Community Networks Stories: Experiences from co-creating a local knowledge network

As part of the “Connecting the Unconnected: Supporting community networks and other community-based connectivity initiatives” project, 11 community network initiatives were selected in 2019 to receive catalytic intervention grants, aimed at supporting innovative, sustainable and gender-aware uses, developments and appropriations of technologies to strengthen a diverse and sustainable community network movement. Specifically, these grants aimed at exploring activities that were advancing community networks around the role of women within networks, collaborative mechanisms for dispersed communities to work together on open source tools, improved access to spectrum, local content development and technological innovation. You can find more detail on the different types of initiatives funded here.

We are sharing stories from the participating organisations about the local impacts of the work they carried out with the help of this funding. This story highlights a project funded through a catalytic intervention grant that was jointly implemented by Living Labs Network and Forum and Janastu/Servelots.

Co-creating local knowledge networks” (CLKN) was a catalytic intervention project undertaken as a collaboration between Living Labs Network and Forum (LLNaF) [1] and Janastu/Servelots. [2] The focus of this project was to explore community-owned Wi-Fi mesh as decentralised and locative network infrastructure to enable us to co-design frameworks that support archiving at the grassroots in Bidar, India. This story is a curated mosaic of thoughts, voices, experiences, discoveries and ethos illustrated largely through various encounters with the Bhooteya community and their practice.

The story features two long quotes from two coordinators who were in the field during the project. The meandering accounts of the coordinators are intended to be a representation of the richness of these contexts. Through their accounts, we hope to put forward the complexities and potential of a CLKN-like project that often goes much beyond the technology of a community network.

By starting wide, our collaboration connected with women and non-binary people from 15 communities with diverse knowledge practices in the form of stories, songs and other performative practices. [3] We worked closely with four groups: 1) Khadim (women who offer cultural services like singing and guiding rituals in Dargah) in Multani Pasha Dargah; 2) Bhooteya and Aradhi (women and non-binary gendered community); 3) Shayaras (women writers and poets in Urdu); and 4) Kumabara women (an occupation-based community practising pottery).

Situating the catalytic initiative project within a networked platform

The CLKN project did not begin from ground zero, but rather built on work that had already spanned a significant number of micro-contexts (over 64) in the Bidar and Dakkhani region. Our collaborators from Servelots/Janastu brought with them many years of experience of working towards building information and communications technology (ICT) networks as community commons. The work was also to become a new node (a living lab) in an established network platform that comprises communities, local residents, students, scholars, researchers, practitioners and organisations. The intent behind the CLKN project is to continually work in a transdisciplinary manner, where every new viewpoint is valued because of its potential to generate perspectives that we can gain from or contribute to. The catalytic intervention grant did exactly this for us and for the communities we have been collaborating with. While we do not prescribe a fixed approach, over the last four years we have developed a set of principles that helps us to discover the mode of engagement at LLNaF. In this catalytic intervention project, a few of the principles mentioned below guided us:

  • Care-in-practice: Logics of care are many and differ across micro-contexts. We learn to care by creating shared moments within one or more micro-contexts and incorporate their logic and practice of care. We are a network of care.

  • Co-learning and learning from below: Disciplines and practices have reached a stage where they often find it difficult or have only partial response to deal with problems and issues. We believe communities have a tacit understanding of the problems, challenges and constraints that is experiential. We see our platform as a space for co-learning and learning from below.

  • Culture as a catalyst: Communities and their micro-contexts are sites for cultural production. We want to use the understanding of these cultures as a catalyst to build relationships within our network.

  • Experimentation at the heart: We want to be messy, unfinished, fluid and open over longer time frames and critically reflect on failure. LLNaF is a world that we live in.

  • Support over solve: Our world has more problem solvers where the focus is on isolating a problem and finding an opportunity to solve it through various means. We want to create support systems or structures or objects. Our communities are capable of solving their own problems.

A mosaic of encounters and co-learning with the Bhooteya community

The following excerpt from the experiences described by one of our field coordinator Vinay Kumar captures the fluidity and complexity of the these principles manifesting in the fieldwork:

As part of my field work for the catalytic intervention project I was to meet and interview performers of one of the many folk forms that are present in Bidar, the Bhooteya (also known as Bhooteru) community. Theirs is a form of folk performance that is fast fading from the region and is very rooted to Bidar and the surrounding places.

Bhooteru Tayatha (amulet) on a coral shell neckwear, part of the attire of Bhooteru during their performance. Photo: Dilip Patil

 

I got to know about two of the most senior artists from the community. One is Mr. Sharanappa, a recipient of State Rajyotsava Award, for dedicating his life to this art. The second most senior person is Mr. Narsappa Bhooteya.

I couldn't meet Mr. Sharanappa, as he was not keeping well. But I fixed a time to meet Mr. Narsappa and learned a few details of his personal life, about the community and also about the songs and stories that they perform. Narsappa, according to his statement, is a male from his physical appearance but has the heart and soul of a female and was picked by the Devi to be a Bhooteya, which he considers a blessing. He then suggested that I visit the temples of Bhavani Mata. These are the places where the members of the Bhooteya community assemble regularly for worshipping and also performing, especially during the Hindu festival of Dasara.

I scheduled my first visit to five of the oldest Devi Mata temples in Bidar. My inquiries on the songs and artists, particularly from the Bhooteya community, led me to the Mata Kalika Devi Temple at Kumbarwada.

Kalika Temple at Kumbarwada where Bhooteru and Aradhi perform their songs and folklore during the festival time of Dussehra/Dasara. Photo: Dilip Patil

Being a local I do know some of the rituals associated with the Dasara festival, but here I found one of the most unique ways of celebration. The whole locality gets involved in the activities of the festival at this temple, irrespective of caste, creed or religion. It is a 10-day-long celebration with daily prayers and performances.

The Bhooteyas were to perform on 4 and 5 October, on the day of the Ghattasthapana. [5] I had scheduled a meeting with the temple trustees and took due permissions to cover the activities at the temple on those two days, so that we could see and be part of the procession that happens each year. This procession is probably the most unique one which I have seen when it comes to Dasara celebrations in the entire Deccan region.

As we gathered around the temple on the 4th, we happened to come across a group of Bhooteyas who were specifically invited to perform at the temple for two days. I managed to meet the head of the group, Mrs.Tulasamma, who lives in the Shah Gunj area of Bidar. Initially she was apprehensive about us asking her questions related to the community and the practices, and did not allow us to record anything once she started to talk about it all. She mentioned that not long ago, people had come to her for information and promised her things which didn't materialise. I clarified that we were doing this as part of a documentation project and we were not from the government. Once she was convinced, she started to give details about herself first, then about all the stuff which a Bhooteya must possess, and then the group which she has formed.

She became a Bhooteya 40 years ago. She mentioned that she got an inner calling from The Goddess herself. Her diverse group comprises six people, all male: Arun, Srinivas, Shravan, Maruthi and Naresh. All consider themselves as Aradhis or Bhooteyas for various reasons. As this was the first day, Tulasamma said their performance would mostly be regular bhajan songs and not the regular Bhooteya songs, as it takes time to get all the preparations right to start the original songs and stories which they usually perform.

Settlements are more than an object of research for us. Everyday spaces are sites of knowledge production and exchange. It was the same in this project too. For instance, most of the field meetings, demonstrations of an ad-hoc network, and conversations on living practices and community-owned Wi-Fi (COW) mesh took place by the streets of the old city, junctions and in a locally famous adda [6] – Chitra chai shop, a place preferred by the Bhooteya community – with life buzzing around us as Narsappa and the other Bhooteya explained the essence of the songs and their practice.

In January 2020, an interdisciplinary studio was facilitated for post-graduate students from the Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology, with the Bhooteya as one of the communities to engage with, among others (not pertinent to catalytic intervention project), through the LLNaF called “Support Over Solve”. A student from Heritage Design, Planning and Management collaborated with Bhooteya and made a film to support the Bhooteya community.

Another excerpt we would like to share is from the experience shared with the Shayaras during one of the workshops conducted in the nodal centre. The intent of this workshop was to find the level of comfort and value in exchange of knowledge and life experiences triggered when each of the groups heard each other’s songs and writings. This workshop was designed and facilitated by Supriya Nandgouli, Dilip Patil, Vinay Malge, Dheeraj Joshi and Micah Alex. This account was written by CLKN research associate Dheeraj Joshi:

They were excited to be part of something like this. One of the writers, Mrs. Ruksaana Nazneen, is physically challenged. She lost the use of her legs to polio when she was one and half years old. She has completed her education till 10th standard. She was really interested in pursuing her education but couldn't do it because of her lack of mobility. She is proud of her parents and husband for being ever so supportive throughout her life until now. Her husband in fact carried her to our nodal centre for this workshop. She likes writing stories more, but also has written some outstanding poetry. She has published four books until now, all in Urdu. They are collections of short stories, mostly on cultural and social topics.

Another Shayara, Dr. Sarvar Irfana, is a government employee, and a prolific writer. She loves writing poetry and also short stories. She has dreams to develop the group of Shayaras in Bidar and also beyond. She is open to understanding other cultural practices which we are trying to document as part of the catalytic intervention project.

I briefed them about the workshop and they willingly agreed to attend. Vinay helped in explaining the objective of the workshop and also the activity for which they agreed to participate. But they said they are more interested in the pictures that we had taken as part of our field activity and asked if we could do the activity based on the pictures. So I tweaked our initial idea of making them listen to any one of their previous recordings, and started by showing them the pictures of our field work. The pictures were a mix of our visits to various locations to meet the groups and also some pictures were selected from our BHC archive.

Some amazing observations and experiences were shared by both of them. One of the pictures was from the Kumabara (potter community) cooperative which I had taken, with a lot of pots stacked, and Mrs. Ruksaana quickly remembered how her family used to use earthen pots for cooking and how they served Muharram ki Sharbat (a special syrup made during the Muharram festival) in them.

Non-text or non-screen-based documentation to annotate songs by the Kumbara women. Photo: Micah Alex

When she saw the pictures of Thulsamaa Bhooteya wearing the idol, she remembered the amba jogis (beggars who ask in the name of God), and that she has seen many of them coming to beg for alms. When I clarified that they are actually Bhooteyas and talked about their practice, and how they perform through the night and end early in the morning, she recalled hearing the sounds on loudspeakers of them performing early mornings, during their Fazar ki Namaz (early morning Namaz prayer) during her growing years.

From another picture which had some musical instruments, she narrated how she used to hear Bhajans (devotional songs) that were performed at the Pandurang (God’s name) Temple, which is close to her home. She also identified a particular fast-paced tune being played by the Bhooteyas in our nodal centre during that time, after hearing the beat of the Dholak (musical instrument) and the rings of the Talas (chimes) that they used. She was keen to meet Bhooteyas after the workshop and talk to them.

At the same time, Dr. Sarwar Irfana, an Urdu poetess who was also making some keen observations, wrote about Multani Pasha Dargah (the mausoleum of a 15th century Sufi saint who was also judge during the Bahamani era), and that many newly married couples go there for Ziyarat (worship to seek blessings).

Next, when she saw the picture of a Dholak, she immediately remembered the dholak geet (songs) which she had recently sung with other performers at one of her relatives' marriage in Raichur. She also shared a video of it.

Lastly, she wrote about the picture of an elaborate stage set for a mushaira which we sourced from Google.

"Apne Jazbaato ke Labzo ko Motio me Piroke hone wala ek khoobsurat Mushaira."

An exquisite poetic symposium where one can narrate words of emotions threaded like a pearl necklace.

Setting up a LibreRouter in the old city of Bidar. Photo: Vinay Malge

In one of the exhibitions, Ruksana Nazneen told us, “The value of art, a craft or a practice is not recognised in the present.. It is future generations that look back into their past to understand these values.” She included us among the practitioners who made this happen and appreciated the idea of a mesh network [7] (demonstrated through a prototype) as a valuable platform for her and other creative practitioners in Bidar.

The catalytic intervention project has added and activated a new cluster of micro-networks for LLNaF. The CLKN project will become a Living Lab. All the content generated by the communities during this project and in the future will be made available on the mesh. This aspect has been one of the aspects that the communities find exciting. We intend to make this also as an archive that will be available for the wider public on the internet, in a safe and ethical manner. The link to the web archive will be shared soon.

Notes:

[1] Living Labs Network and Forum (LLNaF) is a collaborative platform and a trans-disciplinary network working to bring forward alternate perspectives and imaginations of “development” through community-led studies and experimentation. Focused on the Dakkhani (Deccan) region, particularly Kalyana Karnataka (formerly known as Hyderabad-Karnataka), we drive our practice by placing the local histories, cultures, informal knowledge practices and mundane everyday practices at the forefront of our work. When we collaborated with Servelots/Janastu on the catalytic intervention (CI) project, both our organisations brought our past experiences of a contextual, specific and situated practice. Over the last four years we at LLNaF have been constantly engaging with a diverse set of communities in Bidar, Gulbarga and their sub-regions.

[2] Janastu, an open source research and development group that has been working in bringing annotation technologies to help bridge the digital divides in a multistakeholder context. Storytelling from local archives of oral narratives in the context of local mesh and community radio.

[3] List of communities, groups, practices and their locations: 1) Women singers and storytellers at Multhani Pasha Dargah; 2) Bulai Padagalu sung by women during Panchami festival; 3) Muharram Padagalu singers in Bampalli Village; 4) Kumabara padagalu at Naubad; 5) Women Shayaras; 6) Bhooteya community; 7) Datta Temple Bhajan group at Tajlapur; 8) Gondaligaru near Gowli Galli in Bidar; 9) Seegi Haadu; 10) Valmiki Samat; 11) Rajagondaru community residing in Gornalli; 12) Mangalwadi in Deendayal Nagar near Karnataka College; 13) Brahmanwadi near Chowbara, where the women sing conversational songs while cooking or food preparation; 14) Bhovigalu at Naya Kaman Darwaza; 15) Jingar (Kammar), who are cooks and bhajan singers.

[4] Organisationally, at LLNaF we use a framework that comprises “Living Lab clusters”, or simply, thematic focus and “micro-contexts” that may be based on locale, community, craft or practice. Through this framework, we continually build on our understanding of a particular context. This is the crux of a Living Lab for us, where the understanding is never complete. This becomes all the more important in societies and settlements across the global South. Attempts to understand the “capability” of communities have always been measured through frameworks that are developed outside of these locales. Keeping this in mind, Living Labs Network and Forum is a learning ecosystem too. It strives to constantly expand the systems and practices in India, in the global South.

[5] The Ghattasthapana is the most important ritual that is performed by most of the Bhavani Mata devotees inside their houses. In most other communities, it usually involves the use of various types of grains, mixed in two small mounds of black soil (locally called Madana). These mounds are placed on the temple pedestal of their homes. Two small pots (tumblers) are kept and a cotton wick is lit on one of them in the clay lamp that is used to cover the pot. This is then kept for between five to nine days. The seeds germinate to give it a look of a tiny little forest, hence the name Ghatta.

[6] An adda is a common word used in various regional languages that refers to a location or place for groups or communities to gather.

[7] There was a delay in receiving the LibreRouter mesh routers, due to which we haven’t been able to set up the mesh Wi-Fi. An alternative will be explored through designing antennas that could increase the sensitivity of the available routers in the domestic market.

Cover photo: Renarration with Shayara and Kumbara women based on the songs shared by women from the Kumbara community. Source: Micah Alex

 

 

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