CHENNAI: The walls of every city have a story to tell. Well, it is quite literal in Chennai. Be it paintings of the great kings who ruled this land on the metro station pillars or the importance of washing hands and wearing masks on the walls of Kotturpuram, there is a message behind every mural.
Walking through the Saidapet bus depot, one could read Ekkarai enadhu? (which shore is mine?), vadukkalum valikiradhu (even the scars are aching), padikkava venama? (Should I study or not?), along with the illustrations of women in distress, blindfolded and screaming for help. This was part of a project by World Vision to raise voices against human trafficking. The artist behind the spike in such conversations is Kowshiga Rajendran, a city-based muralist.
Women and their lives
The artist’s process is to engage the people of the neighbourhood in making the mural one and a half year ago, was noteworthy. The four days, when women living around the depot came together to complete the artwork, were difficult for Kowshiga. She expresses, “I have done happy community work in the past. But this time, community work like this was difficult. For me, getting a good sleep was hard after hearing their stories.” The stories were of what the women had gone through, the verbal abuse at home, and sexual assault on public transport.
Kowshiga believes that through murals, one can communicate anything to anyone. The artist says, “Art makes everything look easy and simple. Mural is an emotion to me.” One of her recent works includes a mural for Medai — The Stage, wherein she captured their motto “A stage for all”. The colours green, red, and brown overpowered the white canvas, on which she portrayed a man playing parai and a woman playing the guitar, tabla, and veena.
How it started
Kowshiga’s journey as a muralist began on August 14, 2021, when she collaborated with the Greater Chennai Corporation. “I came across a volunteer activity by the corporation where they cleaned a place near Marina Beach and were looking for an artist to do the mural,” she explains. What she described as her “first largest mural”, was painting the combination of the national flag on the walls near Napier Bridge.
From here, there was no stop for Kowshiga. She bagged a few other corporation projects and regularly engaged with cafes like Chai Kings, Takkt Cafe, and with spaces like the IIT campus, Kathipara Urban Square, Kodambakkam Bridge, and TTK Road.
Before setting up a career in mural painting, Kowshiga completed her MPhil in Physics and was on a break before registering for PhD. It was during this time that she freelanced as an illustrator for the TNQ publication and handled communication and design for the IIT-M incubation cell at the IIT-M research park. As a child, drawing murals were Kowshiga’s favourite hobby. She used to work on the walls of her mother’s parlour and at friends’ and family’s houses.
Wanting to do something for the children now, the artist worked with the kids in one of her projects, at a park closer to Apollo Hospitals on Greams Road. “Nan outline draw panra neenga gaps la colour panniduvingala? (If I draw the outline, will you paint in the gaps?)” she asked a kid at the park. He enthusiastically took part.
The artist, before starting the work, asks the purpose and the requirements from the client, talks to the people who frequently visit the place, ones who live nearby. “The details make an artwork great,” adds Kowshiga. She then draws the sketch. Once this is done, she is backed by four other artists to complete the artwork.
The number of days for one project is usually limited to four days as murals take a lot of time and energy. If the demand is simple and if it can be completed in a day, then the team works for 12-13 hours at a stretch. “Because I have a background in physics, I am able to plan and execute my work well,” she says.
What started as a hobby is now her career. A break before PhD led to her devotion to murals and now that she was on a break for childbirth, she is back on the field building her own studio where bringing murals and teaching the kids will be her main focus. “I am a self-taught artist. I didn’t have a syllabus according to which I could learn the art and here I am now creating conversations. So, I will be doing something similar. I will teach the kids the basics and let them explore how they want to go about it,” she signs of as she catches up with her new projects.