themselves and take risks,” says Jani, who has several transgender acquaintances who lead dual lives in the city.

Jani’s film, as yet untitled, is about one such individual, born a boy and named Umesh, who is evicted from his genteel, middle-class chawl for trying to dress like and identify with the woman he feels himself to be, whom he has named Urni.

“I wanted to speak for the middle-class drag queens who have to do everything behind closed doors, in secret places or private parties,” says Jani, who is currently editing his film. “In my film, the character doesn’t know what to do with herself as an evicted, free transgender, because she is so used to being restricted.”

Through the wanderings of Urmi, Jani portrays several ordinary areas of the city — Dongri, Mohammed Ali Road, Marine Drive — in their own secondary identities as hushed spaces where groups of transgender individuals can meet.

“The film has a happy ending, with Umesh breaking free to completely become Urmi,” says Jani. “But this is possible only in a big city like Mumbai, where it is possible to be anonymous.”

Of courtesans and prostitutes
Geeta Thatra, 25, independent researcher
Project: A year-long study of the history of the Congress House area at Grant Road.

Seventy years ago, Congress House — a cluster of seven low-rise buildings in Grant Road — was the Mumbai headquarters of the Indian National Congress and the heart of the Quit India Movement. Today, most people who know about this building also know of the neighbourhood’s descent into disrepute.

It’s not a respectable area, say long-time local residents.

The building itself was handed over to a private trust and is now one of several middle-class housing societies in the area. But in a huddle of dilapidated buildings behind Congress House, ‘dance girls’ — performers who double as prostitutes — have for decades performed mujras and entertained clients.

Independent researcher Geeta Thatra is now tracing the changes in this area, from the days of its historical glory to the bitter moral tensions that define it today.

Initially, between the 1920s and’50s, says Thatra, the atmosphere around Congress House was electric. While the House buzzed politically, the dancers’ colony opposite hosted baithaks featuring some of the biggest classical musicians of the day, including Hindustani vocalists Bade Ghulam Ali and Ustad Amir Khan.

The dancers’ colony was registered as the Bombay Sangeet Kalakar Mandal in 1977, but over time, classical music and traditional Kathak gave way to Bollywood-influenced dance, and many of the women moved to the more lucrative bar-dancing industry.

“The mujra dancers take pride in their lineage, still identify themselves as tawaifs [courtesans], and look down on the bar girls,” says Thatra. “But in society, all the women now face resistance, and there is an uncertainty about their future.”

Thatra first came across the mujra dancers when she moved from Bangalore to Mumbai’s Tata Institute of Social Sciences in 2008, and participated in a project on tribal sex workers.

“Many of those women had worked here before becoming bar dancers. I grew interested in the space, its changes and the manner in which it has been increasingly criminalised,” says Thatra.

One middle-class resident, says Thatra, admitted that he wanted the buildings in the area redeveloped so the women would have to move out and a “better class of people” could move in. “Such attitudes reflect a desire to segregate urban spaces,” says Thatra. “It’s not that people don’t want those women to survive — they just don’t want them before their eyes.”

Reading between the lines
Sayalee Karkare, 26, freelance writer
Project: A 70-minute documentary on reading culture

As a second-year political science student, Sayalee Karkare and five of her friends from St Xavier’s College signed up for a youth research fellowship in 2006 with the non-profit organisation Pukar (Partners for Urban Knowledge, Action & Research) and chose to research a passion they all shared: reading.

Their short film on Mumbai’s reading spaces left Karkare wanting to know more. Six year later, her Urban Aspirations research study takes off from exactly that point.

“I wanted to know what, where and how people in Mumbai read, and where they get access to books,” says Karkare, a freelance writer and Dadar resident. “I also wanted to see how the reading culture has changed.”

Since March, when she began the project, Karkare has scoured the city, interviewing local book sellers, avid and casual readers, academicians and library owners, recording footage for what will eventually be a 70-minute documentary.

“Three or four decades ago, it was possible for ordinary citizens to buy second-, third- or even fourth-hand books from local street stalls. But today, space is at a premium in Mumbai, causing many of these stalls to shut shop and many circulating libraries to transform into movie libraries,” says Karkare.

Reading habits, then, become subject to access. With the success of Indian popular fiction and self-help books, more people seem to be reading, but most belong to the class that is now moving towards e-reading. “For the less privileged, the city is making it increasingly difficult to be a reader,” says Karkare.

Public libraries too, she says, are difficult to access. Membership to the Asiatic library, for instance, is open only to graduates who can provide references from at least three existing life members. “In such a situation, knowledge is not open to everybody,” says Karkare.