CITY ART

How a projector mounted on an autorickshaw is bringing migrant communities together in Karachi

'Mera Karachi Mobile Cinema' turns the walls that keep migrants out into silver screens.

Pink LED lights, neon heart stickers and a projector on its roof – an autorickshaw ran through the lanes of Ibrahim Hyderi, a poor neighbourhood in Karachi. As the residents settled down for a screening, the evening was full of excitement.

The grainy movies screened on an empty wall were windows into the daily lives of its audience: the low-income illegal immigrants in the city. The plots included candid logs of how a woman spent Sundays (with her boring husband), a group trying to find the right scale to sing a song together, impromptu mushairas of Urdu poetry, small skits planned with great ambition. Occasionally, there was a solo meditation on nature or politics.

The rickshaw, a theatre-on-wheels, screened short films shot by the locals on their cell phones.

A screening at Ibrahim Hyderi.
A screening at Ibrahim Hyderi.

The public art project, Mera Karachi Mobile Cinema, was created to break the limited boundaries of art galleries, spaces which cater to elite classes and architectures which divide cities like Karachi by class, ethnicity and gender.

“Each film gave a sense of a city within a city,” said Yaminay Nasir Chaudhri, who first began the mobile cinema project in 2012.

Chaudhri studied architecture at Cornell University and then completed an MFA in combined media studio arts from the State University of New York at Albany. She began the mobile cinema as a response to the number of walls that she saw being erected in Karachi at public spaces like parks and beaches. These walls, hedges, barbed wires are a means to privatise space, a metaphor of separation and segregation which influenced the project.

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Mera Karachi Cinema in Ibrahim Hyderi.

The walls that serve as the projection screen for the cinema, are the walls of the people living in Ibrahim Haidery, built by the undocumented Bengali and Burmese Rohingya migrants in Karachi. The projections were a way to dematerialise the notion of walls.

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Short films made by schoolchildren in Lyari.

In 2012, Chaudhri and other filmmakers and artists began to enter local neighbourhoods and form “tentative collectives” – a phrase that Chaudhri favours even when describing her own six-year-old collective, because of the political fluidity it implies. (Chaudhri’s team, the Tentative Collective. is called the Aarzi group in Urdu).

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A compilation of short films shot by Baloch and Pakhtun photographers.

Each collective then worked with a diverse range of people to help them create amateur films with their mobile phones. Researchers, students, teachers, housewives, children, drivers, porters, photographers and fishermen – all from different parts of the city – dived into the project.

Chaudhri said she was deeply influenced by the idea of invisible cities, proposed by the writer Italo Calvino, when she thought up her mobile cinema project.

A screening at Seaview Waterfront.
A screening at Seaview Waterfront.

“The films are unfamiliar and outside the narratives of the city and public spaces, in the way we are used to seeing them.”

The Tentative Collective often chooses screening spots that are far removed from the face of global Karachi, the city that architects and urban planners envision.

“Some sites were literally peripheral like Ibrahim Hydari on the eastern coast, or Seaview beach on the southern coast,” she said.

To do a comparative study, Mera Karachi Cinema engaged with the upper class residents of Defence Housing Society.
To do a comparative study, Mera Karachi Cinema engaged with the upper class residents of Defence Housing Society.

When choosing a screening spot, the Tentative Collective must address other concerns too – the privacy of women and children, for instance. “Women don’t normally occupy the street in the same way as men do in many parts of the city,” Chaudhri said. “So we thought about ways of screening at smaller scales inside people’s homes which also had ‘public’ spaces for meeting.”

At Lyari, one of the oldest neighbourhoods of Karachi, the Tentative Collective took a different approach, interacting only with the children. The area which is notorious in the Pakistani press for being a high-crime neighbourhood, turned out to be filled with talented young filmmakers – some of whom were between the ages of eight to 12.

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The making of the rickshaw.

“Our events were a kind of break from the everyday, and that break primed unusual conversations,” Chaudhri recalled. The children were taught the concept of video storytelling at school, and built their stories over three months. Over the period of planning their films, Chaudhari said the team saw even the quietest children present unique and sensitive ideas, which helped them become more confident in classrooms and their homes. In contrast, any time that the Tentative Collective has tried to take Mera Karachi Mobile Cinema to posher neighbourhoods, people have been reluctant to participate.

“We wanted to use everyday tools and aesthetics in a different way, as a metaphor to playfully re-imagine everyday things that we take for granted,” she said. “For instance, how could a vehicle also be seen as a cinema, a phone also a medium to make art?”

The Collective’s most important screening to date, took place in 2014 when the projector suddenly stopped working at the Seaview Waterfront, a beach to the south of Karachi, where about 50 members of the audience had already arrived. One of the filmmakers from the Collective began to improvise with a poem, an audience member jumped in and sang a song badly out of tune.

“There was a full moon, we were projecting video on a giant concrete ship on the beach,” Chaudhri recalled. “It was surreal. These events were fuelled by a communal energy.”

The screening, their largest yet, was attended by Baloch and Pakhtun photographers, a Hindu research assistant along with Sindhi, Siraiki people among other ethnicities. The audience soon grew to over 300. By the end of the film, a pair of visitors presented the Collective with a plate of barfi bought from a vendors’ cart on the beach.

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From catching Goan dances in Lisbon to sampling langar in Munich

A guide to the surprising Indian connect in Lisbon and Munich.

For several decades, a trip to Europe simply meant a visit to London, Paris and the Alps of Switzerland. Indians today, though, are looking beyond the tried and tested destinations and making an attempt to explore the rest of Europe as well. A more integrated global economy, moreover, has resulted in a more widespread Indian diaspora. Indeed, if you know where to look, you’ll find traces of Indian culture even in some unlikely cities. Lisbon and Munich are good cities to include in your European sojourn as they both offer compelling reasons to visit, thanks to a vibrant cultural life. Here’s a guide to everything Indian at Lisbon and Munich, when you wish to take a break from all the sight-seeing and bar crawling you’re likely to indulge in.

Lisbon

Lisbon is known as one of the most vibrant cities in Western Europe. On its streets, the ancient and the modern co-exist in effortless harmony. This shows in the fact that the patron saint day festivities every June make way for a summer that celebrates the arts with rock, jazz and fado concerts, theatre performances and art exhibitions taking place around the city. Every two years, Lisbon also hosts the largest Rock festival in the world, Rock in Rio Lisboa, that sees a staggering footfall.

The cultural life of the city has seen a revival of sorts under the current Prime Minister, Antonio Costa. Costa is of Indian origin, and like many other Indian-origin citizens prominent in Portugal’s political, business and entertainment scenes, he exemplifies Lisbon’s deep Indian connect. Starting from Vasco Da Gama’s voyage to India, Lisbon’s historic connection to Goa is well-documented. Its traces can be still be seen on the streets of both to this day.

While the Indian population in Lisbon is largely integrated with the local population, a few diaspora groups are trying to keep their cultural roots alive. Casa de Goa, formed in the ‘90s, is an association of people of Goans, Damanese and Diuese origins residing in Lisbon. Ekvat (literally meaning ‘roots’ in Konkani) is their art and culture arm that aims to preserve Goan heritage in Portugal. Through all of its almost 30-year-long existence, Ekvat has been presenting traditional Goan dance and music performances in Portugal and internationally.

Be sure to visit the Champlimaud Centre for the Unknown, hailed a masterpiece of contemporary architecture, which was designed by the critically-acclaimed Goan architect Charles Correa. If you pay attention, you can find ancient Indian influences, like cut-out windows and stand-alone pillars. The National Museum of Ancient Art also has on display a collection of intricately-crafted traditional Goan jewellery. At LOSTIn - Esplanada Bar, half of the people can be found lounging about in kurtas and Indian shawls. There’s also a mural of Bal Krishna and a traditional Rajasthani-style door to complete the desi picture. But it’s not just the cultural landmarks that reflect this connection. The integration of Goans in Lisbon is so deep that most households tend to have Goa-inspired textiles and furniture as a part of their home decor, and most families have adapted Goan curries in their cuisine. In the past two decades, the city has seen a surge in the number of non-Goan Indians as well. North Indian delicacies, for example, are readily available and can be found on Zomato, which has a presence in the city.

If you wish to avoid the crowds of the peak tourist season, you can even consider a visit to Lisbon during winter. To plan your trip, check out your travel options here.

Munich

Munich’s biggest draw remains the Oktoberfest – the world’s largest beer festival for which millions of people from around the world converge in this historic city. Apart from the flowing Oktoberfest beer, it also offers a great way to get acquainted with the Bavarian folk culture and sample their traditional foods such as Sauerkraut (red cabbage) and Weißwurst (a white sausage).

If you plan to make the most of the Oktoberfest, along with the Bavarian hospitality you also have access to the services of the Indian diaspora settled in Munich. Though the Indian community in Munich is smaller than in other major European destinations, it does offer enough of a desi connect to satisfy your needs. The ISKCON temple at Munich observes all major rituals and welcomes everyone to their Sunday feasts. It’s not unusual to find Germans, dressed in saris and dhotis, engrossed in the bhajans. The Art of Living centre offers yoga and meditation programmes and discourses on various spiritual topics. The atmosphere at the Gurdwara Sri Guru Nanak Sabha is similarly said to be peaceful and accommodating of people of all faiths. They even organise guided tours for the benefit of the non-Sikhs who are curious to learn more about the religion. Their langar is not to be missed.

There are more options that’ll help make your stay more comfortable. Some Indian grocery stores in the city stock all kinds of Indian spices and condiments. In some, like Asien Bazar, you can even bargain in Hindi! Once or twice a month, Indian film screenings do take place in the cinema halls, but the best way to catch up on developments in Indian cinema is to rent video cassettes and VCDs. Kohinoor sells a wide range of Bollywood VCDs, whereas Kumaras Asean Trades sells Tamil cassettes. The local population of Munich, and indeed most Germans too, are largely enamoured by Bollywood. Workshops on Bollywood dance are quite popular, as are Bollywood-themed events like DJ nights and dance parties.

The most attractive time to visit is during the Oktoberfest, but if you can brave the weather, Munich during Christmas is also a sight to behold. You can book your tickets here.

Thanks to the efforts of the Indian diaspora abroad, even lesser-known European destinations offer a satisfying desi connect to the proud Indian traveller. Lufthansa, which offers connectivity to Lisbon and Munich, caters to its Indian flyers’ priorities and understands how proud they are of their culture. In all its India-bound flights and flights departing from India, flyers can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options, making the airline More Indian than You Think. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalised by Lufthansa to the extent that they now offer a definitive Indian flying experience.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.