They beg to differ

Homeless women in the Old Delhi ‘rain basera’ are artistically bridging the economic inequality gap in a colourful manner, writes PURNIMA SHARMA

MAKING A SPLASH Some of the art works by the women of rain basera, around Jama Masjid in Old Delhi. PHOTOS BY AUTHOR

Anyone not knowing much about these artworks might be pardoned for thinking they’ve been created by a modern abstract painter influenced by some American expressionist greats. But the truth is that these paintings have been done by women who have never held a brush in their hands; or been to an art school, let alone any school whatsoever. The only thing these women are proficient at is begging and, having grown up on the pavement, survival on the streets.

It is on a warm, sultry afternoon that I make my way past one of the most crowded lanes around the Meena Bazar neighborhood in the vicinity of Jama Masjid. Since I’m running a little late, I can just about give a quick admiring glance at the imposing historic structure lying straight ahead; and notice the myriad hues of the street market that sells not just a range of goods — from music CDs to T-shirts and even women’s lingerie — but also offers champi (head massage) and ear cleaning. A turn to the left takes me towards the poetically named Urdu Park.

A desolate open ground — a far cry from Google’s description of this park — is what greets me as I walk in. Whither the “beautiful park that offers a lot of greenery amidst pleasant conditions” I wonder when a group of ladies sitting under the shades of a tree, point me towards the ‘rain basera’ — the place I’m really looking for — that lies at one corner here.

This is a blue-coloured, long tin-shed- like dormitory that offers homeless women accommodation for the night. One of many government-run night shelters across the capital for homeless women, what makes this rain basera special is that its eight inmates, including Binu, Rubina, Ritu, Parveen, Sabroon, Reshma, Sabina and Shehzadi, all between 25 and 30 years of age, can now be called artists as well. 

Happy with what can be passed off as cool draughts spewed out by the two coolers placed inside, they greet me with enthusiastic smiles as their mentor Sreejata Roy offers me a seat. Sipping a cold drink, I look around and am immediately struck by the child-like, albeit charming, paintings that the interior walls have been covered with.

Creative beginning

It was about four years ago that Roy, a Delhi-based visual artist, started them on a creative journey that was part of Axial Margins, a project backed by Artreach, a trust that supports community arts projects. “It wasn’t easy breaking the ice,” reminisces Roy, a partner of Revue Collective that works with disenfranchised communities. But she persisted and slowly won over the trust of the basera inmates. “I wasn’t giving them any idealistic talk or asking them to give up what they were doing but just letting them discover and enjoy new experiences,” she says matter-of-factly. “Familiar with only begging, we weren’t interested in anything else,” adds Binu. But their didi’s determination and keenness to engage them in something that was so different from what they were used to and yet affected their lives at a deeper level, egged Binu and her sahelis on.

Roy first started them on with diaper-making. “They all had little children ,so could relate to this,” she says with the women listening intently, yet keeping a keen eye on their little kids, some toddlers, as they jump around playing with a stuffed teddy bear. “Making diapers took us back to our own childhood as well. None of us have had anything close to a happy childhood — brought up mostly by single mothers,” adds Parveen wistfully. 

Some of the women at the rain basera.
Some of the women at the rain basera.

Sweet dreams

Next, Roy suggested they make pillow covers. “All this was being done not to get them to start making things in bulk or start a business but to just build a community feeling or sense of collectiveness because they had hitherto led very scattered lives thinking only about themselves,” she explains. 

So, a set of two pillow covers was made — one for their own use and another to gift to a friend at the shelter itself. “This made them very happy as they’d never put their heads on an actual pillow (let alone a clean one) — it was always some clothes bundled together that became an ideal substitute.” And as they worked — learning a new skill in the process, the women would often talk about their dreams. And share their fears and nightmares too — “which were indeed many,” adds Roy.

Happy with these little achievements, the women now wanted to do something different. So Roy got them started with embroidery. But it was with colour paints that the women really came into their own. “I did not give them any art lessons but just asked them to observe and take inspiration from the environment around them. It was a joy seeing them work. Playing with brushes and colours gave them a great sense of freedom as painting became a medium that gave expression to their ideas and dreams,” smiles Roy remembering how each morning the women would impatiently wait for her to arrive and then get on with painting. Reshma remembers, “The moment we’d spot didi walking from the metro station towards Urdu Park, we’d just leave all that we were doing and rush to start work on our canvases.”

Collective effort

From individual pieces, they graduated towards making a collective piece of art — a 16X4 mural — that Roy says was a map of the Meena Bazar area. “The only thing I told them was to use their imagination and aesthetics, and paint what they wanted. Since this area is the only one that these women are familiar with, what slowly started taking shape was a map of this vicinity.” And sitting on either side of this canvas, they started creating the markets, little shops, garden outside the rain basera, vegetable vendors they’d buy stuff from, Matia Mahal, cycle market, the tea and biscuit stall from where they’d pick up their breakfast from when rushing for work, etc.

Once a substantial number of artworks were ready, the rain basera was transformed into a ‘gallery’ for an art show. Needless to say, the canvases displayed here and later at the British Council brought the rain basera inmates much appreciation.

“This whole experience has given us the confidence that we too can be good at something — something other than begging,” adds Binu. And the cherry on the cake is the money that Roy gives them — whenever any of their works gets sold.

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