JJ Colony is a slum rehabilitation district in South West Delhi. A couple of generations ago authorities cleared out a slum in the town centre, relocating the people to an area outside the city which they had carpeted in gridiron low-rise simple dwellings. In the years since, the city has sprawled, and the colony is now a blotch amongst the concrete towers of the sub-city ‘Dwarka’, a vast residential area for Delhi’s rising middle classes.
The colony soon became a hive of buildings as more and more people moved in, adding extra rooms and levels to the provided buildings as they saw fit. The result is a super-dense district with almost undefinable dwelling boundaries- things overlap, buildings share rooms, alleyways close over and emerge again, and thousands upon thousands of people live in a state of constant awareness of each other. From a basic and highly utilitarian starting point, an organic vibrant community has formed. It seems far-fetched to relate this to ancient Greek city states, but something struck a chord when I read R.E Wycherley say this in the book “How the Greeks Built Cities”…
This layout could well be part of a present day housing scheme, perhaps designed in accordance to the ideas laid out by Alexander and Chermayeff in their “Community and Privacy”, but note the variety of room arrangements within the standard house areas, indicative perhaps, of do-it-yourself building within a planned framework.
I’ve not read “Community and Privacy”, but what was startling to me about the JJ colony was the sheer difference in interpretation of those two things in comparison to my outlook. The sense of interdependence among the residents was tangible, and any news spread through the entire community in barely a few hours.
It was interesting to see how the way the people interacted was mirrored identically by the way that the architecture of the dwellings interacted, and I was left wondering which depended on which- did the people’s inherent need for each other inform the complex way in which the colony grew and developed, or did the natural and accidental organic growth of the urban environment begin to subvert the culture- effecting the interactions and worldview of the people dwelling within the system?
I want to be cautious not to idealise the JJ colony. A lot of its residents struggle in abject poverty, sickness can be rife and social horrors such as alcoholism and domestic abuse are everyday occurrences. However what I saw there besides the darkness was a vibrant and very real way of living. While staying in the colony I was sleeping on the floor of a classroom in a tiny school. At night is was too hot to sleep, the ceiling fan motionless above me due to the long rolling power cuts (which were thanks to the more affluent areas using their air conditioning day and night). Several nights I carried my mat onto the roof to sleep where it was a bit cooler. From the rooftop I could vaguely see through the darkness residents of the colony dragging their own mats and beds out into the narrow lanes, or sitting on their doorsteps fanning themselves, or men reclining on their motorbikes, or children and their parents lining the rooftops. The murmur from it all rose and fell- people continuing subdued conversations late into the night, a baby crying, a battery-powered radio playing tinny Bollywood songs, a dog barking in the distance… They were all in this together and as well as spending their live in one vast unit of housing, they were one unit of people.
JJ colony is the place where John and Abha first began Anusaran as a place for women to meet during the day to learn new skills, and for children to come and have some fun and freedom from the heavy responsibilities of home life- at least for a few hours. It remains an intrinsic focus of their work, although they now also have a growing project on the outskirts of the city, which is where we have designed the new school and shelter. I first had the opportunity to see the place in 2007 while I spent time working in the school, and a couple of years later I returned to stay in the colony itself for a few weeks while revisiting the projects.