‘Khadar ki Ladkiyan’ (Khadar girls) is a freestyle hip-hop song and video written and performed by young women from a Delhi resettlement colony. It brings to light the opportunities and challenges of navigating the city as these women leave home to pursue paid work and education, and are simultaneously constrained by the boundaries of traditional gender roles. It makes a radical break from what has largely been a masculinised terrain of hip-hop underlined by the success of Gully Boy recently.
‘Khadar ki Ladkiyan’ is part of a wider project ‘Gendering the smart city’ funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, UK, whose aim is to understand how women use technology and how that technology impacts the ways in which they negotiate the home and the city on a daily basis. We started in early 2017, with small seed-funding from King’s College London, which led us to Madanpur Khadar, one of Delhi’s many resettlement colonies created in 2000 when slum dwellers across south Delhi were forcefully evicted and relocated in its south-eastern peripheries close to the neighbouring Haryana state border. We were fortunate to partner with Jagori, a well-established feminist NGO in Delhi; and with Safetipin, a well-known ICT social enterprise involved in mapping and crowd-sourcing safety in cities across the world. We initially developed strong relationships with women participants through semi-structured interviews and mental mapping, which helped us understand some of the dynamic ways in which women use the mobile phone to access previously inaccessible spaces in the city while simultaneously being subject to harassment, violence and abuse across digital and physical spaces, from the home to the city.
The Khadar girls can be described as urban millennials, who are living the paradox of India’s digital revolution in an urban age. As second-generation migrants to the city, they have little memory of slum life or forced eviction. They identify themselves as young urban women, but have to constantly deal with the stigma of slum identity. They are relatively better educated than their parents and have therefore moved away from the informal and domestic labour that sustained their parents’ livelihoods. They still struggle to maintain paid employment within a precarious service sector in Delhi. They are avid users of the mobile phone, and active on social media through which they create solidarities, friendships, and support networks, yet struggle to access welfare services and information that could potentially improve their lives. Most significantly, due to their association with a number of NGOs through which they have attended youth and gender training programmes, they are well versed in gender sensitive language and practices. In contradiction to this, they are still severely constrained within their home and extended families by conforming to traditional gender roles. Within these paradoxes they emerge as young, millennial, gendered citizens straddling the ‘new’ and ‘old’ India, eager to speak, but held back. They claim their rights, and transgress traditional gender boundaries, despite the restraints placed on them, and the pain they will bear for each transgression.
Understanding these paradoxes needed more than conventional methods of cultural investigation and study; rather we began sharing our experiences across time and space (between India and UK, researcher and participants, city and peripheries, home and family, night and day) in a closed WhatsApp group where the Khadar girls would make regular multimedia diary entries. This WhatsApp group became our site of research, revealing the dynamics and complexities of gendered safety, mobility, and everyday life in the urban peripheries. From it emerged knowledge and action from Delhi’s urban peripheries to ‘speak back’ to top-down visions of digitally-led urbanism in the smart city.
As regular participants in Jagori campaigns, training programmes, and street theatre, the Khadar girls are adept at writing verses. After about 4 months of WhatsApp diary entries, in one of our brainstorming session, the idea took shape of using hip-hop as a mode of expression to talk back to the city. We scheduled regular face-to-face sessions, working with the participants in co-producing a freestyle song that told their story in their own words, on their own terms, and through digital technology. In each session, they wrote short pieces on different themes such ashawa (wind), andhera (darkness), ujala (light), rang (colour), mera sheher (my city) etc.and then collectively turned some of these prose into song lyrics.
Despite their interest and commitment, the sessions were on a very tight schedule, since they were all in paid employment or were studying. It was in about ten Sunday evening sessions that the script was collectively written and recorded. The video was filmed and edited in about seven days within severe time constraints. Adding to these challenges, was the need for the Khadar girls to have to negotiate with their families for approval to appear in the video. The result redirects traditional boundaries of gender, power, and structure from the family to the city, from the physical boundaries of their home/neighbourhood, to the online space of India’s hip-hop scene on YouTube.
Curating and speaking with technology as a transformative process
‘Khadar ki Ladkiyan’ is a short 03:05 music video made on a low budget. Though it has only a modest viewership on YouTube (4.9K currently), we must pay attention to it because of the positive impact it can have on those who are often left out of top-down urban visions. This project that focused mainly on gender was unconventional, unlike the ‘gender training’ programmes run by NGOs. It gave them agency and a safe-space. It started as WhatsApp diaries, where they could express their feelings and curate their experiences in a closed, supportive environment, that then organically evolved into a hip-hop music video. The power to direct the course of this project was exciting for them. The Khadar girls said that the project gave them the chance to ‘speak’, gave importance to their stories and made them feel like they counted. Most of all they said It made gender ‘fun’ by creating a safe space for hanging out, for producing laughter, and expressing solidarity towards one another. It triggered a process of re-negotiating their identities and relationships with their family, home, and the city.
It is in the process of co-production that lies the potentialities for intervention and of changing the gender based power structures. While filming the video, the Khadar girls stood against the control over their bodies by their families – defying curfew hours, defying their families’ restrictions on showing their faces on YouTube, and through several other micro-subversions. Even the choice of filming in the streets of Khadar permanently changed aspects of the girls’ lives, since it emphasised their visibility as ‘celebrities’ (their term). Although they had not considered the significance of their stories earlier, they began to realise the scale of it and what they were doing, when we required crowd control during the filming, when neighbours started asking what they were doing, when their friends wanted to join the project, when their parents asked relatives in their village to watch the video on YouTube, and most significantly, when people in Khadar began to recognise them on the streets as the ‘Khadar ki Ladkiyan’. Our Khadar girls are telling not just their own stories on YouTube, but the story of millions of young women living the contradictions of life in India’s digital and urban margins.