Urdu Park, devoid of any of the literary elegance the name suggests, is a large, barren ground in the shadow of Delhi’s Jama Masjid. Flanked by Meena Bazaar and its shiny wedding-wear shops, the pavements are full of vendors selling jadi booti (herbs) and cheap ittar.

The park is also home to a rain basera, a government-run night shelter for homeless women and their children. Twice a week, eight women who live off the alms they collect at the masjid on Fridays, have been learning to put their lives on canvas in the basera.

The common kitchen at the shelter, its pressure cooker and bhagona (round vessel), the vegetables the women cook on days when the collection at the masjid is good, the panchphoran (five spices) that goes into seasoning, the gallis, markets, the kind ustad who runs a tea shop, generous Kalim whose biryani comes for Rs 20, the grit of the lanes – all of this turns into art.

The project titled Axial Margins is the handiwork of Delhi-based visual artist Sreejata Roy and design artist Mrityunjay Chatterjee of the collective Revue. For three years now, backed by Artreach, a trust that supports community arts projects, they have been getting the women at the rain basera to “speak” of their environment through art.

Parveen's canvas.
Parveen's canvas.

In late April, when the air sizzled at 42 degrees Celsius, the mattresses and blankets were pushed aside, and the rain basera was transformed into a gallery for a two-day show. The colours on the 54 canvases painted by the women of the basera were remarkably bright, contrasting sharply with the discoloured walls they hung on.

It was getting close to Ramzan and Rabina, a sprightly mother of eight, who lives off the alms she gets at Jama Masjid, foresaw a busy season ahead when alms would turn generous. She had managed to work on three canvases for the art show at the basera-turned-gallery. Two were on spices, a subject that clearly fascinated her.

“This is Lala’s masala shop at Meena Bazaar,” she said, pointing to an impressionistic work. “Pepper, jeera, elaichi...all the things that go into my cooking you can find here.”

Rabina's canvas.
Rabina's canvas.

Four years ago, Roy had arrived at the shelter unsure whether art and the lives of homeless women could intersect. Every woman at the basera has had a traumatic life – domestic violence, acute poverty, exploitation, hunger and dislocation are common to their stories. “There was nothing constant in their lives,” said Roy. “They had no home, the men who fathered their children had families back home in the villages and they had to raise and feed these children with no earnings or education.”

This was not the first time Roy was dealing with people in a working-class area. She had handled a community art project in Khirki Village, which brought together Afghan, Somali, Irani, Congolese and Iraqi refugees living there, and another collaboration in the jhuggi jhopri colony of Dakshinpuri. But, despite these experiences, she wasn’t certain Urdu Park would respond.

In time, she found that the women found great enjoyment in their brief time off from survival issues with colours, paper, cloth, cutting, stitching and painting.

In all the hours spent conversing with the women, the effort was never to “teach art” or “bring art” to Urdu Park. “The idea is to engage with the women in an activity that allows them to express their own self and their environment, while chatting with them in a casual way,” Roy said.

It started with diaper-making for the small children at the shelter and went on to pillow-making and crafting small embroidery frames. The canvas and the paints arrived last. When they did, among the first things the women wanted to paint were the walls of the basera.

At 26, Pravin is already a mother to five children, the oldest being 10 and the youngest three. The children flitted excitedly around their mother’s canvasses. Their father lives on the pavement outside the rain basera and it is the closest they have got to home. Pravin herself grew up fatherless on the pavements of Urdu Park and her only earnings are alms she collects at the masjid – around Rs 200 on a good day, perhaps Rs 300 during Ramzan. The rain basera is her home, her baradari and city, she says.

Among the most successful of the group’s artworks was the map of Urdu Park. The first map, painted in 2017, was a 16-foot creation that charted Meena Bazar. The women then started creating their own individual maps, which showed paths they took every day.

Map of Meena Bazar.
Map of Meena Bazar.

“The map for mobility explores the spaces beyond Urdu Park and their connections to the daily life of the women and the people they interact with,” said Roy.

For instance, Rehana’s map charted her mornings, which began at 8 am, when she would go to the cycle market to meet the kind policeman who served puri chhole to the homeless. She would then make her way to the Sis Ganj gurudwara, where she volunteered in the kitchen for the langar and got lunch as well. The last halt on her map was a coffee kiosk, where the owner would give her a free cup of coffee. After that it was back to the shelter.

Rehana has since left the shelter but her canvas is still a slice of her life here.