The People Place Project: Indian cities are being 'mapped' through the stories of citizens

Even in the age of Google — when a few taps on a keyboard can chart out an easy route for you to follow, from your current location to whatever destination you wish to reach — maps hold a certain fascination for most of us. Here, reproduced in the space of a few centimetres or inches, is an entire locality, city, country, even the world. Maps contain so much information, and yet, they also withhold so much of it. Here then, is a representation of the physicality of a place. But what of the things that make that place what is it? Maps have little to say in this regard.

It was perhaps to fill in those blanks that the People Place Project was created.

The brainchild of architect Nisha Nair-Gupta (she's the principal of the firm Design Variable), along with Tarun Gupta and Meera Warrier, the People Place Project (PPP) 'maps' places through the stories of the people who live there. These accounts/narratives are collected in the form of anthologies, published in book form. Beginning in 2014, with a collection of 50+ short stories on Mumbai (the group itself was then known as 'People Called Mumbai'; that was what the first anthology was titled as well), the scope of the project has expanded to embrace all of India.

What's the best way of 'mapping' a place? Photo courtesy People Place Project

What's the best way of 'mapping' a place? Photo courtesy People Place Project

In January 2017, PPP came out with its second anthology — People Called Ahmedabad; being released over the 4-5 November weekend, is the third, People Called Shillong. "When we started with the Mumbai book, it was an experiment at narrative mapping and documenting a city through its people," Nisha Nair-Gupta told Firstpost, in the run-up to the launch of PcS. "We discovered an interesting format with that book, and as another experiment, we decided to explore Ahmedabad... It was only after or during the Ahmedabad book, that we decided to expand our scope pan-India. We decided to formally launch an initiative that will look at documenting places, people, cultures and subcultures. Further (this initiative) would use text as a tool of 'place making' and empathy building."

Indeed, the published anthologies are usually the culmination of a long process of getting to know a particular place. For instance, before People Called Ahmedabad was released, there were a series of events in the city, coordinated by the People Place Project team, that invited participants to get to know the place intimately. These events might take the form of guided tours or walks, meet-and-greets, treasure hunts etc. The events encouraged developing a firsthand familiarity with a place — and to cement that burgeoning relationship, there would be these printed stories, narrated by a person who had experienced some part/aspect of that place that others had not.

The anthologies on Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Shillong, published by the People Place Project

The anthologies on Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Shillong, published by the People Place Project

Nisha informed us that the stories in the anthologies are non-fiction, and each story is based on an interview. "The citizens who are interviewed become the framework to take a new look at the city. The argument here being that each of our personal stories do fall in a collective framework and make up the larger narrative of the city. Or vice versa, it is also interesting to visit the collective narrative of the city through these personal vignettes," she said.

The coming year — 2018 — is set to be a momentous one for the People Place Project as they look to come up with anthologies on Delhi, Bengaluru, Kolkata, Lucknow and Chennai. Nisha will no longer be curating these books; instead, curators have stepped on board for each of the individual projects. The process for putting together the anthologies will be similar to the initial ones — a curatorial call for stories, workshops conducted for outreach and research, then the selection from among submissions by writers such that a comprehensive socio-political-economic spectrum of the place under discussion emerges. The team is excited about trying new formats for these anthologies, something that experiments with art, text and typography — and perhaps also cartography?

What will remain constant, is the focus on stories.

"Stories," as Nisha says, "have the power to be intimate. The process of documenting them compels us to engage with diverse people. Often this experience is very emotional, humbling and reflective. Writing these stories is an act of translating this experience so that it can reach out to more people."

Updated Date: Feb 14, 2018 16:13 PM

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