Dr. Ayona Datta, Project Principal Investigator

It is the last day of 2018 and we are ending the Delhi phase of the ‘Gendering the Smart City’ project on a high. What began as a WhatsApp diary project to understand the journeys between physical and digital spaces of Violence Against Women (VAW) in the city has turned into a rich co-production of knowledge and action around the smart city, gendered safety, mobility and everyday life in the urban peripheries. 

This project has had one of the most organic methods that I have ever led and its very organic nature has made this exceedingly fulfilling. In early 2017, I had seed-funding from King’s College London, which enabled us work in Madanpur Khadar JJ Colony (one of Delhi’s many slum resettlement colonies) developing trust with women participants through semi-structured interviews and mental maps. We were fortunate to partner with Jagori, a well established NGO working with feminist methods in Delhi’s urban peripheries; and with Safetipin, a well known ICT social enterprise working with gender safety in cities across the world. When the AHRC funding was approved later in 2017, it was time for us to think creatively about the potential of a bottom up urban technology to ‘speak back’ to the smart city from Delhi’s urban peripheries. However, we were unclear how this would work out in practice, and how much engagement we could possibly request of our participants.

After about 4 months of using WhatsApp diaries with our participants, it was in one of our brainstorming sessions that the idea of a song was received with great enthusiasm by participants. We immediately wrote a rough script and performed it several times in the short time that I was there. My Research Assistant, Arya and Music Director, Sunayana then began 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. [Click here for Sunayana’s blog on the music production]. 

The video almost did not get produced. The original film director could not work with the time pressures and quit the day before shooting was supposed to start. It was serendipitous that I met a friend from Jagori that evening who mentioned that she had a friend who was a film director. I spoke to to her friend, Nandan Latwal at midnight, explaining the project objectives and the expediencies of time with which we were working. Nandan arrived with his equipment and his cinematographer friend, the next day at 9am to start filming [click here for Nandan’s blog on the film production]. 

“This is our story”

Below are some of the challenges and joys of participating in this project as the Khadar girls explained after the music video was completed.

  1. This project did not feel like a ‘project’ from the start and this was seen as a positive. The Khadar girls are frequent recruits in various gender sensitization projects by NGOs. They felt they had enough training on gender and did not want to be part of another project where important messages on gender were ‘delivered’ to them. Participants said that the project gave them the chance to ‘speak’, gave importance to their stories and made them count.
  2. Although this project was about gender, they felt it was new and innovative in its methods since they could direct its course. It started as WhatsApp diaries, where they could express their feelings and experiences in a closed supportive environment. When they started the diaries, they never realised this would turn into a music video. This unexpectedness was new and exciting for them, and all of them highlighted this as the best part of their involvement. 
  3. The music co-production was transformative for them since it enabled them to learn about each other, talk about themselves, and give a message to others. They found the short pieces they wrote on different themes (such as Hawa [wind], Andhera [darkness], Ujala [light], Rang [colour], Mera Shahar [my city] etc) very interesting, especially when some of these proses turned into song lyrics. The music upheld their feelings as valid and made them reflect on some of their personal relationships with family members.
  4. Participants said that shooting the video made them feel like ‘celebrities’, feeling sad when the last shot was filmed and it was all over. While otherwise people in Khadar do not necessarily listen to women’s opinions, filming this on the streets itself was transformative when a bunch of resident children began following us around singing with us – ‘Yeh Sheher humara aapka, nahi kisi ke baap ka [This city is for you and me, this city is no one’s property]’. It made participants feel that although they might have considered their stories insignificant, they could tell it to the world and bring change in others’ lives. Although initially some of them felt awkward, they nevertheless took pride in the filming when neighbours started asking what they were doing, when so many onlookers began watching that one of them had to engage in crowd control methods, when friends and family 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 ‘Khadar ki Ladkiyan’.
  5. Participating in the workshop made them feel like ‘chief guests’ when they saw that their faces were on the workshop flyer. They had not realized that they were the focus of the workshop, and the fact that the workshop had given them the platform to talk without time restrictions made them feel legitimate workshop attendees. Telling their story in a panel solely dedicated to ‘Khadar ki Ladkiyan’ was described as ‘awesome’.
  6. This project made them violate all norms of time with personal and professional relationships because of extreme time-poverty. Although they all wanted desperately to be part of the project, they found it incredibly hard to be regular participants in all the workshops. They all went through several challenges in their employment and family duties in order to attend the co-production sessions. They all wished they could have given more time to the project to make the song and video even better.
  7. This whole project could not have been completed without mobile phones. Participants are avid phone users, and documented every stage of the process through selfies. But phones were essential to the WhatsApp diary method, to share their experiences, to discuss and debate important themes, and to arrange the meetings and workshops. Only one participant did not have a phone, and she invariably missed out on several important conversations and information on WhatsApp. Other participants had to make several trips to her home to keep her informed, and this came with its own challenges of negotiating with her family members about her participation.
  8. Co-production and participation were inherently transformative for all the girls. It made them feel and express solidarity towards one another, it made them feel safe in expressing their feelings, it made them feel as if they could make a difference and most of all they said this was the most ‘fun’ project they have worked on.


Our participant song and music video has been reviewed in a blog by Deepa Krishnan via Delhi Magic here, an article by Vatsala Shrangi via Hindustan Times here, an article by Ila Kazmi via The Quint here, a blog post by Avni Kapoor via Indian Women Blog here, an article by Aishwarya Sahasrabudhe via First Post here, an article by Proma Chakraborty via Newslaundry and The Patriot Newspaper here and here, an article by Syed Saad Ahmed via The Tribune and Medium here and here and shared via the Facebook and Twitter accounts of the British High Commission in India (New Delhi), the Twitter account of Planning Perspectives journal, the Twitter account of Leher NGO and the Twitter account of RYB Women.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.