Looking into the practice within the labs

To talk about the Cybermohalla project is to talk about concrete practices and how they relate to forms of knowledge. This is essential when we reflect on being producers of knowledge. What we are trying to follow and understand is the intricate web of processes involved in the development of a group - not just an aggregate of specialised selves. We also try to follow how this group generates within it a capacity for self recognition, for intersubjective recognition, for understanding the social biography of the neighbourhood and for developing a sense of and addressing diverse publics.

We have been working with diverse media forms, namely diaries, animations, wall magazines, conversations, interviews, recordings, readings and mailing lists. Working with these forms makes possible the articulation and production of different types of knowledge. These multiple media forms, then, produce multiple forms of engagement. By actually working in and between different registers, diverse creative resources are made available. These resources in turn make thought processes more agile, receptive, and vulnerable.
Let me elaborate this through sharing with you our experience of this multiplying multiplicity. I will discuss the types of media separately, though in practice, of course, the use of media forms is more fluid.

1. Writing
Over the last two years at the labs, a sustained and regular practice of writing has emerged. Everyone writes in diaries - small notebooks with ruled sheets, the kind they perhaps use in school. Some of these writings are in the biographical register. For example, Naseem Bano's poignant text about the transformer in her house. She writes, "My father had bought the transformer from the money he got by selling our house in the village. It is the only thing we have to remember our father by. Now our house here is permanent - that is, made of brick and mortar. But the transformer continues to be kept in the same place as before. There is no chance it will ever be moved from there." Or Dheeraj's everyday antics brought out in texts like the one about the day he drank petrol thinking it was water! And Lakhmi's ironic writings about his experiences at school.

Some writings are in the register of space - Yashoda's text about the staircase that transforms into a meeting space every morning when people line up to fill water. Nilofer's thick description of a tea stall she passes by every day. Or Azra's cinematic description of a room - she writes, "My friend was sitting with her back to the door. So there was very little light on her face. Each time there was a sound outside, she would turn, and the light from the door would sharply define her profile. Light was also coming in through the window. But there was a recently constructed red brick wall in front of it. So the light bounced off this wall before entering from the window, and so was red in colour."

Writings can also engage with the biography of another - by writing about someone imaginary or someone whose story is known through conversation. Shamsher writes about Dilbagh Khan "who is forty years old and whose eyes are always red-rimmed from the amount of alcohol he drinks. Who drives an auto-ricksha and beats up his wife and kids every day." Or Yashoda, who writes about the beautiful and young Phool Bano who she has heard has lost her senses and roams around the streets all day, laughing at passers-by and spitting at them.

There can be other ways of writing of course! What these different ways of writing accomplish is that they open up ways of thinking. For example, we can think about space, not just in its materiality, but through soundscape, light, and colour as well.

2. Narrating
The texts that are written in these notebooks are shared with one another through the practice of reading one's own text aloud, and the act of listening to each other. These acts of narrating and listening lead to thinking about what questions can be asked about each other's experience and what words can be found to link each other's experience. Questions that are asked then are incorporated into the telling. Words and phrases that resonate with the experience of others find themselves in newer texts, in other narrations.

3. Conversations
This is another very important form. The conversation can be conducted through questions and answers, but can also have a different form. Nisha explains, "When you talk through question-answers, you define a boundary within which the conversation will flow, choose a target through which you figure out what you want to say. In conversations without question-answers, baatcheet mein suggestions pe suggestions nikalte rehte hain, aur baatcheet chaltee rehti hai. Aap dayra nahin banate aur apne aap ko kholna padta hai - the conversation proceeds through suggestion upon suggestion, where the self has to open up to the other."

4. E-mail
The Cybermohalla mailing list is another form to engage with. Postings have an improvised texture. Mails posted on the list are often addressed to individuals, though meant for the whole group. They often refer to gestures of peers, and to the nature of interactions with them. Many posts are about recent experiences that have not been made sense of yet; about encounters in the city while travelling from one lab to another, accounts of interesting incidents and conversations through the day, quick reflections and questions that everyone can think through. The mailing list has not yet developed into a full form. But it is definitely a different mode of expression, though still in its preliminary stage.

We see these forms as "peer forms" - forms that have evolved through peer-to-peer interactions. Through these forms experiences and reflections can interact with others'.
By communicating with each other, thoughts are teased and cajoled, and over time the group develops a complex culture of self and intersubjective recognition.

5. Wall magazine
This is a primary "public form" of the labs. Texts are written and selected for a twelve-page wall magazine designed and produced at the lab. It is then photocopied and circulated in the locality by putting it up on public walls. So far, three wall magazines - named Ibarat (or Inscription) - have been published. Translated versions of them can be found on the Sarai website.

After spending their childhood in the locality and growing up within the neighbourhood, the young CyberMohallah practitioners are faced with an interesting problem. It is still a struggle for them to achieve a mode of addressing the locality. They need to move from an experience of being addressed - by the world of the adults - towards being in a position to give something to the locality, and find a mode of addressing their neighbourhood.

The problem is deciding which topics to discuss, which tone to adopt - it is a problem of what their vantage point ought to be. The first three wall magazines discussed names of streets in the colony, work, and the trip to Bombay. But after that, they needed a pause to search for topics with a thematic resonance in the colony.

6. Photographs
Photographs are both digital as well as regular prints. The two, however, do not displace one another. Rather, they both create a different dynamic. The prints create an immediate sociality around them - they can be arranged in photo albums, they can be looked at individually or in groups and can be passed around. The digital photographs create around them a mediated sociality: they are seen on the computer screen or through a limited number of printouts that can then be circulated. They, however, make for quick downloading and manipulation on the computer and find their way into the animations.

7. Animation
Animations, or animated drawings, reveal an enigmatic inner world of stories and rhythms. My sense is that a play of unravelling and revealing, that is accretive, draws the group into exploring narration through animations. Interestingly, it is the practice of creating animations which propels them into narrating through drawing - something they rarely do on paper otherwise.

8. Sound
The practicioners have made analogue recordings of great diversity, ranging from recordings of themselves - readings etc. - to recordings of ambience and interviews in the locality and the city. At present we have about forty hours of recordings. Some examples: a confrontationist interview with an old grandmother, a walk through the neighbourhood, a recording of a circus, a recording of self-stuttering.

The question now is what creative resources these practices are building. What is interesting is that the practices of taking photographs, recording sounds and creating animations seem to have an archival impetus, rather than being object-oriented, or with an "output" in mind. They are practiced constantly and are also catalogued and logged.

This archive then, will create a centripetal force: it isn't worked with to be presented to a public, but rather, it may create a pull - the "public" must come to see it.

Sarai CM researchers, on their part, engage with the labs on both the "peer forms" and the "archival forms" to see what public forms they might take so they can be presented to a more abstract public. Examples are the bilingual publication of texts, images and animations, "Galiyon Se / by lanes", as well as installations and other types of publications like notebooks, boxes with CDs and booklets. The movement between the "public forms" and the "peer forms" has set in motion a very productive line of thought on accessible, mobile "micro forms" such as postcards and booklets - forms of media that can travel through diverse spaces with the possibility of a return to the lab, bringing other experiences and other practices.


Mohalla in Hindi and Urdu means neighbourhood. Sarai's Cybermohalla project takes on the meaning of the word mohalla, its sense of alleys and corners, its sense of relatedness and concreteness, as a means for talking about one's 'place' in the city, and in cyberspace.

One can approach the Cybermohalla project from many directions. One can begin with a critique of the technological imagination and the expressive universe of the dominant mediascape, and then go on to map a counter strategy which grounds itself on access, sharing and democratic extensibility. One can see it as an experiment to engage with media technologies and software 'tactically', and create multiple local media contexts emerging within the larger media network that the Internet seems to engender. Still further, one can see it as an engagement with local history, experiences, modes of expression and creativity.
In its broadest imagination, one can see Cybermohalla as a desire for a wide and horizontal network (both real and virtual) of voices, texts, sounds and images in dialogue and debate. 'Public'-ation modes are and will be as diverse as wall magazines, books, posters, stickers, web pages, audio streams, animation etc. The present technological juncture provides a possibility - the point is to actualise it.
Cybermohalla is a collaborative effort between Sarai - A New Media Initiative (a project of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies) and Ankur - Society for Alternatives in Education (an NGO experimenting for the last two decades with alternatives in education). At present, the Cybermohalla nodes are located in Lok Nayak Jai Prakash basti (a slum settlement bordering the old city in Central Delhi) and the Dakshinpuri working class resettlement colony (South Delhi). The media labs run on free software - three computers with a GNU/Linux environment, with image and text/html editors, mail clients and browsers, and low cost media equipment - sound booth, portable sound recording units, printer, scanner, analogue and digital cameras. Called Compughar, or computer-house by the participants who are between 15 and 23 years old, these are self-regulated spaces where terms for engagement are set through working with various media forms and tools, and the members' reflections on their relationship with their locality and the city.

Jeebesh Bagchi