All I Want is a Room…

There is an old abandoned house in Pamposh Enclave – once a small, innocuous neighbourhood, now become posh by the lottery of location. Its proximity to Nehru Place roots it in the very heart of South Delhi – and like all its proximate hoods, it too has changed. Older ‘Kothis’ with front lawns and terrace ‘Barsatis’ are collapsing. They are being demolished, rebuilt, and rebranded as ‘Builder Floors’. They have stilt parking for multiple cars; the terraces are given over to gigantic generators and water storage tanks.

But C 13 stands alone, and it bucks the trend.

We do not know why C 13 remains in this partially unkempt condition – in defiance of all around it. But as I discovered happily one April evening, it is to be celebrated.

I went, having received a tip off, about an event seductively titled “Library on the Move”. I was a library addict, when I was growing up in Bangalore. I went also because I lived myself in Pamposh, as a tenant two decades ago. The house we leased then was D 13.

I thought it an apt coincidence for a Sunday evening nostalgia trip to an event at C 13.

In the event, it turned out to be a pleasant surprise – for the library, I discovered was not a general collection of books, but focused purely on expensive and difficult to access ‘Art Books’ – yet another happy attempt to get “high art” to escape the confines of its elitist ghettos.

The artist Priyanka Choudhary had been using the ‘space’ at C 13 as a studio for the past seven years. And she had been thinking about other uses for the abandoned house. She has been inviting other artists to make what use they could of it and reimagine it for themselves, and others.

Meanwhile, a few miles away, a reading room in Defence Colony painstakingly built by a group of young art activists at FICA, the Foundation or Indian Contemporary Art shut down. They used to share space with an art gallery, but it was no longer available. By a happy coincidence, Choudhary offered the use of C 13, which they, gladly for all of us, accepted.

The reading room shifted, but it transformed into something more. It is, from what I understand, a temporary move – an experimental three-week window to see what could be done.  In Defence Colony, it had functioned as a walk-in library and reading room.

But this new tenancy, though warm and welcoming, remains tenuous and uncertain. They needed to re-imagine the space, not only to house the books but also see what else they could do. They asked artist Susanta Mondal to respond and he came up with the idea of mobility – and so the book shelf, while retaining all the architectural elements of a building is actually a set of pipes, painted bright red on wheels – which can, quite simply be wheeled out, when needed.

 The people at FICA have not yet publicly outlined their plans for making their library truly mobile; in it’s earlier avatar it was a much loved reading room.  But they made plans for the three weeks that they have the space. A series of curated talks and discussions, the first of which was evocatively titled “library on the move”…

There were two speakers invited – Sneha Raghavan, an Archivist with the Hong Kong based Asian Art Archive, and Photographer Chandan Gomes. They were to be the first in a series planned for the summer.

Raghavan went first, expanding on the infinite possibilities of different meanings of a library, and circulation. She spoke of books in libraries not only changing hands and sharing readers, but also how, taking a scissor to several picture books, mutilating them infact, to create a new pastiche in a scrapbook, was also a form of collection and circulation. This is what the School of Art, at MSU, Baroda, did routinely. She told us a charming story of how Ratan Parimoo, an art historian in the faculty would send letters out to patrons and publishers, seeking two copies of every book or magazine – so that his students, could use the second copy to cut out the flipside of the page they had mutilated.

The archive where she works does indeed keep its library mobile; they work in collaboration with hosts across South Asia. And they are always trying to find ways to push the borders of these collaborations. She showed a haunting image of the Jaffna Library after it was burnt down in the ethnic conflict – and how their mobile library paid a visit to the benighted town trying to recover after the rebellion was crushed. Interestingly the conversations between the collaborators ended up in locating the visiting library, outside the campus – breaching yet another border. Locating it on campus, they felt, may have inhibited some people from paying a visit. This has led to independent local initiatives to set up art archives in Sri Lanka, one candle lighting another, bringing both warmth and illumination to an hitherto devoid landscape.  It even has a deeply evocative name – Raking Leaves.

When Chandan Gomes began taking his photography seriously as an undergraduate, he was frustrated about how expensive picture books were, and how difficult it was to get hold of them. Together with a friend, Vicky Roy, he launched the idea of an ‘Open Library’ for Photo books. They began petitioning older photographers for copies of their books. He was surprised by the results – many people donated copies of every book they had published or collected and soon the Open Library was on its way.

They have no funding, and do all they can to take the library out of its shelves to places it would never go to entirely on their own. Gomes revealed that he and his mates have a pact – they donate 10% of their earnings from professional assignments to a common corpus that funds these trips. Their open library has travelled to the Cantonment town of Lansdowne and the Ghats of Banaras. These books have been touched and felt and seen by rustic hill-folk, jawans in training, sadhus and pilgrims. His presentation was peppered with anecdotes of the reactions of people in the hinterland to the books and pictures.  In one instance, after gazing for long at a book of haunting pictures – self-portraits by a woman photographer on domestic violence – a rural woman was truly perplexed. Surely, someone who could take pictures and publish books was empowered – “phir itni pitthi kyon hai?” – was her pithy question.

Contemporary urban planners seem to have no use for libraries. Whether a new Gated Complex, or a redeveloping old residential colony, the architecture allows for jogging tracks, clubs and spas, but rarely if ever, a library. Which is why presentations and conversations such as these engender hope.

As I left, I recalled a conversation I had with the Kannada writer, the late U R Ananthamurthy, about the cultural festival he cofounded in Heggodu, a sleepy village in the Western Ghats. “It is about welcoming the outsider on her terms, not ours” he said. C 13 seems to evoke a similar promise.

There is a bond between everyone who uses a library or a reading room, even if they share no more than a glance.  And when they leave the shelves, books move from hand to hand like the baton in a relay race – a team that does not subsume the individual. And when entire libraries move, they open tiny windows into larger horizons, in the manner of a family elder revealing long forgotten histories.

There were not more than a dozen people in the small room at C 13; the intention, I think was to keep it intimate. I wish they keep it that way, but keep doing more of it.

After all, small conversations are the embryo of Big Debates.

And it can happen, in one room in an abandoned house.

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