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The small people of History and their big, ordinary lives
NIDHI GUPTA  29th Dec 2012

A view of a tailoring workshop in Khampur. | Photo: Sudhanva Deshpande

he first thing that you'd accost as you make your way into Shadipur is a giant, well-lit multiplex, a tell-tale sign of the 'urbanity' that has flooded all of West Delhi. But as you go deeper into this little known but densely populated part of the city, it turns out to be just another semi-urban residential area – ramshackle houses clustered together, a bunch of shops catering to the residents' everyday needs, a grimy temple or two. Absolutely nothing will seem remarkable about this place, that for most Dilliwallas, is just another stop on Delhi Metro's second longest line – that is until you reach 'biyasi number', a parking lot in the heart of Shadipur, where a thought-provoking exhibition will change your definition of what 'remarkable' – and 'history' – can be.

The good people of Jana Natya Manch have been working on the Shadi Khampur Local History Project for a while now. Last week, Studio Safdar was transformed into a museum, displaying a brief yet evocative history of the locality – which is made up of the erstwhile village Khampur along with the adjoining Shadipur, Ranjit Nagar, and Guru Nanak Nagar. "We had been looking to do something on the lines of documenting oral narratives. Now, as this project bears fruition, it is just our way of unearthing the history of this locality, which in a way is our own history too now," says Sudhanva Deshpande of JANAM.

In the small room are big photographs, texts explaining events of importance for the region as well as individual stories, a timeline, artefacts from the homes of the people who have resided here for more than just a few decades and a video installation of the bustle in the streets. This multi-media exhibition, curated by Surajit Sarkar in association with the Ambedkar University Delhi, is the first of a series of such exercises under the ambit of the AUD's Delhi Citizens Memory Project.

As interest in urban history, or the study of how cities came into being and grow, increases around the world, one can no longer rely only on documents, books and dusty files.

"There is no written history of these villages, and all the data that we've collated has been through interviews and engagement with the locals," says Deshpande. While some of the locals trace their lineage to Prithviraj Chauhan, others remember coming down to settle in the village in the 17th century. The land was initially used for agricultural purposes, until the government bought it off the landowners for 'development' in the Nehruvian era. Migration has been part of most of their personal histories — be it Jats, Oriyas and Malayalis looking for better prospects or the Muslims who resettled here (in XYZ colony) after the Turkman Gate incident in 1972.

There are snippets of local flavour, such as the fact that the Guru Nanak Nagar residents call the street dividing them from XYZ colony the 'border'; and that the walls and gates arrived in Guru Nanak Nagar only after the 1984 riots to increase security. All this is contextualised by depicting how big historical events such as the arrival of the Pusa Agricultural Institute here (because it supposedly had the highest number of sweet water wells), the Delhi Milk Scheme Plant, nationalisation of banks in the 70s, among others, affected the lives of these people.

Deshpande says the locals have responded with great pride and enthusiasm over the project. "A fellow who collects katran (tailoring scrap) and sells it in Mangolpuri looked at all the buzz and said to me, "Sir, aap log bhi kamaal hoyahan pe aapne itihaas dhoondh nikala" (Sir, you people are great, you've managed to find history here!)," he laughs.

"At the most commonsensical level, history is seen and taught as something that belongs to the rich and the famous. But with this project, I feel I've gained a better sense of just how layered and textured history can and should be," notes Deshpande. He also points out that as interest in urban history, or the study of how cities came into being and grow, increases around the world, one can no longer rely only on documents, books and dusty files. It will have to be complemented by stories the people have to tell, even if they are as 'ordinary' as the lives they lead.

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